Dr. Sarah E. Gaither was born and raised in Sacramento, CA and went to the same school from kindergarten through 12th grade. She then went to UC Berkeley for her undergraduate work before doing two gap years at UCLA in Southern California. She states “I never knew I wanted to go to Graduate School until those gap years and it was me actually running the study where I discovered, through a literature review of all things which I know lots of people don’t like doing, but through this literature review, I actually discovered that in 2008 there wasn’t a single paper in psychology that had a biracial sample. I’m a biracially identified person. My dad’s black, my mom’s white. I look very white presenting and so for me, this literature review which most people hate was actually what pushed me to want to apply to graduate school.”
Dr. Gaither applied to both social and developmental PhD programs because she has always been interested in kids and families, and identity development. During our discussion, she explains how she ended up at Tufts University in Medford, MA for her master’s and doctorate in Social Psychology. She also explains some of the processes she went through while applying to graduate schools and offers impactful advice to those interested in the field of psychology, especially those interested in earning a doctorate in psychology. In fact, she has a YouTube video which offers “5 Pieces of Advice for PhD Candidates” which we also discuss in addition to some new, updated advice she often offers her current students and other students she is mentoring.
Dr. Gaither is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University. While discussing her academic and professional journey, Dr. Gaither states that she “applied to 44 jobs across developmental psychology, faculty positions, social psychology, and a few business schools actually.” For her, one of the main factors in choosing Duke over other universities was the location. Duke University is located in Durham, NC which, she explains, “is very split between white and black populations and it’s one of the most racially integrated places I’ve ever lived. So, for me, being able to recruit multiracial and racial ethnic minority participants, it’s very rare to find, what we call a research one university, like Duke, to be located in a city that actually has a ton of racial integration. So that was a big selling point for me.”
In this podcast, Dr. Gaither briefly shares why someone should consider the Department of Psychology & Neuroscience at Duke University around 18 minutes into our conversation followed by a brief description of what a typical day looks like for her as an Assistant Professor. She highlights the academic freedom and job flexibility to ask the questions you want to ask and explains “you can literally make every day yours.” Now that she has young kids (twins), she very much appreciates the flexible academic schedule and states “I wouldn’t trade that for the world…I love being an academic.”
Dr. Gaither discusses the importance of getting direct research experience if you are interested in getting into a psychology PhD program. She states, “It’s essential. I don’t think anyone will get into a psychology PhD program regardless if it’s social, developmental, clinical without direct research experience. It’s getting more and more competitive every year as we look through our own graduate pools…So, working in research labs, I think, is a must.” As the Director and Principal Investigator of the Duke Identity & Diversity Lab, Dr. Gaither helps guide the research done by the lab members and other collaborators. The Lab team also strives to apply their research to the real-world and showcases their work on their “In The News/Media page.” During our discussion, Dr. Gaither also shares her views regarding the different areas or branches of psychology and believes many of them are not that different. She states, “I think everyone is a social psychologist and everyone is a developmental psychologist.”
Near the end of our discussion, Dr. Gaither admits that her favorite, go-to theory is Social Identity Theory as much of her work is directly building upon this theory. In addition to being biracial, you can find out one other thing that makes her unique around 32 minutes into our conversation.
Interests and Specializations
Dr. Sarah E. Gaither’s research interests include studying a person’s social identities and experiences across their lifespan and how it impacts their social perceptions and behaviors in a variety of settings. She examines how having multiple racial or multiple social identities affects different types of behavior and what contexts shape the development of racial perceptions and biases throughout one’s life.
Bachelor of Arts (BA), Social Welfare with honors, Concentration in Psychology (2007); University of California, Berkeley, CA.
Master of Science (MS), Social Psychology (2011); Tufts University, Medford, MA.
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), Social Psychology (2014); Tufts University, Medford, MA.
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. Sarah Gaither to the show. Dr. Gaither is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience and a faculty affiliate at the Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University. She is also the principal investigator of the Duke Identity and Diversity Lab. Today, we will learn more about her academic and professional journey, learn more about her research and what has fueled it, and what it’s like to be an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University. Dr. Gaither, welcome to our podcast.
