In an ongoing series in which the APS Student Caucus talks with highly recognized professors, Susan Mineka recently shared her views on tips for success and challenges facing graduate students. Mineka is a professor of psychology and program director for the clinical psychology program at Northwestern University. She is renowned for her research on the origins and maintenance of fear and anxiety. Mineka is an APS Fellow, chair of the APS Election Committee, and a member of the APS Board of Directors.
APSSC: What led you to choose psychology as your career path?
MINEKA: I got into psychology a bit accidentally. After dropping another course in my sophomore year at Cornell, I talked my way into an introductory psychology course. I enjoyed it to some extent and got my first A+, so I decided to take more psychology courses. I was considering three different majors at the time and tentatively selected psychology, since I had an intuitive sense that this field had some areas that would be of great interest to me once I learned more.
During my junior year, I took an experimental psychology class with Marty Seligman, and that settled it. It was one of the best courses I’ve ever taken and I became completely fascinated with many aspects of psychology. Marty was a fantastic teacher – he made everything really exciting and interesting. He invited me to work in his lab and it’s all history from there.
APSSC: How did you select your graduate program?
MINEKA: I asked Seligman for advice about where to apply for grad schools. He suggested a number of places that had people doing things he thought I might be interested in, including the University of Pennsylvania where he had done his graduate work. I interviewed at Penn and decided to go there, because there was lots of exciting research going on and there were a number of professors that I thought I might be interested in working with.
APSSC: What were the most and least rewarding aspects of graduate school for you?
MINEKA: At Penn there were a number of outstanding faculty who were very dynamic teachers and who managed to make different areas of psychology exciting and challenging. These included my advisor Richard Solomon, Henry Gleitman, Paul Rozin, Randy Gallistel, Phil Teitelbaum, to name a few. They covered not just specific lines of research, but there was also a focus on the big picture at Penn both historically and currently. This helped me to see the larger issues in a number of different fields to get a sense of how to think beyond an individual experiment or set of experiments to a program of research.
Unfortunately, I think a lot of graduate students don’t necessarily get much of that in graduate school or beyond. Penn also had a fantastic colloquium series. There was constant stimulation not just in your own area, but in other areas, so you got a sense of the field as a whole. Another great thing about Penn was that the professors treated the graduate students like young colleagues. This fostered a sense of confidence that we had important things to contribute to the field.
As for the least rewarding aspects, I’ve managed to forget them over the years.
APSSC: What do you consider to be the most important things you learned in graduate school?
MINEKA: I learned how important it is to get exposed to important and interesting issues in a number of different areas and to approach a problem with ideas in mind for how it fits into a larger picture. Today the field is even more specialized and students often get tied into one area, and they don’t see the importance of learning about other areas, which is unfortunate in my view.
APSSC: What common mistakes do you see graduate students frequently making?
MINEKA: One mistake is losing track of the importance of being somewhat interdisciplinary in their reading and thinking, and another is not remembering the importance of publishing their research. Graduate students should not pass up opportunities that may arise to do review articles and write book chapters with their advisor or someone else. Publication can seem to be a daunting and frustrating process and graduate students have to learn how to deal with possible rejection of their papers and not give up.
APSSC: What do you see for the future of psychology?
MINEKA: Psychology is going in a number of different directions at the same time. I think that it is important to be a specialist to some degree, but to also know the big picture in other related areas. Several decades ago we had the cognitive revolution, and before that the behaviorist revolution, and now we seem to be having the neural revolution. As time goes on I just hope that none of these fields gets lost by the wayside. It is important that they all stay alive and well, because they all have important things to contribute.
APSSC: What do you consider to be the biggest challenges in the field?
MINEKA: The biggest challenge is how to be able to do really good work in your area, but keep your eyes and ears open for links to other areas. This is becoming more and more difficult because there is such a proliferation of journals and books. It is a huge challenge just to keep up in your own area, let alone other areas due to this information overload.
APSSC: If you could design an ideal program for training graduate students, what would it be like?
MINEKA: Graduate students would get exposed to multiple areas, get involved in research very early on, and either work with more than one person or on several different topics with the same person. It is important to get several different kinds of research experiences to get a feel for doing research on multiple topics. Working on more than one topic can also help to sustain your interest, especially when progress on one may be very slow.
APSSC: What do you think are the most important things that graduate students can do to become first-rate researchers?
MINEKA: It is best to work with a first-rate researcher and learn how to do it from them. However, even if you’re not working with a first-rate researcher, I believe you can still become a first-rate researcher by getting a good background in methodology and statistics and by reading and listening to first-rate research.
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?
MINEKA: Ask someone, such as your advisor, who knows something about the field you are interested in, where they think would be really good places to go. If you don’t have an advisor who knows about your areas of interest, you can do your own homework through books about graduate schools.
It is particularly important to do homework about who the professors are at the programs you’re interested in and what they do. Apply to programs where you find the work of several people interesting. Talk to students who are in that program working with those professors and ask them about their experience in the program. Find out what their complaints are and think about whether these are things that you can deal with.