1998-99 Hunt Award Research Report
The Impact of Psi Chi on Eminent Psychologists
Erica Heitner and Florence L. Denmark, Ph.D.
Psi Chi was founded in 1929 with the guiding mission of encouraging, stimulating, and maintaining excellence in scholarship and advancing the science of psychology. As the only national honor society in psychology for graduate schools and 4-year colleges and universities in the United States, Psi Chi selects the brightest and most talented students from across the country for induction into its ranks. To commemorate the 70th anniversary of Psi Chi in 1999, we thought it fitting to take a look back at the influential role Psi Chi has played in shaping the careers of the leading psychologists in the United States today. By tracking the professional development of the brightest and most talented psychologists in the field, we sought to investigate the connection between Psi Chi involvement and later career success.
In order to determine whether Psi Chi was a significant factor in successful career development, we surveyed the most accomplished U.S. psychologists concerning their Psi Chi involvement. A diverse pool of eminent psychologists was carefully chosen to include professionals from a broad spectrum within the field, including researchers, educators, and clinicians with various areas of specialization. A large sample of professionals and scholars who have been acknowledged for their work in the field was culled to represent the leaders in all domains within psychology.
Several different measures of success in psychology were utilized in the creation of this participant population. One category of participants included past and current presidents of the American Psychological Association (APA) and the American Psychological Society (APS). These individuals were chosen as eminent psychologists based on their broad appeal to the American psychological community and their demonstration of outstanding leadership skills. Additional participants were the recipients of a variety of major awards from APA bestowed in the domains of Practice, Public Interest, Application, Science, Public Policy, Education and Training, and International Advancement of Psychology. Other participants were APS William James Fellow Award recipients and James McKeen Cattell Fellow Award recipients. We also tracked the career paths of previous recipients of Psi Chi's prestigious Edwin B. Newman Graduate Research Award to determine how Psi Chi has influenced their subsequent professional development. All of these individuals, whose importance has been recognized through elections, awards, and numerous publications, were chosen to represent today's current leaders in psychology.
A brief survey was sent to the selected pool of top psychologists posing relevant questions about their past and present experiences with Psi Chi. Questions specifically addressed whether they had any contact with Psi Chi, the nature of their involvement, when their affiliation began, and the Psi Chi activities in which they had participated. Participants were also asked whether they felt that involvement with Psi Chi made an impact on their career in psychology and lastly, how Psi Chi participation influenced their professional development.
A total of 265 questionnaires were mailed out and 165 were completed, yielding a response rate of 62%. This response rate is particularly high given the lofty status and demanding schedules of the selected participants. Perhaps the high response rate indicates that Psi Chi was so important in the professional development of these esteemed psychologists' careers that they deemed the survey worthy of their time and attention. Of the 165 completed questionnaires, 115 psychologists, representing 70% of the respondents, indicated that they had some form of contact with Psi Chi during their lives. As indicated by this figure, Psi Chi has touched the professional lives of many eminent psychologists in the United States.
A more detailed analysis of the data revealed that 26% were undergraduate members of Psi Chi, 26% were graduate student members of Psi Chi, 18% were officers of a local chapter, 7% served as national officers, and 41% had given presentations at Psi Chi conferences. Thirty-nine percent of the respondents were involved in Psi Chi in another capacity, such as giving lectures at local chapters, serving as chapter advisors, or working with Psi Chi students on research projects. Psi Chi involvement was not limited to one particular form. In fact, many respondents checked off multiple categories of active participation, suggesting that Psi Chi connections continue throughout one's career. Approximately 40% of the respondents reported that their involvement with Psi Chi had made an impact on their professional development, and nearly all of the respondents provided comments detailing how Psi Chi had affected their careers. A qualitative examination of the open-ended responses revealed several trends. Psi Chi involvement was a conduit for sparking interest in careers in psychology, helping students get into graduate school, developing a professional identity, forging meaningful professional and social connections, and preparing future generations of psychologists.
