Dr. Calvin Lai grew up in Canada near Toronto and then moved to New Jersey when he was ten years old. Much of what he learned about race and race relations was channeled through topics in his history classes and his daily experience as an Asian, particularly Canadian Asian American. However, it wasn’t until he learned about implicit bias and other related systemic factors that he was able to unlock the vocabulary “for all these kind of subtle acts of exclusion that I had encountered over the years, growing up as an immigrant and so that’s kind of what made me so passionate about it…to understand how it works…and what we can ultimately do about it in terms of, you know, giving everyone the kind of fair treatment they deserve.”
Dr. Lai recalls first getting interested in the social sciences as a senior in high school where he took a sociology class which sparked the initial interest of using tools of science to better understand people. At this point, he thought that he would become a sociologist, then he took a psychology class and admits that he got the “bug” there too which explains why he graduated with his BA in psychology and sociology as he sees them as complementary.
Dr. Calvin Lai is currently an Assistant Professor of Psychological & Brain Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, MO. In this podcast, Dr. Lai discusses his academic and professional journey and shares his advice to those interested in the field of psychology and offers practical advice to those interested in applying for doctoral programs in psychology. For example, he suggests that you figure out what you are passionate about, build research experience, and find mentors who can help you figure out where to apply. You need more than a good GPA and a good GRE score. Although, these will get you past the initial cutoff, Dr. Lai points out that PhD advisors may often only get to pick one person that entire year, so they are looking for a candidate who really knows what they’re signing up for and “if you have the experience to show that you do know what you’re signing up for, that’s going to be a real big leg up for a particular PhD advisor.” Dr. Lai is the Director of the Diversity Science Lab at Washington University. When asked how important lab, or research, experience is for someone who wants to attend graduate school in psychology, Dr. Lai states “it is super-duper important.” He adds “I can’t think of a single PhD student” who didn’t have experience before applying to a doctorate program. He states, “if you are able to, it’s really, really important to try to do something like an honors thesis or senior thesis or capstone project.” Therefore, it is essential to gain some research experience if you want to set yourself apart from others during the graduate application process, especially at the doctoral level.
When asked what the most important thing was when selecting a graduate psychology program, Dr. Lai states “number 1, by far, was the kind of research fit in terms of, like, if I’m going to spend like five years mostly in the office by myself studying some topic, I really wanted to be sure I was passionate about that topic” but also figuring out “what are my career opportunities likely after going through this graduate program?” Dr. Lai shares “the thing that really blows my mind is just how many different types of graduate degrees that you could pursue that are related to psychology, particularly if you’re interested in things that are related to clinical practice.” So, doing research on the branches or fields of psychology as well as careers in psychology may help guide you when selecting your academic and career path.
During our discussion, we also discussed funding options when applying for graduate programs. You typically get more funding opportunities when you apply to a doctoral program than a master’s program. When applying to graduate programs, consider the funding package they offer in your decision. You can also become a Teaching Assistant (TA) or a Research Assistant (RA) or you can apply for scholarships and grants. Dr. Lai discusses one fellowship program in particular, the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP). He states, “the great thing about that one is they give you a lot of funding, more than what most PhD programs offer, and they basically buy you out of having to teach so that you have multiple years where you can just focus on your studies and focus on research.”
Dr. Lai also shares his experiences related to finding an academic job, particularly a tenure-track position, after completing his doctorate. He states, “the academic job market is infamous because it is very, very hard to get a tenure track position, particularly at an incredibly research-intensive university like Washington University.” He applied to around 30-40 academic positions every year for three years in a row before finding the job that best fit his interests and goals. He points out that the number of tenure track professors in the United States “hasn’t really increased very much over the past 20 years” yet the number of PhDs has increased tremendously. In hindsight, he suggests being open to exploring other options and opportunities. Some people use their PhD in other fields outside of the academic world in clinical work, industry, or tech such as Facebook or Yelp or something else.
Dr. Lai is the Chair of the Scientific Advisory Board of Project Implicit, a nonprofit devoted to research and education about implicit bias and other subtle forms of prejudice and discrimination. He briefly discusses Project Implicit, its history, and its impact on pushing research in this area forward. He shares “it started off in 1998 as one of the very first websites to collect survey data on the Internet, and since then over the past 24 years, over 25 million people have visited our research platform and taken studies about implicit bias, prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination.”
When asked to share something unique about himself, Dr. Lai shared that he “calculated a couple of years ago about the number of people that are of Chinese origin that were originally Canadian and then immigrated to America. There’s about 8000 of us in the entire United States, so I am one of them.” He rounds off our discussion by sharing one of his favorite terms and principles then shares that he would like to study how people pick the hobbies they are interested in as he believes those hobbies help “fulfill some type of psychological need or maybe something that they’re not getting from their work or family.”
Interests and Specializations
Dr. Calvin Lai “studies how people create, interpret, and maintain social group distinctions.” In particular, Dr. Lai’s research interests include implicit biases: how implicit biases change, understanding the consequences of implicit bias for behavior, and developing interventions to reduce the impact of implicit biases on behavior.
Bachelor of Arts (BA), Psychology and Sociology (2010); Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ. summa cum laude
Master of Arts (MA), Social Psychology (2012); University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA.
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), Social Psychology (2015); University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA.
