Why Did You Study Psychology?

Why did psychology’s leading researchers take that first course? Was it the compelling advice of a master? Perhaps a sudden epiphany?

There’s a story behind every good psychologist. A cross-section of psychologists were asked to share their stories and illuminate the heart of this careerma king decision.

This series showcases the paths of psychologists in various disciplines from around the world.

Dusty Roads to Ivory Towers

Bonnie Strickland
University of Massachusetts-Amherst
PhD, 1962

WHEN I GRADUATED from high school in the mid 1950s, few poor Southern kids, black or white, were going to college. In fact, most of my countless cousins never finished high school. I loved school and always dreamed of college, although my mother warned me not to get my hopes up, since no money was available. She assumed I would get married and get a job like everyone else in my neighborhood.

Bonnie Strickland
Bonnie Strickland

Never being one to follow my mom’s advice, I connived with my high school physical education teacher to apply for athletic scholarships and part time jobs at her old college – a school only slightly more imaginative than its name – Alabama College. I was offered half time scholarships and a job waiting tables to cover the $536 yearly cost of tuition, fees, health care, and laundry.

Like my mentor, I happily enrolled in health, physical education, and recreation. I took swimming, tennis, golf, basketball, fly casting, and camp craft. If a sport was available, I was there. In fact, I took over 90 hours of physical education, but never a course in math, statistics, physics, chemistry, or foreign language. I had five hours of history and a few courses in English, and I enjoyed biology, especially the kinesiology course in which I dissected a cadaver.

I also had some interest in psychology and became friends with Herbert Eber, first on the tennis court and then in the class he taught on psychological testing. We often drove over dusty Alabama roads to various state facilities, such as the school for the deaf or blind, where I helped with testing. I’m sure that I gave more tests as a physical education major than I ever did as a graduate student in psychology. We also visited the Veteran’s Hospital to see my Uncle John, and I quizzed Eber incessantly on what caused schizophrenia.

Eber encouraged me to take some tests – intelligence, vocational, etc. – and began talking to me about the possibilities of graduate school. I told him I was intereseted in philosophy and he kindly urged me to “think some more.” I came up with English; he countered with psychology. At this time I knew two professional psychologists (the faculty) and five psychology majors, and my initial reaction was that psychologists were weird. He said I would fit right in. Finally, as my high school teacher had helped me fill out forms for college, Eber helped fill out applications for graduate school in clinical psychology. Julian Rotter gave me a research assistantship at Ohio State, and I left the back roads of Alabama for the ivory tower.

Psychology, Love, and Rock’ n’ Roll

Michael Gill
Lehigh University
PhD, 1998

I HAD ALWAYS THOUGHT I would be a rock star. I began drumming as a young child. My brothers – Kevin and Brian – are amazing musicians (guitar and bass/voice, respectively). We formed a band as pre-adolescents. As adolescents, we met our “fourth brother,” Dustin (guitar/bass). We grew our hair, pursued more “serious music,” and played professionally for years. The other guys are professional musicians. I am a social-personality psychologist. What happened?

Michael Gill
Michael Gill

To stick together, the guys and I attended University of North Carolina-Charlotte. Consistent with stereotypes of rock drummers, my major was … accounting! What was my reasoning? If there was any (doubtful), it was that my high school accounting teacher knew that I was not really sick every Friday, but did not pursue the matter. Therefore, accountants must be cool! Dustin joined me in the accounting department, where our waist-length hair and bare feet made us instant attractions.

Junior year, I met Melissa Plesh. Sparks flew and we became constant companions. Years later, we are married with a beautiful and amazing 21-month-old daughter, Meara. Shortly after our meeting, Melissa suggested I take a class – personality – with her. Without this (seemingly inconsequential at the time) invitation, I would not have become a psychologist. Personality was taught by Rich Tedeschi, and the course provided a vehicle apart from music with which to explore my inner life. We explored the roots of anxiety, alienation, and pessimism – my erstwhile friends – that had been unearthed by psychoanalysts, existentialists, and other very deep people. I was hooked and became a psychology major.

Although I fell in love with psychology (and Melissa) in Rich’s class, my desire to be a psychologist was heightened by the wonderful mentoring of others at UNC-Charlotte. Critically, I took an assessment course with Charles Kaplan. Beyond being a fantastic teacher and scholar, Charles was a warm and caring person, and he hired me to work in his lab. Charles was highly encouraging and single-handedly got me focused on graduate school. Also, I took a terrific social psychology course with Arnie Cann. We explored conformity, obedience, and rationalization topics that spoke to the former cynic in me. I began to lean toward social-personality psychology.

Arnie provided wise advice regarding graduate programs. I visited several. When I arrived in Austin, Dan Gilbert picked me up and, within minutes, we were drinking beer and talking philosophy. Next, I met Bill Swann, who shared his profound insights into the self. These amazing people, in conjunction with a disc golf game played with the graduate students, persuaded me to attend the University of Texas. At Texas, I collaborated with Dan, Bill, and Bob Josephs, another intellectual powerhouse and one of the most unique and hilarious people I know. My understanding and appreciation of psychology deepened tremendously, thanks to the super-charged intellectual environment created by faculty and students. After five years, I accepted a position at Lehigh University. This fall, I submitted tenure materials. Now, I wait nervously. Would the guys still have me as their drummer?

