Transitioning from Practitioner to Graduate Educator in School Psychology

By Daniel L. Gadke, Mississippi State University

At any given time (excepting pandemics and major recessions), there are dozens of open faculty positions in school psychology across the country. Often, many envision a career path into academia to look something like (1) finish graduate school, (2) complete a post-doctoral position to gain research experience or licensure, and (3) find a job at a university. While this path may have been the route for many academics, fortunately, it is not the only one. Academia is full of outstanding educators and scholars who first practiced. Unfortunately, given the more traditional path into academia and research demands, many practicing school psychologists interested in taking the leap to the ivory tower may feel discouraged in doing so. Concerns with establishing a research line and connecting to mentors are just some of the things that might hold them back from applying. To help us better understand, prepare for, and navigate the transition, we have asked Drs. Courtenay Barret, Michigan State University; Shereen C. Naser,  Cleveland State University;  and Wesley A. Sims, University of California Riverside to share their insights and journeys from successful practitioners to successful academics. 

Why did you decide to transition into academia?

Barrett: I went into academia right after graduate school and then chose to become a practitioner when I started a family. At that time, though, I knew there was always the possibility that I would go back! I decided to transition back into academia because I missed working with graduate students, the emphasis on conducting research, and the autonomy, but the precise timing was somewhat coincidental and prompted by a mixture of family circumstances and available positions at research-intensive universities in school psychology doctoral programs. 

Naser: When I was working as a practitioner I was asked to head MTSS programming for my school. I found myself constantly asking questions about our behavioral procedures I couldn’t readily find answers to. I was spending a considerable amount of time writing data reports, working with my teams to apply for grants, and creating white papers or reports for our administrative teams. I absolutely loved being a practitioner but I began to wonder what it might be like to do the work I was spending so much time on with more space to read and learn from other scholars.

Sims: I transitioned from practice to academia because I felt academia would allow me to influence the field in a more impactful way. I enjoyed working with practicum students and interns and teaching undergraduate psychology courses. I enjoyed both and believed that training future school psychologists would be personally gratifying, professionally fulfilling, and impactful.

How did you develop your research and teaching experience while practicing? If you didn’t engage in research or teaching while practicing, did you do anything to build your skills or experience once you started in your new role?

Barrett: In my previous position at a regional education service agency, I tried to embody a scientist-scholar-practitioner role by using research principles and concepts, such as program evaluation, data-based decision making, progress monitoring, research design, and measurement theory, as an approach for service delivery in a manner that could be evaluated and was publishable. I also reached out to several university-based researchers to collaborate and seek mentorship on how to conduct community-engaged scholarship. In terms of teaching, I provided a lot of professional development and coaching to a range of educators, which scratched that itch for me!

Naser: I was fortunate to have a graduate advisor and mentorship team who were willing to continue to write with me and provide me with adjunct teaching opportunities. The time where I was a full-time practicing school psychologist, supporting our building’s after school programming, teaching Abnormal Psychology as an adjunct while trying to also be involved in manuscript writing was brutal. However, it helped me keep all my doors open. I do want to reiterate that none of that would have been possible without the mentorship I received from folks who were in academia. Academia can often feel like a mysterious place. I remember the first time I submitted a manuscript as lead author and I had no clue that including a cover letter was standard practice. Having partners in academia made navigating those things much easier.

Sims: As a practitioner, I frequently conducted in-service presentations for my district(s). Additionally, I taught undergraduate psychology courses for several years before pursuing my doctoral degree. These experiences gave me some insight into teaching adults/in higher education.

In contrast, like many practitioners, I gained little to no research experience as a practitioner. Thankfully, I was very lucky to have been exposed to some great research models during my doctoral training. I had very generous advisors and mentors (thank you Chris, Wendy, Keith, Steve, Matt, Erica, and others). Later, I was honored to be included in the School Psychology Research Collaboration Conference (SPRCC). I will be forever grateful to my Catalyst Scholar (Linda Reddy) and group members. I have learned so much from them! Finally, reviewing manuscripts and collaborating with others with similar interests have supported development of my research skills.

How did your experience as a practitioner prepare you for the work you do now? In what ways has it informed your scholarship?

Barrett: My practice experience has been extremely influential and important for my current role as a faculty member. I believe my systems-level experiences have given me a unique perspective on how school psychologists can serve as change agents in schools. I have tried to bring that to my teaching and mentorship, and several students have commented that these experiences have been really useful in class. My experiences have also influenced my research agenda, as I became interested in implementation science and the research-practice gap. For example, one new line of research, economic evaluation in school psychology, came about directly from my experience as a practitioner. I witnessed first-hand how resource allocation is extremely complex and crucial for high-quality implementation of evidence-based practices. The complexity has made it a really fun area to study and its practical importance helps me feel like my research agenda has real-world implications for student outcomes, which is my primary goal! 