Other Sources and Links of Interest
Welcome to the Master’s in Psychology Podcast where psychology students can learn from psychologists, educators, and practitioners to better understand what they do, how they got there, and hear the advice they have for those interested in getting a graduate degree in psychology. I’m your host, Brad Schumacher, and today we welcome Dr. Calvin Lai to the show. Dr. Lai is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis and the Director of the Diversity Science Lab. He is a Faculty Affiliate in the Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Equity, and in the Division of Computational and Data Sciences. He is also the Chair of the Scientific Advisory Board at Project Implicit. Today, we will learn more about his academic and professional journey, learn more about Project Implicit and the Diversity Science Lab, and hear his advice for those interested in the field of psychology. Dr. Lai, welcome to our podcast.
Hi, it’s a pleasure being here.
Well, I appreciate you taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk with us. To start off, first tell me a little bit more about your undergraduate studies and what sparked your interest in psychology.
Yeah, so in my undergraduate degree I was a kind of psychology and sociology double major and what really interested me about psychology was the fact that, like all of these, kind of like perennial questions about human nature and how humans interact like you know, do birds of a feather flock together or do opposites attract right? It wasn’t something that you just kind of like you know, talked it out with your friends and just never had any resolution to, you could actually just collect data and just find out what the answer was, and so that’s what really fascinated me about psychology that we could actually make progress on understanding what people think, feel, and do.
Well, that sounds great. I, a lot of people think about what, why do people act this way and why do they think this way? And so, we’re gonna get into some of your interests a little bit later on. But on this podcast, we usually go in kind of in chronological order for your undergrad, grad, and why you selected certain schools. So, I did notice that you received your BA in psychology and sociology at Rutgers University. At what point did you know that you wanted to become a major in psychology and sociology?
Yeah, so I think that I came into college with some kind of understanding that I like the social sciences. I didn’t really get my first taste of it until the senior year of high school, when I took a sociology class, and it was an elective. The only reason I took it was I heard from my friends that had a lot of videos, and it did, we watched a lot of documentaries. But it did kind of spark that initial interest of using the tools of science to understand how, what people are doing. And so I thought I’d be a sociologist, but I just took a psychology class my friend, first semester just in case, and I kind of got the bug there too, because in at least in contrast to sociology, psychology is a lot more experimental, they use a lot more, you know, random, randomly assigned experiments to kind of trying to figure out what is going on, and so I really did like that kind of methodological difference. So that’s kind of how I kind of fell into both psychology and sociology and, and see them as kind of complementary, particularly if you’re someone that, you know, wasn’t kind of particularly interested in the kind of more clinical side of things. I was just kind of interested in understanding how people did the things that they did and more of from the kind of like social studies or history type stuff that I learned in high school.
Well, I know you graduated with honors and then you decided at, you know, some point that you wanted to continue your graduate career. Did it kind of click for you, or did it kind of at the end of the year you decided or close to the end of the year? Decided hey, I really love this. I want to continue doing this and so tell us a little bit about that thought process.
Yeah, about just kind of figuring out to go to grad school?
Yeah, so I think the, I have to take a little bit of a step back about like why I got into this particular type of grad school. So, when I came in as a freshman at this kind of big state school, Rutgers, I didn’t really know what research was, no one in my family had ever done it. You know, just wasn’t a thing that we’d ever thought about and there was a great undergraduate center on campus, this Aresty Research Center, that was their name. And they kind of tried to recruit me, gave me a little bit of financial support to focus on doing undergrad research and gave me some mentorship and kind of navigating what undergraduate research was. And that’s kind of how I got an interest in figuring out, you know, not just applying what we’ve learned in our classes, but also trying to make something new, right, which is often a much harder thing to do, right, to make new knowledge, something that no one has ever known before or thought before and when it comes to research careers in psychology, many of them, if not most of them, do require some type of graduate training and the kind of. At least the most elaborate path is, is pursuing the PhD, and I think that’s kind of why, you know, ultimately, I wanted to get a PhD in some type of social science. It took me a while to figure out if I wanted to do psychology or sociology. But I, I did really love experiments. I love the fact that you could, you know almost make like a, a play in the lab but the actors are your participants. You know, going through their particular social roles in the study that you designed.
Well, what’s fortunate is you didn’t have to really decide between sociology and psychology because you actually received your masters and PhD. You applied for a PhD program at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in social psychology. Now there are many schools in Virginia that offer graduate programs in psychology. Why did you decide on UVA?
Yeah, so at the time, and maybe still, I haven’t looked recently, UVA, University of Virginia, was just one of the top ranked psychology, social psychology programs in the country. Uh, and when it comes to pursuing PhD programs in social psychology a lot of it is not just looking at a particular program. There is a lot of attention to who your specific mentor is. Uhm, it’s very much a kind of like master or apprentice style approach to gaining skills. So, I trained under my PhD advisor, Brian Nosek, who, who taught me a lot of how to how to do the work. And when you’re applying for PhD programs in social psychology, that kind of dominant approaches that you kind of call out, the one or two people that really fit your research passions most. And there’s a lot of work in terms of building up experience to kind of specialize enough so that you’re competitive for those kind of few spots, right? So, the fact that I had studied practice and stereotyping as an undergraduate gave me a big leg up to getting into a graduate program for master’s and then a PhD in social psychology also studying prejudice.
Well, you brought up a good point. A lot of our guests do emphasize, hey, you know not only should you have the grades, but you should do your research on the different schools and programs and then find somebody who’s doing research in the area that you’re really interested in and don’t be afraid to reach out and find out if they’re taking on any, any doctoral students. And, you know, I mentioned that you applied directly to the PhD programs. Were you considering other schools or programs at the time too?
Yeah, yeah so. I think I applied to about 10 schools total, give or take. And then I, I figured out the schools partly from just going through many of the kind of major state schools and, and big private universities. But also, in consultation with my honors thesis advisor who also just knew the small world that was social psychology and knew who the major players were and who would be doing research that was kind of compatible with what I was passionate about. So, my, uh, thesis advisor, her name is Laurie Rudman, she studied, on the one hand, implicit biases and on the other hand, she also studied gender and gender roles. And so, I applied to a mix of researchers that studied either implicit bias or gender roles, or kind of prejudice stereotyping generally. And I got into at least a couple of them, so yeah.
Well, it sounds like you had some very good advice from your advisors as well. One thing that I share with our audience is if you’re looking to get some funding for your, you know, graduate work, and whether you’re doing master’s or PhD, you typically get more funding opportunities when you apply to a doctoral program than a master’s program. What are your thoughts on that?
Yeah, that’s true. Uhm, I think that there are, for the most part you kind of have to pay your way through just a program that’s, that’s, just the masters. But at least in social psychology, particularly in the kind of like, uh, most of the kind of top programs that you get paid at least a guaranteed you know, usually five years. You know you’ll have to do some TAing, you know, being a teaching assistant, but it, it you do get a kind of stipend, it’s. It varies based on where you’re at, but somewhere around $30,000 give or take in in either direction depending on where you’re at. I think that’s the number these days when I was entering grad school in 2010, it was closer to $20,000, but I know it’s, you know, things have kind of climbed up with inflation and, and you know changes in in different policies, but it really depends on school. Like what how much, yeah?
Well, I think you. Yeah, I think you’re right. We did have some of our guests say that it used to be two or three years guaranteed, and now they’re pushing it out to three or four. I believe I, I found the advisor that you’re referring to earlier, Laurie Rudman. Is this the one?
Yep, that’s her. I think she really kind of set me on the path to where I am today so.
Well, good, good we’ll, we’ll include this link to Rutgers and, and her profile page as well, but I can’t emphasize enough the importance of finding people to help you through this whole process. Getting into Graduate School as well as staying in and getting through the work as well so. What was the most important thing to you when you were selecting a graduate psychology program? You already mentioned the people that were interested in your same area. Anything else?
Yeah, to me it was, you know, number 1, by far, was the kind of research fit in terms of, like, if I’m going to spend like five years mostly in the office by myself studying some topic, I really wanted to be sure I was passionate about that topic. And then this is a little bit trickier because you’ve got a small numbers problem, but also figuring out like what are my career opportunities likely after going through this graduate program? And it’s, it’s really hard because it’s so like individual mentor based, so even professors that are kind of relatively far along might have only graduated a handful of students, so it’s really hard to kind of figure out, but you can kind of look at like, in general, when people get out of this program, you know to what extent are they becoming professors themselves versus going into government or industry or, or tech. So, I think that’s kind of that was kind of like additional kind of major consideration. You know, what, what had previous grad students, kind of done after they left the program.
No, that’s good advice. That’s good. It’s good to think about not only am I going into grad school, but what do I want to do after I’m done, and a lot of people have to decide if it’s they’re going to go the academic route or nonacademic route. And you could do either one and more and more nowadays I’m finding a lot of our guests are actually doing both a mixture of both. Consulting outside of the university, as well as teaching classes and doing research and it obviously depends on what kind of research institution, research one, two, or three institution, and the demands that they have for your schedule as well. What were some of your fondest memories when you were attending grad school? Kind of reminisce and, and think about what did you love most about grad school? Graduating, first and foremost, I understand…anything else?
I think it was just the kind of lifelong friends and who were all kind of passionate about some of the same kind of burning questions within social psychology. So, one of the things that is to me like a real culture shock in a good way, at least for me, is like you know when you go through an undergraduate degree, it’s like pretty impersonal. But when you go into a psychology PhD program, there might be like, like 15-16 of you tops for the entire department and then within your specific specialty area, so for me, social psychology, we had a pretty big cohort of four people, so I got to know those four people very well. I got to know the rest, all 16 of us, super well too. It kind of felt like a small high school with all the kind of gossiping as that came out of it. But you know, I, I formed really great lifelong friends and again they were, uh, like interested in the same weird nerdy things as me. And so that’s what I that to me is the kind of fondest memories like not actually like the kind of this is the kind of grueling day-to-day stuff of the research. But, like, at least being able to gossip and talk about the research with my friends was something that I really miss today when, you know, we’ve kind of been flung across the entire country after graduation.
Well, the other nice thing about having those strong bonds is you can actually talk to them about your research. They can talk about their research and more brains coming together. Hey, have you considered this and actually consulting with them a little bit more. And it’s actually a good way to release some of the stress hanging out with your colleagues like that too outside of, outside of doing all the research because it’s stressful in and of itself.
Yeah, and, and I, I just like want to add like I think that especially in recent years with pandemic and everyone being remote it was really hard to kind of buildup that type of and keep that type of connections with like new students entering into PhD programs. I think nowadays things are much more in person than they used to be, but I can still see with my PhD students that entered in like the heart of COVID, you know that, like I really kind of had to compensate other ways to make sure they were getting some of that kind of informal connection that I, I cherish so much.
Yeah, no, definitely. So, what advice would you have for those who are seeking a graduate degree in psychology?
In general, or in terms of my particular flavor.
Actually, I was going to follow up with a second question about any specific for those any specific advice for those interested in social psychology. So just general and then anything else that are, you know, if you have some students that are interested specifically in social psychology.
Yeah, so I mean the, the thing that really blows my mind is just how many different types of graduate degrees that you could pursue that are related to psychology, particularly if you’re interested in things that are related to clinical practice or anything related to, to, you know the kind of clinical side of things. So, I think, to me, what I often advise to people that are psychology majors in my undergraduate program that, you know, I advise as a major advisor is like what do, what do you want to do, right? Do you, do you want to do research? Do you want to provide therapy? Are you actually more interested in the kind of administrative side of things? Do you care a lot about teaching and figuring out what, you know, gives you the most fulfillment is probably gonna really help you kind of narrow down what type of graduate degree that you want, right? I’m a weirdo that really, really liked research and was like, OK, teaching is kind of nice and therapy, I don’t know if I, I don’t know if I’ve got that that in me. And so, it was a relatively easy slot for me to pursue. PhD, which is like the option if you if you are like I definitely just want to do research. I wanna try to maximize that as much as possible. But I think if you, if you have a kind of different mix in your head of how much you kind of want to spend your time doing therapy versus administration, then you know you might have a different degree in mind. So that’s kind of my general thoughts.
OK, and then any specific advice for those who are interested in social psychology?
Yeah, I mean social psychology, so I think that if you’re if you’re just interested in kind of practice or application. I think that you know a lot of times there’s not, there’s not actually that many options. So, you know, some, some of my graduates that have kind of gone through my advising, you know they, they will get maybe masters in some type of business related field like marketing if they really liked the kind of persuasion unit in social psychology or, uhm, but there isn’t like a, there aren’t that many programs that are like Masters in social psychology. In fact, I’m actually struggling to think of any that are just that, and generally like you know they are relatively costly and at least for pursuing a career in social psychology, they don’t give you too much of a leg up compared to people who are just spending that same amount of time working or, you know, serving like as a as a lab manager in someone’s lab or something. To, to me, the kind of big game in town is, is getting a PhD in psychology and so a lot of the things that I mentioned before figuring out what you’re passionate about, building research experience, which is the kind of #1 criterion. And, and getting mentors who can kind of help you figure out where to apply, those are to me are the kind of big things and, and one thing I really wanna highlight is that it is unlike a lot of other graduate programs because a lot of people who are applying to PhD’s are already kind of topping out when it comes to things like their GPA. So just having a good GPA or much less and less these days, having a good GRE score. They’re going to get you, you know, past that kind of initial cutoff. But, you know, when PhD advisors are kind of picking right, they might often only get to pick one person that entire year they’re looking at the kind of remaining candidates and being like who is going really knowing what they’re signing up for, right? Do they know what spending five years on a topic is going to look like? And if you have the experience to show that you do know what you’re signing up for, that’s going to be a real big leg up for a particular PhD advisor.
Yeah, and you brought up something that I was going to ask you a little bit later about research in your lab. So, you’re actually the, the Director of the Diversity Science Lab and I was going to ask you, tell us a little bit more about the lab and then how important is getting lab experience or specific research experience going to help somebody, especially those who want to attend and Graduate School. And while you’re talking about that, I’ll bring up your website for the lab.
Hmm, can you remind me of the first part of that question again? I think it was kind of a multi part, so I got a little.
Yep, so I’m going to bring up the Diversity Science Lab. Tell us a little bit more about the lab. And then how important is lab experience for someone who wants to attend Graduate School in psychology?
Yeah, it is, it is super-duper important. I can’t think of a single PhD student that I seen that didn’t get experience beforehand. And if you are able to, it’s really, really important to try to do something like an honors thesis or senior thesis or capstone project. It goes by a bunch of different names in different schools. So that you can show that not only have you done research, but in your senior year you kind of conducted an independent research project. Because, again, a lot of times what PhD advisors are ultimately trying to get at is not just like do you, are you accomplished, but do you have the type of like, uh, motivation and knowledge about what you’re signing up for, because PhD programs are really hard. They, it’s really quite unlike anything that you’ve done before because there’s so much time, just being alone, running studies that don’t work the way that you want to, getting a lot of negative constructive feedback about how you can do things better because, a lot of times, if you’re trying to say something new that no one has said before, it could, it’s just really. It’s really hard, right? You, you really have to be sure to kind of add a little bit on the, the accumulation of all of human knowledge, so I’m not sure if I hit all the questions there, but that’s kind of how I think about getting lab experience.
No, I like that summary, and while you were talking, I was sharing the different pages of your lab on the screen with everybody who’s watching the video as well. One thing that I would add is, you know, as a, as a first-time researcher, I remember getting a result that was negative. It wasn’t what I thought, but in many cases, a lot of cases, that’s actually the most exciting part is that actually doesn’t fall under what you think was going to happen, and then that opens up another door for an opportunity to do more research in that area.
Yeah, and I, I have like 2 reactions to that, one of which is yeah, that’s the case for almost everyone. I think the base rate is that most people are wrong most of the time in their hypotheses. I can name the number of times that like my, my hypotheses were confirmed as expected, like on a single hand in grad school. I just I would just often if I predicted something, I could almost predict, you know what, that’s probably, that’s not going to happen. Because most of the time, it doesn’t happen. Another thing is that yeah, it often leads into interesting directions, so one of the things I’m really known for is showing that a lot of times interventions to change these kind of subtler forms of prejudice, like implicit bias, don’t work as well as we, we want them to. And that’s not what I expected originally when I came to grad school, I thought I’m just gonna find some really simple, effective ways to kind of reduce all of these hidden prejudices that we have in our head. But the data kept on coming out showing that it’s a lot harder than you than you wagered, and that’s important to know, too. You know, since then, the field has really kind of focused on other ways of curbing or preventing discrimination that don’t rely on just changing the prejudices that swirl around in our mind.
That’s a good point. We mentioned earlier about the different fields or branches of psychology and a lot of people that are interested in psychology may look at it this way. Well, there’s so many different branches. How do I, how do I decide which branch I’m interested in? It’s almost just the opposite. Following your advice earlier is just follow what you’re really interested in and then that will help determine which branch it falls under. Any, any additional thoughts on that?
Yeah, yeah, and I think a lot of times you know really kind of take advantage of the early, particularly the kind of early years of your undergraduate degree, and just signing up for this type of experience and kind of feeling out because a lot of times you don’t really know unless you have direct work experience, whether it be an internship or working in a lab for a semester to feel out, is this the type of thing that I want to do, right? I think a lot of times, you know, research sounds really exciting in the abstract, but in practice it’s a lot of staring at spreadsheets. You know it’s, it’s, you know it’s not like it’s, it’s it can be a lot more grueling than you think. And same when it comes to like providing therapy. Or, you know, if you were taking the psychiatric route, you know a lot of things relate to healthcare, so that’s, that’s kind of some of it is gonna come out of just you thinking your own thoughts. But some is gonna come from experience of you just trying something out and seeing how you like it.
So, in hindsight, when you look back to the process that you went through when you were searching for, and applying to, graduate schools and programs, is there anything else that you would do differently? Or any advice for those who are just starting that research process and trying to find out where they want to attend and where they want to apply?
Yeah, I so this is a I think I don’t hear this piece of advice very often, but you know, part of being ready for PhD is having the experience of doing research, but part of it is like also kind of being socialized into the weird culture that is getting a PhD and academia. And so, to the extent that you can, it can be really useful to kind of seek out other opportunities to learn what academia is like and what research is like beyond just directly doing research. That can include attending or at least attempting or asking if you can attend professor’s lab meetings or there are these things called brown bags or colloquia which are these kind of talks that happen in psychology departments for researchers. And just going on places like YouTube where you can often find academic talks in the thing that you’re interested in, and seeing how you know kind of people watching how academics interact with each other and, and you know having a sense of the type of social norms about what academics alike and how weird they can be is also really useful for knowing what, what you’re signing up for, because there is the research part, but a lot of it is kind of like a set of like social etiquette and, and all this other weird stuff so.
And you can also pick that up if you attend any of the regional or national conventions or conferences, APA and everything else as well, just to get a feel and a taste for that. I know during COVID the APA had their conferences remotely and so you could you could actually go in and they were actually offering a reduced or free for undergrads to attend as well, so that’s another way of kind of figuring out. Is this really for me and get a get a feel for it?
Yeah, and, and I think a lot of those resources weren’t around when I was applying for Graduate School around 2009. And it’s just so useful because, like the stuff that you learn in your undergraduate degree, those are like the kind of like greatest hits. A lot of times they’re like from like the 60s or 70s, and so in terms of like what the cutting edge of what researchers are talking about today. It can look like entirely different from what you might expect, and so just being socialized into like what are the current research trends and what are people passionate about right now is also like part of why it’s so important to not just rely on the things that are right in front of you in terms of your coursework.
One other thing that I’d add before I ask that the follow up question on this is don’t be afraid to, to call one of the professors that you’re interested in. You know you find out that Dr. Calvin Lai is interested in the same, you know, research areas that you are. Don’t be intimidated, just go ahead and call and say, hey, I’m Brad Schumacher. I’m an undergrad over at you know whatever school I love the work that you’re doing here. I was interested in doing this and I did a paper on this and, and strike up that conversation because that will go a long ways because, Dr. Lai, correct me if I’m wrong, would be impressed that somebody is, is calling and, and initiating that conversation and then provide some additional support or suggestions for you as well.
Yeah, the only thing I would kind of slightly adjust with advice is that these days I think it’s better to just do it via e-mail.
I think my office phone is like actually disconnected and a lot of us don’t check our voicemails. And on top of that you know if you’re worried about doing it, I think if you try to just Google around, there are often templates for how to contact professors to express interest in research. I know when I was sending some of those initial emails, I was just like really kind of like obsessing over every individual word, making it from scratch so.
No, that’s good advice. Some templates are out there and then you could make it to your own. I think the best advice I have; my background is interpersonal communication as well, is don’t be afraid to show your personality and, and just be yourself. If you try to be somebody else there, it’s not going to come through as authentic, so I think that’s key. We talked about funding before, but I wanted to bring this up one other time because many students are afraid. Well, I, I don’t come from a rich family. I don’t have much money. What if I don’t get a TAship or a fellowship or any funding? Can I still go to school? You can. Look for scholarships, grants. If you’re in a particular group, you can actually look for specific scholarships and grants for that particular group. I know that there are many websites, including ours, that include different types of scholarships that are, you know, African American, Black students, some Indian, there’s Asian scholarships as well and so any, any other thoughts on, you know, the funding in terms of scholarships or grants or anything else?
Yeah, I mean, I think that when it comes to how demanding PhD programs are, I do think that it’s useful as you go through the graduate admissions process to really, kind of, take seriously like what type of funding package that they’re going to give you or if they’re giving you a funding package. It can be really hard to pursue a PhD when you have to kind of do a lot of other part time work on top. And it’s useful to think about the cost of living and what, what your, your, what you can kind of reasonably afford. A couple of things that are worth trying, right? It’s kind of like shoot your shot is that sometimes they, they will have a little bit of leeway in how much funding they give you, so you can’t like negotiate like a regular job. But if you do kind of express special financial need, if you’re enough of a hotshot, they might try to find some wiggle room for you. In terms of what is known as the kind of Golden Ticket that you can actually apply when you’re applying to PhD. Programs it’s, at least in the United States, it’s the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program, otherwise known as the NSF GRFP. Anytime you’re dealing with the federal government, the acronyms are just ridiculous. And the great thing about that one is they give you a lot of funding, more than what most PhD programs offer, and they basically buy you out of having to teach so that you have multiple years where you can just focus on your studies and focus on research. I was fortunate enough to get one of those, uh, during my graduate studies and so for three straight years, I didn’t have to teach a single thing and every, every day I just gotta wake up and focus on, on the research. So that’s another one. If you do apply for that one, which is kind of known as the big one, it is great to, to try to get feedback from your, your mentors, the people that are writing your letters of recommendation, graduate students, and so on. Just because everyone knows, it’s super important and that is the, it is the kind of golden ticket.
Well, it sounds like it. Were you able to get any other kind of funding available other than through the school and then through that NSF grant?
Uhm, that was the big one and I think I was, I was really fortunate to have gotten it because, because it is the golden ticket. It’s also very hard to get it. I think that the uh, success, the success rates, I think they have kind of flipped around, but usually you’re looking around like somewhere between 12 to 20% tops like it’s, it’s very hard to get, but that’s what I kind of relied on when I was a graduate student.
OK, well I will be sure to include that when we go live with your podcast as well. One other final mention before we start talking about what you’re currently doing. I saw that you did your postdoctoral work at Harvard University in the Department of Psychology and in the Edmond J Safra Center for Ethics. Tell us about those experiences and how did you find those opportunities? And the reason that I asked this is sometimes the school helps you find that post-doctoral, you know, opportunity or you have to go out on your own. So, tell us a little bit about those.
Yeah, so my post-doctoral training, which is kind of like residency for Med school. It also often works under a, a single person. Not always. I think less often. Sometimes you are just like a general postdoc, but for my postdoc I was under working under Mahzarin Banaji and the way that I got connected to her was just through professional connections. She happened to be the graduate advisor of my graduate advisor, and so there’s a little bit that is, you know, very kind of insular about that, but a lot of it is coming through connections. Maybe people that you did research with in in Graduate School that were outside of your university. A lot of it is just kind of word of mouth and so I had expressed interest to Mahzarin. We sought some funding together. She knew about some funding at Harvard and also because she was chair of the department at the time, I believe she had access to additional funding for a postdoc, so that’s kind of how we will patch it together. But a lot, it’s a, it’s a very like word-of-mouth type job market where a lot of it is just kind of talking around and figuring out what’s available, which I think often leads to a lot of things just like being about who you know, which feels a little icky. But a lot of it is who you know. And so, it’s useful to think in your graduate studies of like who do I want to kind of buddy up with so that maybe when I want a postdoc where I want to get grant funding to do a postdoc with someone, we can kind of work together on that.
It is a lot of strategy and you do have to build your contacts and, and build your network a little bit in order to do that, it would be more difficult if you didn’t have any of those connections and it would almost shut the door down on you for all these other opportunities that you’re not even aware of. And so, I agree with you there. After your, after your postdoctoral work, you found an academic appointment as an assistant professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. Tell us a little bit more about that process associated with trying to find a position, and you know how many universities did you apply to? Why did you end up selecting Washington University in the end?
OK, so the academic job market is infamous because it is very, very hard to get a tenure track position, particularly at an incredibly research-intensive university like Washington University. In terms of like the process, I applied for three straight years. If I were to tally up how many schools I applied to, I think I applied to around 30 to 40 every cycle, which means that I applied to over 100 universities. And I got one offer at Washington University. So it wasn’t, it wasn’t, I mean, I selected it, but I it wasn’t like, it wasn’t like a hard choice. It was that or, or just not having a job.
I mean not to not to like dump on, on like Washington University but my experience is the kind of common experience when it comes to going and trying to get some of these tenure track lines. So, the kind of brutal facts of the situation is that the number of tenure track professors in the United States hasn’t really raised very, hasn’t really increased very much over the past 20 years, especially when you compare it in comparison to how, how much larger the United States is than 20 years ago and how many more PhDs are being created every year. And so, it’s just very, very hard to get one of these spots. And I’m very lucky to have gotten one and come out the other end on them, and I think that you know, we had, I think that a lot of times now a lot of people who get PhDs end up, you know, going into industry or into tech or whatever, and I think that is really great because (a) you get paid more there and (b) it’s, it’s been a nice kind of like release valve in terms of relieving some of the pressure of like it’s either you get a tenure track job or nothing because the people that go off into industry oftentimes they make more, they have more flexibility in their work lives and they’re applying what they know and, and, and giving social psychology away to the world, which is great.
Well, it sounds like it, and I know one thing that you mentioned is you’re not, you’re you. You feel fortunate that you, you got that opportunity, and a lot of times people have to continue applying and applying year after year after year or like you said cycle after cycle. So don’t get discouraged if you don’t find a job right away. At what point did you decide that you wanted to stay in the academic field to become an assistant professor versus going outside of academia, becoming a clinician, I know you mentioned earlier in our discussion that that really wasn’t your fit any way, but opening your own practice or working as a consultant. So how did you know, or when did you know that, hey, I want to stay in the academic field. You mentioned research you were really into research and. And kind of a nerd when it comes to that. So, can you speak to that a little bit more?
