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Interdisciplinary joint faculty appointments: A guide for psychological scientists and academic administrators

APA’s Board of Scientific Affairs describes best practices for supporting faculty members who cross departmental boundaries.

The Board of Scientific Affairs (BSA) of the American Psychological Association (APA) has produced a guide to assist psychological scientists and administrators in navigating the complexities of interdisciplinary joint faculty appointments at colleges and universities. The wide-ranging guide, titled "Appointment, Tenure, Promotion and Merit Review Considerations for Psychologists with Joint Faculty Appointments and Involvement in Interdisciplinary/Multidisciplinary Research and Scholarship: A Resource Document" (PDF, 648KB), describes principles and best practices for joint appointments for both early career and senior faculty. 

As psychological scientists increasingly pursue interdisciplinary research and teaching, they will have greater opportunities for joint appointments across departments, research centers and schools. Such appointments enable faculty to engage in a broader range of scientific work and professional interactions and can enrich the intellectual life of an institution. 

In psychology and other fields, however, many faculty members and administrators have found that traditional department structures can be obstacles to establishing and maintaining successful joint appointments. Disagreements and misunderstandings can arise between academic units regarding a joint faculty member’s teaching assignments, service expectations, role in graduate admissions and training, salary sources, access to research funds, office and lab space, assessment of publications and promotion criteria. The faculty member is at risk of being caught between conflicting sets of requirements and overburdened with obligations to different units.

To address these concerns, the document emphasizes the need for a detailed memorandum of understanding (MOU) among the faculty member and the academic units involved in the joint appointment. The MOU should address all aspects of the faculty member’s activities and how the academic units will support, oversee and evaluate those activities. One unit can be designated as the faculty member’s “home” with primary responsibility for monitoring adherence to the terms of the MOU. Changes in an MOU can be negotiated as the interests and needs of the faculty member and the academic units evolve. 

For early career faculty, the document recommends that the academic units have a coordinated mentoring program to ensure that the faculty member understands the expectations of both units and receives useful feedback throughout the period leading up to tenure review.  

The document notes that MOUs can also be useful in cases in which a faculty member does not have a formal joint appointment but spends a considerable amount of time collaborating with scientists in other research areas, whether in the same unit or others.  

The document draws ideas from previous materials developed by research and academic organizations on how to facilitate interdisciplinary research and manage joint appointments. An extensive set of references and websites is included. 

Psychologist Jalie Tucker spearheaded development of the document when she served as chair of BSA in 2013. Tucker, who heads the Department of Health Behavior in the School of Public Health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, noted “Addressing complex research questions that have foundational knowledge from several disciplines benefits greatly from a collaborative team science approach. Psychological scientists are vital team members in lead and co-investigator roles, but traditional academic departments and appointments often pose barriers to their involvement. This document provides guidance on how to support their participation in scholarly endeavors that cut across disciplinary boundaries, values, and cultures.”

The Board of Scientific Affairs welcomes comments on the document, including suggestions for possible updates. Comments may be sent to the APA Science Directorate.

Read the guide (PDF, 648KB).