I'm looking to admit PhD students to start grad school in the 2020-2021 academic year. If you're thinking of applying to work with me, here's a mix of useful info, fun facts, and discursive marginalia.
About Our Program
Our social-personality PhD program at UNCG is small but mighty. The 4 faculty, on average, each advise no more than 2 or 3 grad students at a time, so you'll get a significant investment of time and attention. Our recent graduates have gone on to post-doctoral work at Cornell, Florida State, Harvard, and Yale, with a couple more excellent ones soon to be announced. We get results here, which is why we're superstitiously reluctant to change the weird carpet down in the lab.
Here are the Google Scholar profiles of the students I have been the primary adviser for during the past decade:
- Roger Beaty (PhD, 2015)
- Alex Christensen (PhD 2020, expected)
- Katherine Cotter (PhD 2020, expected)
- Emily Nusbaum (PhD, 2015)
My Advising Approach
My advising model---inasmuch as a mish-mash of intuition and calamity counts as a model---is more like coaching than teaching. Students must learn to do what professors do: come up with good research ideas, sort good ideas from weak ones, test and publish the good ideas, teach thoughtfully, and fit well into the curious culture of an academic department. They learn to do this by doing it under the guidance of someone who knows how to do it.
Nothing works for everyone, so not every student will mesh with my training approach. Here are qualities of students who fit well with our system:
- Research expertise. Students need to arrive with significant methodological knowledge and skills, usually shown by several semesters of research experience, presenting at conferences, conducting an independent project (e.g., a capstone or honors thesis), and (in many cases) publishing peer-reviewed articles. Doctoral training is too fast and compressed for us to spend time on getting up to speed on research basics---you only have 4 or 5 years to learn and publish enough to compete in a fierce post-doc and job market. So, for what we do and how we work, no other strengths in an application can make up for a lack of serious research experience.
- Writing, writing, writing. As you would expect from someone who wrote a book called How to Write A Lot, I take a slightly different approach to teaching academic writing. The students I have worked with have left UNCG with a lot of publications, and it's because they spend an eerie amount of time actually writing and relatively little time "intending to write." No one gets tacked on to papers here--unless I'm the sole or first author, the students are writing around 90% of what we're publishing. I don't think an incoming student needs to be a good writer already. It's easy to teach and learn that stuff. What is harder to teach is the willingness to accept feedback constructively, the fortitude to go through a couple dozen drafts of a thesis proposal without resorting to trichotillomania, and the determination to spend at least a couple hours a week, every week, every semester, for around 5 years, on the complex craft of writing.
- Intellectual autonomy. The world needs clones of Paul Silvia even less than it needs the original. Students have to learn how to do this research thing on their own, so they will have to develop their own "thing," their own line of work that is fundamentally theirs. As the years of grad school pass, students should develop into the scholarly leaders in their lines of research. Ideally, students would be publishing some work without me by the time they graduate. Everything has to fit within the themes of what we want to do and can do well, but those themes are broad (see below).
- Love of stats and research methods. You need to like stats---not tolerate it, not think that you could probably get into it during grad school, not hope that it will all click someday. The work we do is heavy in stats, so you need to be intrinsically motivated to learn and do it. I expect all the students I work with to seek a graduate minor in stats in UNCG's excellent ERM department, and most students take around 8-10 grad courses in stats and methods.
- Organization. I'm trying to be less flaky and disorganized, but we know in psychology that no one ever changes, so things seem to go better when the students are relatively organized. Except for our weekly "Writing Goals" meeting, which is inviolable, we tend not to have regular, structured meetings and instead run into each other, catch up on things, and ponder various miscellany. This is not the kind of lab for people who need external deadlines to be motivated. Any deadline longer than a week is usually just a fancy way of avoiding writing that you should be doing this week.
- Teaching. Like research, teaching is a rich and complicated craft. The teaching of psychology is something students should take pride in, and our research group devotes itself to developing as teachers, both in the classroom and in outside-the-class undergraduate mentoring. The students leave with good teaching portfolios; many attend conferences on the teaching of psychology and win departmental teaching awards.
- Collaboration. Modern psychological science is highly collaborative, and effective researchers can contribute to diverse, complex teams. Students should be able to attract mentors, collaborate well, and build the networks needed to expand their skills and tools. Much of our training focuses on building the skills and tools needed to work in groups and the ability to discern fruitful collaborations from star-crossed and parasitic ones.
