Learning from Experience

By Dr Piers Steel

Mountain climber climbing

Every step takes Piers closer to something

Being the youngest child from a very smart family, I never originally saw myself as having a lot of potential. It always seemed my older siblings were made for greatness, not me. This lack of confidence contributed to being a mediocre undergraduate student. I had a minor in political science and a double major in philosophy and psychology. In the summer and on weekends I was in the Canadian military reserves as an artillery gunner, which didn’t exactly mesh well with my academic pursuits. My grades were uneven and reflected my interest in the topics. – I never really dug in because I never expected much from myself. Then, one day, this self-concept started to change. Albert Bandura, the king of self-efficacy research, found that direct experience is often the best way to improve self-confidence. It certainly was for me.

I took a mandatory statistics course and found I received the highest mark in the class. With such direct validation, perhaps I could indeed do better and aspire for more. Eventually, I settled on going for a graduate degree in Industrial/Organizational (I/O) Psychology and started to focus on something I truly desired. Some universities consider your entire undergraduate performance, which were now out of reach given a few truly dismal grades I received for a few courses. Others, however, consider only your last two years GPA. When I finally developed some focus, I had a good final fourth year as an undergraduate, but my previous third year wasn’t that impressive (I was still learning how to be a student). I ended up taking a few night school classes while working at a non-profit organization, Cheshire Homes (providing housing for the disabled), so I could have a good “fifth” year, making my last two years competitive. And they were. It was with joy and relief that I got accepted to the University of Guelph for their I/O psychology program.

My first semester was intimidating. I was still developing student skills that should have been honed long ago. In particular, my writing was still pretty awful; I find most people’s writing tend to be. Being able to write well is rare because good writing comes from two sources. First, you have to read other good writers. This develops your “ear,” so you can “hear” whether what you write flows. Second, mostly your ear tells you what you have written is clunky, requiring you to re-write again and again, which we don’t often leave time to do (and if this writing could be better, it is because I didn’t re-write sufficiently). Eventually, I did develop a decent set of academic skills, finishing my Masters with a competitive set of A+, A’s, and A-‘s. And then two disasters struck.

I had originally aspired to do my Masters on stereotype reduction, how to get people to see each other as individuals rather than rely on perceived group norms. After being told it was too ambitious for me and if I pursued it, I would be expelled from the program, I ended up settling on a much more modest piece: “The effects of inconsistencies among sex, gender, and job on promotion and pay raises.” It explored the effects of stereotypes rather than how to remove them. Unfortunately, a new professor at the University, Serge Desmarais, sat on my defense panel and was eager to show off to the rest of the faculty his knowledge. He challenged me on gender differences in causal attribution style, a fact I actually knew quite well. Completely oblivious to the social dynamics of the situation, I told him he was wrong. And I stuck with that position. He wanted to fail me right there and then.

After the defense, when I was still sticking with my opinion, a Dr. Kevin Kelloway (one of my favorite professors who raised my statistical knowledge to the next level) explained it to me this way: “Do you want to graduate or not?” I ended up including a section in my masters thesis that starts with my position “Predominantly, the results of these studies suggest that raters’ sex has no significant effect…” and then another shorter section to mollify Serge, “Despite the aforementioned results…” They accepted it, I passed, and I was all set to pursue my PhD. Or not.

I actually got “kicked” out the University of Guelph program at that point. I was not invited to continue on to my PhD. In truth, though, we all received the same treatment, that is my entire cohort. Incredibly, even my good friend Abe Schoenewolf, winner of the Kendall Award for best I/O paper, got the boot. Though our form letter didn’t say as much, thoughts were that they had already accepted almost the entire previous Masters cohort and they didn’t feel they had the resources to supervise anymore; whether this might have been a matter of funding or just convenience I don’t know. Still, it doesn’t stop the University of Guelph’s alumni association from asking donations from me. Abe and I were a little bitter at the time, but in the end it was for the best.

At this point, I took a two-year break from academia to try my hand at consulting. The economy was not great and, despite the Masters, I ended up doing a lot of administration. I appreciate Steve Stein from MHS giving me my first break though, where I did get to do some good research validating the Emotional Quotient Inventory. After that, I went to Occupational Studies Inc., where I got to hone skills at programming Excel macros (which actually have proved rather handy in academia). I thought I could continue this for another ten years and finally get to the level where I can do interesting work or go back and try for the at PhD. I was considering a lot of universities, but my soon-to-be wife suggested if I go back, I should do it right. University of Minnesota was top ranked in the world for I/O psychology, so that is where I would apply. In fact, it was the only place I applied. The application date came and past without an acceptance letter. A month goes by and then two. What would you do?

Perhaps because I really didn’t want to do another year of low-level consulting, I took an insane risk. On a quite limited budget, I flew myself down to St. Louis, where the annual Society of Industrial Organizational Psychology (SIOP) conference was. The entire University of Minnesota psychology department would be there. I figured out at which sessions Dr. John Campbell, the head of the department, would be presenting. I attended and ambushed him afterwards. I told him I wanted to attend his University, that my grades were good and so was my Graduate Record Examination scores. He told me that they were losing two professors this year and simply didn’t have resources to take on anyone new, at all.