Thanks so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Well, I’m excited to talk to you. I read a lot about your history and your journey as well. To start us off, tell me a little bit more about your undergraduate studies and when you first took an interest in psychology.
Yeah, so it’s a funny story for me and something that I tell a lot of my current undergrads who are thinking about grad school and how planned their lives need to be in that I was actually a social welfare major in undergrad. I was not a psychology major. I had a psychology concentration, so I took some psych classes along the way. I was really interested as an undergrad in just understanding how people work and how to make people happier. What makes them sad? And that’s why originally, I wanted to do social work and it wasn’t until my, an internship I had where I had to represent a family with a young 3-year-old where I learned I wasn’t a strong enough person to separate the transcripts and things that I had to write up about what was happening to the sexually abused 3-year-old when I went home at the end of the day. And so, I had thought I was going to be a social worker my whole life and then things needed to change. So, I took two years off after undergrad and I worked as a lab manager in a psychology lab at UCLA and it was actually there that I discovered I really loved psychology research. I had never taken psychology research methods as an undergrad but learning how to do face perception studies and studying biracial populations there for the very first time was actually where I found my, my niche so was actually after undergrad for the most part.
I believe that is the UCLA baby lab where you learned all of that, the infant cognition and perception and everything. That must have been pretty interesting.
Yes, yes. I went from UC Berkeley down to UCLA so stayed in California. I’m California born and raised, uhm, yeah, it was very different for me working with infants. It was an eye tracking lab, so they have these fancy computers with infrared technology that can basically scan where babies are staring at when you show them different images on a screen.
It is cool so you, you just said I was going to ask you where were you born, born and raised in California. You moved there for your undergraduate work, or your family moved there or how did you end up in California?
Yeah, born and raised my whole life in California, so I grew up in Sacramento and went to the same school kindergarten through 12th grade. Then went to UC Berkeley for undergrad and then did two years of gap years at UCLA in Southern California.
Cool and then for some reason you decided to travel all the way from California up to Medford, MA to attend Tufts University. So, there are a lot of graduate psychology schools in Massachusetts that offer, you know, graduate programs in psychology. Why did you decide Tufts?
So, I never knew I wanted to go to Graduate School until those gap years and it was me actually running the study where I discovered, through a literature review of all things which I know lots of people don’t like doing, but through this literature review, I actually discovered that in 2008 there wasn’t a single paper in psychology that had a biracial sample. I’m a biracially identified person. My dad’s black, my mom’s white. I look very white presenting and so for me, this literature review which most people hate was actually what pushed me to want to apply to Graduate School. And so, I took the GRE. I’m not a test taker at and not do very well in the GRE at all, but applying to both social and developmental PhD programs, ’cause I was always interested in kids and families, and identity development and ended up at Tufts University in Medford, which is right outside of Boston, mainly because my advisor there, Sam Sommers, was really an expert on interracial interactions and how our racial encounters make us feel safe versus make us feel anxious. And that was something that I really wanted to understand growing up in this biracial household. Seeing how differently my mom and my dad were treated on a daily basis, that’s what pushed me to choose Tufts over some of the other places that I was considering.
It’s interesting everybody’s journey is slightly different and it’s always fun to find out why and tell me a little bit more about how you know I mentioned in the intro you heard me say, and the reason why you know your research is, is, you know. You identify as both black and white, but you present yourself, as you said, more as a white. How has that driven you in your research and normally I’d share my screen here and for the audience, Zoom is not really working that well. But what I’ll do afterwards, Sarah, is I will actually insert some of these screens during our discussion here, so I won’t share my screen right now. But what I will do is I’ll share your Scholars at Duke page and then some of the other pages. Your identity lab as well but tell us a little bit more. I did bring up your, all of your information on Google Scholar and a lot of it is on that biracial social identity, American white children developed racial biases and emotional reasoning all of that. So, tell us, I, I know that a lot of research when I was going through grad school was based on my personal experience and so it seems like a lot of researchers find a niche because some reason, and so I’m, I’m rambling on here but just tell me a little bit more about how that has helped you in your research and has it has it hindered you in any way as well?
