Author Archives: Dr. Nicole Barbaro

About Dr. Nicole Barbaro

Nicole holds a Ph.D. in psychology and is currently a Research Scientist at WGU Labs

Questioning the Role of Menarche Timing in Life History Models of Sexual Development

Life history models of sexual development are popular for understanding female sexual development as it relates to early experiences in the rearing environment. Broadly speaking, life history models suppose that early stressful environments will lead to accelerated maturation, manifesting as earlier timing of menarche, which subsequently leads to earlier age at first sex, and more unrestricted (and risky) sexual behavior.

Although there are subtle differences between the three primary life history developmental models (see Figure 1 for a conceptual depiction of predictions across the three models), they all have in common the prediction that menarche timing is, in part, regulated by early environmental stress, such that stress and father absence – a particular variable of interest within the literature – predict earlier menarche timing.

Figure 1. Conceptual model of the theoretical predictions derived from various life history models of development. Solid lines indicate predicted association. PA = psychosocial acceleration theory; CD = child development theory; PI = paternal investment theory.

The effect of father absence on menarche timing has been enjoying a rich discussion in recent years, with criticisms ranging from genetic confounding (which my colleagues and I outline here) to WEIRD effects not found in cross-cultural data. Other criticisms have focused on the issue of broader confounding factors such as socioeconomic status and body mass index. Although each of these criticisms and alternative explanations for menarche timing have been investigated independently in previous research, no previous study has attempted to comprehensively evaluate a broad array of proposed effects of life history antecedents on menarche timing (that are derived from life history developmental models) with a genetically informative research design.

In our recent research, we (co-authors, George Richardson, Joe Nedelec, & Hexuan Lui) sought to test a comprehensive model of theoretically relevant life history predictors on menarche timing and subsequent sexual behavior in girls using a twin subsample from Add Health. We took a two-stage approach to test the associations between father absence, specifically, and environmental stress, broadly, with age at menarche and sexual debut, and to identify potential genetic confounding of those associations.

In the first stage we tested and refined a measurement model specifying a latent environmental stress factor, and then built and tested a comprehensive structural equation model to test our life history hypotheses (see Figure 2). What is most striking about these results is what effects are not detected. There are no significant effects of environmental stress or father absence on age at menarche; only BMI is a significant predictor (a well-known predictor in the pediatrics literature.) There were, however, significant effects of early environmental stress on sexual debut, consistent with recent work in a Canadian sample.

Figure 2. Final SEM model. Only significant effects show.

In the next stage, we used univariate and multivariate behavior genetic models to identify whether significant associations between BMI and age at menarche, and between age at sexual debut and number of sexual partners and risky sexual behavior, were confounded by shared genetic covariation. Results here did not provide evidence of a nonshared environmental association (i.e., an association that survived control of genetic and shared environmental factors), suggesting the effect of BMI on age at menarche in our nongenetically informative model is likely spurious. Findings also did not provide evidence of a nonshared environmental association between age at sexual debut and risky sexual behavior. However, the association between age at sexual debut and number of sexual partners did survive control of genetic and shared environmental factors, suggesting it may reflect a causal effect of the former on the latter.

This study tested many other predictions in addition to the key findings presented above. Below in Table 1 is the tl;dr version of our primary aims and results summary.

Table 1. tl;dr summary of research aims and results.

What do all these results mean for life history models of sexual development? First, and in my view, most importantly, is that the null association between early environmental stress and father absence with menarche timing (the latest null result in a growing list) calls into question each of the three life history developmental models. Why? Because parental investment theory, psychosocial acceleration theory, and child development theory all rely on menarche timing as a key regulatory mechanism linking early environments to adolescent sexual behavior. (In our paper we discuss at great length the implications for each theory on preprint pp. 20-23).

Our behavior genetic models offer some interesting insights to life history models, too – just not for age at menarche. The evidence associated with age at sexual debut does suggest sexual behavior may be, in part, responsive to early environmental stress. Unlike age at menarche, age at sexual debut does reflect the shared environment in all the models we tested. Again, however, life history developmental models will have to reconcile the fact that the key regulatory mechanism of menarche timing is missing. Additionally, these results also do not provide evidence for my own hypothesis that the association between father absence and age at menarche is genetically confounded – because there appears to be no such association to confound!

