How to be a Professor

by Matt Olson


On multiple occasions, I have been asked to recount how I became a psychology professor. Usually it happens once a year because of a project that other malevolent professors assign to first year students. Some of these visits are perfunctory: "What degree do you need to be you?"  Others put out the bait: "What inspired you to be a psychologist?" The students who ask that one are usually glancing at the door, their cell-phones, or other escapes long before the answer is complete. Perhaps what follows will save me and them the trouble. I never knew the possible benefits that this website might bestow.

I was initially inspired to become a psychologist by a girl I knew in Holbrook, Arizona in the 60's, between 5th and 8th grade. Her name was Liz. I say no more, because now she is (probably) a retired, successful City Attorney in a southern Arizona city. I'm sure she doesn't want any part of this. Between late 6th grade and end of 8th, when I moved from Arizona, forever, I had a hard crush on Liz. Problem was that she loved my best friend--really a best friend until his death in 1992. They were always in a major fight, and she would call me late at night for advice and support. Being the upstanding and faithful and honorable person I am, I always took these occasions to convince her that I should be her boyfriend, and that these fights were only the beginning of an awful relationship with him. Good Guy. I can be your best friend too. 

The problem was that she always laughed at this stuff. Told me how my humor helped her think better. Thanked me for helping her get things straightened out. And our conversations always ended with "You should be a psychologist. I can talk to you about anything. You are just like a brother."  It took me many years to get that "brother" comment. I had no chance and I never knew it, which must happen often as testosterone makes adolescent boys insane. Nonetheless, there was the seed. I should be a psychologist. I wasn't quite sure what it was, but what the hell? I was 13 years old.

When my 9th grade year rolled around, Arizona was behind and I was home in New Mexico. This time it was Albuquerque. My favorite class that first semester was Civics, which I understand is not taught much these days. Then again, who cares how government is supposed to work?We have Fox News. I think the teacher's name was Mrs Kline. (Although I could be wrong... I had several teachers named Mrs Kline early on. The only thing I'm sure about is that their first names weren't Mrs.) At one point during the class, we had a "Career Unit" and we were all to complete a psychological questionnaire called an "Interest Inventory."

Before we began the exercise, the teacher went around the room and asked what we thought we would be when we were out school and had jobs. My turn was coming.... psychologist, psychologist... what the hell did it mean? How could I explain it.?Everyone else had Teacher, Doctor, Nurse, Carpenter.... mostly male of course. It was 1964. I have always believed in divine intervention since this day. My turn was 3 away. The guy 3 ahead announced "Fireman!" and most of his friends laughed because that was his intention. Alby was about 4'8'' tall. He didn't evoke fire-hose hauling and chopping and carrying folks down a ladder.  John M,, 2 seats ahead, who was a great guy to hang with and smoke cigarettes, announced proudly "I wanna be a Cowboy!" Most of the class, including the teacher, fell out. I crossed my fingers. Next guy was Jim L., who I sorta knew from back in Gallup as little kids. Jim's stepdad owned a bar, so we always had a great source of stolen booze. Jim was popular.  His time came. She asked what he wanted to do for his job. He actually stood up, presented himself with a slight, comical bow, and said proudly "I want to be a Pimp." End of exercise. I never had to mention psychologist or even try to explain what one of them might do. Safe for now. I was always grateful to Jim L..  A few weeks later, some guys from another junior high, with whom we always had "rumbles," beat him badly with a fireplace shovel. Broken ribs, serious bruises and cuts, but he never lost his edge and was still a major smartass. First guy I knew who caught the clap. Man, he made me laugh.

The questionnaire was distributed, and we all set about to do well, as 9th graders are prone to do. About 10 questions into this multiple-choice nonsense, I realized it was nonsense. (And I still think so!!) I began to answer every item with the most absurd possibility or the answer I thought was most humorous--and you know the quality of 9th grade humor. I had the most (school) fun in 9th grade that day, and I delighted in handing in my first official psychological inventory--as far as I know. 

