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Perspectives on Professional Development in Psychology: An Interview with Elizabeth Kensinger

George M. Slavich, Ph.D.
University of California, San Francisco

The Clinical Psychologist

Dr. Elizabeth Kensinger graduated summa cum laude from Harvard University, with a B.A. in psychology and biology, and received her Ph.D. in neuroscience from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Currently, she is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Boston College, where she is a beloved teacher and successful early career scientist. Dr. Kensinger’s scientific productivity is remarkable (e.g., she has published nine articles or chapters per year since 2003), and she is also the recipient of many grants and awards. In this column, I ask her to share with us her secrets for success while discussing her perspectives on professional development!

GMS: First, congratulations on your many successes, and thank you for offering to share your thoughts on professional development with us!

EAK: Thank you for inviting me. I think forums like this are very important because one of the hardest aspects of starting an independent career is the abrupt transition from having a large cohort of peers with whom you can discuss career development to being one of only a handful of junior faculty at an institution.

GMS: What were your primary goals as a graduate student at MIT and why?

EAK: Going into graduate school, I knew that I wanted to study human memory, but I had no particular research question and I wasn’t sure at what analytical level I wanted to investigate human memory. This meant I really had two goals for myself when I entered graduate school. My first goal was to expand my knowledge of neuroscience methods and to gain a better appreciation for how multiple levels of analysis could be used to address a research question; my second goal was to focus my research interests. Dr. Suzanne Corkin’s laboratory was an excellent fit with both these goals because I could study human memory using multiple approaches: by testing healthy individuals, interacting with patients with memory deficits, and conducting functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans. I also had the freedom to explore a number of research topics, and I had Sue’s full support when I found the topic that I wanted to spend my career researching: emotional memory.

GMS: Following graduate school at MIT, you returned to Harvard to post-doc with your undergraduate mentor, Dr. Daniel Schacter. What were the main benefits of this experience?

EAK: I began doing MRI research fairly late in my graduate career, and I thought that gaining expertise with a wider array of MRI acquisition and analysis techniques would better prepare me for leading my own laboratory. I had enjoyed every moment in Dan’s laboratory as an undergraduate, and so I jumped at the opportunity to return as a post-doc. For me, doing a post-doc was instrumental in facilitating a smooth transition to my junior faculty position. In addition to expanding my research skills, I gained more experience in grant writing, taught several undergraduate seminars, and served as an advisor for some undergraduate thesis projects. These experiences enabled me to tackle the teaching-mentoring-research triad required of a junior faculty member.

GMS: It appears that you love to teach. How do you see this activity relating to your research in particular and your professional development in general?

EAK: Teaching forces me to take a step back and to think broadly about the importance of my research and its relation to the field of psychological science. These abilities are essential when I’m writing a manuscript for a wide-reaching audience or when I’m putting together a grant application. More generally, teaching keeps me motivated by reminding me how many questions remain unanswered. It also emphasizes to me that we’re not going to solve all the mysteries of the human mind in my lifetime, so it’s essential that we teach the next generation well and lay as strong a research framework as possible upon which they can build.

GMS: Obtaining major grants is often important for professional advancement. Acquiring such funding, however, has become increasingly difficult. What is your strategy for remaining successful during these times?

EAK: First, I figure out what question I want to answer and then I look for funding to support that line of research. When I am looking for funding sources, I search grant databases at least once a month to learn about upcoming deadlines, and I often look beyond the obvious federal funding sources for opportunities from smaller agencies or private foundations. Second, once I’ve identified an agency whose goals seem to match up with my research interests, I spend time researching that agency: What are their motivations in funding the type of research that I do? Who reviews the grant applications, and do they have expertise in my field? Who has received awards from this agency in the past and what has been the scope of their projects? I use this knowledge to tailor my research proposal so that it clearly describes how my research fits with the agency’s goals. Third, I try to view grant writing as a way to clarify my thinking on a topic rather than as a way to secure funding. Trying to anticipate the critiques of grant reviewers helps me to think critically about my own ideas, so I benefit from the grant writing process even if the grant is not funded.

GMS: What does the future of psychological science look like from your standpoint?

EAK: I think that psychological science will increasingly place emphasis on individual differences and on the use of multiple levels of analysis to understand human behavior. The line between psychology and neuroscience will blur, with laboratories researching how individuals’ genes, brain structure, brain function, gender, and personality influence behavior.

GMS: What can students do to be better prepared for this future?

EAK: It is critical for students to gain broad training in psychological and neuroscience methods. For example, even if students aren’t planning to use MRI or other neuroimaging techniques in their own research, they should understand how those methods work and how to evaluate how well a neuroimaging study was conducted.

GMS: Finally, what is the best professional development advice that you ever received?

EAK: To keep searching until I found a tractable research question to which I had to know the answer. Once I found that question, everything fell into place for me. There are Saturday mornings when I wake up with the sun to analyze data, not because of an approaching deadline, but because I cannot wait a moment longer to know whether or not my hypothesis has been supported.

GMS: On behalf of the student members of Division 12, thanks for your time!

EAK: Thanks, my pleasure.


Slavich, G. M. (2008). Perspectives on professional development in psychology: An interview with Elizabeth Kensinger. The Clinical Psychologist, 61(2), 10-11.

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George M. Slavich, Ph.D. :: Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology
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