Psychological Scientists in the Public Sector

Flexibility Be Thy Name

Renée J. Stout, AlignMark

Renee J. Stout For anyone in academics contemplating a move to the business world, I have the following advice: flexibility be thy name. Perhaps I can best explain this through a scenario that will probably make most students and professors alike shudder to even contemplate. First, let me set the stage: Most undergraduate and graduate classes start with a syllabus. Even when it is a graduate class with hundreds of pages of text to read, stacks full of articles to review, papers to write, presentations to give, and exams to take, there is typically a course of action established and followed through the semester. Certainly, the student must learn to juggle tasks, to complete all assignments in a timely fashion, to juggle school with work, and to set his/her own priorities and scheduling. However, most of the semester is mapped out up front and in that regard is somewhat predictable.

Now let us turn to a hypothetical scenario that mirrors conditions in business: You are a student; your professor says "your role is to read, write, and take exams. I'm not sure how many of each there will be, but by the end of the day, I need you to summarize these 20 articles, and by the end of the week I need two papers written, ten chapters read, and you will take an exam." When the end of the week approaches, and you have dedicated great effort toward all tasks, including the writing of your papers, you learn that priorities have shifted and these papers are no longer required. Instead, on Monday you will need to give two presentations on two entirely different topics, and "you may get back to those original papers next semester, if it makes sense to do so - they are important, but there are a lot of other papers, etc. which are more important."

Imagine that this scenario continues for the semester: Each week, tasks initiated are shuffled and some are pursued while others put to the side. Now it is next semester and you are asked to go back to those two original papers and have them done by the next day. This is what it would be like if the realities of business were imposed on the processes of education.

This scenario depicts the type of flexibility needed in industry. Only an educational system that shifts the paradigm to match the scenario could begin to prepare students to adapt "in the real world." In business, there are often real reasons for the constantly shifting demands, whereas in the context of graduate education, this semblance of arbitrariness probably wouldn't be tolerated.

I am not certain what the answer is to developing this kind of flexibility and adaptability in students, but some middle ground is needed to prevent the rude awakening that I have seen many people face and only some overcome. At a minimum, I suggest you keep a positive attitude and know that life in industry will never be dull.

American Psychological Society
October 2000
Vol. 13, No. 8

©2001 American Psychological Society
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