A couple of weeks later, the results came back. If I recall, every student's result showed 3 possible careers. Sometimes one career dominated the others; sometimes three occupations were about the same. On my results, there were three occupations: Teacher was low, but it was there. Sociologist was next, still low, and who the hell in 9th grade knows what Sociology is? Dominating, almost 4:1 over everything? You got it: Psychologist. This is my return for entertaining and attempting to subvert a process. I can see this pattern throughout my life.

The next assignment for the class, of course, was to contact, call, write or annoy (there was no email) a person who did what we were supposed to do. My result said psychologist. I had to talk to one to see what she or she did. I first talked to my parents, who knew about counseling psychologists—family therapists and the like. No idea beyond that. Better yet, they didn’t know any. Next step, why not call the University of New Mexico psychology department? There must be a few of them there.

I called the University psych department and talked to a nice lady who listened to my story. She put me on hold, and then told me that she was transferring my call to the head of the department, Frank Logan. For those of you who don't know-- and I didn't until I was in grad school-- Frank Logan was an influential, neo behaviorist-- probably best desribed as being in the Hullian rather than Skinnerian tradition. If that makes no sense to you, google it. Anyway, here is this 13 year old kid asking Logan what psychologists do and then listening for more than an hour while he described Pavlov's research , the behavioristic era in American psychology, and several of his experiments with rats. I really had no clue what the hell he was talking about, but I took great notes and wrote an "A" paper. My fire for being a psychologist was damped. Rats? Learning Theory? 

About a year later, now in Wisconsin and free of the Liz lust, my mother set me straight. I didn't want to be a psychologist. I wanted to have a career where I helped people. I wanted to be a Psychiatrist!  Aha!  Lay down on the couch, tell me about your Mother! Tell me your most lurid dream!!  I can do this. And so began three years of high school targeted at pre-medical undergrad and eventual med school. No pressure there. 

I managed to get out OK... eventually graduated 6th in a class of 686. My folks were disappointed. Problem was that I had become political. I joined the NAACP Youth Council in Milwaukee in 1966 or so, trained in non-violent resistance, marched for open housing, sucked down more tear gas than I want to remember, got whacked in the head by a fat Milwaukee pig-cop. By the time college came, that whack in the head re-directed me. I won a nominal books & fees scholarship to University of Wisconsin and headed to Madison, but I was on strike by mid-November. I dropped out of college the following May. 

When I went back to college a year later, it was at University of California, Davis, and I was basically on my own. My disappointed folks were not tuned up to the notion of helping with tuition and the like. I took General Psych, Sociology of Black Americans, and The American Political Process for my first three classes, and I earned an A, a B+, and a C, respectively. Psychology major, here we come. Given that pre-med was a distant memory, I set my sites on becoming a Clinical Psychologist. You can counsel and help and do "therapy" but no MD and no writing prescriptions. Seemed fine. 

Almost 2 years later, I got a chance to practice being a Clinical Psychologist. It was actually a class assignment: Find a friend, do 5 sessions, and write it up like a case study. Easy. My friend Kathy seemed eager to help me with the assignment. In our first "hour," she told me how her brother and grandfather raped her repeatedly when she was 6, how she was so ugly as a child that boys would chase her down and beat her up, and how her first menstrual period lasted 6 months. The next sessions only got worse. I was sure that, if this was my job, I would go home and hang myself. The prof actually read my paper aloud to the class-- laughing at the parts that were the most awful. In the end, he announced that the assignment wasn't a good idea, that he would never do it again, and that I had to get my friend Kathy into real therapy. I suggested in class and out loud, that he could deal with that, given that it was his goddam assignment, and he laughed some more.