This paper, currently under peer-review, contributes to the ongoing critical discussions in the life history literature particularly regarding developmental models, facultative adjustment, and genetic confounding. We look forward to hearing your comments!

Preprint (19 June 2020)

OSF project and pre-registration

Is (Online) Education Hackable? (Spoiler: NO)

Brief psychological and behavioral interventions are popular in education, with promises of big impacts on academic outcomes for students. However, these kinds of brief interventions nearly all suffer from the same problem: generalizability. It’s one thing to demonstrate that an intervention works in a particular class, school, or sample, it is another beast entirely to claim that an intervention is effective across education broadly.

So, is education hackable? Can we really improve student’s education outcomes with a 30-minute video or activity?

Unfortunately, probably not.

A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences tested how different behavioral science interventions fared in massive online open courses, or MOOCs – a rigorous test of generalizability with around a quarter million students involved across the world. The overall study design was iterative whereby pilot-type results for interventions were done first, followed by a year of randomly embedding the interventions in MOOCs, then they revised and registered their hypothesis for year two of randomly embedding the interventions in the MOOCs.

The key outcome metric was course completion rates, and the interventions were “plan making” (planning out their coursework at the beginning of the term), “mental contrasting with implementation intentions” (planning to overcome obstacles), “social accountability” (identifying people to check in with regularly about their course progress), and “value relevance” (write about how the course is connected with a personal important goal or value).

What was the result? That no single intervention had beneficial effects on course completion rates across courses and countries, and the effect sizes were in some cases an order of magnitude smaller than initial pilot-like studies suggested. Instead, the effects of interventions varied by country type (e.g., individualistic, developed), or whether the intervention occurred in the first year or the second year of the study. Interventions such as “plan making” only increased course engagement for the first week, but had no long-term effects. In some cases, the “value relevance” intervention had negative effects in some courses depending on country-context. Overall, the results show that noise and small, inconsistent effects that are highly context dependent are the norm in this kind of intervention work.

So, if these types of psychological-behavioral interventions are highly-context dependent, then what we need to do is identify the students that would benefit from the intervention and then deliver to them the intervention, rather than random or blanket assignment of interventions to all students. In theory this is a great solution, but one that is not easily executed.

A key context variable identified in the research was what the authors call the ‘global gap’ defined by courses in which course completion rates differ between less developed countries and more developed countries; interventions had positive effects on students in less developed countries but only if the courses had a global gap. The problem here is that the global gap index for a course is only known after the course has run, and is inconsistent across time. A predictive model the researchers developed couldn’t identify which courses would have a global gap the following year better than chance. Moreover, identifying individual students to target with interventions using machine-learning techniques did not increase course completion rates above what would be the case if interventions were randomly assigned.

The results of this massive research effort are important for educators and institutions. This research confirms what many educators and scientists know from experience: that context matters. But these results shouldn’t be touted as a “See! Context matters! We just need to individualized interventions!” because this study shows that we have no idea how to actually do that yet at scale. Yes, we need to be more intentional about educational interventions and more holistic in the ways in which we strive to improve academic outcomes for students, but saying that is the solution and actually being able to do it are two very different things. As higher education continues to move online at scale, we need to shy away from hackable, short-sighted “solutions” and focus on holistic, personalized and responsive education.

Using the Four Pillars of Learning to Drive the Impact of EdTech

Many edtech products begin as startups, and a foundational approach to think of a startup idea is the problem-solution model: identify a problem and create a product that solves that problem. This process has produced many EdTech products used in education today—e-books, flashcard apps, learning management systems, just to name a few—that focus on solving the broader problem of efficiency, or “digitizing” education.

Because of these types of products, technology-enabled and online education are expanding access to underserved and nontraditional populations—improving the lives of countless students. These early innovations are the foundation on which modern EdTech can flourish, but the EdTech of today should seek to do more than solve problems—it must continuously improve education with products that make learning more effective and enhance core learning processes.

Core learning processes are fundamental features of how our brains evolved to learn over millions of years. Contrary to the perpetual myth of individual learning styles—that some people learn better with visual information and others with verbal information, for instance—all brains learn information the same way. (What is actually variable is individual students’ interest and motivation to learn a topic). A recently published book, How We Learn: Why Brains Learn Better Than Any Machine. . . For Now by Stanislas Dehaene, articulates with great detail exactly how it is that humans learn. Dehaene explains that core learning processes are foundational to how all humans learn—powerful information for EdTech developers.

