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Reflections from SISPP 2015

With NSF funding, the Society for Personality and Social Psychology offers members a chance to attend the Summer Institute in Social and Personality Psychology (SISPP), a bi-annual two-week intensive summer experience for up to 80 pre-doctoral social and personality psychology students. SISPP offers five courses and two unique workshops led by top researchers and teachers in the field. SISPP 2015 was held at Northeastern University in Boston. Read about the program and experiences of four SISPP attendees.

Malik Boykin, University of California, Berkeley

SISPP 2015 was one of the most intense and most rewarding academic experiences of my life. Given my specific research interests, the intergroup relations class may stand as the best class I’ll ever have the opportunity take. The theoretical work of intergroup relations is tough and causes one to dredge through the ugliness in humanity. Intergroup researchers grapple with understanding dehumanization, violence, disparity, prejudice, and discrimination. It provides us glimpses into the capacities of others to do evil, while forcing mirrors of internal reflection into our mind's gaze. For two weeks Linda Tropp supported by Jim Sidanius and powerful guest lecturers (Mahzarin Banaji, Jack Dovidio, and Keith Maddox) lead us through a challenging journey to expand our understanding of this complex work.

Our conversations were rich, moving, and sometimes jarring. Jaws dropped, shoulders slumped, extremities fidgeted, and eyes watered. Eureka moments were oft coupled with either optimism or despair. Together and individually we experienced glimmers of hope and moments of hopelessness while constantly learning. It was strangely perfect, as people's aggressions and anxieties; which are inherent to intergroup relations, must be wrangled with and molded for the work to be done. Linda Tropp consistently provided support, balance, and direction for us to summarize our learning and think about how the conversations informed our work as scholars and scientists.

In her guest lecture, Mahzarin Banaji described social psychological research as a calling. These words resonate, as I found a deeper sense of direction and purpose for my scholarly career during my time at SISPP. I learned about work that has been done, and even more importantly about work that needs to be done. I gained improved heuristics and lenses for understanding the things that I already thought about. Further, I learned about the components and kinds of experiences that help to advance intergroup dialogue, what progress looks like, and ways to discern progress from stagnation.  

I appreciate having experienced SISPP with such a stellar group of students, both in Intergroup Relations and across all five of the courses. Each of the 16 intergroup students represented a diversity of perspectives and methodological prowess that provided powerful discourse about the lectures, readings, and media. We represented many intersectionalities that brought uniquely informed critiques of society and our understanding of group-based phenomenon. I found inspiration in meeting diverse contemporaries devoted to intergroup research. It evoked a sense of belonging to a cross-sectional, national, and transnational community of young scholars working on similar problems that I had not experienced before. Our class assembled a community of collaborators and colleagues who will support, review, edit, co-construct, and grow each other’s work for decades to come.

Conversations in downtime with SISPP’s other sixty-four students allowed for unique informal learning. The abundance of brilliance made nearly every conversation rewarding. Participating in the cross-pollination of discourses occurring as 80 individuals entrenched in exploring their scientific curiosities was riveting. I was also privileged to learn about the specific growths and expanded understandings of students in the other classes. Witnessing the passion on my fellow students’ faces as they described their research programs brought me inspiration. It was humbling to be a part of, and I felt like I was meeting the future of the psychology. I also felt affirmed that I am part of that future.

I left SISPP with new questions and hypotheses to test, deeper understandings of concepts I thought I already knew, and a network of young scholars I will lean on and grow with for decades. SISPP breathed new life into the work that I'm preparing to embark on. I saw new opportunities to apply what we know about intergroup relations and other psychologies to education, improvement of workspaces, policy, and activism. At SISPP 2015, I connected with social psychology research both as a calling and as a community to which I belong.

Veronica Lamarche, University at Buffalo, SUNY

In July, I had the privilege of attending the 2015 Summer Institute for Social-Personality Psychology (SISPP) organized by the Society for Social-Personality Psychology and hosted this year by Northeastern University.  SISPP turned out to be one of the best experiences I have had since starting graduate school, both personally and professionally. I can say without a doubt that SISPP’s success as an educational experience can be completely attributed to the incredible people involved.

From the get go, our instructors provided an exciting and interactive learning environment that spoke to their investment in our professional development.  Courses were designed to encourage us to think about our own research in new and exciting ways and to foster collaborative relationships.  The SISPP instructors also showed that they were dedicated to helping us prepare for our futures as academics.   Across numerous formal workshops and informal conversations, instructors answered any and all of our questions across a variety of topics including finishing the dissertation, the job market, grant writing, and the transition from graduate student to faculty.  I appreciate the time and resources all of our SISPP instructors devoted to making this experience an inspiring one.     

However, in my opinion, the graduate students were the highlight of the SISPP experience.  It is unusual to find yourself in a room full of people who speak the same language and passionately share the same interests as you.  Not only were the students warm and inviting, but they were also incredibly supportive of each other.  They shared their experiences with research and teaching, tales of woe, advice on how to succeed, and a general excitement for research.  Even now that SISPP is over, this collegiality persists through the sharing resources, alerting each other to upcoming opportunities, and daily messages of motivation and encouragement.  I met some of the smartest and friendliest people at SISPP and look forward to maintaining these new relationships in the years to come. 