Naser: I am deeply thankful for my time as a practitioner. I learned so much from the teachers, administrators, families and children that I worked with. I keep old copies of our school’s newsletter on my office walls, and my computer desktop wallpaper is a picture from my time as a practitioner. In academia, particularly for tenure track faculty, there is a push to publish and grant write as a goal in and of itself. These keepsakes remind me that the work I engage in can have real consequences, that my research and training other school psychologists is an opportunity to continue to serve the students, families, teachers and administrators in our education system. My time as a practitioner gives me purpose and my experiences enrich my research and my teaching.

Sims: My time as a practitioner helped me transition to academia in several ways. First, there is no substitute for the professional experiences from which I can draw to illustrate concepts or issues discussed in class. Rather than hypothetical examples, I have actual experiences to use. They’re usually much more entertaining than anything I could make up. Next, working in multiple buildings, districts, and cities, each with its own unique organizational make up, socio-political climate, people, and procedures taught me how to be adaptable. Lastly, as a practicing school psychologist I learned how to manage numerous activities at once and to be flexible. Rarely does a school psychologist’s day happen as planned. I learned to be organized and to plan ahead, but also how to roll with changes that will inevitably occur. The latter attributes have proven helpful in my work in the fast-paced, stressful, and unpredictable world of academia.

My time as a practitioner has informed my scholarship by influencing my research interests. Broadly, my research seeks to improve service delivery practices and processes, particularly those related to prevention and early intervention. This work is grounded in the daily challenges I directly experienced as a practitioner and is driven by my belief this work could have positive and enduring impacts on student outcomes.

What were the key challenges associated with making the transition?

Barrett: I haven’t had too many challenges, above and beyond those associated with any transition to a new organization. I’m continuing to learn more about the procedures, policies, and cultural norms of my program, department, and university, but this is necessary for any new job. I think my prior experience in academia helped me significantly. If this were my first position in academia, I would probably be quite overwhelmed trying to navigate the pre-tenure process! 

Naser: Many of my current colleagues completed postdoctoral fellowships before moving into a tenure track position. They were able to come to academia with a well-defined research agenda, a publication pipeline and in some cases grant money to help fund their projects. In choosing to practice as a school psychologist I forwent a traditional research post doctorate experience. I don’t regret it at all, however my first few years in academia were really a challenge. I went from getting to work at 6:30 AM, greeting students in the  morning, supporting teachers, having mandated state deadlines for writing projects, and feeling an urgency to solve immediate problems our school was facing to turning on my computer and wondering what the heck I was supposed to do next. That transition came with some very serious imposter syndrome as well. I had worked in school buildings across the world, and I always worked as part of team. Coming into academia I was greeted enthusiastically by my colleagues, shown my office and was expected to initiate my own tasks- there were certainly no 5th graders following me down the hall wondering what exactly I was doing next. I do not mean in any way to imply I did not have support. Moving into academia gave me exactly the mental space I was craving to be creative and answer burning questions, and I was hired because other people believed in my vision. However, I really had to dig deep to develop the discipline to create a thriving research agenda, and to become the trainer and teacher I wanted to be. It was easy at first to look for service opportunities to try and create that sense of urgency that I had as a practitioner. Part of refocusing was really outlining my goals and my mission as an academic and saying no to activities that didn’t help me further that goal.

With that in mind, I tried to create a structure that would help me succeed. In my first year I signed up for writing courses, read books on writing, reached out to colleagues I knew were also looking for writing opportunities and created interdisciplinary writing and research accountability groups at my university. As a woman and as an Arab American in academia working in primarily White and male spaces, I spent a lot of my first few years in academia often questioning if I belonged. As the daughter of immigrants, I felt like maybe I didn’t have the institutional knowledge I needed to figure this thing out. So, I started reaching out to other people with similar backgrounds. I really outlined what I wanted and what I hoped to accomplish in the next 5 years. I don’t think I ended up publishing a single thing I wrote that first year but I made some fantastic relationships that have developed into productive research partnerships and friendships.

I am still learning and still growing and that sometimes feels uncomfortable, but I feel much better equipped to handle the growing pains now than I did when I first started, even as a visiting assistant professor. All of the skills I used to help me get the ball rolling in academia- problem solving, team building, being flexible- were all skills that I honed as a practicing school psychologist and that translated well to academia. 