This post originally appeared on WGU Labs’ blog. Click here to continue reading.

Five (Very Different) Books on American Higher Education

Higher education is facing many problems: the cost is way too high, students are underserved, dropping out at alarming rates, and have skyrocketing mental health issues. Why are these things happening? How do we fix it? I don’t have the answers, but I certainly have reading recommendations. As I’ve moved professionally in to education research, particularly focused on improving academic outcomes for diverse students, I’ve taken a great interest in reading as much as I can and engaging with varied perspectives on the state of higher education. Below are five very different books on higher education and why you should read them. Enjoy.


The College Dropout Scandal by David Kirp

The take: Higher education’s dirty little secret is that an enormous number of students are not graduating. How many? On average, around 40% at public 4-year state universities – key word being average. Graduation rates are much lower at some universities, and bad at community colleges. (Of course, the highly selective public universities and the Ivy’s don’t have this problem with over 90% of their students graduating.) Why is this happening? Lots of reasons, but mostly because public universities are serving incredibly diverse student populations. Diverse in life experience, diverse in educational background, and diverse in goals. The short answer: our institutions are not ready to serve the diverse student populations they now have as a result of expanding access to higher education.

Why you should read it: The hemorrhaging of college students at our nations public universities may be problem most university administrations fail to tackle with actionable, effective solutions, but there are a few shinning stars that have solved this problem. Yes, it’s possible to actually serve and educate diverse students at a single institution. Georgia State, CUNY, Rutgers University-Newark, University of Texas, Long Beach State, and University of Central Florida are living proof. The College Dropout Scandal shows how administration can make a difference in student outcomes, and serves as an invaluable resource for those working in higher education that are trying to make their institutions better.


The Coddling of the American Mind:  How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt

The take: What is happening on our college campuses? It’s now normal to hear of students de-platforming politically incorrect, conservative, or controversial speakers. Adult students need emotional safe spaces and coloring books. The use of mental health services is skyrocketing. These social trends are alarming for many reasons, but their cause is unknown. Lukianoff and Haidt argue that what we’re seeing is largely a result of helicopter parenting and a failure of children developing resilience, problem-solving capabilities, and of social-emotional skills. The result is high anxiety, entitled demands, and continued coddling.

Why you should read it: This book is controversial. Disagreements abound, there are very serious changes in child rearing and young adult social trends that all educators should be taking seriously whether they agree with the Coddling’s thesis. Free speech is being challenged at universities, despite free speech, exchange of ideas, and exploration being the foundation of liberal education. Today’s generation Z has been raised under more careful supervision and non-independence than previous generations, which those who study human development know to be a disservice and impediment to children’s social-emotional development. Their take is more of a hypothesis for what’s going wrong socially and culturally on today’s college campuses, but it’s a hypothesis worthy of engagement and discussion.


The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us, by Paul Tough

The take: Higher education is said to be the surest path to economic mobility, helping students access higher ranks of American socioeconomic class. But does American education deliver on its promise? Not always. Paul Tough takes an intimate, investigative journey into the how the current educational system is failing too many students. He works through the systems of higher education from college decision making, test prep and admissions, to student belonging and retention. The Years That Matter Most was truly an eye-opener for me to understand where higher education is going wrong. You can read more about my thoughts on this book here.

Why you should read it: The approach Tough takes in this book is personal and intimate. Each stage of the higher education system that he highlights is complemented by real student stories – stories of high-achieving, well-deserving students that are butting up against the flaws in our system. If you want a student perspective on higher education to really get a grasp at the ways in which we’re not fully serving our students, this book will not disappoint.


The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money, by Bryan Caplan

The take: We all know higher education is, honestly, an enormous rip off. It is way, way too expensive and everyone knows it. So, why do we keep buying it? Because we have to—employers demand it. Caplan argues that obtaining a university degree is mostly signaling to employers that your IQ is high enough, you’re relatively conscientious, and conformist. How much of your degree is signaling? He says around 80% but there’s room for debate. He shows with enormous amounts of data the continued arms-race that is occurring between employer demands and higher education is leaving students with useless degrees and crippling debt. From the macro perspective, higher education is a waste. From your personal perspective, you should get a degree (in an applied discipline).

