The researchers of the present inquiry sought to address this issue by approaching the scientist–practitioner gap using a qualitative methodology based on the work of Toaddy (2015). A qualitative method was chosen to better understand the “what” sentiments (Wertz, et al., 2011) of practitioners’ focus. Two researchers developed semistructured interview questions based on Toaddy’s (2015) questions. The semistructured interview questions can be found in Table 1. The researchers sought to answer the following broad research questions:
Nine individuals with master’s in I-O psychology were recruited to participate in a semistructured interview about the scientist–practitioner gap. Three practitioners each were purposively chosen at different career levels: early career (0–3 years), midcareer (3–9 years), and established career (9+ years). Interview participants were assured confidentiality. A summary of the participants’ career experience and demographic information can be found in Table 2. The interviews were audio recorded and transcribed. The transcribed interviews were delivered to the researchers in the form of text files.
These interviewees touched on the idea that there can be a gap between science and practice depending on project stakeholders. When working with clients, there is not much interest in talking about the science behind the practice. Resources such as HBR and CEB and databases of that nature are the most utilized. They echo the idea that the people they work with are most interested in benchmarking against other organizations and their practices rather than looking to scientific research. These interviewees varied on their view of the differences between an I-O psychology PhD versus a master’s. However, they did agree, to some extent, that work experience and years being a practitioner can lessen the differences. A PhD might be more interested in research and theory and less able to apply and translate it into business language at the beginning of their career, but as time and experience increases, these skills begin to look similar in both master’s and PhD I-O professionals. Overall, this group agreed organizations do not view I-O psychology practitioners at the master’s level as scientists. However, there was discussion that this perception depends on the organization and their understanding of what an I-O psychology practitioner does.
In reviewing the answers received from the nine interviews, the researchers noticed a complexity of the answers with career progression. For example, those early in their careers indicated the wide gap between science and practice. However, those at the midcareer stage went further to emphasize the need to translate theoretical work into business language. Similarly, those at the early stages of their career agreed that there are large differences in the educational levels and career paths of master’s and PhD holders. However, those with more experience gave more nuanced answers, indicating that the differences depend on the industry and opportunities. Those in the midcareer stage indicated that master’s-level I-O practitioners enter the workforce earlier in their careers which grants them more professional experience over PhD graduates. This progression in the complexities of responses may be due to the growing experience in the field and the increase in responsibilities.
Although much research has been conducted on the issue of the scientist–practitioner gap, there has been a dearth of research on the experience of master’s level I-O psychology practitioners using the specific methods presented in this work. As far as the researchers have found, the present study represents the first effort at such an analysis. Although a small sample size limits this study, several conclusions can be drawn from the insights gained from the interviews.
A Different Perspective on the Scientist–Practitioner Gap
Answering recent calls to expand the scientist–practitioner gap research (Yuan &Brown, 2017), the present study sought to address the scientist–practitioner gap from a different perspective. Though PhD-level practitioners have been the focus of most of the scientist–practitioner gap research, the present study found initial evidence that master’s-level practitioners also experience and recognize the gap. Master’s-level practitioners experience the gap as an expression of their own views of their limitations as practitioners and a perception by organizations of their role within the company. In the current interviewee sample, it seems master’s-level I-O practitioners perceive themselves to be outside of the scientific realm and thus focus more on practical issues of project completion and satisfying stakeholders. This study highlights the disconnect between the experience of master’s level practitioners in their education versus the one attained while practicing in the field.
Another concept expressed both explicitly and implicitly by the interview participants was the need for a stronger brand identity of I-O psychology. Many of the interview participants perceived that their coworkers viewed them as a different form of HR. This echoes the concerns of prior research about the brand identity of I-O psychology (Nolan, Islam, Quartrone, 2014; Nolan, 2017). Master’s level practitioners may need to gain a greater sense of the unique qualities of I-O psychology in relation to human resources in their graduate training.
