Interview with Prof. Nelson Cowan

Nelson Cowan is a Curators’ Professor of Psychology at the University of Missouri. His research focuses on short-term memory, working memory and selective attention in information processing. Amongst other findings, Cowan is well known for bringing the working memory capacity down from Millers magical 7+/-2 items to a more realistic 3-4 items. cowan_new

What I enjoy most about my job as a researcher … I enjoy the ability to decide what aspect of the human mind to investigate, and how to investigate it.  Toward the beginning of my career, my greatest enjoyment was probably coming up with the experimental design myself to address a deep philosophical question about the mind.  Now, I think I take at least equal delight when I have helped guide a student or colleague, inspiring them in a joint insight or a guided version of their own insight that hopefully benefits from my observations and many years of experience in the field.  It is especially enjoyable when I learn something in the process, which happens often. Of course, seeing the final write-up in published form is usually gratifying as well.

The biggest challenge in my career so far was … My biggest challenge was, and is, management of assistants in the laboratory.  I worry about it sometimes.  Each person comes with his or her own aspirations, preconceptions, knowledge base, personality, and so on.  I cannot assume, for example, that what worked for me as a graduate student will work equally well for any graduate student in the laboratory, and I cannot assume that what makes me happy will make someone else happy.  The best I can do is try to inspire others.  I occasionally come to the realization that the fit between a certain person and my laboratory may not be right. It is hard to remember to dedicate enough time to finding out as soon as possible what a potential laboratory member is really like, how they are likely to get along with the rest of the laboratory, whether they are humble enough to consider the ideas of others, and so on.  Management of a laboratory is especially challenging in the face of other pressing deadlines and tasks.

One research project I will never forget is… I probably will never forget my investigation of a philosophy professor with the ability to talk backward rapidly, which he developed in childhood.  When I was still in graduate school in the late 1970s, I was handed this project by a mentor and co-author, Prof. Lewis Leavitt.  We wanted to find out what this philosophy professor’s skill could teach us about the psychology of language and about individual differences in cognitive abilities.  In the process, we helped the professor fulfill his wish to appear on the Johnny Carson show and, as a result of his fame in that regard, he received letters from many other people around the world with a similar skill, whom we were then able to study (often long-distance).  We published several articles on this topic in the 1980s.  From time to time, someone new with a similar skill emerges and the excitement returns.  Someday I would like to use a brain imaging approach to help find out how these unusual people carry out their special skill.

What I look for in a student who wants to work under my supervision … There are certain intellectual abilities that are essential, of course.  Beyond that, I am especially interested in students with enthusiasm for the topic, for an intrinsic reason rather than an extrinsic one.  An extrinsic reason is that they find the field challenging and interesting, though other fields would do just as well.  An intrinsic reason is that they are eager to find out how the human mind works, and are willing to sacrifice conveniences in their life in order to have the privilege of being in the position to continue to do research, to learn, and to find out little by little about the mind.  That takes patience and constancy of purpose, and intrinsic motivation helps more than extrinsic.

Student research could be improved by … There needs to be more emphasis on training experiences that hard-boil students when it comes to some important skills.  A class in which research-based writing is shared among students, focusing on overall organization and communication of ideas, could help.  Critical to good writing is the ability to adopt the likely point of views of the readers and frame the writing with these views in mind.  When you write your first draft it looks to you as if the writing says what you mean.  In reality, it often may be ambiguous and might be interpreted not only in the way you mean, but in other ways you didn’t think of. Also, the writing may impose too much of a burden on the reader’s working memory, which can be remedied by putting first the information that helps the reader organize the rest of the sentence or passage.  Students would also benefit from as much exposure as possible to the process of responding to reviewers.  That process is where a lot of the best learning comes in. (Note one problem though:  it can be an unexpected slap in the face for a very smart student who has received excellent grades all of his or her life, to have to read negative reviews of a manuscript submitted for publication.)  An adequate response to reviewers is one in which the authors have given serious thought to reviews and have improved the manuscript as much as possible without being overly defensive. On the other hand the successful authors don’t allow the reviews to steamroll right over them or to make them overly discouraged.  They stick to their own point of view if it still seems right after giving very serious consideration to the possible alternatives or, if it does not seem right, they modify their views in a principled manner that best accounts for all available evidence.  Students need to learn to be authors who do their best to explain to the editors and reviewers their point of view, to modify that view when warranted, and to persist until a good outcome is obtained. Some of the most innovative papers have gone through that kind of tough process.