Why you should read it: Any data packed book on a relevant topic is deserving of a read, or at least a skim of the tables. But Caplan exposes glaring flaws in the connection between higher education and employment. Why does a bachelor’s degree in art history, psychology, or literature qualify you for a range of basic office jobs if your content knowledge is nearly useless on the job? Why do you only get the college pay-off if you graduate? If your knowledge was truly worth something to employers, you’d think you’d get a pay bump for any college credits, but you don’t. And if you ever wondered whether your major matters, it does. If you’re a parent with children deciding on college or working in higher education, you should read this to better advise students. Also, it was one of my favorite books I read last year.


Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s School Back to Reality, by Charles Murray

The take: Real Education takes a very different approach to higher education than the books mentioned above. Murray’s thesis rests on the idea that human ability varies, and therefore not all students that go to college should necessarily be in college (see The College Dropout Scandal for how many students aren’t finishing!). He highlights a big problem in American education: the devaluing of skilled-labor and vocation training. Note everyone needs to be an engineer or lawyer. Given these realities, he argues that too many students are going to college, and we should redirect training resources and high school courses on vocational careers. Higher education should be primarily reserved for student above average, intellectually speaking.

Why you should read it: Don’t let his name turn you off – it’s a great book that makes very valid arguments. Essentially, Real Education is a different solution the problem outlined in The College Dropout Scandal. We as a society value the college path over the vocational and labor paths, and the result is an enormous proportion of college student dropping out, with lots of debt and no degree. If we can’t graduate students, we’re actually leaving them worse off than if they hadn’t gone to college in many cases (not good!). Unlike Kirp who argues for colleges changing to serve new student populations, Murray’s argument is to only admit high-achieving students (i.e., high SAT scores). This is not an unpopular perspective in the academy—and exactly why you should read it.


So, what is the state of higher education today? How do we fix its problems? There is certainly no straightforward answer to such a complex question, but the answer will certainly involve nuanced discussion and hearing from a variety of perspectives, such as those above. Remember, you can disagree that higher education is only for the IQ elite, but that does not mean you should not engage with the perspective and work to understand it. Each of these authors provides a valid take on higher education today. Each have contributed to my own perspective of higher education, and my views on higher education – its problems and solutions – continue to evolve as I engage with diverse perspectives. I encourage you to engage as well.

Ethnic Spaces on Campus Positively Impact Minorities, but Not Whites: What are Potential Inclusive Solutions?

A new study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science tests how ethnic and cultural spaces on college campuses impact perceptions, experiences, and outcomes for minority and White students. Ethnic spaces increased minority students sense of belonging, their perception of how much the university values minority students, their felt support by the university, and their reported academic engagement. For White students, however, ethnic spaces decreased their perceived support from the university and lowered their reports of future campus engagement; ethnic spaces did increase White’s perception of how much the university values minority students.

Source

These results are a net positive for universities. As the authors suggest, ethnic spaces are one way in which universities can foster a sense of belonging for minority students on campus—and important component to closing equity gaps in academic outcomes.

Ethnic spaces on college campuses, however, are also subject to debate. There has been a lot of controversy over the years about who can use these spaces, and whether barring White students from these campus spaces is racist (it is), and whether the spaces are being used enough to justify their building cost.

Findings of this new study in SPPS shed some light on some of these controversial issues. On the one hand, ethnic spaces do positively impact minority students, but on the other hand, White students feel less supported. Additional analyses in the paper also show that the positive effects for Black and Hispanic students (the majority of the underrepresented minority sample in this research) are not dependent on actual or perceived usage of the space, “suggesting that [ethnic spaces] served as a signal of a more welcoming university context for underrepresented students” (emphasis added).


So, what are some practical insights that can be gathered from these new findings? First, creating a sense of belonging for underrepresented groups is important and can have a positive impact on those students. Higher education institutions that want to better academic outcomes for all of their students should focus on the idea of institutional belonging. Are ethnic spaces the best way to foster a sense of belonging? Maybe. In my opinion, I think that universities can both create spaces to celebrate ethnic diversity, be inclusive to all students, and be a good financial investment for the university. Finding the sweet spot of all these goals is possible.

