Top Contributor to the field: Q&A with Daniel Gilbert

Katie O'Neill

APSSC: Did you do research in your undergraduate career?
Gilbert: I went to a little undergraduate institution at which research was not first priority, it was more of a teaching institution although I did have the opportunity to work with Carolyn Simmons and Gary Stern.

APSSC: What was your experience like when applying to graduate schools?
Gilbert: I was very confused, quite naive, and quite surprised that you had to apply in an area of psychology. I thought you could just apply and get a Ph.D. in general psychology. I did apply to social learning and cognitive programs, generally anything I was interested in.

APSSC: What made you chose Princeton over the other graduate schools?
Gilbert: I have to say it was not because of the intellectual climate but it was a wonderful decision and while there I worked with Ned Jones. More over was when I arrived at the Princeton airport and the graduate students picked me up and took me out to dinner and a nice party. My decision had very little to do with the program and everything to do with how friendly the people were. I chose my graduate school for all the wrong reasons, but I lucked out, it was a great place.

APSSC: Is the type of work you are researching now what you researched in your graduate career?
Gilbert: Now, my research is a switch from what I was researching in graduate school. The first 10-15 years of my faculty career I was researching what I was in graduate school. What you study in graduate school will have a long life and will follow you around so pick and choose them quite carefully.

APSSC: What do you look for when taking on graduate students?
Gilbert: The usual stuff, good GRE's, good grades, good background in psychology and good letters of recommendations. The thing that stands out to me is the personal statement, which tends to be quite formulaic, boring. I like to see people who are authentic and really have a story and generally want to come here to Harvard and work in my lab. A person who is very familiar with what work our lab does and reads our papers, to me, is a really good fit. The personal statement is the one part of the application where the applicant gets to talk to you.

APSSC: In talking with fellow undergraduates who are applying to graduate school for next fall, they all say that getting into graduate school will make them happy. Are we all overestimating the intensity of our emotional reactions to the future event, being graduate school?
Gilbert: The short answer is yes. The day the letter arrives will be a wonderful day indeed, but you will be surprised by how quickly the extraordinary becomes ordinary and how quickly your delirium fades. There are many reasons to hope that one is admitted to the program of one's choice, but acquiring a permanent smile isn't one of them.

APSSC: Do you have an insider advice about getting into graduate school and if you do get in, surviving?
Gilbert: There's an old joke about a guy who stops someone on the streets of New York and asks if he knows how to get to Carnegie Hall and he says yeah practice. My advice to seniors should be the same advice they heard their freshman year, study hard, get good grades, and be involved in research. My advice for a senior getting ready to apply, it is now too late, research experience is heavily important. Of all most important is not to acquire skills as researchers are going to teach you that. Although, if you have done research it tells the graduate school that you know how mundane, boring, and tedious a day to days work in a lab is like but you still love it. It tells the graduate school you have experience and that you know what you are getting yourself into. Graduate schools do not want to get a graduate student that in a year decides that this is not for them and drops out and goes to dental school - that is a waste of a slot.

And how to survive graduate school you need to put aside thoughts of having a wonderful life, buckle down and get a lot of research done. Don't think of graduate school as a big version of undergraduate work. Develop a relationship with your mentor, develop research and publish it. Finding the person of your dreams and interesting classes are second.

Daniel Gilbert is a professor of psychology at Harvard University where his research focuses on how and how well people predict their hedonic reactions to future events. For more information about Daniel Gilbert please visit:

Katie O'Neill is in her final year as an undergraduate at Montclair State University. She is interested in the impact of childhood and interpersonal trauma on risky decision making across the lifespan. An additional line of interest includes the victimization and revictimization of women who have been raped. Katie is the current Undergraduate Advocate for the 2007-2008 year. Katie can be reached at: