Field of Science

"Every psychology major starts by wanting to be a therapist"

One of my officemates, also a first-year graduate student, recently claimed that all undergraduate psychology majors enter the field because they want to be therapists. This definitely wasn't true of me. I often forget that there is a branch of psychology that does therapy (this is easy to forget at my school, which doesn't offer a counseling program. In fact, I'm not sure any school I applied to offers a counseling program). But, then, I wasn't a psychology major.

Someone recently suggested to me that I write about who I am and how I got here. I personally doubt anybody is all that interested in my life story, but I do have one reason to tell bits and pieces of it. Most people seem to know very little about psychology. In fact, for all my father is a professor of psychology and I had worked in several psychology labs, I knew far too little about the career track at first, and I believe this hurt me the first time I applied to graduate school (yes, I applied twice). A lot of really crucial information simply isn't available.

This post kicks of what will be a series of probably non-consecutive posts about the psychology career track, as illustrated by my own path (keep in mind that I'm only half way there).

First, since my father was a psychologist, I was determined not to be. That had already been done. Otherwise, though, I had no good idea what I might do, other than a vague idea that maybe I'd be a writer.

One day in a deep Ohio December, as I was at my study carrel in Mudd Library studying for discrete mathematics exam, suddenly, the clouds parted, the light shone down, angels sang, and I knew what I wanted to do:

Artificial intelligence.

When asked what that meant, I typically said that I wanted to make one of these, but what really interested me was making a talking robot. Artificial intelligence wasn't a course track really offered at Oberlin, and though I majored in computer science for a while, I eventually switched to math, which I found more appealing. In the meantime, I volunteered at the Brain and Language Lab at Georgetown University.

I really enjoyed my work at Georgetown. Then, I went to a conference on natural language processing, which is essentially the field of trying to make a talking robot, and I was very disappointed. It wasn't want I imagined at all. At the time -- and maybe still now -- the most successful technique was to use a lot of templates. This seems to work very well -- and if you believe Tomasello's theory about language, it might even be how humans produce language -- but it wasn't for me. I preferred my current work in cognitive neuroscience.

So, for a while, I was going to be a cognitive neuroscientist. However, it turns out that there are very few cognitive neuroscience labs that study high-level language processing, particularly in the cities that were options for me in terms of graduate school. Relative to memory or vision, for instance, it has been difficult to use traditional cognitive neuroscience techniques to learn about language. The best fits turned out to be primarily labs in psychology departments. So, reluctantly, I decided to mostly apply to those (recall that I didn't want to be a psychologist).

It actually gets worse. I ended up in a developmental psychology lab. My father is a school psychologist, which is quite different on many levels, but it's still about the psychology of children. Thus, my path to psychology may be summarized as one man's unsuccessful fight against Nature.

For those of you working in the cognitive sciences, feel free to leave a comment with your story.

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