Yeah, so I, I strongly identify as what we call a “me” searcher in a lot of academic rounds, right when you study aspects of yourself, and I think the, the tricky thing of being a “me” searcher is, of course, discovering something about your group or your identity that you’re not proud of, you’re not happy of, we study a lot of negative aspects of being biracial. So increased Cortisol responses, your body literally has stronger biological responses when someone questioning what your race or your ethnic background is, right. So, those things are hard to think about, and my rule for my research going forward is I sort of think about what is all the data that I could collect and all the possible ways a given study could end up, would I still be proud with my name next to whatever that study could be, right? And so, it is a bias in some ways, but it’s at least a bias where I’m assessing myself in my own comfort levels before I go through all of the efforts for data collection. For me, growing up biracial looking white presenting my brother looks much more mixed than I do. I was very hyper aware of race relations in the United States because of that and I really just wanted to understand why it is that racial perceptions just shift our behaviors so instantly? That was my lived experience and the fact that I could get paid for a living in grad school. I mean, all be it not much, but still paid as a grad student now as faculty to study these same questions is, I think, makes it one of the luckiest jobs in the world. I, I can choose the research questions I want to do. And being a member of the biracial community, I think gives me unique insight to into understanding some of the nuances and complexities of what it means to identify with more than one racial background. Whereas I think for other people studying groups that they’re not a member of, it can be difficult to make sure that those scales or questions right are really measuring what you think they’re measuring for a given group, so I’m always a proud “me” searcher even though not everyone in psychology necessarily thinks that’s a great thing.
No, I understand what you’re saying and, and as I said, I’ll share a screen here postproduction here I’ll, I’ll share your CV and I wanted to share the CV because your thesis, your undergraduate thesis was “Having an Outgroup College Roommate Affects Future Interracial Interactions.” Then you also continued on your dissertation “Mixed Biracial Experiences from the Target’s and Perceiver’s Viewpoint.” So, it was evident for, to me when I was looking at your research that you were very interested in this topic very early on as well. One thing that I, I should ask is I know that you mentioned that you, you I believe you applied at other universities. And so, what really stood out for Tufts? I know you gave a summary, but was there anything in particular? A lot of times our audience asked well what should I be looking for when I know it’s a good fit? Is it the people, the professors, the research, the credibility of the school, the location, the cost? For your experience, kind of speak to some of the top reasons why you went to Tufts.
Yeah, there’s, it’s a very tough decision and I was fortunate to be accepted to a couple different PhD programs, right? But it only takes one and what I tell all the students I advise now is you get into one, as long as you think that mentor and that location and fit is a healthy space for you, it just takes one, right, to get in. So, I was mainly deciding between going to developmental psychology PhD program where I’d focus a lot more just on kids and families. And then a social psychology PhD program and, at the time, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with a PhD. I didn’t think I wanted to be a professor, that didn’t happen until Graduate School. So, for me, my own thought process, a big part of it was, I had seen online through the Internet, but there were slightly, it seemed like there are more job options for someone getting a social psychology PhD and that type of training versus a developmental psychology PhD and that kind of training. So that was one big deciding factor for me. The other thing was thinking about where race relations existed. Different locations in the US, right, are more racially diverse and others. Boston is one of the most segregated cities in the United States. And I actually thought that was a really interesting component for me to be able to try and study race relations within a context like that historically. So, for me, thinking about where you are, especially if you’re recruiting participants or people for your study. If the people you want to study don’t exist there, or the climate or the culture doesn’t exist there, it’s not going to be a very fruitful place for you to be doing a PhD work. So those were my two main factors. In addition, I really liked the city of Boston. It seemed like there was lots of things to do. There were jobs for my then boyfriend, now we’re married situation. So, partner questions, right? Those kinds of things are a little easier in bigger cities, so uhm, those were some of my deciding factors.
A lot of people wonder, well, I’m going to go to Graduate School, but unless you know ahead of time, how do you know whether or not you want to go the academic route, stay in the academic field or go out into the public or start your own practice or do whatever. So, my question to you is at what point did you know that you wanted to stay in the academic field and become an assistant professor?