Yeah, uhm, I don’t really recommend doing what I did, which was just I was so tunnel visioned on it that I didn’t really look too much into other alternatives which also didn’t help because it didn’t help me make myself competitive for say, working in a place like Facebook or Yelp or something. I, I was just very strongly intent on it, and I think at the time I was like more flexible about like if it, if it takes doing multiple postdocs, you know I really kind of want to make this work. And there, there were a lot of signs on the way that I was checking all of the boxes for the types of people that are competitive for these jobs. I think for many of my peers and many of my close friends, they realized they weren’t getting a lot of the, the conventional metrics access that make people competitive for some of these big tenure track jobs, and so that that’s how they kind of start exploring some of these other options. I think in my cohort of around 16 of us in my PhD program, I believe maybe only two of us are at top research universities and maybe a couple more are at more teaching-oriented universities, but a lot of us have just are now in practice or, or industry, right? In fact, the majority of them are so I, I think that, you know, I’m, I’ve, I’ve been lucky enough where either some of the studies that I’ve had kind of lined up in a way that the broader field of, of academia was interested in it, but that doesn’t work out for everyone. I could easily imagine having focused on different studies or having worse luck with some of my papers in terms of where they ended up in terms of top journals. And, and pursued some of these, you know, nonacademic positions further. And if I did, I would have wanted to do something where I could kind of apply what I knew. So, like working in a place like the census. Or uhm, somewhere where I could at least like apply something that I know about intergroup dynamics elsewhere.
OK, well that’s a good summary. As I mentioned earlier, I want to share the screen your faculty page, your profile page. You are an Assistant Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences and a great page. It gives you a little bit more about you and then your interests, as I said earlier, and then it actually gives a little bit more about your publications and you’re doing very well. I wanted to share one other thing here. If I can move this out of the way, let’s. I’ll move this and. In 2022, here’s Google Scholar, and as I mentioned, some of your interests are implicit bias, and even some of the ones that we see on the screen right now, a number of implicit bias research and scholarship here. What originally drew you to that topic? Do you recall back in undergrad, or even younger or? What really turned you on to this area of research?
Yeah, so I, I grew up in Canada near Toronto and then also around when I was ten, I moved to New Jersey. And across both Canada and the US, a lot of how I learned about race and race relations was kind of channeled through topics in my history classes about things like slavery or the Holocaust and World War II. And that really kind of greatly shaped my understanding of race and being Asian, Canadian Asian American at the same time feeling like the, the something doesn’t quite align in terms of what my daily experience as, as a racially minoritized person is like, and so when I learned about implicit bias and these kind of more systemic factors that are that are important for racism that really kind of unlocked something in my head of that kind of gave me vocabulary for all these kind of subtle acts of exclusion that I had encountered over the years, growing up as an as an immigrant and and so that’s kind of what made me so passionate about it. To, to understand more about how it works when it’s greater or lower and, and what we can ultimately do about it in terms of, you know, giving everyone the kind of fair treatment that they deserve.
I wanted to share the website for the Psychological and Brain Sciences Department as well, and so I’ll bring that up on the screen here. For a minute or two, tell us a little bit more about this department and, and why would a student consider wanting to attend and, and go to Washington University in St. Louis and specifically this department?
Yeah, so we, we just historically have had a very strong PhD program that spans multiple areas. Some of the things that we’re especially known for are a bunch of us that study personality. We’re one of the country’s kind of biggest hubs for researchers of personality. We are also known for many cognitive psychologists that study memory, and we have many researchers that are interested in things like aging, particularly as it connects to, say, uh, things like cognitive decline over the lifespan. And so those are some of the things that I think are really quite special about our department in terms of things that make our department stand out for PhD studies in particular. And, on top of that, we are a very well resourced, top research private university, so at least compared to the other programs that I’ve been in and the other departments that are in PhD students who get their masters along the way are often relatively quite well funded and live relatively comfortable lives compared to other departments. So, like when I was a PhD student at a state school, I had, like, I think, two other roommates, and you know, kind of bundled up in a little thing. And here a lot of people students can afford to at least have their own apartment, so.
That’s a big deal. Being able to afford living someplace near or on campus as well. So, I mentioned earlier that you are the Chair of the Scientific Advisory Board of Project Implicit, so I’ll bring that screen up here for you. Tell us a little bit more about Project Implicit. And I know that it’s a, a nonprofit organization, as you see on here. But tell us a little bit more about how did you get involved in this and, and then what is your role serving as chair.
Yeah, so I mean first kind of wanna start talking about what it is. So, it’s a nonprofit that’s devoted to research and education about implicit bias and other kind of like subtle forms of prejudice and discrimination. It started off in 1998 as one of the very first websites to collect survey data on the Internet, and since then over the past 24 years, over 25 million people have visited our research platform and taken studies about implicit bias, prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination. Uh, in terms of my specific role, I’m I play on the chair of the Scientific Advisory Board, which is kind of like a chief scientist role where I’m just kind of often giving advice or consulting about how to kind of best accomplish that mission of pushing the research forward, right, with these studies that cannot be run anywhere else. And also spreading information of science, the kind of latest science about what implicit biases are and how we ought to think about them as a society.
OK, well thank you for that overview. This is the first time I’ve actually heard of Project Implicit, so it was interesting to hear your summary of it as well, and I’d encourage everybody who’s listening and or watching the video to go ahead and visit the website. A lot of good information there about what they’re doing, what they’re focused on, and then they have some tests on there as well so have fun looking at some of those implicit bias tests as well so. So, it sounds like you’re busy, Assistant Professor, you’re serving on all these different areas. Tell us what a typical day looks like for you as an Assistant Professor at Washington University in St. Louis.