Now, this is probably my life’s single most defining moment. Instead of giving up, I told him “So the problem is that you don’t have enough resources to supervise me.” He agreed. I asked him “Are there any other reasons besides resources or is this it?” He agreed there were no other issues. “So if I can get you more resources to help you supervise, you would accept me?” Smiling, he agreed to that too. And I was smiling too, as I knew how to get that resource for him.

To help fill out my application, I had volunteered for our own Canadian SIOP, arranging speakers to come in. One of these speakers was to be Richard Arvey, who was also an I/O psychologist except at the University of Minnesota business school (about 60% of us end up being at a business school, with me presently being one of them). He couldn’t come to Canada to speak, but I did have conversations with him, knew his research background and told him I had hoped to do research with him. After meeting with Dr. Campbell, I went to Dr. Arvey and simply told him that I was accepted to the University and we would be working together next year on his emotionality research program. “Great news!” said Rich. Then I communicated, there is just one thing necessary for you to do. Dr. Campbell is expecting you to contact him at his next session to confirm this arrangement. Instead of being at the business school, I would be at the psychology department, though helping you with your research. Dr. Campbell got his resources, Dr. Arvey got help with his research, and two weeks later I got the letter of acceptance.

Of note, the single biggest predictor of a successful PhD experience is your relationship with your supervisor. It is amazing how many potential graduate students are almost completely unfamiliar with the research program of who they plan to work with. Here are some suggestions. Make sure your supervisor is still publishing. Make sure your supervisor is publishing in an area somewhat similar to your own interests. Make sure your supervisor has publications with students. Rich is a good guy, who I indeed published with, as so is Dr. Campbell (who ironically was Rich Arvey’s supervisor himself back in the day).

My acceptance at the University of Minnesota was without funding, though. Consequently, I was TAing or teaching twice a semester to pay for my degree. Each time you teach a course or TA, the University of Minnesota forgives half of your tuition, so if I taught four undergraduate courses a year, I could afford the exorbitant and inflated “foreigner” tuition fee (I’m Canadian). I did this on top of all my course work, which at this point in my life I was now pretty good at. I took as many statistics course as I could handle, which is a good idea for anyone. It is much harder to pick up these concepts outside of a classroom than in. One of these statistical classes was Dr. Deniz Ones’ course on meta-analysis, a technique that shaped my research work immensely.

Unfortunately, my research and dissertation side of things were not as developed yet. I was noodling around several topics, including causal attribution and the happiness of nations, but was unfocussed. Also, if research is me-search, you are quite correct in that I procrastinated quite a bit at this time. Sometimes it would be a race to see who could finish the morning crossword, me or another grad student Meredith Vey. The loser had to have “The Picture of Shame” posted on their door for day, basically a poster we had creatively defaced. On my own, I played a lot of strategy games, like Civilization and Age of Mythology.

Teaching all those classes and TAing, however, paid off. I end up being a TA for Dr. Thomas Brothen. Dr. Brothen taught an introductory psychology course at the University of Minnesota’s General College, an institution designed specifically to increase the diversity of the university. Significantly, the class was administered through a Computerized Personalized System of Instruction, a nifty arrangement that allows students to progress through the course at their own pace but is well known for creating high levels of procrastination. In fact, procrastination is so much of a problem that students are repeatedly warned throughout the course about the dangers of delay. And here is the beautiful part. It being computerized meant that every stitch of work that the students completed had a time-date stamp exact to the second. He had a dataset that needed to be published and procrastination was a topic I was intimately familiar with.

With Dr. Brothen, I got my first publication and it was indeed on procrastination, “Procrastination and personality, performance, and mood.” I then followed up on the topic for my dissertation, doing a meta-analysis on the topic along with some new empirical work. Eventually, after a few rejections, I published the meta-analytic portion of my dissertation in Psychological Bulletin (the top social science journal) and the media went wild for it. Two little facts probably contributed to its rise. First, I mentioned it took about ten years thought I was planning it to be three. Second, was that I showed procrastination rates were rising. Based on the media attention, literary agents asked me if I wanted to write a book about it. I did and it became “The Procrastination Equation,” aimed at an audience who likes their self-help scientifically validated. It is a good book, it really is, and I wish I knew at the beginning of my academic career what I put inside it. Still, once your write a book, you are obliged to promote it, which I find an endless but necessary task. If you want your audience to find your book, you need to help your book find your audience.

And here I am. There is still a lot of research I want to do and few more books I want to write. Ironically, there are actually still two datasets from this time that Dr. Brothen and I developed that need publication. Better get back to it. And hope you like the book.

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2 Comments

Filed under Psychology

2 responses to “Learning from Experience

  1. Abe Schoenewolf

    Perhaps one of the most remarkable men I have ever met. He taught me about mental play and its value in generating insight and getting closer to the truth. He taught me about the value of persistence in the face of adversity and especially about the value of creativity and play. Unfortunately due to my mental health and relationship issues I was not able to maintain a deep and lasting friendship with Piers. A significant regret of mine. All the best Piers you are a remarkable man.

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