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.