I think what’s really important is if you are interviewing and considering graduate programs, there are some faculty and academia who really think if you get a PhD, you have to only be a professor, and that’s your only job option for you. There are other faculty, like myself, who think there are lots of jobs in the world where we need people trained with social science research skills to make good surveys, to do user interface outcome measurements, right? Uhm, so I think that first choice if you’re not sure about what it is you want to do, you need to make sure that that advisor and my advisor, Sam Sommers at Tufts, was super open to any of these types of different career path options. So that’s really, really key to make sure, again, you’re in a safe learning environment for that five-to-six-year period of your life. Uhm, I think otherwise, you know, it was teaching a course as a teaching assistant. I never even took social psychology until I was at TA for it in Graduate School. I got into a social psychology PhD program but never took intro to social, uhm, and teaching that and actually looking up definitions and those kinds of things with students, recognizing that there were a lot of multiracial and multiethnic students at Tufts that never worked with someone who is multiracial or multiethnic themselves, and that experience of being a form of representation for these students was just, it was awe inspiring to me. The fact that I could create this learning environment, a learning space and becoming this role model mentor for so many underrepresented students made me realize I had never had a multi racial or a racial minority mentor, actually, my entire academic career until grad school. So that desire for me to help representation issues, to help fuel these new passions and desires what people want to study through teaching is actually what ended up persuading me to want to consider academic positions.
And it’s not only that, but a lot of people, I was a teacher for a long time as well, the students, some students, especially freshmen, may think that the teacher knows all the answers and we don’t. We don’t. We, we actually learn through our students many, many times and so it’s, it was rewarding to me to be a teacher. And so, I can kind of relate to you wanting to continue doing that. Before we talk about what you’re doing now, I do kind of have a, if you recall, back in hindsight, during that process of applying for graduate schools, would you do anything different in terms of that process, and if so, what would that be?
I think I would have applied maybe a little more broadly to more schools. I applied to 8 schools for PhD programs, but about half developmental, half social. And I, I think the reason I applied to both types of programs is I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to study. In fact, I didn’t even write in my application wanting to study biracial things. That was not a part of my personal statement for Graduate School it was studying race relations more broadly because, at the time, there also weren’t a lot of faculty who were studying multiracial experiences and that research fit right is so important for you to get into a PhD program and matching an existing faculty member there. So, I, I think I wish I was a little more honest with myself on what it is I wanted to study and a little more proud, even, of the fact that I discovered this thing in my gap year and yet I had this publication in a top developmental journal. I didn’t think it was cool enough, right, or big enough to study in grad school, and I wish I had been more honest then, it wasn’t until about my second year in my PhD when another one of my advisors, uhm, Nalini Ambady, had told me in a meeting, you know what, Sarah? I think you need to study this whole multi-racial thing. There’s no one really doing it like you should do that, you know, you can do these other things too. And it was that conversation with her right that made it seem like it was OK for me to want to study what my actual true interests were, so that’s probably what I would redo.
OK, very good advice. What was your first job after you graduated with your doctorate?
I took a postdoc position, so extra school even beyond your PhD, at University of Chicago. It was a Provost Postdoc position that was funded through the university, not on a grant. And I actually took that because it was with a developmental psychologist, Katie Kinzler. Since I didn’t get a ton of developmental training in my social program, we didn’t have a developmental area at Tufts at the time, although they do have developmental faculty now, and I didn’t feel like I left my PhD career well versed in sort of the current methods for how to study these issues with kids, so I spent two years teaching a little bit at University of Chicago and then also fine tuning my developmental training.
Very good and now kind of brings us up to the present or at least how you got to Duke University. And that’s my next question is, you’ve been at Duke University since 2016, tell us how you found the opportunity at Duke, and did you apply to other positions? And why did you select Duke?
I applied to 44 academic jobs.
