In an ongoing APS Student Caucus series of conversations with distinguished professors, Susan T. Fiske recently shared her advice for success and challenges facing graduate students. Fiske is a professor of psychology at Princeton University and an APS Past President. She is renowned for her research on stereotyping and prejudice of outgroups and across different cultures.
APSSC: What led you to choose psychology research as a career?
FISKE: I observed my own behavior! I looked at my grades and realized I was better at it than other subject areas. A simple case of Bem’s self-perception theory.
In truth, it was probably over-determined. My father was an eminent personality psychologist, and I resisted majoring in psychology because I didn’t want to do it just because he did. So I tried several other majors and came back to psychology when I realized it would be equally dumb not to do it just because he did. Especially if I was good at it.
My mother is a long-time civic activist, so my interest in social justice doubtless comes from her.
I also worked as a research assistant for a year after college. I found I liked the nitty-gritty of research; every profession has its grunt work, and some people say you pick the profession whose grunt work you mind the least.
APSSC: How did you select your graduate program?
FISKE: I was doing a clinical case-study senior thesis that was not going very well, and a graduate student told me I could work on research as a volunteer in someone’s lab. This was news to me. I had the good fortune to pick Shelley Taylor and for her to accept me; we got along well, the research was successful, and I was hooked. Although I applied widely, it made sense to stay at Harvard because I had established a good working relationship with my advisor. Also, there were other people I wanted to work with. It’s important to have more than one potential advisor in any program you choose.
APSSC: What were the most and least rewarding aspects of graduate school for you?
FISKE: I loved the variety of activities involved. You get to think about ideas; you get to think about people and why they do what they do; you get to design a situation and engage in stagecraft; you get to do statistics; you get to write; and you get to interact with people about all these things in a collaborative environment with shared goals: the advancement of knowledge and betterment of humanity. Also, I liked both learning and teaching.
What I liked the least was people competing with each other. Envy. I hated that. There’s room for everyone to have a unique role, and it’s not really a zero-sum game.
APSSC: What common mistakes do you see graduate students making?
FISKE: Enjoy graduate school. You have to like what you’re doing now, because there is enough set-back, grief, and annoyance that you need your love of the activities to keep you going.
It’s also important to do your personal best. That means two things. First, you have to give it everything you’ve got. The work you do your first few years is most likely to be what’s publishable by the time you are looking for a job. So trust your advisor and work hard. People sometimes think they have to have the Next Big Idea in their first year. It won’t happen. Just work with your advisor, and keep your nose to the research grindstone. People sometimes worry too much about classes; you have to do adequately, but the research is more important.
Second, the field is competitive in some ways (the marketplace of ideas, a particular job opening), but it is cooperative and collaborative in more important ways. There is room for many ideas, and there is always another job, somehow, some way.
APSSC: What advice would you give to undergraduate students who are applying to graduate school or preparing to do so?
FISKE: Get some research experience to see if you really like it. Also, when you consider what interests you, don’t just study your own personal problem or your own group. Think more broadly: What’s the big picture that will benefit people like you and others as well, and the growth of the science? Write about both in your essay and show it to a professor for feedback. Get letters from faculty who are relevant to the field you want to pursue. Make sure you can demonstrate good quantitative skills, either on the GRE or in a class; take a summer or evening class to prove it, if necessary. Prepare to work really hard.
APSSC: What suggestions do you have for choosing a mentor?
FISKE: Obviously, you have to be interested in what your mentor does. But you don’t have to plan a career in precisely what your mentor does. Over time, you will mold those interests to your own. It’s also important to have some chemistry. You’re going to spend a lot of time together, some rewarding, and some frustrating.
Finally, ask the person’s previous advisees about their experience. If the person has a generally bad reputation (not just from one disgruntled complainer), pay attention. There is consistency in behavior.
APSSC: What advice would you give to graduate students on how to become first-rate researchers?
FISKE: Work hard. Think about your ideas in the shower or on the way to work. Keep an eye on the big picture. I recently wrote a paper on how to develop a research program in Sansone, Morf, and Panter’s research methods handbook, another on sources of theoretical ideas in PSPR, and another on how to recognize a good idea, in Psych Inquiry. All three are linked to my Web site [http://webscript.princeton.edu/~psych/PsychSite/ns_fiske.html]. Also, buy and read Roediger, Darley, and Zanna’s Compleat Academic. It’s full of great advice for all career stages.
APSSC: What advice would you give to graduate students who want to have careers in academia?
FISKE: Work hard, trust your advisor, network, go to conferences, and be patient. If you hang in there, you will eventually get some publications and find a job. But make sure you enjoy the process. Your life is now as well as later.
APSSC: What do you see as the future of psychology?
FISKE: I see the need for really competent specialists who also learn about adjacent fields and are open to interdisciplinary collaboration. The theme of my APS Presidential Columns was interdisciplinary inspiration. It’s not easy. Both sides have to be open to the other. (Read Fiske’s Presidential Columns at www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/.)
APSSC: What do you consider to be the biggest challenges in the field?
FISKE: Surviving ideological attacks on basic science. I have a friend who works on HIV transmission in under-represented populations, and his grants were site-visited five times in one year, probably because the work has to investigate sexual practices outside the mainstream. That’s harassment, looking for excuses to pull funding.
Another example is the effort to intervene in scientific peer review, again for ideological reasons. We create the best science from peer review, revision, and re-review. Quality control comes best from other experts. It’s hard to get funded or published; there’s no evidence of cronyism. But there are efforts to undermine basic science for political reasons, and this worries me. It’s important for all psychological scientists to communicate the value of our basic research to lay people and to vote our conscience.
APSSC: If you could design the ideal program for training graduate students, what would it be like?
FISKE: Princeton. Just kidding. There are lots of good programs with different emphases, more or less applied, more or less structured, more or less quantitative training, bigger or smaller. There’s no one ideal program.