In conversation with Professor William Cunningham

Cunningham is one of five academics behind Science column ‘Letters to Young Scientists’

Science Careers has launched ‘Letters to Young Scientists,’ a column that aims to offer students in the sciences useful and candid advice.

The column is inspired by scientists’ century-long tradition of sending letters with words of wisdom to aspiring scientists.

According to Science, ‘Letters to Young Scientists’ borrows its name from EO Wilson’s Letters to a Young Scientist and John Cacioppo’s “A Letter to Young Scientists.”

One of the authors of this monthly feature is William Cunningham, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto who studies emotion and self-perception.

Recently, The Varsity had the opportunity to speak with Cunningham about this new initiative and his advice to students considering or currently in graduate studies.

The Varsity: What drew you to this new initiative and what do you hope the impact of this column will be?

William Cunningham: Jay Van Bavel and June Gruber, two professors that initiated the column, are very public all the time. When they started putting out information to the world through social media channels, many people were suddenly downloading all of their materials that they just made for their graduate students.

I think they started to realize that there’s wide variety in graduate student mentorship. You can luck into having a great mentor who will sit down and work with you all the time and you can also have a mentor who basically abandons you and you never see them again.

Even if you have a good mentor, there’s a lot of different perspectives. I have some ideas of what it means to be a great graduate student I know it works for me and I believe it works for my students.

Obviously, you want different perspectives, to have a resource where various people can put ideas out and start debating and talking about them, and I felt there was a gap to be filled.

TV: How do you think the digital age has redefined mentorship? Do you believe that social media platforms such as Instagram and Twitter are a valuable platform for mentorship?

WC: I generally believe, maybe it’s because I’m old, that the best form of mentorship is one-on-one where you really understand the person’s unique situation. I worry a little bit about a lot of the advice that gets put to social media it’s very unfiltered. It’s very angry a lot of the time, and oftentimes very pessimistic.

One thing I’ve noticed especially in the academic world is that the more time you spend on Twitter, the more you’re convinced you should never get a PhD, you should never bother, everything is stacked against you, and that life is just a giant pile of misfortune, whereas, that’s really not the case.

Most people who work hard and want some type of academic job, at least in psychology, will get it. I feel like sometimes this Twitter world of setting up this massive feeling of pessimism is not helping anyone.

Someone once told me that the best way of succeeding is having unrealistic optimism, because if you fall short of your overly optimistic goal, you still massively succeed.

I think that the goal of this column is to try to frame things in ways that are going to be more optimistic.

TV: What are unique pressures today’s young scientists face and what needs to change in graduate and postgraduate education to counteract these cultural problems in science?

WC: There has been a change in expectation over time. When I went to graduate school in the 1990s, people didn’t think they were all going to get jobs at Harvard.

I never anticipated I would end up in a place like the University of Toronto. I think that a lot of people, like when I went to graduate school, had more realistic ideas about where they were going to end up.

It’s really important for people to know that the other end of it isn’t guaranteed. If everyone is trying to be the best person on the market, that means everyone but the best person… on the market feels like a failure.

The other end of it also comes from the internet, that I think it allows a lot more social comparison. It really comes down to expectations and social comparison. I believe people set themselves up for seeing anything other than one version as failure, as opposed to seeing a myriad of types of success. 

TV: What would you say to someone who is unsure of pursuing science if they don’t feel like they will fit in?

WC: Someone might think they want to be in psychology but they realize they wanted to do cellular biology. Why take five years to figure that out, when you can do one year and say, ‘Look, I still want to be a scientist but I didn’t realize psychology was this kind of science,’ or ‘I didn’t realize that chemistry was just going to be beakers.’

Here’s strange advice about fitting in. You never want to feel excluded.

The concern about graduate school for many is that they are unsure what they will get in five years and whether graduate school is a stepping stone to the next stage of an individual’s career path. It’s not a lifetime commitment. Sometimes you might make sacrifices to make the short-term end.

Regardless, the most important aspect of graduate school is your relationship with the advisor. If someone gets along with the advisor interpersonally and they have a good dynamic, that will help out in so many other places. I feel like, out of all the things, that’s the one you should be monitoring the most.

TV: What is one piece of advice you would give to your younger self?

WC: I wish I had tried to seek out more tractable things early on such as building toward  larger goals and specializing in one or two phenomena.  I think  I was all over the place, as opposed to really diving deeply on one thing. I ended up being a jack of all trades, which I enjoyed, but I think I suffered from it a bit later in my career.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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