Psi Chi membership and participation at the undergraduate level served as a source of encouragement to motivate students to pursue further study in psychology. Since Psi Chi is an honor society, members are invited to join on the basis of their demonstration of solid academic skills and scholarship in psychology. Therefore, Psi Chi membership is considered by many to be a commendable distinction and a validation of their potential to succeed in the field of psychology. Being recognized as an outstanding psychology student often provided the needed reinforcement to foster an interest in psychology and turn it into a life's work. Raymond Fowler, current CEO and executive vice president of APA and former president of APA, encapsulated this feeling with the following excerpt: "As a student, Psi Chi put me in closer contact with faculty and strengthened my decision to become a psychologist." Robert Pollard, who received an Award for Distinguished Contributions to Psychology in the Public Interest, responded that "participation made me feel 'professional' in a way that differed from just being a psych major," and James McGaugh, former president of APS, said that "Psi Chi played a major role in encouraging me to pursue a career in psychology when I was an undergraduate."
Not only did Psi Chi membership encourage promising students to pursue careers in psychology, it also served as a source of invaluable assistance helping able students to gain admission to psychology graduate school. For example, one respondent noted that Psi Chi "helped set my direction toward graduate school" and another stated more directly that "undergraduate participation helped me get into grad school." Psi Chi membership enhanced the attractiveness of graduate school applications by providing an indication of involvement in psychology and a testament of excellence in scholarship. Confirming the value of Psi Chi participation on behalf of one graduate admissions committee, APS William James Fellow and recipient of APA's Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions, John Garcia, emphatically noted, "I always paid close attention to Psi Chi advisors' recommendations of talent for advanced degrees. That was much more important to me than GRE scores and grades. When Psi Chi advisor said 'yes' and GRE said 'nay' I always went with Psi Chi," This statement highlights the powerful impact of Psi Chi on graduate school admissions decisions, and because advanced education in psychology is a prerequisite to a career as a psychologist, it suggests that Psi Chi may play an indirect role in determining which students will ultimately become psychologists.
The sense of pride conferred by Psi Chi membership was also emphasized in the responses. One respondent stated that "Election to the membership was an honor" and another said, "It's something I share with many friends who compose the elite. It's a membership in an elite group." Graduate students who were honored with Psi Chi's Edwin Newman Award received an even greater recognition of their talent to guide them toward lifelong careers in psychology. Morton Ann Gernsbacher recalled that her receipt of the award was one of the most outstanding highlights of her life. She further asserted that "The award was the greatest 'reinforcement' there was for me pursuing a career in psychology. It was truly thrilling and had a great impact on my career choice. I remain forever grateful for that honor."
At all stages of development and training, Psi Chi involvement has helped individuals to develop a professional identity. Norman Garmezy, who received a Gold Medal Award for Public Interest from the American Psychological Foundation, commented that "Psi Chi gave me an early identification with the field of psychology," while Harry Sands, winner of APF's Gold Medal Award for Practice, stated that "my professional development was enhanced by involvement in Psi Chi." Thomas Grisso, recipient of an APA Award for Distinguished Contributions to Research in Public Policy, alluded to Psi Chi as ". . . a vehicle for assisting my identification with psychology as a career." Development of a solid professional identity has proven to be instrumental in shaping the careers of successful psychologists, and it is inspiring to note that Psi Chi played an important role in the early formation of a professional identification among this eminent group of scholars, clinicians, and researchers.
