Psychology All-Stars: Robert Levenson

In response to requests for more personal interactions with leaders in psychology, the APS Student Caucus is sponsoring a series of occasional Psychology All-Stars interviews. For the inaugural interview, we are fortunate to have Robert Levenson, APS President-elect, share his personal insights on what it takes to become a first-rate researcher. Levenson is a professor and director of the Institute of Personality and Social Research at the University of California, Berkeley and is a leading expert in the field of emotion.

APSSC: Why did you choose psychology as your career path?
ROBERT LEVENSON: I didn’t have a burning interest in it like some people had. As an undergraduate at Georgetown, I started in a foreign service school, and that wasn’t a good career for me, given the politics of the day. Georgetown had just started a psychology department, and there were some people there who I found interesting, so I gravitated toward that as a major. One thing led to another and it became my career.

APSSC: What were the most and least rewarding aspects of graduate school for you?
RL: I didn’t like graduate school, but I would have to say that the aspect that was most interesting and rewarding for me was being part of a research group that was engaged in planning difficult and ambitious research. Our lab was studying the effects of natural healers and comparing them to trained psychotherapists. I felt like we were pioneering work that hadn’t been done before in psychology. The thing I liked the least were the required courses, most of which I didn’t find as interesting as the research.

APSSC: What do you consider to be the most important thing you learned in graduate school?
RL: I had two influential mentors. One was Hans Strupp, from whom I learned the importance of doing research carefully, going after important questions, and using innovative measures and methods to really get a handle on a phenomenon.

My other mentor was a community psychologist named Les Philips. I did a lot of work with him on community interventions and program development. That experience has turned out to be very useful throughout my career, especially since I’ve gravitated toward responsibilities like running an institute.

APSSC: What common mistakes do you see graduate students frequently making? What are your suggestions for avoiding these mistakes?
RL: Graduate students have a tendency to conduct research that delays gratification. They go after problems they’re not really interested in, thinking that later on they will get to do what they’re really interested in. That rarely happens. Usually where you start defines where you are going to be working for most of your career.

Secondly, graduate students sometimes can pull disaster out of the jaws of victory. They will have a wonderful data set that has all sorts of interesting findings, but they will gravitate to the one area of the data that didn’t support their hypothesis and not be able to back off and see what is really there.

The third thing is not taking advantage of opportunities that only come your way once, such as going to lunch with a visiting speaker or hearing a talk by someone that may never come back to your university.

APSSC: Where do you see the future of psychology? What role do you think graduate students will play in that future?
RL: I see the special role of graduate students as the bees that cross-pollinate the various established influences. The people that create new fields like social neuroscience will be graduate students who are willing to pick up training in both social psychology and neural science and create a synthesis that doesn’t currently exist. You can’t teach old dogs new tricks. The faculty are the old dogs. They have interest in other areas and collaborate with people who work in other areas. But the hybrids, the people who really bridge fields, will be the graduate students who grow up with a foot in both camps. That is going to be true for all the growth areas of psychology. There is going to be a revolution in the way we study psychopathology. There will be a merging between clinical and cognitive areas and clinical and neural areas that we haven’t had before. That will be the only way we will be able to go after interesting problems that have eluded psychologists for generations.

APSSC: What do you consider to be the biggest challenges in the field?
RL: The biggest challenge will be for a scientist to amass the skills necessary to do research on the cutting edge. The bar has really been raised so that people with strong biological backgrounds will have to learn a lot about behavior to do good basic neural research. Also, people who are in traditionally non-biological areas of psychology will need to learn a lot about biological and neural science tools. This era will be dominated by the human genome without a deep understanding of molecular genetics. So the big challenge to do quality and meaningful research will require a much broader kind of knowledge.

APSSC: If you could design an ideal program for training graduate students, what would it be like?
RL: The wonderful thing about graduate students is that they are like water finding its own level. Graduate students tend to move in directions where doors are open. I don’t think we’re ready to train social neuroscientists because I don’t think we have enough superb social neuroscientists from my generation to do that. What we have to do is create training environments where students flow into areas they wouldn’t in more traditional, narrow kinds of training programs.

The ideal environment is where there is interesting, collaborative research going on between different areas of psychology and between psychology and other areas of biological and social science, and where students have opportunities and are encouraged as part of their training to partake of these different tables. Within psychology, one of my pet issues is the practice of reserving clinical research for clinical students. It is silly that cognitive and social psychologists don’t get more exposure to clinical phenomena. Later on, they may do ground-breaking work on clinical disorders. We have to break down barriers and open up doors and encourage students to get diverse training.

APSSC: What do you think are the most important things that graduate students can do to become successful researchers in the field?
RL: The most important thing is to become a first-rate researcher and then success follows. The real question is not how to get a good job or salary or publish a lot of articles, but how to train first-rate researchers. The way to do that is by encouraging [students] to set their aspirations high, go after problems that are deeply meaningful to them, and pursue them in a systematic way.

APSSC: What is the best piece of advice someone gave you when you were in graduate school?
RL: The best advice I received was to make sure that curiosity drove my work as opposed to expediency. Your work should reflect the things you’re curious about, not the things that are convenient.

APSSC: What advice would you give to students who are getting ready to apply for graduate school? What suggestions do you have for choosing a mentor?
RL: Figure out what people are working on and find places where there is research you are excited about and that you would like to be a part of. Talk to people who have been down that path with the mentor you are interested in, and get a sense of whether or not this is a place where you can learn. It’s not any great value to work with a famous hotshot researcher who doesn’t spend time with their students.

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