So, yeah, I did apply to lots of places. It’s very stressful. Uhm, the academic job market creates so much anxiety in everyone because it’s your entire identity on paper, right? And random people who don’t know you are assessing if you’ve published enough and in the right journals. And is your question broad enough? Important enough? So, I applied to 44 jobs across developmental psychology, faculty positions, social psychology, and a few business schools, actually. So, I had three different types of jobs statements, three different types of cover letters. All of those things I was fortunate to get lots of interest across the US and what it really came down to in choosing Duke over other places was the location. Again, I’m going to go back to this where I study a lot of multiracial and interracial interactions and Durham, NC is very split between white and black populations and it’s one of the most racially integrated places I’ve ever lived. So, for me, being able to recruit multiracial and racial ethnic minority participants, it’s very rare to find, what we call a research one university, like Duke, to be located in a city that actually has a ton of racial integration. So that was a big selling point for me. Uhm, the other things I, I really liked North Carolina when I visited. It’s very different than anywhere else I had ever lived before, but people are really nice here. At the time, North Carolina was very affordable, so my faculty salary went a lot further here than other places. Uhm, there’s lots of strong resources they gave me to help start up my lab and the undergraduates seemed incredible, and that’s again what motivated me to want to be faculty in the first place, and I’ve, since then I’ve had anywhere from 15 to 25 undergrads working in my lab every semester at Duke, so having strong undergrads is another huge selling point for me.
I normally would share a screen about the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University. I’ll do that postproduction here but tell me a little bit more about the department and why somebody should consider going to Duke.
So, I think if you are looking for a smaller, more close-knit department, that’s also what my graduate training was at Tufts, we only had three social psychologists there, we have four social psychologists right now at Duke. It feels like a family, oftentimes, there’s not a competitive nature. I think everyone is doing a ton of really cool interdisciplinary work at Duke too. I have a couple joint public policy and psychology students, for example. We have collaborations in political science and sociology. So, I think Duke, even though a lot of universities tout this claim of being interdisciplinary, they really do value doing research and science across disciplines, which is something that I think all scientists should be doing. So, we really believe in strong quantitative training, so we take that very seriously in our program from a graduate perspective, and I think we’re in this really cool movement now with a great new graduate cohort, they’ve started this amazing anti racism initiative in our department for the first time, bringing in speakers and having community building events that I think we’re just in a really exciting building time right now for us as a department too.
The other follow-up question that I have is tell us what it’s like to be an Assistant Professor. What’s your typical day look like?
So, my typical day. At the beginning of my career is very different than now ’cause I recently had twins about a year and a half ago, so I’m also an academic mom, which is a whole other new identity for me to be, uhm, you know, experiencing right now is one word that I used for it. So, when I first started out as an assistant professor, you know my every day was setting up my lab, figuring out how to recruit students, how do I teach effectively in this new space ’cause every campus or university is a little bit different with the culture, right, on how the students sort of communicate with each other. Uhm, my, most of my time is spent thinking up research ideas, though, I’m working with my graduate students, my postdocs, my undergraduates, and having discussions with them about if they think this one question makes sense or not. Or how do people even talk about identity today in America, right? ’cause these things are shifting so quickly in our society? So, I spend a lot of my times in discussions with students about what things are happening in our current world and how can we do our best using social psychology methods to translate that into a way that we can measure it in an actual control lab setting or extend it out into the community which is some of the new stuff we’re doing now. I do teach a class every semester, so I spend a lot of time teaching and class prep and those types of things. But really again, as an academic, there’s a lot of negative discussions about staying in academia on Twitter, for example. I think it’s incredible, you have so much job flexibility to ask the questions you want to ask. You don’t really have a boss other than some Deans, and they’re really not going to bother you unless you’re a horrible teacher, you’re not doing any research of any kind so you can literally make every day yours. And now that I have young kids, I have this flexible academic schedule where I can still take them to daycare and pick them up in set my meetings when I want to set them and I can do both with as much ease as I think you could do in any job, and I wouldn’t trade that for the world, so I don’t know, I love being an academic.
Congratulations on the twins by the way.
Now, you should know, you probably already know this, there’s a lot of research on twins as well, and so being an academic, it would be interesting to look at some of the twins’ research and how they are similar and different. And I always love looking at that kind of research so.
I’m trying not to psychoanalyze them too much, but it’s difficult as an academic so.
Yeah, you mentioned as part of your day, you, you advise a lot and, and as I mentioned in my introduction, you’re the principal investigator and director or is it the director and/or principal investigator?
I think either is fine.
OK of the Duke Identity and Diversity Lab. And the reason I’m bringing this up is I have found that more and more, especially if you’re going into a PhD Doctorate Program, lab experience and research is a must now and so how important from your perspective is getting lab experience for someone who wants to attend Graduate School in psychology?
