Military Lab Rat
As an undergraduate at Trinity University in San An tonio, Texas, I took classes in a variety of departments before realizing that it was the psychology classes I found consistently fascinating. This led me to major in psychology and eventually to my first exposure to psychological research and development in a military laboratory. As I neared graduation, I desperately wanted to find a job “in psychology,” and I learned of a summer research internship opportunity at Brooks Air Force Base (now Brooks City-Base), which is also in San Antonio. My undergraduate advisor, Paula Hertel, convinced the lead research scientist at Brooks’ Learning Abilities Measurement Project, Pat Kyllonen, to give me a shot. Pat took me under his wing, introduced me to factor analysis and the role of psychology in personnel selection and placement research, and provided me the resources to enjoy a productive summer internship.
Shortly after that summer, a position opened up across town at Lackland Air Force Base. For an opportunity to work in that environment, alongside Valerie Shute on intelligent tutoring systems, I would have provided janitorial services, if that’s what was needed. But luckily they needed a research assistant. Now it was Val’s turn to do some mentoring, and she introduced me to the idea that we actually can draw on what we know from cognitive and educational psychology to design better instructional systems. The laboratory at Lackland was a fascinating place – a human data factory, really, and a unique national resource. I felt lucky to be there. I worked on Val’s team for a couple of years, then left for graduate school at Carnegie Mellon University, where John Anderson picked up the mentoring responsibilities. I realize I’m working from a sample size of one, but I’m pretty sure John is the kindest, most patient, most dedicated graduate advisor in the country. That must be true, or certainly he would have thrown me out the window of his third-story office during any one of the dozens of meetings in which I continued to be perplexed by the concepts and formalisms associated with unified theories and integrative architectures. However, the first time I got a computational cognitive process model to retrieve something from memory and accomplish a problem solving goal, I was hooked.
But even as I was coming to appreciate what an intellectually challenging and rewarding environment grad school was going to be, I found myself longing to return to the military research lab environment. A position opened up in a graduate training program sponsored by the Air Force Research Laboratory, who hired people as salaried employees and then paid their way through grad school, to get PhDs in disciplines of future value to the laboratory. In exchange for this, the employee committed to a period of work afterwards. I got the position and ended up in my current job with AFRL.
I have heard people refer to this kind of arrangement as “golden handcuffs,” which I suppose refers to the fact that it is a great deal during the training (grad school), but results in being “handcuffed” to a particular job. This is a terribly myopic perspective and shows a lack of appreciation for the flexibility and opportunity available in the government jobs at AFRL. For instance, when I arrived at the Mesa Research Site in January 2000, the senior management encouraged me to spend some time familiarizing myself with the various research projects already underway, and to give some thought as to how I could contribute to them and/or create my own. I chose to create a new basic research program that will contribute to existing projects downstream. So I’m pursuing exactly the research of my interest in an environment where there is an appreciation of the potential for that research to contribute to the organization’s long-term mission, and where I have been rewarded appropriately for my accomplishments. If all handcuffs were this pleasurable, then the world would be nothing but policemen and criminals.
In my mind, the primary distinction between a job in a military research lab and a job in academia is that in the military lab it is important that the research you are pursuing shows near- or long-term prospects of providing value for the laboratory’s customer, in my case the US Air Force. Ultimately, it is the pilots, controllers, and commanders that our research is intended to benefit, and there needs to be some evidence that the research is relevant, valuable, and applicable to them. I think that’s a good cause, because it provides a sense of common purpose and teamwork across the laboratory. I get a sense of satisfaction knowing that my colleagues and I are working toward the common goal of improving national defense. I’m fortunate to get an opportunity to work with talented psychologists, computer scientists, and engineers toward that goal and I look forward to the interesting opportunities yet to come.
Kevin Gluck is a research psychologist at the AFRL’s Warfighter Training Research Division in Mesa, Arizona. He earned his PhD in cognitive psychology from Carnegie Mellon University, and currently leads the performance and learning models research program.
West Point: A Civilian-Military Leadership Venture
If anyone had asked me in 1969, when I was a senior at Fordham University, to project forward to 2003 and describe my job, I would have been woefully off the mark. I am a psychologist in the department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at the US Military Academy at West Point, helping to prepare young men and women for careers as officers in the US Army. This is my third year at West Point, and I hope eventually to say it’s my tenth or fifteenth.
I have been an academic since 1976, though never in a psychology department. I taught for 15 years at the University of Iowa and at Bowling Green State University in the human development and family studies departments, and for another nine years at the National University of Singapore, Duke University, and the College of Saint Elizabeth in organizational studies. The flexibility made possible by my psychology training opened all these academic doors.
My current department, Behavioral Sciences and Leadership, is the most open of all. It is home to psychology, sociology, engineering psychology, and leadership and management studies, which is my program, and often referred to as LMS. There’s a lot of diversity here, not just in terms of race and gender, but in terms of being civilians or military, discipline, and “rank.” More than half of our faculty are instructors or assistant professors, while the rest are senior faculty. This is rare at most colleges and universities where senior faculty dominate. Working with so many people offers the continual gift of new insight.
