Psychological Scientists in the Private Sector
A Cool Living Zoom
Gail Cramer, Solutions for the 21st Century
To begin at the beginning: I went into psychology because of all the academic disciplines, it seemed to me to cover the largest territory. Psychology was about life; it was all-inclusive, it covered everything - what could be bigger? You've heard of the person who couldn't see the forest for the trees? I'm the opposite: Absorbed in the beauty and majesty of the forest as a whole, I'm quite likely to overlook the individual trees. So you might suspect that the need to focus in and meticulously research one tiny aspect of this thing called psychology was at first difficult for me. However, I appreciated the need, and over the years have become a living zoom, able to focus tightly when necessary, but still preferring the longer view both in time and space.
Above all else, my research training taught me discipline. It taught me to concentrate on what was necessary to learn and do on any particular day, and leave the rest till later. It taught me the basic skills of scientific research, which can be applied to anything. It taught me to explore all avenues of possibility even while knowing all along that the most probable would turn out to be correct. It taught me to write thesis proposals and research reports, which are not unlike business plans. It taught me patience. I don't remember "cool" being the operative word twenty plus years ago, but that's what I became as a result of my doctoral work: Cool.
My dissertation was in the field of visual perception. But I never intended an academic career. Following a wide variety of ventures in related fields, several years ago I started my own company, which I called Solutions for the 21st Century. People said it was a terrible name; it couldn't possibly succeed because it didn't mean anything. What was its product? What was its service? Its product and its services were - and are - solutions. Solutions to what? Solutions to as yet undreamed-of problems.
When the Internet became the darling of business, and venture capital flowed into the pockets of almost anyone who asked, nobody envisioned what we're seeing now: dotcoms have soared - and flopped. There's a problem that needs a solution. Why are a large percentage of Internet companies not profitable? The answer has something to do with the behavior of users, which is most often characterized as "unpredictable." Analysts come up with all kinds of rationalizations but fail to address the basic fact that traditional business models don't work in this environment. Why?
From my point of view, these and similar questions arising in the new and rapidly changing technology sphere are clearly answerable by people who have been trained in psychological science. As an example, there are many useful and very well put together medical information sites on the web. They are free to the public; financing comes from advertisers, mostly health insurers, HMOs, and pharmaceutical companies. These sites have millions of viewers every day seeking information they need and want. Yet apparently these viewers do not act on the information they have received. Visits to doctors and HMOs have not increased as a result of the availability of this information. Pharmaceutical companies have not experienced an increase in the sales of medications from these viewers and the sites are failing as businesses as advertisers withdraw their support. Why? I am currently working on a business plan that will unite the idea of a medical information site with a totally unrelated (now) but potentially synergistic activity engaged in by almost everyone. This is something that people do, as opposed to asking questions about, and this activity has successful sites now devoted to it.
There are many psychologists working on the Internet, but most prefer traditional paths, i.e. consulting about relationship and personality problems, rather than exploring the virgin territory that technology is laying out for them. In answer to your probable question: Am I a dotcom millionaire? No. Not yet. But like the automobile, the light bulb, and the telephone, the Internet will not go away. Its opportunities will become available to everyone largely through the efforts of business people.
How do I stay current in the field of psychology? How can I not stay current in the field of psychology? My business is a constant interaction with a wide variety of people from an even wider variety of viewpoints who for the most part are quite unable to express what it is they are seeking. I keep up my memberships in the American Psychological Society, the American Psychological Association, and the New York Academy of Science, all of whom publish informative and up-to-date journals. My computer is my constant companion, so it's easy to look up anything that isn't already at my fingertips. In addition, I belong to several business networking groups.
How does working in the business sector differ from being in a university? The difference is largely within the individual. If you have learned to think scientifically, that thinking transcends the actual environment. If you need a great deal of freedom, more than financial security or status, for example, the business world is preferable. But that depends, too, on whether the job is with a large corporation (which in many ways is like a university) or a small but innovative business. Many might find the business community lonely and cold; others might experience a university as too tightly structured. Objectively, I think there is more opportunity, more freedom, and greater risk in the business world.
If I were to offer any advice to psychological scientists thinking about moving to the business world, here's what I'd say: First, be ruthlessly honest with yourself about why you're contemplating the move. Know what you need to function as an effective and productive person. If financial security is high on the list, recognize that business - any business - is risky. Be sure to search out all employment possibilities before making a move. Visit the research facilities of large corporations and see what they have to offer - or convince them they need a psychological scientist on the payroll! It's your life, remember. Only you can know what you want it to be and can seek out ways to make it what you want. Think rationally, but creatively. The 21st Century will probably produce the most creative minds since the Renaissance - be a part of it.
If any of my colleagues would like to contact me, either to tell me what a dreamer I am, or to discuss something sensible, I am "firstname.lastname@example.org" and would be glad to hear from you.