This is Part II of an interview of Situationist Contributor John Jost by the Association for Psychological Science Student Caucus. Part I is here. This portion of the interview focuses on John’s experience, and advice about, studying psychology.
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APSSC: What suggestions do you have for choosing an area of study within a field as large and diverse as psychology?
Jost: . . . Study something that you are passionate about. It can be something about human behavior that inspires you (like language or creativity or wisdom) or worries you (like our capacity for self-destruction) or simply fascinates you. It should be a fairly big issue or set of questions, but not so big as to be intractable. To sustain yourself over the years, it seems to me that you cannot be working on something just because it hasn’t quite been done yet, nor should it be something that you can imagine being bored by. It may not be part of the stereotype of a scientist, but I think that passion is crucial. My colleague, Yaacov Trope, calls it “fire in the belly.”
APSSC: How did you go about selecting a graduate program?
Jost: Well, that was fairly haphazard. I was an undergraduate student at Duke University at a time (the late 1980s) when there were very good clinical, cognitive, and developmental psychologists but virtually no social psychologists. So I had to rely on pretty indirect advice, and I was only 20 years old when I applied for graduate school. Given all of that, I was tremendously fortunate to have been accepted for admission at Princeton, Yale, Michigan, and Cornell.
Most faculty members I knew at the time advised me to go to Princeton or Michigan, and they had very good reasons for giving that advice. But I felt something especially exciting and worldly and hungry and, yes, passionate when I visited Yale, so I decided to go there, and I’m so glad that I did! In terms of senior faculty, I studied with Bill McGuire (who eventually became my dissertation advisor), Bob Abelson, Leonard Doob, and Bill Kessen, all of whom provided tremendous historical as well as scientific grounding for my thinking. They were brilliant teachers and very different from one another. And the junior faculty at the time included Mahzarin Banaji and Peter Salovey, both of whom were so inspiring, even as assistant professors!
APSSC: What were the most rewarding aspects of graduate school for you?
Jost: There were so many things. It turned out to be a fantastic time to be at Yale in social psychology, although it might not have seemed that way from the outside. The particular constellation of faculty was well-suited to my interests; for instance, there was an interdisciplinary group of political psychologists that met almost weekly for talks, discussions, and group projects.
I was told before going to graduate school that I would learn almost as much from my fellow graduate students as from my professors, and that turned out to be true. At Yale, I “overlapped” with Curtis Hardin, Alex Rothman, Irene Blair, Chris Hsee, Buju Dasgupta, and Jack Glaser, among many others who have gone on to have very successful careers. During the summers (when we were not playing softball), we organized our own reading groups to absorb and discuss 19th and 20th century classics in psychology and philosophy. I think that we were all trying to figure out how we could contribute something lasting.
APSSC: How does a graduate student work toward becoming a first-rate researcher?
Jost: I suppose that it’s some elusive, sublime combination of following the best and most heartfelt advice of one’s mentors; trusting one’s own abilities and insights, even when others do not (yet); asking for help when necessary; identifying interesting and worthwhile problems; persisting stubbornly in a prolonged attempt to solve those problems; and just plain luck.
APSSC: What are some of the common mistakes you see graduate students and young professionals making?
Jost: I would say chasing disciplinary fads instead of engaging a truly interesting and important problem, taking on too many projects before they are ready, discounting the advice of mentors because it differs from their own intuitions or from the advice of fellow students, and thinking they know it all already. I suffered from a few of those mistakes myself.
APSSC: What advice would you give to graduate students who want to have careers in academia?
Jost: Choose research topics that you think will be interesting to you in 5, 10, or 20 years, because it might take that long to obtain profoundly satisfying answers. And prepare yourself to withstand withering criticism until then. Above all, hang in there when you do receive criticism, and figure out what it is that you have to say to the world and how to say it so that people will listen.
APSSC: Writing and publishing are often anxiety provoking events for graduate students. You already have a lot of experience as a writer, editor, and reviewer; what do you know now about this process that you wish you would have known earlier in your career?
Jost: That the first draft is usually the hardest one, that you are not incompetent or necessarily even wrong just because a paper gets rejected, and that persistence and tenacity really pay off in the long run.
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Tomorrow we’ll post a third portion of the interview, including Jost’s discussion of his own pathbreaking research . If you’d like to read the entire interview right away, click here. To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Smart People Thinking about People Thinking about People Thinking,” “Mahzarin Banaji’s Situation,” and “Can’t Get No Satisfaction!: The Law Student’s Job Hunt – Part I, Part II, and Part III,” and “The Bar Exam Situation.”