The job of a faculty member is also more diverse at West Point. The job involves teaching, research, and service, but there is a fourth domain as well – the commitment to mentoring cadets outside the classroom. For example, I am the head officer responsible for cadets in the Glee Club and the Korean-American Club. This means I spend a number of weekends with cadets traveling on buses and trains around the country. Faculty members are expected to be on campus for most of the business day so that they are available to cadets who want to talk about coursework, careers, ethical concerns, or anything else. The mission statement of the US Military Academy explains the job better than anything else:
To educate, train, and inspire the Corps of Cadets so that each graduate is a Commissioned leader of character committed to the values of Duty, Honor, Country; professional growth throughout a career as an officer in the United States Army; and a lifetime of selfless service to the Nation.
Because of this mission, the curriculum in LMS is very different from a curriculum in a typical management department. We are not preparing students to enter the world of corporate America. Rather, these young men and women will assume leadership roles on peacekeeping missions, in military intelligence, with military police units, even in combat. Our focus is on leadership, so we teach “persuasion and negotiation” rather than marketing. We emphasize decision-making and ethical issues in our organizational behavior courses. In human resource management, we point out how this material can help us find the best ways to motivate individuals and to care for those who serve with us.
The mission motivates the research component of the job as well. The Army doesn’t tell people what to study, but there is a sense among the faculty members that our research should benefit the officers we are preparing and the people they will lead. My research has focused on work-family interface throughout my career. I am now heading up a team studying the effects on officers and their families when the officer is ostensibly stationed at a base in the United States but travels for 10 days or more each month. I am on another team studying the families of those deployed on Operation Iraqi Freedom, who watched the war unfold on television courtesy of “embedded reporters.” Both teams have LMS faculty as well as psychologists and sociologists on them, reflecting a commitment to interdisciplinary research.
For me, this job is a dream come true: a chance to work with a diverse team of dedicated individuals with a mission that speaks openly about making a difference. While I might never have imagined this job as an undergraduate, I am thrilled to have discovered it before the end of my academic career.
Kathleen M. Campbell is an associate professor of leadership and management at West Point. She earned her PhD from Purdue
The Times, They Are A-Changin’
I started working at the Air Force Human Resources Laboratory, now the Air Force Research Laboratory, in 1985 during a period when military research laboratories were hiring new people and obtaining expanded R&D budgets. I received a PhD in social/personality psychology from the University of Pittsburgh about two years earlier and saw this as an excellent opportunity to do applied research.
As a personnel research psychologist in my first assignment, I examined the psychometric characteristics of an experimental computer-administered pilot selection test battery. At the time, computerized testing was in its infancy. Many of the early computerized aircrew selection tests were apparatus-based or paper-and-pencil tests that traced their origins to WWII. The advent of fast, small, inexpensive computers made using them for personnel selection more feasible. Computerized tests initially focused on familiar aptitudes, such as verbal, quantitative, spatial, and psychomotor. Advances in cognitive theory and computer science led to tests based on cognitive components and chronometric measures, and eventually to measures of complex “work sample” performance that previously required a simulator. Today, computers routinely administer many USAF tests.
Most of our scientists have advanced degrees in psychology or other disciplines, such as mathematics and organizational research. In addition to civilian employees, USAF military personnel with specialized aircrew experience – pilots, navigators, and weapons directors, for example – are assigned to AFRL. To supplement in-house expertise, AFRL recruits world-class scientists through invited lectures, contracts, summer faculty positions, and scientist exchange programs. Further, AFRL strongly encourages participation in professional forums, the Department of Defense, NATO, and other military organizations, and promotes publication of research findings in journals and books.
In the late 1990s, military research laboratories were downsized and restructured. Many civilian scientists took early retirement or sought employment outside the USAF, taking with them a lot of experience and corporate knowledge. In 1998, AFRL discontinued its involvement in R&D related to personnel measurement, selection, and classification. I transferred to the crew systems development branch at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, where I am an engineering research psychologist. Our mission is to advance research methods for establishing crew system design requirements and to conduct R&D that determines the effects of human-to-computer interface technologies on human performance and mission effectiveness.
The organizational atmosphere is very different from when I started working in 1985. There are still many opportunities to work on interesting, challenging practical R&D problems and to enhance operational effectiveness. In recent years, however, bench-level scientists have been asked to take on more responsibility for the development of entrepreneurial opportunities, such as attracting outside funding and fostering partnerships with other organizations. This responsibility is reflected in the six job performance criteria by which scientists are evaluated annually: technical problem solving, communications/reporting, corporate resource management, technology transition/transfer, R&D business development, and cooperation and supervision. It is no longer enough for scientists to plan, conduct, and report technically-sound research that advances theory and practice; instead, they must now also perform well in all six evaluated categories to advance in the organization.
The times are changing for the military R&D labs. Individuals considering a civil service career there should take into account the whole picture. An AFRL career offers the opportunity to work in a high-tech environment and address challenging, real world problems. However, those interested in pure R&D may be disappointed, as career advancement is, and likely will remain, dependent on several factors in addition to technical expertise.
Carretta, T. R., & Ree, M. J. (2003). Pilot selection methods. In B. H. Kantowitz & P. S. Tsang & M A Vidulich (Eds.). Human factors in transportation: Principles and practices of aviation psychology (pp. 357-396). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Ree, M. J., Carretta, T. R., & Steindl, J. R. (2001). Cognitive ability. In N. Anderson, D. S. Ones, H. K. Sinangil, & C. Viswesvaran (Eds.). Handbook of industrial, work, and organizational psychology, 1 (pp. 219-232). London: Sage.
Thomas R. Carretta is a research psychologist in the crew systems development branch of the human effectiveness directorate of the Air Force Research Laboratory in Dayton, Ohio. He spent 13 years working on aircrew selection and classification issues.
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