Academically, I most admire … There are many people in the field, and outside of it, whom I admire greatly for different qualities.  However, I don’t think it is a good idea to take any one person and put him or her on a pedestal.  I certainly don’t want my students to put me in that position.  We all struggle with ideas that are increasingly complex in the field, multiple topics to master that are related to our own interests, the continuing need for insightful and elegant new research designs, the need to consider difficult ethical issues, the increasing need to work in teams, the need to communicate well in writing and speech, and so on.  No one researcher embodies all of these qualities the best for me and I don’t want to fall into the habit of emulating someone.  It is the academic system with peer review that I admire when it works as it should; it can help bring out the best in all of us.

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career … I wish someone had told me how important it is to seek advice, as often as you can, from people who may know something about whatever it is that you want to learn or are planning to do in your career.  For some people this will be a no-brainer, but it was not so for me.  My parents were very busy with a special-needs younger brother of mine (and with two other younger siblings of mine) and it didn’t occur to me that adults who have time can help you think realistically about your options.  It took me about 10 years after high school to understand this and, still, I have to check myself so I don’t make rash decisions without talking them over with experts and smart colleagues first when possible.

The largest changes in psychological science in the next 10 years will be … I don’t know, maybe the gradual replacement of journals with stand-alone electronic articles?  The web should allow more individualized delivery of research, so that each of us can receive a collection of articles in our own fields of most interest rather than seeing, each month, a semi-random collection of articles of interest to diverse people.  Even now, I am not sure how many researchers systematically look through the journal contents as in the old days of paper journals.  Beyond this possibility (and the potential problems that it might pose, such as overspecialization), I have taken a more extensive and light-hearted approach to predicting the future of the field on line in an essay as past president of Division 3 of the American Psychological Association:  Cowan, N. (2009, March). President’s Message: A Brief History of Experimental Psychology, 1850 – 2125. The Experimental Psychology Bulletin, 13, 1. 

Interview with Dr. David Klemanski

David Klemanski is Director of the Yale Center for Anxiety and Mood Disorders and lecturer of Psychology and Psychiatry. His research interests include mood and anxiety disorders (e.g., social phobia, generalised anxiety disorder, PTSD) in adolescents. His recent research focuses on individual differences in emotion regulation strategies. droppedImage_1

What I enjoy most about my job as a researcher … On a professional level, I most enjoy the opportunity to contribute to a wider area of knowledge in psychological science.  My research is based in affective science and focused on adolescents with anxiety and mood disorders.  In my work, I strive to conduct research that has real world relevance and allows me to better understand how to effect change in terms of how adolescents and young adults understand and regulate their emotions in more adaptive ways. On a personal level, I enjoy the ability to spend time better grounding myself in the latest and greatest research by reading and learning from my colleagues.  I have been incredibly fortunate to work with some of the brightest minds in our field and appreciate the opportunity to collaborate with them to inform and educate the public about mental health.

The biggest challenge in my career so far was … There are many day to day challenges researchers face (e.g., funding, time for thinking, reading, and writing, and conducting studies, confidence, etc.), but my biggest challenge is related to my concern about how our work in clinical psychology is translated and disseminated to the public. There are several credible and effective forms of evidence based treatments for an array of mental health disorders, but some are not well known and some are not readily available for those most in need.

One research project I will never forget is… Many of the research projects on which I have worked have been memorable and enjoyable, especially when working with my colleagues and students at Yale.  The most memorable project, however, was my dissertation on compulsive hoarding.  It was the first project that truly turned me on to science because of the wonderful and helpful guidance of my mentor, David Tolin, Ph.D., and because of the opportunity to define my own research interests and goals for this particular study.

What I look for in a student who wants to work under my supervision … Students should be enthusiastic about their work, conscientious, and knowledgeable about their field of interest.  Also, students should be able to convey how they will integrate their interests into the research already being conducted in the Lab to which they are applying.  This includes working on studies already in progress, collaborating with other students, and developing their own line of research.

Student research could be improved by … I have been fortunate to work for an institution that uses a junior colleague mentorship model.  As students develop skills, they should be mentored and supported so that they can develop their own program of research. I also think it is important for students to be exposed to a more diverse range of research content and methodologies.  Students should be encouraged to work with multiple faculty, to develop grant proposals for novel and innovative studies, and to be informed by various areas within psychology and in other fields.

I also think initiatives, much like your Journal, are incredibly important for helping students develop confidence about their research by learning from their peers.  Mentorship among peers is as important as mentorship from faculty and senior researchers.

