George ThorntonMeet George Thornton

Professor Emeritus of Industrial Organizational Psychology
Colorado State University

What inspired you to pursue your PhD in I-O psychology?

As an undergrad Econ major, I took a course in industrial psychology, where the professor involved me in a field project.  The field combined my interest in business and psychology.

What drew you to Purdue specifically for your graduate studies?

Dr. Ernest McCormick, Purdue prof, gave a guest lecture at DePauw University. We corresponded and I visited Purdue just up the road from Greencastle. He gave me a research assistantship. Purdue advocated both science and practice, whereas other universities at that time focused only on research.

What was Purdue like when you were a graduate student? 

In 1962 - 1966, Purdue was one of the “top three” grad programs at that time, with renowned professors: Tiffin, McCormick, Owens, Perloffs (Robert and Evelyn), Weick, Weiner, Lawshe, Brogdan, etc. Grad students included a range from recent undergrads up to Air Force officers on scholarships with careers in HR. The program was broad with topics in personnel, nascent organizational, engineering, consumer. The climate was very collegial. There was not a high pressure emphasis on research and publication. I was granted much freedom in selecting research topics.

What are some of your fondest memories from your time at Purdue?

PAGSIP picnics and parties, Professor Joe Tiffin playing the piano, Midwest Psychology Association conferences, teaching undergrad classes in the Krannert Business School, which solidified my interest in an academic career.

How did your research interests grow, develop, and shift during your time in graduate school? 

There was not high pressure emphasis on conducting publishable research. I got an early publication from one of McCormick’s RAs dealing with the job analysis with the WAP/PAQ, Worker Activity Profile/Position Analysis Questionnaire, then a publication on self- vs supervisor-ratings among managers. Bray and Grant gave a guest lecture on the assessment center research at AT&T that stimulated my interest in the assessment center method.

Was there someone who had a particularly large impact on you (e.g., a mentor) during your time at Purdue? If so, how did they influence you?

I benefited from the influence of multiple sources; there was not a strong “mentor” culture.

Tiffin (PhD advisor): general I/O psychology; gave me lots of freedom

McCormick (MS advisor):  funded research programs; taught me the importance of systematic detailed program of study (PAQ)

Owens: psychometric theory, bio data; the role of individual differences

Weick: nascent “org psych”, the roles of org structure, groups, climate, etc. 

How would you say your personal background and life experiences impacted your research and career?

As a kid, I spent a lot of time with my dad in small job-shops and manufacturing organizations, on the job floor and supervision, where I got insight into working life. My mother took college classes and continually read books. Neither had more than high school formal education. Both inspired me to higher education.

What would you say has been your secret to a successful career? 

No secrets! Choice of engaging work, persistence, and supportive colleagues (including co-workers, grad advisees, and organizational colleagues). Purdue and CSU have given me much freedom to pursue inherent interests.

Looking back, is there anything that you would have done differently in your career?

In grad school I would have taken more research and quant courses. At CSU I would have started a more systematic program of focused research earlier. Aside from my many successful MS and PhD grads, I regret not mentoring more closely one or two advisees (one minority) who needed more earlier systematic developmental assignments.

You have a very diverse career, with experience in both research and applied settings. Of all the work you did, what did you find to be the most fulfilling as an I-O Psychologist?

Using the combination of theory, research, and practice from the perspectives of both the individual and organization to study and advance work performance.

What were some of your favorite projects throughout your career?

In research, studying the quality of the assessment center method.  In practice, applying the assessment center method to selecting/promoting, diagnosing strengths/needs, and developing leadership/management competencies. I have enjoyed studying employment discrimination law and doing expert witness consulting for both plaintiffs and defendants in litigation.

Based on your experience, what advice do you have for managing one’s career?

Find a job that you love so much you would do it even if you did not need to get paid for it. Find a job that lets you grow and pursue diverse topics. 

Throughout your career, I am sure you have witnessed many changes within the field of I-O Psychology. Are there any changes that you think have been particularly beneficial and/or detrimental?

Beneficial: the expansion of “industrial psychology” with the narrow focus on individual differences to “industrial and organizational psychology” with broader focus on both the individual and organizational perspectives.

Detrimental: the movement of so many I/O psychologists to business schools (with admittedly attractive salaries and settings) where many lose their identity. The shift in emphasis in our journals away from practical studies to research reports that are highly abstract, theoretical, statistically sophisticated.

What do you feel are some of the biggest challenges to our field today?

Resisting the pressure to do more, in less time, without adequate empirical support (see the recent article in I/O Perspectives by Rotolo et al.) . This includes the many interventions with the bells and whistles using IT, without evidence to support advantages or mitigate contaminants.

What do you see the role of I-O psychologists being moving forward in today’s society? 

I/O psychologists will continue to play central roles in educational programs, consulting firms, and organizational talent management positions.  I fear they may forgo the basics of core content in psychology and research, and get caught up in the glitch of fads to satisfy only the immediate demands of organizations.

What types of experiences would you recommend that students pursue during graduate school?

I am a traditionalist: Study the core areas of psychology (personality, social, cognitive, etc) and research (design, measurement, data management, stats). Get some organizational experience, but not a lot is needed. Get involved a little in “professional” role activities (e.g., SIOP, SHRM), but don’t get too distracted.

What advice would you give to graduate students struggling between staying in academia and going applied? What are some important things to consider?

Follow your passion. Think carefully about what tasks and activities you are inherently interested in! Consider how much you will sell you soul for? Salaries for consulting are attractive, but do you want the travel and time away from home?  Balance work and life interests. Be careful to say “I’ll do consulting for a while, then go to academia.” Most get sucked into the life style and can’t revert to scholarly pursuits.

What advice do you have for graduate students just starting out in the field?

Review earlier comments: seek a job in which you can do daily tasks which you are inherently interested.  Seek a job you can’t wait to get up in the morning and get to. Seek a job that is play and not work!

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