Faculty Close-Up

Most of us understand that  university faculty teach, conduct research, and engage in service. But how do these duties play out in a typical faculty member’s workday?  The new feature section, Faculty Close-Up,  will introduce readers  to some of the most interesting faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences.  Each issue will  offer a snapshot  view of an unscripted day in the life of a university professor from a different discipline.  Read and discover what attracted these bright and talented individuals to academic life and what fuels their passionate pursuit of knowledge.

A Day in the Life of Professor of Psychology Deborah Welsh

Dr. Deborah Welsh, professor of psychology and director of the Clinical Psychology Program at UTK

Dr. Deborah Welsh, professor of psychology and director of the Clinical Psychology Program at UTK

Ever since she worked in a camp for emotionally disturbed children at age sixteen, Deborah Welsh has been fascinated by the world of adolescent psychology. At an early age, she planned to follow in the footsteps of her father and two aunts who were clinical psychologists, but part of her also wanted to be a teacher like her mother. Then, as a sophomore in college, she was inspired by her psychology mentor to devote her life to research and teaching. From that point on, she has never considered any other career.

Today, Welsh is an accomplished professor in the Department of Psychology and director of the Clinical Psychology Program at UTK. She has been engaging UT students in adolescent psychology research and learning for eighteen years. The thing that keeps her going is knowing she is making a difference in the lives of students and contributing to research that will be helpful to society in some way. As we follow a typical day in her life, we will see just how fulfilling her work is.

At six o’clock in the morning, Welsh wakes up to the sound of her alarm, gets ready for work, reads the newspaper while eating breakfast, and leaves the house by 7:02 a.m. to drop her son off at the bus stop. Two days a week she goes to TRECS on campus to run and lift weights, but today she goes straight to the office to get a head start on her day.

I meet her in the Austin Peay Building at 7:45 and take a seat in her cozy office filled with hundreds of books, an old television and VCR player for watching therapy sessions, pictures of her family and students, and drawings given to her by her children.

Her first task of the day is checking email and responding to any emergencies that popped up over night; as director of the clinical program, she receives all student, faculty, and administration inquiries. Then she earnestly logs on to the Programs Abroad Web site to see if enough students admitted to the adolescent psychology course she will be teaching in Greece this summer have secured their spot with a deposit.

“As long as I have been teaching undergraduate adolescent psychology, this will be my first time teaching it abroad,” says Welsh enthusiastically. “I hope to be able to incorporate the importance of culture and the multidisciplinary approaches to understanding adolescent development into my curriculum this year.”

Next, Welsh works on finalizing the agenda for the clinical faculty meeting she leads every Friday. She pulls out her iPod touch to check her calendar and take note of any upcoming events. “Next Friday is going to be a very busy day,” she says, adding notes to her list. “Not only is it visiting day, when thirty-five applicants will come to interview for the seven open spots in our clinical psychology program, but it is also match day, when upper-level doctoral students will find out if they are chosen for an internship.”

Welsh says that 25 percent of graduate students nationwide will not get matched this year due to limited spaces, but she is confident that most, if not all, of her students will match, given the program’s excellent track record [and all eight were matched!].

After she finalizes the agenda, she checks email again, sets up a meeting to observe the class of a junior colleague who is a candidate for tenure, and completes a stack of undergraduates’ grad school recommendation forms. Then, she grabs her notebook and heads down the hall.

Welsh joins about eight other faculty members as they file into the meeting room promptly at nine o’clock. After they greet each other and get settled, Welsh leads the discussion of clinical program business. One important item on today’s agenda is voting to change a course that was mistakenly listed as unrepeatable. The process of changing this error could take a year and a half. Then they discuss student petitions, nominations for grad school fellowships, and plans for visiting day.

After the meeting, Welsh stops by the Psychology Clinic to say good morning to the graduate students. The clinic offers quality mental health services to students and residents of the surrounding community at affordable, sliding-scale fees. Doctoral students perform these services under the supervision of fully licensed clinical psychologists such as Welsh.

“I feel like I’m doing my job as a mentor when I help [students] get noticed.”

Welsh returns to her office at half past ten for an advising appointment with an undergraduate psychology major. Welsh makes sure the student is on track to graduate in December and helps her decide which psychology classes to take to fulfill her requirements.

Then she carves time out of her calendar for a meeting with an undergraduate student who is exploring authorship for a project in her English class and wishes to interview Welsh on the topic. Welsh has authored more than 41 peer-reviewed publications on her research spanning adolescent romantic relationships, adolescent interactions with family members, and adolescent transitions into adulthood; and she has served as a peer reviewer for several journals. She is happy to share her insights into the process.

Welsh believes that everyone who contributes to a research idea in a substantial way has authorship. Therefore, several graduate students are listed as co–authors on Welsh’s publications because they worked collaboratively with her to conduct the research project. “The more ways I can involve my students in publications, the more opportunities they have for their future, and I feel like I’m doing my job as a mentor when I help them get noticed.”

She goes on to explain that everyone from the person who writes the grant proposal to the person who enters data plays an important role in the research process. When she was in a research lab as an undergraduate, she had the unusual and wonderful opportunity to share an office with her psychology mentor. “I got to observe what she did every minute of the day, and it changed my life,” says Welsh. And like her mentor, Welsh hopes to be an inspiration to her students.

At noon, she grabs an 8-ounce cup of organic yogurt (she brings one for me, too) and heads to the lab to continue with her mentorship of students even through the lunch hour. Five undergraduates and five doctoral students gather in the room with snacks to share for lunch and find a seat in the circle of chairs.

They talk about news in the department and upcoming events, and then they jump into discussion on the progress of two of their current research projects conducted by undergraduate students, which they are planning to enter in the Exhibition of Undergraduate Research and Creative Achievement (EUReCA) competition, held in March.