It seems that the primary goal of ethnic centers is to give students a space to hang out, be themselves, be around like others, and hold events. For example, here is a description of ethnic spaces at Virginia Tech:

“These centers consist of a room or several rooms, ranging from 564 to 1,400 square feet each, equipped with televisions, sofas, chairs, tables, and bookshelves. But they are more than physical spaces for students to hang out, do homework, rest, and host club meetings, choir rehearsals, and other gatherings. They are judgment-free spaces where students say they can be themselves.”

This is another description of ethnic spaces that were used in the SPPS study at University of Washington:

“In support of the goals of the University of Washington, the Ethnic Cultural Center promotes an inclusive and educational environment by providing programs and services which enhance the communication and exchange of multicultural perspectives and values. The Ethnic Cultural Center provides programs and a learning environment where students and student organizations collaborate, develop and implement programs while building leadership and organizational skills.”

It seems that the goal of ethnic centers should be more than to provide spaces for particular students to hang out, and more focused on supporting particular students in the academic journeys. A good example of a ethnic center that has a clear mission is the University of Utah:

“Using a pan-African lens, the Black Cultural Center seeks to counteract persistent campus-wide and global anti-blackness. The Black Cultural Center works to holistically enrich, educate, and advocate for students, faculty, and staff through Black centered programming, culturally affirming educational initiatives, and retention strategies.

This new center will enact this mission through intentional programmatic learning outcomes, envisioned to build a sense of belonging and community at the U, with the goal of increasing the recruitment and retention of Black students, faculty, and staff. Supporting academic and cultural activities, this center is designed to promote and explore Blackness, equity, justice, and other progressive social change initiatives on campus and within the larger African diasporic community. The broader public mission of the Center is marked by a commitment to community activism and collaboration.”

Ethnic centers should, like the University of Utah, be aiming to provide academic resources for underserved populations, and serve as educational resources for all students, rather than barring certain students from these spaces. Rather than ethnic spaces serving as a signal of belonging, as the research suggest, ethnic centers should aim to be mission-oriented and educationally-based for all students, and the local community.

How could ethnic spaces be inclusive to all students, while still promoting belonging for underrepresented populations? Potentially, the spaces could be educational in their focus, which would also align with the missions of universities. Such spaces could be thought of as museums of sorts, that celebrate human diversity, showcase student and faculty work in relevant areas, and motivate academic engagement within the center. The public could be charged a small admission fee (free for all university students and staff) to help support student organizations. Providing opportunity and incentive for student engagement would likely promote greater use of the centers, too.

Rather than having a separate student union-like buildings or spaces for particular groups, a potential solution could be a single ‘multicultural’ center on college campuses that could showcase and promote unity on campus, rather than exclusion. Such centers would be a place for all students to visit, learn, and engage with, and hold events, with the goal of promoting positive perceptions and belonging for all students on campus.

Research, such as this new study in SPPS, is necessary to evaluate the effects of such spaces on student outcomes. Because ethnic centers are themselves diverse across campuses, it would be useful to compare student perceptions and experiences based on key features of such centers that already exist. Do centers that have a clear educational mission like University of Utah promote a stronger sense of belonging than generic student union-like spaces like at Virginia Tech? Does a single multicultural center that celebrates all types of human diversity have positive effects for minority and White students?

Rather than being just “signals”, universities should strive to create ethnic centers that further educational goals, foster community belonging, and have positive effects on all students.

No, Maslow Didn’t Create the Famous Hierarchy of Needs Pyramid

Humanistic psychology, the perspective that humans are inherently good and strive to be better, is ubiquitously associated with Abraham Maslow and his famous pyramid of needs culminating in self-actualization. Introductory psychology students around the world learn about this foundational perspective of psychology usually in the first section of their course. It is often, however, regulated to the historical perspectives of psychology section of lectures (as in my own) and introductory texts, with little more thought paid to Maslow and his pyramid of needs after a couple brief slides.

Scott Barry Kaufman’s latest book, Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization, brings Maslow out of history and into the present state of psychology research. Kaufman presents a refreshingly modern take on humanistic psychology, situated in the contemporary research. I’ll be honest, until I read Transcend, I had firmly relegated Maslow to the history bin of psychology with little interest in pursuing the area further. Kaufman, however, convinced me that I was wrong, and that Maslow’s theory is a serious psychological perspective worth reading about.

