Message to Prospective Graduate Students
With support from Harvard University, I have been able to admit, on average, one graduate student every other year to the lab. In spite of this small number, the group is typically larger (about a dozen), with post-docs, graduate students admitted through other programs, students from surrounding labs, and visitors from other countries.
Research revolves around core issues concerning implicit social cognition (ISC). How does the human mind automatically make sense of the social world? How do we implicitly judge self and other, us and them? The specific psychological concepts I work on are attitudes or preferences, and beliefs or stereotypes. These concepts are put to work in understanding self and other as individuals, but especially as members of social groups.
These questions are meant to be an entry point into broader questions of human nature and experience – to understand what makes for the minds we have and the world such minds build. The answers we provide are of course psychological, but it is obvious that the quality of our understanding can be enhanced by analyses of the moral aspects of such judgments and the structure of social environments in which daily behavior unfolds. 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.
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 in the early 21st century concerning equality, fairness, and justice. 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. My students and I study adults and children, we study behavior and the brain, we use self-reports as well as indirect measures such as physiology and response latencies to study feelings and thoughts about self and other, social groups within the U.S. and around the world.
The laboratory no longer exists only on campus. Many projects involve data collected via the World Wide Web. 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, 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, and they are aware that publishing at least two papers a year while in graduate school is the lower bound. They are not easily detracted by the problem of a university with a small subject pool 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 intelligence, 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 that 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.
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, physiological measurement, and brain imaging. 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 unfortunately because weak writing can dramatically slow down the pace of a student’s research and result in decreased productivity. 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 contribution to science has been the students from this lab who have been my collaborators. You can find a list of them all and where they are currently employed. You should feel free to contact them to find out what their experience was and if they would recommend it 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. It has been a joy and deeply gratifying to watch my students grow, contribute, and nurture the science of which we are all citizens.