Welsh converses with graduate students about their internship placements for next year.

Welsh got the idea for the larger project last year when she learned the alarming report that more than one-third of first-time, first-year students who enroll at UTK do not graduate from the university within six years. “I wanted to get insight into why this was happening,” says Welsh, who is always looking for new and interesting research projects regarding adolescents. “Several of my graduate students were also interested in the effects of technology and social networking on students, so together we created this study.”

Last fall, Welsh and the students in the lab collected data on the aspirations, expectations, and family history of first-year freshmen. They met with these students six times over the course of the year and kept a log of their phone calls and texting to friends, parents, and romantic partners. Recently, they have been entering the collected data into the analytical software SPSS to examine the correlations between communication and the freshman transition into college.

But the undergraduate students have encountered an obstacle: SPSS does not allow them to analyze incomplete surveys. Welsh has a solution, and they move from the meeting room to a computer in their laboratory where she and the graduate students show them how to use the SPSS software to conduct imputations and generate results based on the completed answers. Now they will not have to discard the partially completed surveys.

At two o’clock, Welsh has a confidential meeting with three clinical graduate students, so I have to leave the room. Three times a week, they meet to discuss their clinical appointments with licensed clinical psychologist supervisors and watch tapes from their therapy sessions with clients. Welsh helps them conceptualize their clients’ problems and plan their future therapy directions.

I rejoin Welsh an hour later for a meeting with the director of the Counseling Psychology Program and a distinguished lecturer of psychology. They talk about how to implement a new 500-level course called Personality, Affect and Cognition into the curriculum in order to maintain accreditation requirements of the American Psychological Association for their two accredited programs, clinical psychology and counseling psychology, and to better prepare their students for their licensure.

Then Welsh returns to her office to meet with an undergraduate student who is researching the career path of a clinical psychologist for a class. Even though this student has not declared a psychology major, Welsh finds it important to help her understand the role psychology can play in the world.

“To get paid to do research and teach is the perfect job for me because it combines my two loves—learning and mentoring,” she explains to the student. “I still like clinical work and I practice about three hours a week, but there is so much variety in teaching and supervising students.”

But a career in psychology is not for everyone. Welsh explains that someone wanting to pursue a job like hers has to be a critical thinker, a good writer, an ethical and conscientious person, a collaborative worker, and an excellent communicator. She encourages the student to get involved in a research lab to see if a psychology major is right for her.

“Although my role as a professor is very demanding, the work is very rewarding…”

After her meeting, Welsh responds to her emails again, and then she wraps up for the day. Some days, she does not leave the office until 7:00 p.m., but today she leaves a little early to go pick up her two children, Rachel, 16, and Ben, 12, and head to Chattanooga for the weekend to watch her husband, Chris, coach the ornithology team of the Bearden Middle School Science Olympiad as they compete in the regional tournament.

“I really value my family time, but sometimes it’s a challenge to find balance between meeting the needs of students, clients, colleagues and family,” she says. The job of a professor is not confined to an eight-to-five timeframe, or even to a forty-hour work week. Inevitably, work spills out into other parts of Welsh’s life, as it does for all faculty.

What kind of work occupies Welsh’s weekends and evenings? In the present, Welsh, a senior faculty member who is approved to direct graduate student research, is completely immersed in five student theses and dissertations, which involves reading and critiquing the student’s work, offering direction and meeting with the student and other faculty members on the thesis and dissertation committees. She is chairing two of these dissertations and serving as a committee member for the other three.

I note sections in the CV that detail institutional and professional service, and I ask Welsh about her work in these areas. I learn that senior faculty such as Welsh are expected to be university citizens and contribute to the governance and administration of the college and university. In this capacity, Welsh serves on numerous campus committees—the one at the moment that is consuming many hours of her time is the search committee for the Dean of Arts and Sciences. She also serves on the College of Arts and Sciences Budget and Planning Committee, the Executive Committee for the Psychology Department, and numerous other committees and projects.

Beyond campus, Welsh is a leader in professional organizations as well. For example, she is on the editorial board of the Journal of Family Psychology and provides ad hoc reviews for many other journals. She served as the chair of a review panel for submissions for the past meeting of the Society for Research on Adolescence.

While Welsh earned tenure some years ago, she continues to have annual reviews in which she is evaluated on her research productivity and publications, teaching, and service. To be an effective teacher and to guide student research effectively, Welsh must continue to be a learner herself, to stay abreast of the current literature in her field, and to maintain an active and productive research program.

Although not all of Welsh’s obligations and activities are immediately evident in today’s calendar and activities, the pressure is there, and I sense her life operates at a high-energy pace. Yet she patiently focuses on the students’ needs as they meet with her and is attentive to my queries as I shadow her throughout the day.

Finally, I ask how she manages so many pressures and demands while appearing so calm and unhurried. Welsh explains that she seeks to live a life that embraces values that are important to her personally and professionally. It is important to her to be “present in the moment.”

“When I have set aside time for someone, whether a student or my children, I give that person my undivided attention and act as if they are the only person in the world at that moment,” Welsh says. “This helps me give my best to the people who depend on me, whom I care about.” The same holds true for her tasks.

Welsh is by nature an organized person and uses calendar tools to manage her many responsibilities to achieve some level of balance in her life. She confesses that sometimes she just has to get away from it all, and those times may take her to a Lady Vols game with her family or a brief retreat with her Kindle to lose herself in a good novel. As we wrap up the day, I sense that Welsh is in the right place doing what she is meant to do. “Although my role as a professor is very demanding, the work is very rewarding, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” she says.

—Sara Collins Haywood