It’s essential. I don’t think anyone will get into a psychology PhD program regardless if it’s social, developmental, clinical without direct research experience. It’s getting more and more competitive every year as we look through our own graduate pools. Even trying to present at conferences is something that people are looking for. So, if you are working in the lab right now, I encourage you to talk to your professor or graduate students to see if there’s even local regional conferences you can present that work at. We see a lot of people applying with publications now, so that means not working in a lab just for one semester or one quarter but making a commitment, right, and sticking with the same lab so that then you can maybe work your way up to authorship or design an honors project or something like that. We co-author with a lot of our undergrads on our projects and our labs, uhm, ’cause I think it is just this critical skill and helps you stand out a lot more in those application pools since getting a PhD is competitive and not everyone gets in. So, the more you can do to help sell what skills you have to make you seem like a better prepared graduate student is absolutely key. So, working in research labs, I think, is a must.
I saw that in a few of your YouTube videos. One of them I actually really liked, I listened to it a few times, “5 Pieces of Advice for PhD Candidates.” I’m going to put you on the spot. I have them for you, but do you remember some of the pieces of advice from that video for PhD candidates?
Yeah, I filmed that one a couple of years ago so, and I meant to rewatch it before today, I’m, I. I almost feel like I have new advice now, in some ways now that we’re in this post COVID world, ’cause I do think things have shifted a bit. And one thing that I find myself talking about with my current PhD students, other students I’m mentoring at other universities, is to really just be kind to yourself. Uhm, I don’t think we’re kind enough to ourselves, and I don’t think we realize that our whole selves are coming to work every day, right? So, pushing yourself too hard, too fast, even though I’m on here saying you all need all this research experience to get into grad school, you do, but I really want everyone to remember that we’re all humans. And we have lots of parts of ourselves and as someone who studies multiple identities for a living, it would be a disservice to me as an identity scholar if I told any of you to discount any part of you that maybe is more difficult at a given time. And so, I don’t think we give ourselves enough time to self-reflect and I think that’s something that I wish more PhD programs would actually push their students to do, just as a general practice. And I think the other thing I’ve already said, right, is to be honest about what it is you want to study, what it is you want to do. I’m up for tenure this year, so we’ll see what happens, but I really tried not to let the stress of getting tenure get to me in this process, I just did the research I wanted to do. I asked the questions I wanted to ask. I worked with the students who I wanted to work with. And I had fun along the way, and I think that’s what makes science great, so those would be some, kind of, updated tweaks I think of some of the things that I said during that video, but you can correct me.
You’ll be glad to hear that a couple of those actually do fit into some of the five that you talked about. The number four one was maintain a work life balance. You kind of talked about. Be kind to yourself and make sure you do that. Number one you said stay true to yourself which you’ve already talked about and, and be honest with yourself. Number two was ask tough questions to push science forward. And then number 3, find collaborators and a support system because you emphasized that this could be so draining. And when you’re in a masters or graduate program, it is so draining you feel all the pressure and then you, you tend to get in that mindset of oh, what am I supposed to be doing? What should I be working on? But having that, maintaining that, work life balance and shutting that off for a second really benefits you because a lot of the studies do show that when you disengage then you come back more refreshed and focused later on. And then the final one that you did say is take risks. And I, I thought of this, you didn’t say this, but I thought of the “Yes Man” kind of a movie and, and everything else. So those were the five and I’ll say those again: Stay true to yourself, ask tough questions, find collaborators and support system, maintain work life balance, and then Take risks so you added a couple others or you kind of elaborated a little bit more on those as well, so I’ll, I’ll have this on the screen as well. I’ll share a screen for this YouTube video and then your other videos as well. You have a good question answer video that you talk about. And then you went into some of your, I think one of these was extra credit for maybe one of your classes “Randomly Assigned Roommates: What are the Effects?” And then you had a good video abstract of one of your, I believe it was back when you were in the baby lab, it shows, “Sarah Gaither’s Video Abstract for Developmental Science: Biracial Infants and Eye Tracking” and so I found that very interesting as well so.
