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Personality/Social Psychologist at ETS

Over the years, ETS's priorities have shifted from basic research to applied research and development. This change and the wide variety of research needs require the research staff to stretch its skills to the utmost and be extremely flexible.

By Lawrence J. Stricker

I guess I was destined for a career at a testing organization. When I was in high school, faced with the familiar quandary of not knowing what to do when I grew up, I went to CUNY's City College counseling center, took a battery of tests, and was interviewed. The verdict wasn't very helpful, "you can be whatever you want to be," but I was fascinated by the tests themselves. I came across a paperback by Johnson O'Connor, an early proponent of aptitude testing, and devoured its anecdotes about tests and their real life value. I went on to NYU's business school to study personnel management (now called human resources) but became more interested in the psychology courses I took. I eventually ended up in NYU's doctoral program in social psychology, which I chose in part because of its strong methodological focus. I had no interest in teaching after graduate school, looked into research positions with the Army, Navy, and other outfits, and was hired by Samuel Messick at ETS, then a leading researcher on response styles on personality inventories, the subject of my dissertation.

Although ETS had a strong and well-funded program of basic research in personality and social psychology at the time, I was initially asked to evaluate the Myers- Briggs Type Indicator, which intrigued the ETS administration, though not its psychologists. I did so and published a series of skeptical articles in the early 1960s. (This is so long ago that a few weeks ago I got an e-mail from an educational researcher, who had read the recent book, "The Cult of Personality," that recounts the early history of the Myers-Briggs, asking if the "Stricker" mentioned there was my father or some other older relative.)

Over the years, ETS's priorities have shifted from basic research to applied research and development. This change and the wide variety of research needs require the research staff to stretch its skills to the utmost and be extremely flexible. It is something like being a marine, who must be able to do everything, from cooking or clerking to skirmishing. Besides work in personality and social psychology (personality assessment, conformity, social perception, stereotype threat), I have worked in educational measurement (grade comparability), psychometrics (measuring item bias), developmental psychology (life span changes in ability structure), industrial/organizational psychology (personnel selection), and sociology (social stratification). And I have done everything from laboratory experiments to household surveys to multivariate analyses of massive data bases. In all of this, my graduate school training in methodology and statistics has been invaluable, and I have learned a lot about all kinds of things in the process (perhaps more than I care to know about educational measurement).

I have also learned a lot from my colleagues at ETS. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that I picked up more psychology at coffee breaks and lunch than I did in graduate school. Besides Samuel Messick, the staff has included such other world-class psychologists as Frederick Lord, Nathan Kogan, and Irving Sigel, and our postdoctoral training program included visiting scholars like Douglas Jackson and Salvatore Maddi, and postdocs like Peter Bentler and Anthony Greenwald.

An important asset at an organization like ETS is the availability of resources that magnify a psychologist's productivity: funding to do research; help from full-time, professional research assistants, programmers, and administrative assistants; access to statisticians and psychometricians for consultation; and use of large data bases (unfortunately, unlike universities, there are no subject pools, and procuring participants for small scale studies can be arduous). I felt like I was in a Head Start program, when I was given these resources on arriving at ETS, after my solitary and meagerly supported dissertation research.

A critical survival skill for a psychologist in this setting is the ability to frame research questions in a way that has scientific value and importance. Frequently, the ETS administration or a client has a pressing need to answer a question for important practical reasons, but it may not be of much scientific interest. Oftentimes, the question and the attack on it can be reframed to be relevant to the scientific enterprise, but still responsive to the needs of the administration or client, a valuable lesson I learned from Isidor Chein in graduate school. For example, the GRE program was concerned about the validity of the GRE General Test for older students. I recast this issue as a test of the classic differentiation hypothesis in developmental psychology: the structure of ability changes over the life span from undifferentiated in early childhood to differentiated in adolescence to undifferentiated again in middle or late adulthood. Similarly, the Test of English as a Foreign Language program was interested in practical ways of interpreting scores on this test. I turned this question into an application of Just Noticeable Differences to test scores.

Another key survival skill is participating in professional activities by publishing, attending meetings, being active in professional organizations, and teaching. Besides publishing, I'm a meeting junkie, I'm active in APA and a slew of other groups, and, despite my initial lack of interest in teaching, I was an adjunct at the New School University graduate school for over two decades. These activities are an effective way of keeping connected with mainstream psychology and an antidote to the insularity that can befall psychologists in nonacademic organizations. ETS can be a lonely place for a personality/social psychologist, for it is rare in recent years for another a personality/social psychologist to be on the staff.

In short, working at ETS has been a challenging and gratifying experience that has allowed me to make a contribution to education, testing, and--most important to me--psychological science.