Message to Prospective Graduate Students

With support from Harvard University, I have been able to admit, on average, one graduate student every other year or so to the lab.  Students at Harvard are not tied to individual faculty.  They arrive with a mentor or two in whose lab they will settle, but their funding is tied to them and as such they are free to relocate to any lab where they find a good match.  In spite of the small number of graduate students any one of us has, the lab group that meets once a week is typically larger (about a dozen), with post-docs, graduate students from other labs, and visitors from other universities.  

Research revolves around core issues concerning implicit social cognition.  How does the human mind learn about the social world so effortlessly – automatically, one might say? How does the human mind make sense of the social world so artfully?  How do we go about making assessments of the many others who surround us and who we know well, as the many acquaintances and strangers about whom we also must form impressions in order to conduct the daily business of living?  I have been interested in these questions but with two specific foci:  I want to understand the extent to which our social categories define how we perceive and are perceived, and how we decide and choose.  The mental process in which I’m interested is the less conscious, less controllable one.  Put these together and you have the study of implicit social cognition in group contexts. The oldest psychological constructs I focus on are that of attitude or preference, and belief or stereotype.  These concepts are put to work in understanding self and other as individuals, and especially as members of social groups.

I focus mainly on the troublesome aspects of human minds, less so on the benign; together they help me understand the full range of limits and flexibilities inherent in human nature and human experience.  These questions are meant to be an entry point into broader questions of human nature and experience – to understand the minds we have and the biological and social worlds that build such minds.   The answers we seek are of course psychological, but it is obvious that the quality of our understanding can be enhanced by imagining the moral aspects of daily behavior such as preferences for some over others, helping some over others, believing in some over others.  

The goal of the research enterprise in this lab is to conduct basic research to advance knowledge about the social mind without explicit concern about solving any particular social problem.   Yet of course, because of what we study, the data speak to a host of complex social problems that face us concerning equality and fairness and ultimately whether we have a just society.  To answer such questions requires a fundamental commitment to understanding the mind as it operates in social context.   It requires cutting the data from all possible angles and with instruments that vary in shape and size.  My students and I study adults and children, we study behavior and occasionally physiology and the brain, we use self-reports as well as indirect measures.  But the most common measure used in the lab is response latency.  By measuring the speed and accuracy of decisions we infer the underlying structure of how information is organized, how it is retrieved and put to use. 

The laboratory no longer exists only on campus.   Many projects involve data collected via the Internet.  It is a good idea for a prospective student to be familiar with basic concepts of the structure of the web, web-based programming, and handling large datasets.  Data are also collected in places where children gather, such as science museums, day care centers, and schools; and from adults at universities, in train stations, bars, inner cities, Fenway Park, emergency rooms, and music conservatories – wherever the appropriate samples for theory testing reside.   Students who excel in this lab tend to select problems of interest within the broad spectrum of what we study, they sets their sights high about the sheer amount of data that will be needed to answer their questions, they are usually excited about questions of method and method development in addition to theory, and they are aware that publishing at least two papers a year while in graduate is a good goal. They are not easily detracted by the problem of a university with any particular limitations of subject pools and are creative and downright assertive about finding ways to get their samples. 

Assuming that all students who are admitted to Harvard have already demonstrated proficiency in analytic intelligence (using traditional measures that admission committees are provided), it is the unmeasured forms of talent, in particular, creativity and practical intelligence that I look for in an application.  I am not looking for somebody who has merely been a good research assistant in a previous lab, but rather somebody who has used their time, post-college, to develop a mature sense of what they want to work on and why.  I am looking for a student who will be in all places at all times – that is to say actively take advantage of the resources that are available in this department and university beyond the lab.  

It is difficult, from the paper record and even from an interview, to gauge a student’s degree of intensity and immersion in an academic career.  Although I am open to the possibility that there are geniuses who can sustain a successful academic career while appearing to merely dabble in it, I have never met one.  It would be wise to say that those who will be happiest in this lab are those who view this step to graduate school as a calling rather than as a career.  And who understand that the only predictor of true understanding is time on task. 

In addition to the usual skills needed for graduate study in psychology, students in my lab need to be relatively sophisticated about technology.  It is necessary to have some background in one or more of the following methods:  computer-based experiments, web-based experiments, or physiological measurement, and brain activation.  I have a soft spot for those who have studied in another discipline and are then drawn to psychology; some of the strongest students I’ve had have followed this path.  However, such students need to demonstrate that they can “think like a psychologist”.   Because you are a very good engineer or computer scientist doesn’t mean you’ll be a very good psychologist without learning to think like one. This is visible in the ability to recognize a great idea and separating it from a good one, from the ability to turn an idea into an experiment, and from the skill to know what the data are truly saying.   Much of this is, of course, learned in graduate school, but those who have not immersed themselves in a psychology laboratory during the college years are best off doing so for a couple of years after college, prior to applying to work in my lab.  

It is quite often the case that a student who has sophisticated research skills is not also a great writer.  This is unfortunate because weak writing can dramatically slow down the pace of a student’s research.  So, while good science writing can be taught, it is immeasurably helpful if such a skill is mastered prior to arrival. 

I can say without hesitation that my strongest contribution to science has been a group of stellar students who have done great work and leaders in psychology. Here you can find a list of them and where they are currently employed.  If you know them, feel free to find out what their experience was and if they would recommend the lab to you.

It is clear that not all the training comes from me, perhaps not even most of it.  Rather, it comes from the lab as a whole, with senior students teaching junior ones not only specific skills but about this way of life that we call a life of the mind, which has more than one meaning if you are a psychologist!  It has been deeply gratifying to watch my students grow, contribute, and nurture the science of which we are citizens.  I wish you the best in your application to graduate school and as you take these first steps towards your calling.