An Interesting Career in Psychological Science: Industrial/Organizational Researcher within Private Corporations

By Lise Saari

Lise M. SaariLISE M. SAARI

PhD (1982) - Social/Organizational Psychology
University of Washington

Adjunct Professor, New York University
Adjunct Full Professor, Baruch College (Singapore & New York City)

Formerly Director, Global Workforce Research
International Business Machines (IBM) Armonk, New York

I’ve always been fascinated by what makes people tick psychologically – in all situations and settings. Therefore, it was a natural choice for me to be an undergraduate psychology major.  During college while pursuing my psychology bachelor of science degree. I also worked part-time at a department store. It was there that I started to observe differences in how people behaved and spoke about the work setting, and I began thinking about some of the possible causes: from differences in their managers, to the incentive programs that were introduced, to the way the work was designed, to differences in employee skills. I was intrigued by the conversations about what it felt like to work there. Then in my Introductory Psychology course textbook I came across a single paragraph on the subfield of industrial/organizational (I/O) psychology. I lit up. This was the psychology specialty for me. I subsequently found some wonderful professors at the University of Washington in the social psychology graduate program whose work extended into organizational issues -- Lee Beach on decision making, Allen Edwards on attitude measurement, Fred Fiedler on leadership, and my advisor and mentor, Gary Latham on goal setting and motivation.  I was fortunate to have the opportunity to carry out both laboratory and field research during my graduate studies. The field studies were conducted in a variety of settings, the most interesting being with loggers; I even co-authored a Journal of Applied Psychology article on motivation and reinforcement schedules conducted in this unusual field setting.

As I neared the completion of my Ph.D., I faced the looming question (after, of course, “Will I ever survive the final steps of my dissertation?”): “Do I chose an academic or an applied career path?”  My focus in graduate school was on both laboratory and applied research, but I especially enjoyed applied field research. Even though research in organizations was always more challenging, the studies were extremely interesting and I loved the chance to understand and make a difference for people in actual work settings.

It was the early 1980s and jobs were scarce in both academic and applied settings, but I was fortunate that an applied research job opened up at Battelle Research Institute in Seattle. Battelle had several interdisciplinary studies just underway to understand and address what happened at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident, a near disastrous meltdown. My applied research during graduate school helped me land the job as a research scientist in the social sciences division at Battelle. I worked on a number of studies at nuclear power plants as well as chemical plants with other social scientists, physicists, and engineers.   It was eye opening to see the reactions of the engineers when the studies showed that the TMI power plant had performed perfectly; it was inappropriate human behavior that led to the accident. 

During my time at Battelle, my husband was transferred to London for two years. I was able to continue doing project work with Battelle’s London office during that time, but my main job was teaching psychology and organizational behavior courses at Richmond International University, a job I was able to get during a pre-move trip to London. This was my first taste of working in academia, and I was certain I would return to it someday.

After eight years at Battelle, I received a call from a former Battelle colleague, a human factors psychologist who had joined the Boeing Company. There was an opening that fit my interests and expertise in Boeing’s internal professional services organization, a group composed of social science experts who worked across the company on applied research and development projects. I was also ready for new challenges, so I made the move to Boeing, which was located outside of Seattle.  At Boeing, I again had the chance to work with people from other scientific disciplines, such as aerospace engineers and aerodynamics experts. And, once again, I found that they gained a respect for the scientific discipline of psychology. They acknowledged that the human component is a major variable in the success of the airplanes and appreciated any scientific knowledge related to the role of human behavior.  One project included the design and evaluation of a management development program based on blending what is known about leadership from industrial/organizational psychology with what is known from aviation flight crew research. Other projects related to measuring (via attitude surveys) and improving teamwork across engineers and factory employees in order to more effectively design and build Boeing’s 777 airplane.

After almost ten years at Boeing and eventually moving to a corporate role to lead a small team called “people research,” I got a call about a job with IBM in New York.  I was always interested in global issues and found the idea of working with and helping to understand a large, global workforce intriguing. The nearly 400,000 employees also more than satisfied my inherent desire for “large N.” So I moved to IBM to become director of the global workforce research group. This group provided data-based insights and research on a wide range of people issues for the corporation. At IBM, I worked with other psychologists whose expertise spanned attitude measurement, employee assessment, leadership, organizational development, and psychometrics. Like the other jobs in my career journey, it was fascinating and gave me a chance to understand and help drive actions to improve the working lives of many people, in this case across the world. 

The wonderful benefit of a Ph.D. in psychology is that you actually never have to make a choice to have a solely “applied” career. About three years ago, I was talking with another applied I/O psychologist who sometimes taught night courses, and I decided to see if I could do the same. I contacted New York University’s psychology department and was able to land a five-week summer night course that fit around travel and my other commitments with IBM. After completing the course, I found that I totally enjoyed teaching and NYU asked me to continue on. I did not feel I could both do my IBM job and teach, so I made the choice to depart IBM after eleven great years and focus on teaching, something I had always envisioned doing at some point. 

I am now fortunate to be able to venture back to my academic roots as an adjunct professor in New York University’s graduate industrial/organizational psychology program. I have also taught one-week intensive courses at Baruch College’s Singapore masters program in I/O psychology. It is gratifying to be able to share knowledge about I/O psychology with students in other parts of the world.

In the almost thirty years that I worked in the field of psychology within organizations, it always struck me how valued our profession is once people become aware of us.  We can provide scientifically-based understanding of important people issues, and I find time and again that colleagues in other disciplines are somewhat amazed and pleased once they discover this. I’ve also learned that even though psychology is one of the youngest scientific disciplines and popularly labeled a “soft science,” we can stand proudly next to more established, so-called “hard sciences.”  We have as strong -- or even stronger -- scientific methods, measurement rigor, and statistical soundness as many other scientific fields.

My advice to anyone considering a nonacademic career in an organizational setting is to, of course, pursue it. APA Division 14 (Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology) is a great resource.  The field of I/O psychology is one of the smaller, though growing, subfields of psychology, and I/O psychologists are always willing to help others who may be interested in it. Although I/O psychology is not highly visible or broadly known, there is a steady demand for the skills of I/O psychologists.  Once managers and other scientists learn of our unique expertise in the scientific understanding of people at work, they value it. Organizations are realizing that a critical success factor is the ability to understand and make the best decisions about their people and to do so based on solid evidence – and that’s where psychology can help.

In closing, I offer this quote, which describes a philosophy that often guided me as an I/O psychology researcher within organizations.  It is from a 1993 article by the late Marvin Dunnette, one of the true greats in the field of I/O psychology.

Good measurement, no matter how elegant or wonderful, is sterile unless it is accompanied by meaningful findings. Likewise, provocative interpretations may be rendered illusionary if they cannot be firmly supported by solid methodology.