Yep, that was my first publication ever. So, uhm, and it was a collaboration and I think that’s what makes science fun, right? Science can be so lonely and there’s lots of rejection and stress, but if you work with people who you like, it’s basically the best job in the world you just hang out with your science friends and find out some cool findings it’s, I think doing science alone is, is not the right answer for anyone, but that’s my own personal bias so.
So, you mentioned this already a couple times. On your Twitter page, you list yourself as a Social and Developmental Psychologist at Duke University studying social identities at the Duke ID lab. And so, I will share a screen on the different branches of psychology and social and developmental, what are the main differences, uhm, to you in your own words. For those who are listening the first time and have never heard of social psychologists or developmental psychologists. What are some of the main differences?
Yeah, I actually think they’re not that different. I actually wish there weren’t areas of psychology to be honest. I think everyone is a social psychologist and everyone is a developmental psychologist. I think for, for me on definition wise I guess the main thing that differs is developmental psychologists tend to look a little more at the context and what are these developmental pathways or experiences or trajectories that have shaped out as we think now. Are their age differences, right, across the early lifespan, in particular, though some developmental psychologists do study elderly populations, the majority, I think, are focused on early childhood and adolescence. Social psychology, on the other hand, studies lots of things from romantic relationships, our decision making and behaviors, what things buy us, how it is we see our world and who it is we judge and categorize. Uhm, but again I think all of us are social psychologists even if you go into clinical psychology, ’cause we’ve all judged someone at some point and that’s social psychology. So those to me are kind of the main ways people like to define them as different areas of research, but I think everyone does both and everyone should be doing both ’cause without considering the context you’re not going to be able to fully analyze what your results may mean anyway, so.
I agree with you. I was actually, on one of my more recent podcasts that should go live here in a couple days Dr. Steven C. Hayes said the exact same thing. He said I did not want to be narrowed down. I wanted to be able to search and research anything I want, and he said Brad, think about it, anything that you can talk about, I can relate and study under the psychology, psychology rubric and that umbrella. So, to your point, almost anything can be applied in, in psychology. What do you love most about your job Sarah?
I think working with students, I think that’s honestly it I, I. People ask me, oh, why did you not go into industry? You could get paid a lot more doing diversity consulting, things like that, but I get so much joy out of teaching my students working with my students, seeing those a-ha moments they have for the first time when they find that new results or finding. I love motivating people and I, I could probably do that in some industry jobs, but at least right now my heart tells me I’m doing that fine in the context that I’m in, so I, I love working with my students and I think also in, in line with those PhD kind of tips giving a voice to populations in research that haven’t had a voice to date. I think that’s, you know, you can’t put a price on providing research and findings to support a demographic or a group of people who have been historically ignored within an entire field of science. So, that’s really what gets me going every day.
Looking toward the future, what other goals or challenges do you have for yourself or the lab?
I think going forward, my dog is now barking, so I apologize for that, uhm, but I think going forward, you know the notion of what an identity is, is shifting all the time. Uhm, the multiracial demographic is growing really quickly, which is good job security for me in some ways, which is great, but I think defining what it means to be a certain race, right, is tricky, and it’s getting more and more complicated. Especially as we start considering the intersecting identities that we have with other groups, and that’s something that I don’t think psychology as a field has done a very good job with to date. Trying to figure out how we can recruit larger samples to look at these intersections with gender, disability, sexual orientation. That’s where we need to go as a field but there’s only so much time and so much money.
What advice would you give somebody trying to break into the field of psychology?
I think kind of like what I said in the PhD tips, uhm, ask the questions you want to ask, right? Do your homework though, right, lots of questions have already been asked and the worst thing you could do is start out on a research project and not do a thorough enough literature review, which is why I think that’s the best skill anyone could ever develop, because you’ll waste so much time and money collecting data for something that’s maybe already been discovered, and that’s not going to get you a job in either industry or academia. Do your homework. Do your lit reviews there, there they can be fun, I promise.
I agree with you. When I worked on my thesis and then my dissertation, I came up with a question that I thought was so brilliant. Oh my gosh, I haven’t seen this and then you do a quick search and, oh, somebody’s already looked at it. But even if you find that somebody looked at it, you can extend that or apply it in different areas so always keep that in the back of your mind. So, at the end of our podcast, we usually ask a few fun questions. So, tell us something unique about yourself.
