Faculty turnover gives psychology fresh face

A spate of hires and departures of psychology faculty has changed the face of one of the most popular departments at Yale.

This year and next, the Psychology Department welcomes five new junior faculty — a group more than 20 percent the size of the entire department — in response to a large number of faculty departures in recent years. In the last three years the department has lost about seven faculty members for a variety of reasons, said department chair Frank Keil. The turnover is invigorating the department with youth and fresh research directions, according to psychology faculty. This year brings Yarrow Dunham, David Rand and Gregory Samanez-Larkin, while next summer Steve Chang and Avram Holmes will join the ranks.

Despite hiring five new faculty, the Psychology Department is searching for two new professors this year — the only department in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences authorized for new faculty searches this year, Deputy Provost for Science and Technology Steve Girvin said. The recent departures of two senior clinical psychologists has left the department with an “acute” need for replacements in those positions. Psychology also teaches the most undergraduates per ladder faculty in all of the sciences and is still undersized relative to past years’ numbers and its peer departments in other institutions, Keil said.

“I think the department was very strong before, albeit in need of more people, and we are in that exactly same position now, but it’s a very different department,” said psychology professor Brian Scholl. “The foci have shifted a little bit — we have new exciting frontiers.”

 

AN OPEN SEARCH

While many faculty searches are for specific positions — clinical or social psychology, for instance — all five searches were open searches within the department, Keil said. For Keil, the open search gave the search committee the ability to search for academics doing the most interesting psychology research instead of going in with a preconceived notion of what type of research interests would best suit the department.

Scholl, who served on the search committees, said the open searches were the first in the department in his 12 years on faculty. He said the committee received more than 350 applications for the final three faculty slots.

“The people we ended up hiring do things like the study of aging and the study of cooperation in economic contexts,” Scholl said. “We let ourselves through this process be surprised, be captured by types of excellence that we might not have had the insight to look for, and I think the outcome was very positive.”

All four psychology faculty interviewed said the new members bring an infusion of youth and new research directions to the department.

While three of the five new faculty — Holmes, Chang and Samanez-Larkin — regularly use neuroscience techniques in their psychology research, Keil said he does not think this development represents a department shift toward neuroscience. Keil said the new hires do not represent a unifying intellectual direction for the psychology faculty, but rather a range of inquiry across psychology.

“We have been very fortunate to get five spectacular people who really complement the rest of the department beautifully and bring all sorts of new ideas and interesting interests but also intersect with so many of us,” he said. “We are very, very pleased with this group.”

Psychology professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies Laurie Santos said the new hires bolster the neuroscience teaching and research the department can offer.

These hires represent research interests from an array of emerging trends in the field, psychology professor Tyrone Cannon said. In particular, many of the new faculty link traditional areas of psychology — like cognitive and social — and neuroscience methods to understand the connection between mental processes and brain mechanisms, he said.

 

WITH CONTINUED NEEDS, SEARCHING ON

On Jan. 2, department chair and clinical psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema passed away from complications from heart surgery. At the end of the spring semester, professor of clinical psychology Kelly Brownell left Yale to become the dean of Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. The two departures left the department in need of clinical psychology expertise.

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences Steering Committee recently met with the chairs of the divisional committees and acknowledged the needs of the Psychology Department to continuing hiring, Girvin said. The three largest classes taught by psychology faculty this semester have nearly 1,000 undergraduate enrollment total.

“There was a recognition that if there was going to be one department to do the searches, it should be psychology, both for their research needs and because of their impact on Yale College teaching,” Girvin said.

The department was authorized the only two new faculty search slots in all of Yale this year, and Keil said they are focusing on recruiting clinical psychologists to fill the holes left by Nolen-Hoeksema and Brownell. The target size for psychology faculty is “definitely substantially larger” than it is now, Keil said. Many psychology faculty said the historical numbers of the psychology department are larger than the current ranks, and Cannon said that target figure would be in the high twenties, about 20 percent greater than the department’s current size.

Bolstering faculty ranks would allow the department to teach more students, engage them in research and expand graduate training, Keil said.

Santos said hiring more faculty would allow many teachers in the department to spend more time in the classroom instead of fulfilling administrative duties. For instance, her current post as psychology DUS has prevented her from teaching her highly-regarded “Sex, Evolution, and Human Nature” course.

“We would like to grow, but we would like to do it in a responsible way and in keeping with the institution’s resource base,” Cannon said. “Hopefully the economy will continue to recover and the university finds the resources to do those searches in the future.”

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