Transcend successfully balances two broad arcs throughout its 300+ packed pages. The first – and my favorite – being a history of humanistic psychology. I have fallen in love with the history of science genre the last couple of years, and Kaufman demonstrates precisely why historical knowledge is so important. Did you know Maslow did not create the famous pyramid visualization? I certainly did not. And our introductory psychology textbooks never even hinted that a random management consultant actually created the famous visualization! (This is one of only many problems introductory psychology textbooks face regarding content accuracy.) A lack of science history can distort contemporary knowledge and, for me at least, I was none the wiser when it came to humanistic psychology. I appreciate the rich historical knowledge Transcend provided me.

The second arc of Transcend focuses on is the individual components of Maslow’s theory itself, as Kaufman moves from the foundations of security and safety to transcendence. What I appreciate most about his book is the breadth of research incorporated at every stage – a truly impressive feat. Transcend introduces the reader to myriad research areas within the discipline of psychology. I have little doubt that Transcend will contain a section that connects with any psychologist’s research area. My personal favorites were the beginning chapters comprising Part 1 of the book with their rich connections to evolutionary perspectives on human behavior.

If I ever return to university teaching, my introductory psychology slides will be worthy of a serious update, with Kaufman’s book receiving a spotlight feature on my recommended reading slide for students interested in humanistic psychology. If your knowledge of Maslow and humanistic psychology, like mine, is limited to what your introductory psychology course offered you Transcend is a must read to bring your knowledge of the area into the 21st century.

Photo by Gabriel Lamza on Unsplash

Open Science as a Solution for Rigorous and Impactful EdTech Research

High quality research is the foundation from which effective and impactful EdTech is built on. Educators, institutions of learning, and companies depend on research to make informed decisions about what products and interventions to implement. There is, of course, some responsibility on those choosing products to do their due diligence on the research backing such products. But, on the other hand, the greater responsibility should fall on the companies and researchers conducting studies.

Why is research so important? Because we want to know what actually helps students and the impact that EdTech products are having on our populations of focus. If EdTech is interested in building long-term, effective, and sustainable solutions to drive innovation, then credible and rigorous research is essential to accomplish these goals.

Our research practices and policies at WGU Labs were designed to ensure that the research we’re doing on EdTech products and educational interventions is rigorous, transparent, and impactful. There are three problems that EdTech focused companies, especially those like WGU Labs that also work with third-party EdTech products, must solve to produce rigorous research:

  1. The Research Problem
  2. The Credibility Problem
  3. The Accessibility Problem

This post appeared on WGU Labs’s blog on 15 April 2020. Click here to continue reading.

From Psychology PhD to EdTech Research Scientist: My Transition Out of the (Formal) Ivory Tower

The academic job market is notoriously competitive–PhDs in my field (psychology) often spend years on the job market for the chance to land a tenure-track position. When I was in the fifth and final year of my PhD, I knew it was highly unlikely that I would land a job as a professor, even with 30+ peer-reviewed publications. Knowing how slim chances were of actually landing an academic position in a city I wanted to live, I decided to branch out and pursue alternative academic careers (see my advice for PhDs on the altac job market here).

I’d love to sit here and write about how I had a well-defined career plan to enter a specific industry, develop my skillset, and land my dream job. But that didn’t happen for me–and rarely does for most, especially for PhDs like myself who entered their program with all the intentions of beating the odds and becoming “Professor X.” I will tell you, however, that I was open minded about my career options and confident in my abilities as a scientist, which I believe allowed me to land an awesome job in an industry that I knew very little about at the time.

This post was published at Beyond the Professoriate on April 9 2020. To continue reading, click here.

An Intimate Look at What’s Not Working in American Higher Education

I’ve spent my entire adult life thus far at university. I began my undergraduate degree at 17 years old and just graduated with my doctorate at 28. And, I now work at a non-profit education innovation hub affiliated with the largest university in the United States. I have devoted so much time to my education personally, and now professionally, because I love learning and, quite honestly, I am not sure what else I could do or would want to do.

Maturing personally and professionally within the American higher education system has left me with seemingly conflicting views of our institutions that I’m sure many other higher education professionals and professors share. On the one hand I view education as one of the most, if not the most, important thing in one’s life; education and learning enable everything else within my life. On the other hand, there are very real problems with our higher education institutions today, problems that are leaving students behind and underserving too many students once they get to campus.