I think something unique about myself, my tongue can touch my nose actually, that’s one of my fun facts though. That’s unique, I think. I don’t think anyone, not everyone can do that so.
That’s interesting, I know that we could Google that right now and I could do that for you and, and find out what percentage of people can actually touch their tongue to their nose. The other one is, and I won’t ask you to do that, and you noticed that I, I bypass that so.
I can do it, it’s fine. There it goes.
There you go. Nice, quick. What is your favorite term, principle, or theory and why?
I think social identity theory has to be my go-to theory. It’s one of the quintessential theories in social psychology that has originally defined how it is our identities are so important to us, right? It frames us as having these distinct in-groups and out-groups of who makes us who we are, and my work is building directly on this, on this theory by trying to argue that we don’t have just one in-group and one out-group. We have multiple in-groups and multiple out-groups which again gets that intersectionality that I think psychology needs to be a better job considering.
Here’s one that’s, it can stay within the academic field or your research or outside. What is something new that you have learned recently?
Something new that I’ve learned recently. That’s a, a good question. I’m trying to think of positive things, our world is full of lots of negative things, and it’s a good way to end this.
I think one thing that I’ve learned recently, I guess, is how easily Twitter can be dismantled. It’s Elon Musk’s recent takeover of Twitter. I love academic Twitter. I love it as a space for sharing science and connecting with collaborators and bragging about all of my students’ accomplishments. But seeing how quickly one shift in leadership or change can actually dismantle an entire institution. I just haven’t actually wrapped my head around that until these past couple of weeks, and so that’s been something that’s been very interesting for me to follow as someone who loves academic Twitter and loves the space that it is. I’ve joined Mastodon now, which is this new Twitter migration space. It’s, it’s getting there. I’m figuring out the space still, but it reminds me how incredibly constructed lots of things are in our society as someone who studies race for a living right. Race is a socially constructed category. We have constructed what it means. And Twitter, I think, is this weird abstract way of thinking about other constructions in our everyday social communications of how it is we get news or connect with others. So, I think that’s been something I’ve been thinking about a lot the last couple weeks.
Very timely, very interesting. I found the same thing. I see, I’ve seen some changes. One final question for you is if you had the time and money to complete one project or go on one trip, what would you do?
I think I’d be selfish and take a around the world trip and do it myself actually. I’ve always, I love traveling. I haven’t gone to many places around the world. I actually never traveled internationally until I was an undergrad, that’s when I got my first passport, so I would love to take an around the world trip and if I had it tied in with research figuring out how being multiracial, multicultural, what are the universal things even across other contexts and landscapes, I think would be really fascinating to figure out how it is we have constructed race uniquely in the US compared to other places. There’s been very little cross-cultural work on multiracial and multiethnic populations.
I think that there’s a larger percentage out there that would love to do around the world trip than there is who can touch their tongue or their nose. So, I agree with you, I’d love that around the world trip. Sarah, is there anything else that you’d like to discuss or bring up on this podcast?
Uh, I don’t think so. I think the last thing I’d say just for people who are sort of thinking about what paths they want to do, it, it doesn’t always work out your first time applying. Uhm, I work with lots of students who apply one year to PhD programs or master’s programs and don’t get in. They get a little more experience and then they get in the following year. I think the other common debate of thinking about do I apply straight from undergrad, do I take time off and get more experience? That’s a very personal choice, and it depends on how much research experience you’ve already had, how sure it is you are about what it is you want to study. Uhm, but don’t be afraid to fail sometimes. I know we’re in this society, especially this new Gen Z generation has this fear of failure is the stereotype that they already have, but you’re going to fail, but it doesn’t mean you’re always going to fail, right? And so, keeping true to yourself and making sure that you’re getting the experience you need. Uhm, and that it’s OK to throw yourself out there if you don’t always get the ball thrown back at you, you might get it next year.
Well Sarah, I really enjoyed our talk. I appreciate you taking the time out of your busy schedule to give us some of your journey and advice. I believe based on the research that I’m seeing and, and your publications, good luck on tenure. I’m sure it will happen. Thanks again for sharing your time with us.
Thanks for having me.