Personal, Psychology

Why I Became a Psychologist

This is the personal question my students have asked me most often over the years, which makes it as good a place as any to start.

image of the Greek letter psi, which is a commonly used symbol for psychology I have a few memories of being young—I was probably in elementary school—and wondering about questions that were squarely in the realm of psychology and/or philosophy… although I didn’t know that at the time. I wondered if and how I could be sure that others perceived and experienced things similarly to the way I did; I wondered about the differences between people that should be of most importance to me; I wondered why so many people around me believed in the Christian god; I wondered why my siblings and I were all so very different even though we had the same parents; and I wondered about many more mundane and typical things a kid of that age might ponder.

I arrived at satisfactory answers to some of these questions and haven’t really revisited them since, but many remained mysterious to me; and as I approached puberty and the awkwardness that entailed, I stopped wondering about such things as frequently as I had.

In high school, I took psychology to fulfill a social studies requirement. I don’t recall giving it a lot of thought, to be honest. It was taught by one of the football coaches so I thought it would be pretty easy; and it fit in my schedule of classes I wanted to take with a couple of friends. I do remember it being interesting to me, and a very easy course, but I don’t think I connected it to my younger self’s curiosity about the nature of human functioning.

Biology—specifically anatomy and physiology—had always fascinated me, and my career goal during high school was to become some type of physician. So I went off to Miami University as a zoology/pre-med major… and ran into the double buzzsaw that was the competitiveness of the pre-med cohort and challenging but for me boring courses in zoology and chemistry. Early in my sophomore year, with organic chemistry being especially difficult and my appetite for killing animals in physiology labs nonexistent, I decided to change my major.

I walked out of my physiology lab at a break and didn’t return. Instead, I walked downstairs to the College of Arts & Sciences office to change my major. The clerk asked me what I wanted to change it to: that was a question I hadn’t considered up to that point. I had a sudden flash of recollection that I’d enjoyed my high-school psychology course, and it seemed really easy… and so I said, “Psychology.” I dropped the physiology course and added introductory psychology.

At that point, I’d still intended to become an MD, but as the semester proceeded and organic chemistry remained inscrutable to me, I admitted to myself I needed a new goal. I was fascinated by the research described in my intro psych course and considered earning a PhD instead, so that I could become a hotshot research scientist.

My journey to graduate school—in experimental psychology at Ohio State—was a bit winding; but with nearly every psych course I took, I found more to arouse my interest and desire to understand our functioning and malfunctioning. Instead of decreasing, the number of important questions I had increased through my undergraduate years. Graduate school didn’t do much to definitively answer most of my questions, but it refined many, and even better, I identified more important questions that I wanted to address, both through research and teaching in psychology.

Through a series of circumstances and choices, I didn’t become a hotshot research psychologist, but I have taught many psychology courses over the years. It’s always a thrill to excite other people about psychology’s many questions and the attempts to answer them.

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