Champions of Psychology

Champions of Psychology: Philip Zimbardo

Champions of Psychology is an ongoing series in which highly regarded professors share advice on the successes and challenges facing graduate students in the field of psychology.

APS Fellow and Charter Member Philip Zimbardo, one of the most widely recognized modern psychologists, received notoriety in 1971 for his groundbreaking Stanford Prison Experiment. Throughout his career, he has been at the forefront of the social psychology literature, with pioneering work in the areas of shyness, violence, terrorism, and many others. A recipient of the Havel Foundation Prize, Zimbardo has dedicated his life to “giving psychology away” through teaching, writing, and his PBS series Discovering Psychology. Zimbardo holds faculty appointments at the Naval Post Graduate School, Pacific Graduate School of Psychology, and Stanford University, where he has taught since 1968. He has authored numerous books, including The Time Paradox (with coauthor John Boyt), and the New York Times bestseller The Lucifer Effect.


APSSC: What led you to choose psychology as a career?

P.Z.: Initially, I was drawn to psychology in college (Brooklyn College) because I had been an intuitive social psychologist having grown up in and survived a tough inner-city life in New York’s South Bronx from the 1930s through 1950s.  “Street smarts” are psychological skills essential for survival — learning about reading signs of danger in others and in situations, about power, about impression management and impression formation, and so forth. My excitement in discovering there were whole courses in my home-grown interest was soon diminished when I got my first and only C grade in my life in introductory psychology.

Boring text, boring lectures, and boring research led me to ditch psych and switch to sociology and anthropology, in which I double majored. But in senior year, I took an experimental psych lab course at the urging of my buddy, Gerry Platt, because he needed a research partner for the course. From the moment I did our first experiment, I was in love with research-based psychology and added psych as my third major. Incidentally, Platt switched to sociology and eventually became chair of the sociology department at Amherst.

APSSC: What suggestions can you give to students trying to find an area of study in a field as diverse as psychology?

P.Z.: Start out as a generalist, taking as many different psych courses as you can to explore the range of possibilities. Then figure out what turns you on most, and go all out for it, but always continue to add breadth to the depth of your specialized knowledge.

APSSC: How did your current research interests come about, and in what way have they influenced you as a person and a professional?

P.Z.: My research is mostly an autobiographical journey; I have studied things that I lived and wanted to understand more fully, like evil and transformations of character from my ghetto experiences. My interest in time perspective came out of growing up in a Sicilian family background where everyone was past or present oriented and never focused on the future and thus were destined to failure in a technologically-oriented society like ours. My interest in social relationships and making the human connection came out of being hospitalized for nearly 6 months between age 5 and 6 in a NY hospital for poor kids with every contagious disease at a time when there were no wonder drugs for treatment and where parents visiting was limited to 2 hours on Sundays.

APSSC: What do you think are the most important factors that come into play when selecting a graduate program?

P.Z.: The quality of the students they turn out, where they get jobs, how successful they have been in their careers. Always find out from current graduate students when you visit, if they would like to be on that faculty or not and why. The key is having several faculty with whom your interests fit or gel. Also find out if there are young faculty still in the trenches and not just a lot of old timers who stay at home writing books or are on the lecture circuit and not there for you. But it is vital to have 3 folks who will write you rave letters.

APSSC: In your experience, what were the most rewarding aspects of graduate school?

P.Z.: The intensity of the experience at Yale University Psychology Department in its golden days (mid-1950s), working closely with many different faculty on a range of research and having great friends among the students, such as Gordon Bower and Dave Sears. Unlike current day students, we lived in the department as much as we could and hung out there since there was nothing to do in New Haven and we were too poor to have cars.

APSSC: How does a graduate student work towards becoming a first-rate researcher?

P.Z.: Simple — you work your ass off. It has to be the center of your life, you think about ideas all the time, keep research idea notebooks, always read journal articles with a questioning orientation: What if X were different in that study? How would the results change if the researcher did Y rather than A? And then go do that study. It is about being open-minded about everything you experience as the possible trigger of a research idea. “What if” is the start of a romance with research.

APSSC: What are some of the common mistakes you see graduate students and young professionals making?

P.Z.: Specializing too soon, becoming too narrowly focused in their research or professional interests, so that they never have the big picture in mind of their field, or how and where their little realm fits, and then cannot make connections with other realms because they are ignorant of them. Also working with only one professor and not a variety of them, each of whom can teach different skills, styles, strengths. And what do you do when your solo professor and primary reference then dies on you? You are up the creek with no paddle and no recommendation.

APSSC: What advice would you give to graduate students who wish to pursue careers in academia?

P.Z.: Love teaching and train to be great at it, putting in the time and effort to perfecting your skills and learning your lessons.  Give service to your department, be a good team player, volunteer your services, ideally be the go-to person for others who have questions about stats or research design.  Learn to write well by doing it frequently until it becomes an automatic habit of writing often without contemplation — just hitting the keys and doing it regularly.

APSSC: What lessons have you learned from being a psychologist in the public eye?

P.Z.: Have something to say or say nothing. You will always be misquoted. Take control of interviews by asking for questions in advance or total time allotted, or ask the interviewer questions, or change questions to those for which you have good answers. Think of the TV camera as one of your bright eyed but silent students that you will engage directly. Smile, have an open posture, keep gestures away from your face if on TV. Keep your language simple, no jargon or tech talk, speak to your mother — unless she has a PhD, then direct your speech to your middle school teacher. In the public eye, like lecturing to a large class, you are a performer and so must put on a good performance and learn from mistakes to be more effective next time.

APSSC: You have described “giving psychology away” as one of your core professional values; what can psychologists early in their careers do to further the cause of disseminating psychology to the general public?

P.Z.: You do it in your teaching — your students are the future general public. Volunteer to give community lectures to various professional and civic groups or to local science museums. Discover ways to share what you believe is best about your domain of psychology.

Get involved in your local psychological association: regional, and state as well as national. Join and be active in professional groups that are giving psychology away all the time, such as APS, Psychologists for Social Responsibility, and others.

APSSC: What do you see in the future for the field of psychology?

P.Z.: We have a great future ahead as we extend the boundaries of our field in more molar and more molecular directions, with something hot for every possible interest. As hot as cognitive neuroscience and behavioral economics are, at the other end we have health psychology and peace psychology expanding, and psychologists involved in human services, the space program, government, military, business, media, environmental sustainability, education, longevity, terrorism, and more. There are no limits to what psychology can offer society and no limits on the potential contributions that the next generation of psychologists can make to the community. I wish I were starting out my career rather than gradually ending it.  What a hot new world is ahead for you kids. Use it wisely and well.

APSSC: Is there a question that you wish I would have asked and what would have been your answer?

P.Z.: Question: What are the trade-offs for academic psychologists? Answer: Negatives: Work long hours and on weekends, sacrifice play and fun for work, relatively low pay for your level of education, skill and dedication, often not a lot of social support or even socializing with colleagues who are also future-oriented workaholics. Positives: Live a life of ideas, inspire and transform students, make a contribution to society, be a lifetime student ever curious, ever learning new lessons. And most of all, become shamelessly passionate about your life as a teacher, researcher, and social-political activist. What could be a better way to spend the next four decades of your life? ♦

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