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On Becoming an Academic Orphan

Thomas F. Hilton

Recent TIP interest in academic genealogies got me thinking about how our own more proximal, and less linear, genealogies influence the evolution of our careers. Not unlike the fictional Luke Skywalker of Star Wars fame, my I-O Jedi training included three mentors: an Owen Lars figure, an Obi-Wan Kenobi, and a Yoda. Each contributed greatly to my personal and professional development, and all three signed my dissertation.


The most senior of my three mentors was the late Saul B. Sells, founding director of the Institute of Behavioral Research (IBR) at TCU. Saul was my Obi-Wan. Always calmly puffing his pipe, he patiently guided my intellectual development and encouraged my interest in philosophy and multivariate psychology. When Sells passed away in 1988, I still had 2 living major professors with whom to share triumphs, misfortunes, and insights: Steven G. Cole and Lawrence R. James. During the summer of 2014, both Steve and Larry passed away within weeks of one another, leaving me an academic orphan to recount the pervasive influence all three mentors had on my life.


Sells studied philosophy at Columbia where he worked with both Edward Thorndike and his major professor, Robert Woodworth (a student of William James). Sells was one of a handful of 1960s-era psychologists interested in interactionism (person × situation) and multivariate analysis. He served as managing editor of Multivariate Behavioral Research for 20 years. Even in the mid-1970s, the multivariate statistics and measurement tools essential for interactional research had not yet become mainstream, so we relied on beta versions of SPSS and LISREL. Sells recruited James partly because of Larry’s strong background in multivariate statistics and partly because he had just completed a postdoc with the Navy examining the interaction of shipboard environments on sailor performance—what we call climate today.


Steve Cole was my Owen Lars—the practical uncle who guided my academic development. As chair of the TCU Psychology Department, Steve helped me get a fellowship at IBR and encouraged me to work with Larry. My editorial work with the Society for the Advancement of Social Psychology and APA’s Division 8 was directly attributable to Steve’s encouragement.


Larry James was unquestionably my Yoda. He guided my applied skill development along with two fellow padawans; research fellows John Bruni (WKU) and John Hater (FEDEX). We all worked on at least a half dozen projects assessing climate and validating personnel selection tools for government agencies and large corporations. When I joined Larry’s lab, he had just landed a large multiyear grant to identify salient organizational factors that affected addiction treatment outcomes from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Those NIDA data and Larry’s earlier Navy data became the raw material of my dissertation. Metaphorically, by the time I had to lead my first postdoctoral mission for the Galactic Alliance (serve as a principle investigator), I was confident of my ability to battle the Dark Side of mismanagement and ineffective leadership.

Ties to IBR, the Navy, and NIDA repeatedly shaped me professionally. Drafted in 1968, my career started as a reserve airman (E-3) with the Navy until graduation when I was commissioned as pilot, then later drove destroyers for four years. I met Larry by coincidence several years before I went back to school. We briefly shared a room at the Naval Station Subic Bay BOQ while grounded by a Philippines typhoon. I was enroute to my second tour of duty in Vietnam while Larry was in the Gulf of Tonkin collecting data from Navy crewmen. My post TCU academic career began at Southwestern Medical School. But after 3 years, fellow IBR alum Navy Lieutenant Mark Butler (now emeritus at UCSD), convinced the chief of the Navy Medical Service Corps to entice me back into uniform to lead a 3-year, Navy-wide a career development study. That led to a tour at the Pentagon helping oversee Navy’s personnel and training research programs for the deputy chief of Naval Operations. One Navy assignment led to another, and before long I was a retired Captain.


I continued to work with Larry from time to time on various Defense projects as well as one commissioned by the White House. Later in my career, I managed an I-O lab for the FAA. That job had its roots in prior monograph Sells and I had published on air traffic controller selection. While at FAA, I learned a lot about labor relations and building work-team empowerment. The last 3 years of my time at FAA, I was detailed part time to head a project for the White House Office of Reinventing Government in the Clinton Administration. REGO as it was called was a wonderful opportunity to apply I-O psychology on a grand scale, influencing changes affecting the worklives of over 4 million military and civilian employees. Needless to say, climate and culture had starring roles in our efforts, and Larry was a great sounding board for new ideas. My multiagency REGO team surveyed the entire civilian workforce, a federal first. To no surprise, the workforce was delighted by REGO’s changes. One happy spin-off of our project was that one of our team, Brigitte Schay (OPM retired), convinced the director of the Office of Personnel Management to adopt our survey system to monitor workforce morale every year: the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.


After the Navy and REGO, a fellow IBR alum at NIDA, Captain Bennett Fletcher (USPHS retired), invited me to infuse an organizational perspective into NIDA’s health services delivery research program. It was fun working with an old pal on a challenging mission. Within 5 years, organizational factors were included in nearly every health services grant NIDA issued. So I handed off my portfolio to a new hire, and started a research program focusing on reengineering addiction treatment practices, merging implementation science with organizational change.


An inveterate boundary spanner, I was invited to join the NIH faculty where I taught research program administration, and I staged several campus-wide expositions to introduce NIH program directors to new techniques and technologies for administering grants. Because of the excellent training I got from Saul, Steve, and especially Larry on psychometry, I became an NIH science officer for the biggest computerized adaptive testing development project since CAT-ASVAB called the Patient Reported Outcomes Measurement Information System (PROMIS). This 10-year, $200-million-dollar project involved most NIH institutes and numerous universities. PROMIS helped to establish an international gold standard for general-medical patient self-reported symptoms. Coincidentally, my Navy background helped me to convince the Department of Defense to adopt PROMIS for recovery monitoring.


In 2012, after 44 years of federal service, I retired a second time due to pressing eldercare responsibilities on two continents. I still write, consult, and do research, but at a more relaxed pace. Somewhat like Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars movies, I still hear the voices of all three of my major professors suggesting ideas, designs, and strategies. It is the lot of we academic orphans to become the legacy of our mentors, even those of us with applied careers.


Tom Hilton is an industrial-organizational psychologist currently residing on Central Florida’s Atlantic Coast.

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