The Decision

Virginia O’Leary
Auburn University
PhD, 1969

I WROTE MY COLLEGE ESSAY in the fall of my senior year of high school. In it I declared my intention to double major in philosophy and religion. I thought I wanted to be an ordained minister. The fact that the Methodist Church did not ordain women was a problem, but I was sure it could be surmounted. Four years at a private school for girls in New England had bolstered my self-efficacy.

Virginia O'Leary
Virginia O’Leary

I took a general philosophy course, followed by one in existentialism. My zeal for religion eroded. Then I took comparative religions – same God, same stories, and a lot of self-deception, I opined. But, what major should I declare? I thought about history, but I was convinced that there was little left to be discovered, and the thought of spending endless hours pouring over ancient manuscripts looking for undiscovered smudges in the margins on which I could attain tenure was unappealing. I wanted to spend my life in the academy – so I knew a doctorate loomed. Of course, I was totally unaware that intellectual history would soon blossom. Had I known that the history of kings and queens was about to be replaced by the study of the common man (and woman), I might have majored in history.

I thought about political science, but constitutional law was required and the reputation of the professor who taught it was formidable. Anthropology fascinated me, but the small women’s college I attended offered only one course. I had enjoyed both psychology courses that I took in my first three semesters – then I took social psychology and I was hooked. The course was taught by Robert Hood, one of Muzafer Sherif’s PhD’s. Bob had been a graduate student “counselor” at Robber’s Cave. I was entranced by his account of that extraordinary field experiment.

But the missionary zeal of my upbringing argued for clinical training. I read Freud, Jung, Adler, and Rogers. I hesitated in the face of the statistic requirement; and, as it was only offered once a year, I missed the opportunity to enroll in the fall of my sophomore year. Senior theses were mandatory and in psychology that meant an original empirical study. To take the year-long course in research methods as a junior, I had to fulfill the statistics prerequisite. Summer school was the only alternative. And, the only summer schools I could find that used the required text were Harvard and Cornell. Summer in Boston was appealing. Surely a Dean’s List student could survive stat, I mistakenly thought. Julian Stanley was the visiting professor, and introductory statistics held little interest for him – he lectured from mimeographed handouts and the material he covered was very advanced. We struggled.

Midway through a very tough course in research methods I had an epiphany. I was much more interested in why people behaved as they did than in supporting their efforts to change. Suddenly my future direction was crystal clear. I became a researcher, a social psychologist. I could not wait to graduate. I viewed my senior year in college as an irritating obstacle to the real goal.

In September of 1965 I entered the doctoral program in social psychology at Wayne State University. In June of 1969 I was awarded my degree. At last, I thought, my life would be perfect. Imagine my surprise when I realized it was not that simple!

Still, I have never regretted my decision. In the 35 years that have passed since I entered the field there have been many changes. The most significant is the increased appreciation for the interaction between biological predispositions and situational determinants of behavior. I continue to find it the most interesting lens through which to view human behavior and have never regretted that decision I made in 1963.

Serendipity or Destiny

Stuart Smith
Pee Dee Regional Center
PhD, 1983

ALTHOUGH MY MENTORS and colleagues generally believe that it was only my “life long” passion for psychology and their inspiration that led me along the scientist/ practitioner path, I have a confession to make. True, they have done a fine job helping me develop strong, objective, scientific skepticism about nearly all beliefs. And, true, they have instilled in me an appreciation of choice, responsibility, and free will. Still, a soft voice occasionally asks whether my career only reflects good decisions and fortuitous “serendipity,” or includes a touch of “destiny.”

Stuart Smith
Stuart Smith

To begin, I never even knew there was a psychology until I began an undergraduate major in engineering and chose an intro psychology course as an elective. I had little aptitude for the former and little interest in the latter. But soon the clinical areas aroused my interest, and I chose psychology as a new major. Unfortunately, I was ignorant of postgraduate needs and the GRE exam, and was unprepared for both. During senior year, my new advisor described my grades and GRE scores as very good – but not good enough to get me into a good doctoral program. This, compounded with the Vietnam War and my low draft number, was bad news. Luckily I failed a rigid Air Force pre-enlistment vision exam, quickly applied to a master’s degree program in clinical psychology, was accepted despite applying late, and received an educational deferment. Unfortunately, after graduating, the war continued but my deferment did not. However, in a timely turn of events, the Supreme Court made a ruling that allowed me to apply for conscientious objector status; and in a strange twist of fate, my draft board agreed. Grateful, I offered to do alternative service in a mental hospital. When allowed to do clinical rather than custodial work, it seemed that my “lucky star” was still with me.

In my five years there I experienced a wide variety of people. This included those with mental retardation, for whom I developed a real interest. “Luckily,” when I applied to doctoral programs, the only one to offer research and teaching fellowship money was the one with a specialty in mental retardation. Over the next 25 years a series of lucky coincidences ensued in similar fashion, which lead to the occasional question, “How much of my life has been the result of fortuitous serendipity, and how much destiny?”

In a practical and personal sense, the answer matters little. I’ve been happy with my career, have learned much, and have benefited many people. Further, I have had mentors and colleagues who not only kept me excited and motivated, but instilled in me an obligation to research and teaching. Their demands forced me to mature socially, emotionally, and cognitively. They have required me to be independent and resourceful, and have forced me to be patient and more responsible. Still, that soft voice in the background asks whether meeting them was due to good decisions and fortuitous serendipity, or the lucky touch of destiny.

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