Academically, I most admire … The researcher whom I most admire is Professor Susan Nolen-Hoeksema. Susan, who recently and unexpectedly passed away, shaped the mental health field’s perspective on gender differences in depression.  More specifically, she studied the role of rumination, which is the tendency to respond to distress by focusing on the causes and consequences of problems without actively solving the problems.  Her work in this area was incredibly important and has led to thousands of studies and papers to better understand the role of rumination as a vulnerability to developing depression, anxiety, substance use, eating disorders and more. Part of my own work is to study a form of rumination known as post-event processing, in social anxiety disorder in adolescents.  In addition to her scholarly work, she was a genuinely remarkable mentor, a captivating teacher, and a model academic leader.  Susan has profoundly influenced my career, both in terms of my research program and how to mentor students.

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career … The best advice I received during my early career was to never be the smartest person in the room and not to personalize the decisions that are made about you (i.e., your research, manuscript decisions, promotions, funding decisions, etc.).  Both of these ideals have been useful in developing my career and in navigating my role in academia.

The largest changes in psychological science in the next 10 years will be … I believe psychological science will gain even greater relevance, especially in terms of its application to other core areas of science.  As an early career researcher, I think it’s important to think about the relevance and application of my work to not only clinical psychological science, but also to other areas within psychology and in public health and public policy.

Interview with Prof. Daniel Simons

Daniel Simons is Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois. His lab does research on visual cognition, attention, perception, memory, change blindness, metacognition and intuition. He is especially well known for his experiments on inattentional blindness, e.g. the famous invisible gorilla experiment.


What I enjoy most about my job as a researcher … I get the most enjoyment from analyzing new data to see what we found. That moment when you learn what you found continues to be rewarding no matter how many studies you’ve done. I also enjoy writing and editing. There are few aspects of the research process I don’t like, actually.

The biggest challenge in my career so far was … I’m not sure that there’s one single challenge I can point to. I’d say that the time of greatest anxiety was my first job search, not knowing whether I would get a job or where it would be. I guess the greatest personal challenge for me was getting used to rejection. Most academics go into academics because they have been successful as students and are used to getting positive feedback on their performance. Yet, once you start doing research, the accolades are rarer than rejections. All academics have papers, grants, and proposals rejected regularly, and succeeding in academics requires perseverance in the face of fairly constant rejection. There are plenty of positives, but getting used to rejection and not taking it personally was a big challenge.

One research project I will never forget is… I’ve had several experiences in conducting research that were unforgettable. I like conducting studies that involve actual interaction with participants, and it’s those interactions that are memorable. If I had to pick one study, it was a collaborative project with Daniel Levin in which we swapped one experimenter for another in the middle of an interaction and many people didn’t notice that they were talking with someone else. The study took extensive staging, including finding a place to hide the experimenters and a big wooden door behind some bushes. The first time I asked a participant if they had noticed anything unusual and realized that they had no idea that we had swapped actors was magical.

What I look for in a student who wants to work under my supervision … For undergraduates interested in working with me, I look for good performance in relevant classes, conscientiousness, and enthusiasm. Everything else can be learned. For graduate students, I look for students who are self-motivated and who come to my lab with their own ideas. I don’t want my graduate students to be clones of me, and I encourage them to develop an independent line of research early in graduate school.

Student research could be improved by … I think all students would benefit by trying to conduct a direct replication of a study that interests them before they start trying to develop their own studies. The experience of trying to replicate another study provides training with all aspects of the research process. It even helps students learn what information to include in a writeup of their own research (by seeing what information was missing from one they tried to replicate).

Academically, I most admire … If I had to pick one academic I admire most, I’d choose Ulric Neisser. Throughout his career, he conducted truly original research. But, more importantly, he was willing to challenge his own claims. He loved a good argument.

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career … I had great advisors throughout my career, and I don’t feel like I missed out on any important advice. The only thing I wish I had done as an undergraduate or graduate student is to have devoted more time to becoming a better programmer. That would have opened up more possibilities for me, and it would have sped up the research process in some cases.

The largest changes in psychological science in the next 10 years will be … I think we’re on the cusp of a number of big changes in the field. I expect to see major changes in how science is communicated, including some big changes to the traditional journal outlets. I’m hoping that most journals will shift to online formats, with many of them becoming open access. I’m also hoping we’ll see pre-registered studies become more commonplace, with better data sharing practices by most researchers. So, I guess if I had to predict how the field will look in 10 years, I would expect to see much greater transparency and openness in both the research process and publication/dissemination of research.