Yeah, so well, one of the great things about being a professor is you mostly get to set your own hours. So usually, I wake up around 9:00 AM in the morning. And I don’t really get to my desk and start working till closer to 10 and I set my meetings to start around 10. So usually what, on a given day, I’ll probably have around maybe two to four hours of meetings. I teach, because I’m at a top research university, only one class a week which is about 3 hours of lecture. A lot of my time, though, was just spent on e-mail responding to e-mail, writing emails and giving feedback on various projects from members of my lab. So, when you’re starting off as a student, you know you’re kind of the master of your, you know couple of projects. These days I, I think that my role is more similar to middle management, where I have 6 (4 graduate students and two postdocs) that directly report to me. And so, every day there’s a kind of stream of projects that they need feedback on. And I provide feedback whether it be on the research design, on writing up a paper, on analyzing data, and so there’s not that much kind of me time anymore for me to just like sit and like, read some like interesting paper about, say, like why people pick the hobbies that they do? A lot of it is kind of just bouncing between all the different things that my graduate students and postdocs are passionate about. So that’s some of what we’re doing, yeah.
Well, it sounds like it, and I was going to follow up by asking what do you love most about your job?
I think that what I like most is, uhm, when, like a graduate student or postdoc, is like it’s like really clicking for them and then you can kind of see the kind of breakthrough in terms of like how they’re thinking about doing research well, right? Because like I see them as kind of like an amplifier to my influence, there’s only so much I could do if I was just one person running my individual projects and so a lot of my influence ends up being kind of indirect in terms of like getting them to think about research in a more wise way. And to be a little biased in a way that’s kind of similar to how I think about things, right, and my, my own style of doing research.
So, at the end of the podcast, we usually ask a few fun questions, so let me ask a few for you. Tell us something unique about yourself.
So, I calculated a couple of years ago about the number of people that are of Chinese origin that were originally Canadian and then immigrated to America. There’s about 8000 of us in the entire United States, so I am one of them. And I feel like it’s like when I think of like and I, I’ve, I’ve met, you know, probably a handful of the, the other 8000 in my life and it’s always been like so do you have this thing where like, you know, you talk about poutine or other stereotypically Canadian things, so that’s, that’s, I guess, like one thing that makes me relatively unique. Just there’s not that many of us.
OK so is. That’s interesting, yeah, definitely, uhm, tell us what your favorite term, principle, or theory is and why.
Ooh, uhm, that’s a good question. Can I have a second to think about that? I, I mean, I think that the thing that I, I keep on going back to over and over again is just self-serving biases. There’s just all these ways that our mind is engineered to kind of be biased in favor of ourselves and of our own groups and I, I see, you know my research program as part of a kind of longer line of justice researchers that are trying to figure out what to do about the fact that we’re always so self-centered in everything we do in our prejudices and how we see ourselves compared to others, and even like decisions about whether to help someone else. A lot of times we choose to help someone else because it makes us feel good, so that, to me, I think is the, the term that I keep on going back to in all these different ways and it to me is one of the central themes of social psychology.
It sounds like it’s a common theme with a lot of my guests wondering why are we so self-centered and self-aware as it comes into play as well. So, another final question, fun question, is if you had the time and money to complete one project or go on one trip, what would you do?
So, one of the things and I’m all, I’m, I’m almost got tenure. I’m not quite there yet, but one of the things that I want to study sometime, at some point in my career, is like how people pick the hobbies that they’re interested in. Uhm, and it seems that like the types of hobbies that we, that different people choose are like helping fulfill some type of psychological need or maybe something that they’re not getting from their work or family. And I’m sure, I know there’s a lot of work out there, particularly in non-psychology fields, and it’s something that, you know, we spend time with family, we spend time at work, but we also spend a lot of time doing leisure. How exactly do we, we choose and to what hobbies we have and how does that kind of also like carve up based on you know your racial, ethnic or gender identity like one of the things that kind of like really blew my mind that I thought was a private issue that was not is just like when you look at the hobby of hiking, for example, like going to national parks and hiking. It’s a very, it’s a hobby that is predominantly done by people who are white, and I had no idea that that was a thing and so I’m like, why is that the case? What has happened historically? Are there, are there financial barriers in terms of getting into hiking, right? So those are the types of things that like interest me, you know. I think a lot of the grant funding, like understandably, is about like, you know, inequalities or disparities in terms of things like that are happening at work or in families and stuff. But like I, I, I really want to know like what’s going on with how people are falling into this hobby or that hobby and why and what are the ways that social inequalities may be tied into the type of hobbies that we pick so.
That’s interesting, I’ve never even considered that I, I didn’t even occur to me. I hike every once in a while. I’m not really into hiking, but I’ve never noticed if there was a particular race or gender that was hiking more than another race or gender. That’s interesting. One thing that I would ask is, is there any more additional advice that you have any final bits of advice for those interested in entering the field of psychology or even considering the field of psychology?
I, I just want to highlight again that you know a lot of it is like you kind of sitting with your own thoughts and thinking about what you’re passionate about. But another big part is just like signing up for those experiences and doing it on the earlier side so that you can kind of narrow down right? I think for many of my years as an undergraduate, I thought I’d be a sociologist. It took me a while doing sociology research to figure out that it wasn’t quite my flavor of research that I wanted to do, that I wanted to do psychology instead, right? So, and I wouldn’t have known that in a vacuum, I only knew that because I signed up for the experiences to figure out what I liked.
Calvin, is there anything else that you’d like to bring up or discuss on this podcast?
That’s about it.
Well, I appreciate you taking the time out of your busy schedule and sharing your thoughts and your journey with us. Thanks again for being with us.
It was a pleasure stopping by. Thank you.