Champions of Psychology: Stephen J. Ceci

In an ongoing series in which APS Student Caucus talks with leading professors, Stephen J. Ceci shares his advice for success amid the challenges facing graduate students. An APS Fellow, Ceci is among the most internationally influential and well-known developmental psychologists. He holds a lifetime endowed chair in child development at Cornell University, where he also teaches and does research. His studies of children’s suggestibility, intelligence and memory have had a major impact on clinical and forensic practices around the world. Ceci is founding co-editor of Psychological Science in the Public Interest and served on the APS Board of Directors (1996-1999).

APSSC: Your work addresses the testimonial competence and memory accuracy and intelligence of children who have a history of being abused. Can you talk a little about that?

CECI: I don’t do expert testimony work. People sometimes draw from the research of what we do. On decisions made from the Supreme Court down to state and local courts it’s common to see citations to psychological research from varying labs. This is used in legal arenas whenever a child is a key witness. I do research that looks at factors that may influence children, for example, when children become confused about whether they experienced a situation or dreamt about it or if it was suggested to them. We have all sorts of paradigms that we look at which can be used by law enforcement, mental health, or social services when they interview a child for court testimony.

APSSC: What, in your mind, needs to be addressed with regard to the blurring of boundaries between applied, basic, and curiosity-driven research?

CECI: When I was a graduate student, and I suspect this is true with most of my colleagues, we actively stayed away from doing applied research. It was considered less important, less elegant, less intellectual than theory driven research. Over the years, however, it seems to get harder to maintain those boundaries. Often this is implicit; all the researchers know which theories influence the design of the study. But journal pages being at a premium, you don’t give a disquisition in the journal article on the theoretical background of the research. Everyone can see the practical consequences of the research, but most would say you couldn’t have dreamt up that kind of research in the absence of a strong theoretical backdrop. Most of my work, however, is published in basic science journals. The reason it’s in there is because it’s clear to the editors and reviewers that it’s theory driven. They would never publish in, say, the Journal of Experimental General something that was only application. And yet I publish quite a few of my studies in journals like Psychological Review and Psychological Bulletin. It’s interesting to me that when I got the APS Cattell award this year, I noticed that a quarter of the Cattell award winners in the past have also won the William James award. The person who I shared the Cattell award with, Mavis Hetherington, also won the [APS] William James award. And the William James award is given for theoretical contributions, while the Cattell award is given for the application of scientific psychology to real world problems. The fact that one in four are winning both awards suggests that these boundaries have gotten very blurry.

APSSC: What piece of advice would you could give a graduate student today struggling to do first rate research?

CECI: This is something I’ve thought a great deal about because I have a large graduate student lab at Cornell. The vast majority of the students who come to work with me aspire to academic jobs when they get their doctorate. I used to think that the single best piece of advice I could give them was to pursue their passion with all the creativity and energy they could muster. And I still think this is a good idea, but I’ve seen many cases over the years where my graduate students feel defeat from the jaws of victory by only pursuing their passion.

I’ll give you an example: Student A came to Cornell to work with a colleague of mine who is a world leader in her area of research. After being here, student A realized there’s another area more interesting to her than my colleague’s area. Unfortunately, we have no one on our faculty working in student A’s area of interest. So student A knocked on a lot of doors, including mine, asking for advice. I told her she had the opportunity to work with a world class scholar on a topic that still is an interest to her even though it may not be where her current passion is. I emphasized that she had the rest of her life after graduate school to become knowledgeable about her new interest. She, nevertheless, decided to pursue her new interest even though there is no one to supervise her, at least not at Cornell. Since this happened I’ve learned that by encouraging people to go with their passion that we’re not doing them the most good, because knowledge doesn’t stop with the doctorate degree. This has also led me to alter the advice I give my incoming graduate students too. I now tell them if they want to be an academic to pick someone who has an established record of preparing graduate students for the type of position that they desire, and then work with that individual. Even if other areas of research turn out to have greater interest for them, once they have a graduate degree and get a job, this will allow them to pursue any research questions they have. I tell them to do what it takes to prepare for the job market, to recognize that they have the rest of their life to pursue their passion, but to get the job that allows for that kind of flexibility.

APSSC: What would your impression be, as someone serving on a graduate academic committee, of an undergraduate applying to graduate school who had good GRE scores, good grades, but only a vague idea of what their psychological career interests were?

CECI: I’ve chaired graduate admissions at least 10 times and I can tell you this is a very tricky question. Your GREs could be high, your grades could be high, your letters could be ‘walk on water’ letters, but if your personal statement says “I haven’t quite made up my mind about the area I want to pursue in graduate school,” I suspect that most graduate admissions committees would be negatively inclined. The other side is that it’s honest and realistic for some undergraduates applying to graduate school not to have solidified their area of interest, and to force them to do so is, in a way, crazy. They’re going to change their interest from what they put in that personal statement because they’re going to be open to new and exciting things. They are, unfortunately, cast in a rigid mold until they get accepted to graduate school, but in the meantime they have to act like they know what they want.

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