The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us by Paul Tough is the most compelling account of the myriad problems plaguing higher education that I have read. Aside from what I think is an utterly uncompelling title (one that really undersells the importance of the book in my opinion), the data and stories contained within its pages give broad, yet intimate insights into the lives of the students that our education system is failing in mass numbers.

What makes this book special and enormously moving are that the problems with our higher education system Tough details are not only backed by data, but demonstrated by real stories with real college students that Tough interviewed and followed over many years. Connecting abstract institutional problems with the lives of real students makes the problems in higher education tangible and salient.

Tough organizes his reporting somewhat chronologically, starting with the decision to go to college and how it differs across income level. For students in higher income levels, the general rule and decision-making process of which college to attend is to go to the most selective college that will accept you. For lower income students, many of whom have parents without college degrees, figuring out which college to attend typically isn’t based on selectivity, but rather location or unambitious recommendations from high school guidance counselors. In what Tough calls “income-typical behavior” high-achieving students from low income neighborhoods miss out on the advantages that going to a selective university can offer for their economic mobility.

Tough then dives into the big business of test prep, and the importance of the SAT/ACT scores in higher education. The decision to heavily weigh SAT/ACT test scores, or use them at all, in the college admissions process is a hotly debated topic. On the one hand, the test scores are the most predictive piece of information admissions offices have for whether a student will be successful (i.e., GPA and graduation likelihood). On the other hand, the use of test scores appears to be leaving a non-trivial minority of students behind. And much of the time, these students are from below-average high schools that tend to be in low-income and/or minority neighborhoods.

College admissions and its focus on test scores works against many high performing students. There is a group of students, which Tough refers to as “deflated-SAT” students that have test scores much lower than their high school GPA would predict. These students account for about 1/6th of those that take the SAT/ACT. For the remaining students that take the SAT/ACT, 2/3rd of them score consistent with their GPA and the other 1/6th score higher than what their GPA would predict, who Tough calls “inflated-SAT” students. The students in the deflated-SAT group compared to the inflated-SAT group, however, are three times more likely to be low-income, three times more likely to be first generation college students, twice as likely to be female, and at least twice as likely to be black or Hispanic. With the exception of women, then, test scores work against already underserved populations in our institutions.

Tough describes research by DePaul university, which is a test-optional institution meaning that students with deflated SAT scores are not required to submit them if they choose not to, shows that students who do not submit their test scores do, in fact, have ACT scores about five points lower, on average, than students that do choose submit them (the university requests that they submit their scores for research purposes). Importantly, however, these students with deflated scores are no different than the students who submit their scores: they have equivalent freshman GPAs, are just as likely to enroll in their sophomore year, and their six-year graduation rates are within two percentage points of the test-submitting students.

After getting in, students need to stay in. Tough’s chapter, Staying In, describes many big problems facing public universities today. How to best help an increasingly diverse student body, and how to get students to graduate. At most public state universities, only around two thirds of students actually graduate, with rates being far higher at more homogeneous Ivy league universities and other prestigious institutions, but much lower for non-selective institutions and community colleges. Thus, even at our best state institutions, too many students are unsuccessful. And, these problems disproportionately plague minorities (but not Asians), first generation students, and low income students.

Why this happens is due to many reasons. For example, primary and secondary educational institutions are not equal across neighborhoods, and the prior knowledge and education of incoming students varies dramatically. In many ways, problems in higher education are rooted in many of the problems plaguing our primary and secondary schools. Moreover, underserved students are often the minority on campus, and their sense of belonging and community can suffer. These big problems are difficult to address at scale, though Tough describes inspirational cases of programs, such as those within the University of Texas university system that are making strides to combat these problems.

The Years That Matter Most is truly eye opening to higher education’s problems; but isn’t ideologically driven. The stories he shares about real students facing real challenges at their university offer something for many to resonate with. And, Tough made me reflect on the ways in which these problems have personally impacted me during my decade-long educational journey. Although higher education does, indeed, work just fine for most students, our higher education institutions need to work for more. We need to find ways to build up underserved students – minorities, low income, first generation, and deflated-SAT – and we need to do so at scale.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

It’s Not You, It’s the Market

Peak interview season has passed and you’re starting to see all the “I’m excited to share that I’ll be joining the Psychology Department at University X this Fall” tweets on your feed. Although exciting for those that beat the odds and landed a coveted tenure-track position, the reality is that the majority of psychology PhDs will not be tweeting out an incoming faculty announcement anytime soon. Why? Because, as most of us are aware, the market is, well . . . fucked. Seriously, it’s not you, it’s the market.