Interview with Prof. Ralph Hertwig

Ralph Hertwig is director of the Center for Adaptive Rationality at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. He is well known for his interdisciplinary research on cognitive search, judgment, and decision making under risk and uncertainty. To this end, his lab uses a wide array of methods, ranging from experiments, surveys, and computer simulations to neuroscientific tools. 

Ralph Hertwig

What I enjoy most about my job as a researcher … What I most enjoy is the opportunity to team up with people from other fields or schools of thought and produce something I could never have come up with on my own. Continue reading

Interview with Prof. Steven Luck

Steven J. Luck is Professor of Psychology and the Director of the Center for Mind & Brain at the University of California, Davis. Dr. Luck is known for his research on the neural and cognitive mechanisms of attention and working memory in healthy young adults and dysfunctions of attention and working memory in psychiatric and neurological disorders. He is also a leading authority on ERP research and leads ERP Boot Camps.


What I enjoy most about my job as a researcher … What I enjoy most is designing experiments.  We can’t see or touch the human mind, so it is a great challenge to figure out creative ways of testing hypotheses about cognitive processes.   Continue reading

Interview with Prof. Daniel Gilbert

Daniel T. Gilbert is Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. He is a social psychologist known for his research on affective forcasting, with a special emphasis on cognitive biases such as impact bias. He is the author of the international bestseller Stumbling on Happiness, which has been translated into more than 25 languages. He is also very well known for his TED talks, which were watched over 10 million times.


What I enjoy most about my job as a researcher … is working with my collaborators, who range from undergraduates to full professors. Spending your life exploring ideas is a pleasure, but spending your life exploring them with friends is a joy. Continue reading

Ethics – The Science of Morals, Rules and Behaviour


ethicsEthical boards are in place to evaluate the ethical feasibility of a study by weighing the possible negative effects against the possible positive effects of the research project (Barret, 2006). When designing your research project, it could be that you need to apply for ethical approval. This is a challenging task as there are strict guidelines to abide to when drawing up a proposal. This is where your supervisor can help – with their experience, they have a clear idea of what would be accepted for someone applying for ethical approval for an undergraduate or master study. There is a great importance to abiding by ethics, in research and in practice.The importance lies in the fact that care is taken for the participant, researcher and wider society. It creates a filter for good standard of research with as minimal harm being done as possible. Continue reading

”Writefull” Can Help Your Academic Writing!

Have you ever done a Google search to check if your writing is correct? Many of us do it all the time – especially when writing in our second language. The idea behind this approach is simple: The more results Google gives us (i.e. the more often our chunk is found on the Internet), the more ‘accepted’ it apparently is. For example, if we are not sure if the correct form is ‘looking forward to seeing you’ or ‘looking forward to see you’, Google will tell us it might be better to use the first (148,000,000 versus 15,800,000 results). This way, Google can serve as an incredibly useful tool to help us in our (academic) writing. Continue reading

Engaging in a Research Project with an International Team – Opportunities and Problems

ID-100160549Doing science is great, but doing it together with people you can learn from and who share your research interests – that’s fantastic! Add the cross-cultural dimension to the project and it grows even better! Why doesn’t everyone do that? Regrettably the projects involving collaborative work with other young scientists and/or students who love research can often be hard to begin and even tougher to maintain. Although undeniably rewarding, working in a traditional team already has a number of difficulties, while doing it with people who you can’t communicate with face-to-face adds a whole new pile of concerns. Let’s face it – even with a great concept writing a paper doesn’t always go smoothly and it can turn into tough, uninspiring work; keeping up with an international team and all the things that come with being part of one (things we often don’t even have to think of when working alone, such as communication problems, file storage, different ethics procedures than these in our academic institution, other people’s needs, skills and motivation, etc.) can quickly turn our initial enthusiasm into disillusionment.  Well, thanks to the advances in technology and some good old tips and ideas – it doesn’t have to be so bleak and discouraging! Read on for some useful strategies, ideas and tools to help start off your collaboration efforts, keep your team together, your productivity high and your experiences positive while conducting cross-cultural research with peers from abroad!  Continue reading

Why Would Researchers Skip Peer-Review? Media Reports of Unpublished Findings

‘You love your iPhone. Literally.’ ‘This is your brain on politics.’ ‘Overclock your brain using transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS).’ There are many other claims in psychology which have been publicised by the media, yet remain unchecked by academic experts. Peer-reviewed publications – papers which have been checked by researchers of similar expertise to the authors – are produced very slowly and only occasionally make instant impacts outside the walls of academia. In contrast, media publications are produced very quickly and provoke immediate reactions from the general public. Continue reading