The impact of Psi Chi does not end once an individual makes a decision to become a psychologist and attains an advanced degree. Psi Chi exerts another avenue of influence on career development by providing psychologists with important networking opportunities with their esteemed colleagues. Psi Chi events serve as a forum for psychologists to meet with others who comprise the best in the field, and possibly arrange to collaborate on research projects and other professional endeavors, as well as to form bonds of friendship with their peers. One respondent stated that her professional development was strongly influenced by "meeting Psi Chi people, interacting with them, collaborating with them, exchanging ideas, traveling together, and forming permanent friendships." Interaction with academic psychologists who are involved with Psi Chi allows members to share their ideas and be enriched by the ideas of their colleagues. Ludy Benjamin, recipient of an APF Teaching Award, added that, "Psi Chi has allowed me to meet a number of dedicated students and faculty at other universities. Some of those meetings have resulted in lasting friendships and even a few research collaborations." Through Psi Chi, John Hogan "met a dozen or more influential psychologists from whom he learned much, and he continues to meet more." Charles Spielberger, former APA president and recipient of APA's Award for Distinguished Professional Contributions, noted that "Psi Chi facilitated working with outstanding undergraduates and distinguished colleagues." Social opportunities furnished by Psi Chi have also been greatly appreciated. Edward Sheridan, awarded by APA for Distinguished Education and Training, recalled "fond memories of the camaraderie that occurred as a result of attending Psi Chi social events." Also, networking with peers has contributed to the establishment of a sense of community in the discipline of psychology. As summarized by Michael Saks, honored for his Distinguished Contributions to Psychology in the Public Interest, "Psi Chi provided my first opportunity to associate with others, my peers, who intended to make a career in psychology, to do some social comparison, and to begin to feel like part of a disciplinary community."
Having traveled down the same pathways themselves, psychology professors often serve as mentors offering advice and guiding future generations of psychologists as they prepare to enter the field. By serving as Psi Chi faculty advisors, giving presentations to local Psi Chi chapters, and collaborating on research with Psi Chi students, psychology professors use their involvement with Psi Chi to maintain excellence in the field. As Drew Appleby, dedicated mentor and recipient of an Award for Outstanding Teaching, stated, "My true love is to enable psychology majors to identify and actualize their potentials, and involvement with Psi Chi has helped me in these endeavors." Teaching award recipient Philip Zimbardo values his Psi Chi participation because it allows for "close involvement with top undergrads, helps me shape student's visions, serve as a role model, and help students become more professional." Jill Reich, recipient of an APA Award for Distinguished Education and Training Contributions, explained that Psi Chi significantly influenced her career development "by bringing me into contact with the best and brightest of the next generation of psychologists as well as those who will take their study of the discipline to other careers. The recognition and nurturing of our best young psychology students is essential to our discipline remaining a healthy, strong, and vital area of knowledge."
In sum, the impact of Psi Chi involvement was felt at all stages in the professional development of today's leading psychologists. Psi Chi involvement encouraged these outstanding professionals to enter the field, helped them gain admission into graduate school, put them into contact with colleagues to collaborate on projects and form friendships, and allowed them to mentor future generations of talented psychologists. The fact that so many of today's eminent psychologists cited Psi Chi as a significant part of their professional development should serve to inspire future generations of budding psychologists to get involved with Psi Chi. Psi Chi has indeed carried out the goals of its mission by impacting the lives of these outstanding psychologists, fostering their professional development, and facilitating their attainment of greatness in psychology.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS: Erica Heitner is currently a doctoral student at Pace University in New York, where she is pursuing her PsyD in school - clinical child psychology. She received her bachelor of arts degree with distinction in all subjects from Cornell University in 1995. While at Cornell, Ms. Heitner majored in psychology, and she was selected for induction into Psi Chi in 1993. Ms. Heitner has always strongly valued her participation in Psi Chi and feels honored to be the corecipient of the Thelma Hunt Research Award.
Florence L. Denmark, PhD, is currently the Robert Scott Pace Distinguished Professor and chair of the Psychology Department at Pace University in New York. She received her PhD in social psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Denmark is the author of many books and articles concerning the psychology of women. She served as national president of Psi Chi from 1978 to 1980. Concurrent with her second year as Psi Chi president, Dr. Denmark served as president of the American Psychological Association. Before coming to Pace University, Dr. Denmark served for 25 years as Psi Chi advisor at Hunter College. She used the money given to her as outgoing EPA president to establish the Psi Chi/Florence L. Denmark National Faculty Advisor Award.
Spring 2000 issue of Eye on Psi Chi (Vol. 4, No. 3, pp. 14-16), published by Psi Chi, The National Honor Society in Psychology (Chattanooga, TN). Copyright, 2000, Psi Chi, The National Honor Society in Psychology. All rights reserved.