Sims: I think the biggest challenge associated with this transition has been the general instability that has come with it. Returning to school was a very dramatic life change. After almost a decade of practice, I had become stable in my career, finances, and life. Returning to school ended that stability. Similarly, this transition has resulted in several relocations. In most cases, pursuit of an academic career requires a willingness to go where jobs are rather than finding a job in a place you want to live. Like most other changes, there has been a learning curve. Academia has its own rules, terms, paperwork, hierarchies, and expectations that can take time to learn. Finally, and relative to academia in particular, academia can be very punishing. At times it can be challenging not to take reviewer feedback personally.

What mentoring or professional learning experiences were valuable in preparing for or supporting your scholarship?

Barrett: I have received a lot of support and mentorship from professionals with a range of backgrounds, values, perspectives, and role identities both inside and outside of my previous organization, and locally and nationally. I received an Early Career Research Award (ECRA) from the Society for the Study of School Psychology (SSSP) as a practitioner to run a pilot study examining the effects of coaching in schools, with Nate Stevenson, Ph.D. from Kent State University (Co-PI), and Matt Burns, Ph.D. from the University of Missouri, as our mentor. This experience was extremely helpful in learning how to conduct applied research in schools. My advice to anyone who is trying to promote systems-level change and/or transition from practice to academia would be to proactively reach out to a range of professionals for help and then commit to following through until you have reached your goals. I believe that one of the biggest challenges is not just talking about what we’re going to do, but then actually going and doing it!   

Naser: Even as a practitioner I continued to attend professional conferences and presented research I conducted while working as a school psychologist. I also completed a visiting assistant professor position before transitioning to a tenure track position. I also kept in touch with my mentors, and they were instrumental in helping me transition into an academic position.

Sims: As noted earlier, my experiences during my doctoral training were extremely valuable. I work on multiple large-scale, multi-year, and federally funded projects under advisors that were great models. Later, collaborative efforts with my SPRCC group have been invaluable.

What advice would you have for a practitioner interested in entering the academic job market? Is there anything you wish you’d done differently?

Barrett: I think it’s important to talk to a range of people about the culture and values of academia, and understand the various types of universities. For example, some universities emphasize research productivity, others emphasize teaching and mentorship. There will also be differences if the program is at the EdS-level or the doctoral-level. Essentially, institutional fit is important. I think that many of the skills necessary to be successful in academia are only/best learned by participating in the process (e.g., the publication process), so I would recommend reaching out to collaborate with others with more experience, if that’s an area for growth. Prior to going on the job market, I was somewhat ambivalent and asked a mentor of mine for career advice, as she has also been in a range of settings (independent consultant, practitioner, academic, and program developer), and she gave me some of the best advice – to sincerely reflect on what I enjoyed doing and then find the work environment that supports my engagement in those activities. I wouldn’t change any part of my career trajectory, even though it has been somewhat atypical, but this is the advice I would give anyone looking to make a change!

Naser: The academic job market is rough. Other than a job that requires strict security clearance, I don’t know of many fields that require multi-day interviews and several different presentations, all after turning in an application that basically bares your soul. No one page resumes here! I was also applying for jobs while in the middle of a family crises- I had a sibling with a chronic illness that was taking a turn for the worst. In a lot of ways my sister’s illness meant I didn’t have mental capacity to worry about much else. I created my materials, my mentors and friends were kind enough to review them for me and to help me prepare and practice my research and teaching talks, and I just went for it. I think this forced me to be more authentic in my approach. The interviews I did get were at institutions that felt like fantastic fits, and I met people I would have been proud to work with. To this day I still keep in touch with people at institutions I interviewed with, even though I do not work there. That being said, reviews of my materials by mentors and friends as well as practicing my teaching and research talks multiple times also helped me ensure I was putting my best self forward.

Sims: Do your research (pun intended). Make sure you know what you’re getting into. Make sure you understand where you want to end up and where you could end up. Try to get a sense of what academia looks like at several different institutions, not all academic positions are created equally. There is a vast array of positions each with their own, varying research, teaching, and service expectations. You should be mindful and intentional about the types of training and experience preferred for the type of position you want and seek them out.

In hindsight, I wish I had focused more on the development of my research skills (e.g., statistics, manuscript preparation), rather than continuing to emphasize practice in my training and experiences. As I made this transition, I continued to practice while pursuing research focused training and experiences. I wish I had more fully embraced unfamiliar, novel research-oriented learning experiences that would support my current work.

Thank you to all our panelists. What questions or concerns do you (our readers) have about transitioning and thriving as practitioners moving into academic settings?

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