The road to PhD can be tough, but SISPP has reminded me that even on the rough days there are reasons to keep pushing.  If there were three key takeaways from SISPP that I could pass onto other students it would be these: 1) Persistence is key.  Everyone in our field experiences failure and rejection. Do not let this beat you. Keep persevering. 2) Celebrate the victories, no matter how small they feel.  Our field demands we be that we sit patiently waiting for the moment we can eat the tasty marshmallow of success.  But we often forget to savor it when the moment finally arrives.  Remember to revel in your successes because they are never inconsequential.  3) Know that you belong to a community of people who want to see each other succeed. Graduate students and faculty are friendly and happy to share their knowledge.  They are great people in whom to find inspiration and motivation. 

It is not often that you can experience so much personal growth in a short period of time.  But I left SISPP with more excitement and motivation to be part of this field than ever before.  For those considering attending SISPP in the future, I cannot recommend it highly enough.  I am confident in saying that it is an experience that shapes careers.  I was blown away by the remarkably talented, smart, fun, and genuinely awesome people readying themselves to start their careers in Social-Personality Psychology.  Thanks to SISPP, I now call a good number of these people my friends and cannot wait to see what we all do next. 

Vivian Ta, University of Texas at Arlington

My reflection of this year’s SISPP in Boston began with a layover in New York City. I was no stranger to the Big Apple; in fact, I had spent a fun-filled week there for the APS convention back in May, and I was glad to be heading back (albeit for a brief amount of time). Peering out the window as the airplane began to descend onto the sparkling skyline brought back the warmth of happy memories—of a complete stranger.

I, of course, was that stranger. Although it had only been 2 months ago, the person in those memories was a completely different person than who I was at that moment. Life had presented new relationships, new experiences, and a new outlook since then. And, if life was capable of such change within a mere blink of an eye, I couldn’t help but ask myself: What kind of person would I be after 2 weeks at SISPP?

The quote “You become the people you surround yourself with” never truly resonated with me until my time at SISPP. The first few days were filled with the typical idiosyncrasies of getting to know 79 other strangers—the hesitant small talk and clumsy interactions during meals.  Soon thereafter, those awkward encounters flourished into lasting friendships. As I witnessed this, I realized that I wasn’t only surrounded by my peers; I was surrounded by those who were completely and utterly passionate about our field. Personality and social psychology wasn’t just something that these people studied; it’s something that they live and strive to push forward every day. It’s rare to meet even one person that is so passionate about anything, and yet, I was lucky enough to be surrounded by 79 of them for two whole weeks.

Don’t get me wrong: the other aspects of SISPP were just as wonderful. Everyone was welcoming, it was well-organized, the instructors were extremely knowledgeable, and the classes were very insightful.  It was a very valuable experience overall. But, the element of SISPP that I treasured the most were the people. They challenged me and made me question the smallest minutiae to the grandest aspects of personality and social psychology. They widened my perspective of the field by opening my eyes to ideas that were completely foreign to me. They supported and strengthened me because they know that the future of personality and social psychology is built on cooperation, not competition.  Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, they reminded me of my passion for this field and why I’m doing what I do in the first place. That initial spark I had with personality and social psychology had dwindled over time, wavering through the distractions of life that frequently take the focus away from the big picture. But, these people had rekindled that spark with the kind of fire that will keep burning brighter and brighter as the years roll on. I am so lucky to have been part of something that gives so much optimism and momentum to the future of personality and social psychology, and I am so excited to see where we will take this field in years to come.

I pondered on my initial question as I was flying back home to the hot Texas summer. How did I change? Is two weeks even long enough to change anything? I wasn’t sure, but perhaps I would be able to answer it sometime in the future.

The plane landed, I grabbed my luggage, and walked outside. Immediately, I felt the familiar searing sensation from the scorching August sun on my skin as if it said “Welcome home, stranger.”

There was my answer.

Michael Thai, The University of Queensland

My participation in the SISPP Intergroup Relations stream provided ample opportunity to improve and expand upon my skills as a researcher. I engaged in class discussions with some of the brightest young minds in the field, allowing me to develop new and fresh perspectives on range of research issues. Through extended conversation with these peers, I learned about their research interests and the exciting, cutting-edge developments coming from their research labs. I participated in class debates that prompted me to think critically about strengths and limitations of the research literature, and to consider whether my own research manuscripts were theoretically and methodologically robust. The class assignment was a joint research project, which gave me the opportunity to think and work in close collaboration with a number of other graduate students. This project introduced me to new ideas and methodology, and provided a stepping stone to actual real-world research collaboration.

Furthermore, I had the incredible opportunity to learn from some of the most influential academics in the field. Professors Linda Tropp, Jim Sidanius, Mahzarin Banaji, Jack Dovidio, and Keith Maddox each took the time to give us crash courses in their respective areas of research, speak candidly of their foray into such research, and share their inspiring stories and fascinating insights into the world of social psychology. I cannot thank Professor Linda Tropp enough for being a patient, supportive, invested, and generally fantastic mentor (golly!), and of course, for developing and organizing such an enriching educational experience (also special thanks to Professor Jim Sidanius and teaching assistant Adam Brown).

The experience would not have been amazing as it was if not for the eighty wonderful graduate students who shared it with me. During the extended period of time in which we got to know each other, we shared ideas, stories, struggles, triumphs, and, naturally, drinks. The hours spent learning and working in class each day were supplemented with hours of fun and dancing each night. SISPP was much more than an international networking occasion. Rather, it was an opportunity to develop genuine bonds with other grad students from around the country and globe. I established a number of connections that I am sure will flourish into life-long friendships. Who knew the biggest struggle at SISPP would come from saying goodbye to these amazing people?

I came away from SISPP with an inspired mind, a fresh perspective, a newfound network of social connections, and memories to last a lifetime. I cannot heap enough praise on the SISPP experience, and would strongly recommend it to any fellow graduate student looking to expand their horizons and grow as researchers.