- Passports. While not a strict requirement, I expect students to spend a summer abroad working in another research lab. Working in an international lab will round out a student's training by teaching them some things they won't learn here as well as turn them into an insufferable coffee and pastry snob.
- Intrinsic motivation. The academic path is not for everyone, and no one is forced to go to grad school. My role is to catalyze the potential of students who want to work hard and invest effort in building their skills in the slightly fringe world of academic psychology that we inhabit. A graduate mentor isn't supposed to get students excited about the enterprise of research or motivate them to pursue academic goals. People have to want it.
Conversely, I have struggled to effectively mentor some kinds of students:
- Indecisive students. Students who don't know what they want to study or are happy to just be told what to study.
- Out-of-area students. Students who don't want to study the kinds of things we study.
- Art and music students. The students who do well here are students who are primarily psychological scientists with significant interests in the arts, not students who are primarily artists with significant interests in psychology.
- Not-quite-ready students. Students with skills gaps who need some remedial training, such as a terminal MA degree, before seeking a PhD. A common example would be excellent students with arts or music backgrounds who have great applications but lack serious research experience.
- Off-site students. Our working style is loose, ad hoc, and improvised. We have few scheduled meetings but many spontaneous rambling interlocutions that somehow result in science happening. Being around a lot helps move projects along faster.
- "Front-row students." Many undergraduates are smart, diligent, and eager but struggle to take the step from student to scholar. Often, such students were great undergrad research assistants but lack the quirky, unconventional, or contrarian mindset needed to do creative work in a crowded field like psychology. In Big Five lingo, high C isn't enough---we're looking for high O and high C, ultimately.
What We're Studying These Days
I'm open to studying many topics that fit the conceptual and methodological themes of our research. A few recent and emerging strands:
- Creative thought, especially the roles of cognitive abilities, intelligence, and strategic processes in creativity.
- Humor, especially the production of verbal humor---how people come up with funny ideas and why it is so much easier for some people to be funny. I see humor as major direction for us in the next 5-10 years.
- Imagination, such as mental imagery, mind-wandering, and mental simulation.
- Language, especially the role of language in creativity and humor as well as figurative language production (metaphor and metonymy).
- Aesthetics and the arts, especially people's complicated emotional responses to visual art (e.g., awe, confusion, goosebumps), how art expertise shapes aesthetic experiences, and the nature of museum experiences.
- Interest, curiosity, and intrinsic motivation.
- The psychology of music, especially "inner music" and musical imagery.
- The psychology of everyday life, such as research in natural environments (e.g., aesthetics research conducted in museums) and research using ecological methods, especially experience sampling and diary methods.
What We're Not Studying
- Unless some new grants stick, we are phasing out our line of research on the cardiac psychophysiology of effort and motivation.
- We have the infrastructure for cognitive neuroscience work for students who are unusually self-directed and motivated, but it is not a primary direction in the next 5 years. If you want to do cognitive neuroscience, you should contact Brittany Cassidy.
- We no longer do research on reactance, self-focused attention, and objective self-awareness theory.
- I work in a social-personality program, but my work is much closer to personality psychology, cognitive science, creativity studies, individual differences, research methods, and art education. I'm not the right person to work with if you want to get a job in traditional social psychology.
Various Vows and Fun Facts
- We will never take a dorky photo of all of us in front of the building and put it online. This I vow to the world.
- Our lab has no cheesy acronym or even a name. The word "lab" barely contains the ineluctable curiosities contained therein. I could be tempted, though, to name our lab with with a meme involving an owl. Or a baby red panda. Or perhaps both, if outfitted in vintage steampunk attire and sailing in a dirigible.
- Whiteboards are a key technology in science. We run a student-to-whiteboard ratio of around 1:4 down in the lab. All students I work with are guaranteed at least 3 whiteboards and 4 low-odor markers.
- Preprints, OSF, pre-registration, R, and Mplus are big around these parts.
- Often, when faced with complex research choices, I sometimes ask myself, "What would Mike Kane do?" Other times, I just go upstairs and ask Mike what he would do.
- I suspect that many of our conversations here are rambling and discursive, tangential and elliptical, obscure and oblique. But in our defense, as Daniel Davidson, one of my favorite poets, put it (from An Account):
History begins with a temperature of one.
Life as an idea is ripe for the picking.
Charisma details the track to power.
Colony after succussion recedes.
We're not just making exceptions,
we're jettisoning a specific kind of analytic strain:
the lamp black of intimate lives,
the discursive form for what we do today.