Master’s level practitioners may value research, but the results of the present study indicate that many do not have access to research databases and research journals. Recent SIOP initiatives to provide research database access to members may prove to be a key to decreasing the size of the scientist–practitioner gap. Without access to academic journal articles, practitioners base project decisions on Google searches, vendor-provided data, and white papers. This is a significant limitation to the reach of academic research. Despite the intentions of master’s level practitioners or the quality of academic research, study results that cannot be accessed cannot be used. Despite not having access to academic resources, interviewees expressed positive regard for academic research indicating that the issue is not one of value but one of access and opportunity for use.
The results also indicate the importance of applied research conducted by consulting firms. This vendor provided research seems to serve as the primary source of much of the decision making that occurs in industry regarding HR and I-O related projects. The results of the present study highlight the importance of the evidence-based management movement. Consulting research and practitioner materials should be placed under more rigorous scrutiny due to their prevalent use by practitioners.
The researchers would also like to recommend that more journals generate easily accessible or open access research. Although this recommendation is not a direct finding of the present study, the open science movement may prove beneficial for master’s-level practitioners searching for a scientific basis for their organizational interventions. SIOP’s initiative to provide members with access to academic research and new journals such as Personnel Decisions and Assessments that are scientifically rigorous and open access may pave the way for greater access to practitioners.
Connection to Science
Another interesting finding was the lack of connection between master’s level practitioners and the science of I-O psychology. Although the scientist–practitioner model is built to train all master’s and PhD level I-O psychology practitioners in both conducting research and applying research, it appears that master’s level practitioners are most comfortable with practice while eschewing research. It may be worthwhile for SIOP to reach out to master’s level practitioners to provide resources and opportunity to conduct research. Master’s level I-O psychology graduate programs should reflect on whether their training is providing students with enough confidence to speak on scientific issues in their organizations.
Limitations and Future Research
The present research has some key limitations. Although the researchers sought diversity in their sample by seeking varied perspectives among different training and career level I-O psychologists, the sample of interview participants was quite small. Future research should try to conduct interviews across a larger group of master’s level practitioners. A greater variety of industry experience may also be valuable in future studies of the scientist–practitioner gap among master’s level practitioners. A larger more varied sample could provide an answer to Aguinis et al (2017)’s question regarding the scientist–practitioner divide occurring later in a practitioner’s career.
Future research should try to understand the processes by which I-O psychology practitioners conduct projects. In the present study, some of the participants hinted at issues of project management. Project management issues are not often discussed in I-O psychology education, but it may prove fruitful to learn more about how project management affects I-O psychology practice. In addition, understanding the specific topic areas that are most relevant to practitioners, and the challenges they face can create a stronger connection to researchers. This would provide researchers with topics that are more likely to be leveraged by practitioners. Researchers should attempt to gain a greater understanding of the additional nonpeer reviewed sources of data that are used in organizing, administering, and implementing human capital projects within organizations.
Finally, future research should focus on the brand image of I-O psychology. The comments from the interviewees regarding the lack of distinction between HR and I-O leads to a clear sign that there is not enough brand distinction being drawn between I-O and HR (Nolan, Islam, & Quartrone, 2014; Nolan, 2017). Future research should continue to understand the distinctions between HR and I-O and whether individuals outside of the field of I-O psychology understand these differences.
A focus of the field of I-O psychology is furthering the evidence-base to inform practice (Aguinis et al., 2017). Yet, the scientist–practitioner gap persists. It is important to recognize the perspectives of practitioners to gain insight into the barriers they face in implementing evidence based practice and potential solutions that might better link scientific findings to their practical application. A stronger connection with these practitioners may provide insights for academics and practitioners related to their use of the science of I-O psychology and the obstacles facing the science’s application in the workplace. With a growing representation in graduate schools and the workforce, a greater focus on master’s level practitioners and the challenges they encounter may lead to improved organizational interventions overall and provide a new avenue for understanding the scholarly impact of I-O psychology research (Behrend & Landers, 2017; Kurtessis, Waters, Alonso, Jones, & Oppler, 2017). Master’s level practitioners may prove to be crucial partners in developing the research agenda and implementing the science of I-O psychology.
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