Student Notebook

Psychology All-Stars with Paul Ekman

RECENTLY, PAUL EKMAN shared words of wisdom on pathways to success for graduate students. Ekman is a professor of psychology in the department of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco Medical School, and is renowned for his work on emotion and interpersonal deception.

APSSC: Why did you choose psychology?

PAUL EKMAN: I was studying Freud in a course on rhetoric and was very intrigued. My goal then was to be a psychoanalytic psychotherapist. I didn’t change that goal until after I got my PhD. I was drafted in the army where there weren’t a lot of opportunities to do psychotherapy, but there were many research opportunities where I could change how the army did things for the better.

APSSC: How did you select your graduate program?

EKMAN: I applied to be a psychotherapist and everyone turned me down with the exception of Adelphi University, who at that time wanted to train clinicians to practice.

APSSC: What were the most and least rewarding aspects of graduate school for you?

EKMAN: The most rewarding aspects were interacting with some of my fellow students and receiving diverse clinical experiences with a lot of good supervision. The least rewarding aspect was that I didn’t get much research training until my postdoctoral fellowship.

APSSC: What do you consider to be the most important thing you learned in graduate school?

EKMAN: I learned a great deal about personality and projective tests, clinical diagnoses, and psychotherapy, even though I don’t really use any of those things now.

APSSC: What common mistakes do you see graduate students frequently making? How can they be avoided?

EKMAN: There are two big mistakes. One is working with just one particular professor or in one particular area. It is unfortunate that there isn’t more flexibility for graduate students to change their advisor or area of research.

The second mistake is that graduate students tend to have aspirations that are way beyond their capacity. They take on projects that could take five or six years to complete. Graduate students should have more modest dissertation goals and realize that any one study is just a piece of the problem.

APSSC: Where do you see the future of psychology?

EKMAN: My personal belief is that the biological side of psychology will come to be thoroughly integrated with every other aspect of psychology. The late Richard Lazarus said, “I don’t need to understand the brain, I need to understand the mind.” This represents the old way of thinking. In the future, I think that the whole biological system, not just the brain, will be a substrate of every field of psychology as opposed to the split that currently exists.

APSSC: What is the biggest challenges facing psychology?

EKMAN: The biggest challenge will be for psychology to regain its history. There was a lot of interesting work done in the 1920s, 30s, 40s, and 50s that has been forgotten. We keep reinventing the wheel and losing interesting ideas, methods, and findings. We need to reestablish a tradition of scholarship that has unfortunately disappeared in graduate training.

APSSC: If you could design an ideal program for training graduate students, what would it be like?

EKMAN: It would have year-long courses in neural science, genetics, statistics, development, personality, and social psychology, and all of these courses would overlap. Also, students would complete year-long research projects working with two different faculty members from two different areas of psychology, prior to their dissertation.

APSSC: What do you think are the most important things that graduate students can do to become first-rate researchers?

EKMAN: Become better acquainted with the old literature and work with first-rate researchers.

APSSC: What is the best piece of advice someone gave you when you were in graduate school?

EKMAN: Don’t think of your dissertation as the last study you will ever do. Get it done quickly and efficiently. I completed my dissertation from start to finish in six weeks.

APSSC: What advice would you give to students who are getting ready to apply for graduate school?

EKMAN: Pick a school with multiple strengths, because your interests may change. In picking a mentor, look at who that person has trained and what kind of jobs they have. There are some first-rate faculty members who have not turned out excellent researchers. Look for someone who has a good success rate.

Observer Vol.17, No.3 March, 2004

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