The intuition that landing a tenure track faculty job comes down to mostly luck and how many tickets (applications) you buy is beginning to be backed by data. As interest in meta-science research has taken off in recent years, so too, has research and analysis into the academic job market. What is the best predictor of landing a job? Submitting a lot of applications. Really, that’s it. The more darts you throw at the board, the better your chances of hitting the bullseye.

During my early years as a graduate student, I knew it was normal to submit upwards of 100 applications, and maybe get a handful of interviews. I knew, also, that it was normal to spend several years adjuncting and post-docing on insufficient pay waiting to land a faculty role.

When I started graduate school, I was determined to beat the odds — and I worked. In my five years I published more than 30 peer-reviewed research articles (but 42 scholarly articles total), I gave more than 25 conference presentations, got elected to the board of a scientific society (as a student), reviewed 96 journal articles to date, taught nine university courses, and organized conferences and workshops. The result? One phone interview for a tenure-track position out of 17 applications.

I was disappointed of course, but not surprised. It was statistically unlikely that I would land a job coming from an R2 state school program, and even more unlikely given self-imposed geographical constraints. The data are against me, and that’s okay, but the state of the job market is, in my view, ridiculous. And now that people are analyzing job market data, the ridiculousness of the job market is becoming concrete rather than hear-say and anecdotes.

Below, are some job market data resources with some highlights I found particularly telling.


The 2018-2019 SPSP Job Market Survey

This is a phenomenal resource, and very telling about the state of the market. Huge kudos to Heidi A. Vuletich, Fernanda C. Andrade, Diego Guevara Beltran, and Hasagani Tissera for publishing these data.

The main take away from this survey is what does – and does not – predict success on the market. Overall, two primary predictors of tenure-track success emerged: Number of applications and journal impact factors. That’s it. The lottery perspective of the market has been confirmed, and it is still normal for search committees to judge a candidate’s merit on the number of JPSPs they have.

It’s also interesting to see how many publications candidates have. If you chat with professors that were on the market 20 years ago, you know it was unusual to have publications when on the market. Now? The average successful candidate at a research institution has 9 publications. Those at a teaching institution, an average of 6 publications. But, importantly, the number of publications did not differentiate those who did vs. did not land a job. Impact factors are still king.

That very few metrics of productivity predict psychology job market success coincides with other research in the life sciences that concludes, “Traditional benchmarks of a positive research track record above a certain threshold of qualifications were unable to completely differentiate applicants with and without offers.”


The 2017-2018 PsychJobSearchWIki analysis by Mark Thornton

This analysis is mostly descriptive, but nicely demonstrates how limited the market is. How many jobs are there? According to the jobwiki, which seems to be the most representative place on the internet for psychology faculty job postings, there were about 700 in 2017. Cool! Lots of jobs! But when you consider that each area has around 100 or fewer jobs, combined with the fact that thousands of PhDs in psychology are awarded each year, the limited nature of the market is readily apparent.

I am eagerly awaiting an analysis of the 2019-2020 market, which is likely to include new insights into the now standard diversity, equity, and inclusion statements for academic positions.


The 2015-2017 APA Job Advertisement Analysis

A bit older, but still useful, is the APA analysis of job advertisements. The key take-aways here are that there are still not many jobs, with clinical psychology having the highest showing. Many sub-areas of psychology, account for single-digit percentages of the psychology job market.

Also interesting is the distribution of jobs, which unsurprisingly follows the general population distribution in the US. Unless you live the New England area, it is likely that you’ll be moving if you plan to secure a job.


So, if you didn’t land a job this year, even if you did everything ‘right’, it’s more likely a result of the hyper-competitive market and not your skills as a researcher of educator. After weeding out incomplete applications and poor research fit, it is likely the case that there are 20 or 50 qualified applicants, and the decision of who to hire comes down to culture fit and committee preferences. Don’t let a fucked job market diminish your identity as a scholar and academic.