Friday, June 15, 2007

Why I Am Not A Social Psychologist

I told this story last night after a run.

After trying grad work in physics and becoming very frustrated -- lack of employment opportunities after the Ph.D. was a factor -- I switched into social psychology. The program I was accepted into was the one at Teachers College, Columbia University in NYC. Things went OK at first. I was nearly finished with coursework after two plus years. My grades were high, I got along well with fellow students and even, to some extent, with the faculty, although they were more authoritarian than I -- or my fellow students -- liked. One woman cynically remarked "We're very democratic around here. We call the chairman Mort to his face -- and God behind his back." Still, though, I was making progress. Although, once again, the job prospects were starting to look dim for all of us.

The incident, though, that really started turning me against the faculty was the aftermath of a mugging. I'd lived in this converted brownstone for over two years. One Tuesday evening in November as I was returning from the supermarket, a man attacked me at the entrance. Using a knife, he forced me first into the building and then upstairs into my apartment. He ransacked my apartment looking for valuables. He threatened my life. Fortunately I was able to get him to leave without physically harming me. While he had tied me up, I was able to get out into the hallway and scream for help. Some neighbors came immediately, released me and phoned the police. The police came, took testimony, staked out my bank's ATM for awhile with me (the thief had taken my ATM card) and eventually returned me to my apartment. The apartment was a complete mess. The mugger had slashed my waterbed to pieces. Even if he hadn't I would not have wanted to stay another night.

My adviser, one Harvey Hornstein, lived a block away with his wife. Since I was pretty distraught, I phoned Harvey and explained the situation. I asked if I could stay the night with him. Harvey's response was priceless. He asked "Don't you have any friends?" This possibly stunned me more than the mugging. I mean, the man was a psychologist -- not an aerospace engineer or IT geek or physicist or -- you get the picture. With that response in mind, I looked again in my personal directory and phoned fellow student Paul. His response was friendly. I wound up staying the night sleeping on his couch.

The next morning I telephoned a man who's been a long time friend by now. His name is Paul Ambos. He was already married to a wonderful woman named Catherine. I knew Paul because we both went to Rutgers. He was -- and still is -- a corporate attorney. After explaining the situation to Paul, he simply said that I would be spending the night with him and Catherine.

What's wrong with this picture? My adviser -- a social psychologist -- brushes me off. A corporate attorney takes me in. Soon after that I began to question my commitment to psychology. I learned a good bit about humanity those two plus years. I did weigh things again in my mind. People at Columbia were already paying me for math advice and computer programming. Social psychology was starting to look like another unrewarding field. I decided to switch into IT. But, now, I was armed with much more knowledge of how humans behaved, especially in organizations. Whether this has done me more good than harm remains to be seen. Today, seeing what's going in too many high tech organizations, I seem to be back trying to sell myself as some sort of management or political consultant or something else along those lines. We shall see what happens.

1 comment:

Xiaofeng said...

Very interesting stories. Thanks a lot for sharing your experience, Chuck.

I found this comment of your classmate very amusing: "We're very democratic around here. We call the chairman Mort to his face -- and God behind his back."