I was pretty depressed. First I screwed up pre-med--actually didn't even give it a chance. And now this. I had built up to being a Clinician, but it was not for me. That quarter, I was taking an Experimental Social Psychology course from the great Al Harrison. Class was about 250 people, and Al was eccentric as hell. He always had a cigarette in the right, lower-corner of his mouth, and the ash would get longer and longer until it finally dropped on his lecture notes--and then he would finally notice his cigarette. The material was about attitude formation, and racism, and conformity. He littered his lectures with sly jokes and jabs-- at least I thought so. Often, in the class of 250, there was only one asshole laughing out loud. Al would look up and acknowledge me, cause he knew he was funny as hell.  He deserved the appreciation. One day, it just struck me like a bolt of lightning. Al was a PSYCHOLOGIST! He didn't have to deal with clients who would tell him horrible stories that he had to carry home and try to forget. The weight of another person's mental health did not burden him. He taught. Important stuff. He changed my life, for sure. And that was it. I knew I wanted to be a professor who taught undergrads important and even uncomfortable stuff.

I followed Al back to his office that day. He noticed that I was following and tried to speed up a bit. I'm sure he thought I was a mugger or some other stalker type. I was tenacious and made it back to his office right behind him. I remember his scooting into his office and getting into that safe-space behind his desk. Kinda nervous, he asked me "Is there something I can do for you?" I told him "I want to do what you do."  After I clarified what I was up to, he let out a sigh of relief, and made me a plan. The plan was not kind or easy. First, as a junior, I had to take his doctoral seminar in Experimental Social Psychology. Next quarter, I had to take Ed Turner's doctoral seminar in Analysis of Variance. And of course, I had to get my senior project up and running. 

When it came time to apply to grad school, I asked him what he thought, and he suggested a couple of schools. He emphasized repeatedly that I should apply to Michigan. I conceded, although I secretly hoped I was done with the midwest and snow and all of that.

All of my applications (paper in those days) were about the same. Identifying info on top, and then a line that asked "For which area(s) are you applying?"  Areas --PLURAL: Two spaces to fill in. My choice, cause of Al, although I never did consult with him, was to write Experimental, Social in the two blanks. Made sense to me. 

My first rejection came back almost as soon as I dropped my application in the mail. Colorado was not funding that program for the upcoming year. Oh well,  I could have enjoyed Boulder. Next 3 rejections came pretty quickly too. Santa Barbara, Iowa (Iowa?), and New Mexico all rejected me with a line like this: "You don't have the prerequisite courses for our program." WTF!! I had multiple stats and social psy and research courses all over the place. I had grad seminars. How could I miss?  Near end of April, when I was starting to think about masters programs at Humbolt or Sonoma or San Francisco, my letter from Michigan came. The nasty rejections were one-page memos. From the heft of the envelope, I could tell that my Michigan letter was at least 2 pages... maybe more. Not only were these bastards going to reject me, they were going into detail about my failures. I opened the letter.

"I'm happy to inform you that you will be accepted...on behalf of the Experimental Psychology Area Committee...." Strange letter, but I decided that it was a possibility. Here, in my mind,  was this special "experimental" program for people who didn't actually qualify to get into grad school. They must do remedial work for a year or so and then help you get into a real grad school. I'd have to consider it.

Couple of days later, I was in Al's office for something or other-- maybe just to bum a cigarette. He asked if I had heard from Michigan, and I said "Sort of."  He stared me down until I dug into my backpack and dug out the letter. He only started to look at it and said "Experimental!" I waited for him to continue, but that's all he said. "How the hell did you get into Experimental?" I pointed to two books on his desk-- both with titles like "Experimental Social Psychology," and Al started to laugh. I asked if it was a practice program to get people ready for grad school, and he laughed so hard he had to take his own cigarette out of his mouth. Here is what he said: "You just got into the top-ranked Experimental program in the country, and you don't even know what Experimental Psychology is." He reminded me that I had classes from this prof or that, and I said yes I did but I hated those classes. He said "That's what Experimental Psych is all about." Uh oh. 

As a recent grad, I somehow landed two TA positions that last summer at Davis, and when those classes wrapped, I headed for Ann Arbor. Al told me that there would be a meeting for all new grad students. He told me that when the business was done, I should find Bob Zajonc (google it) and tell him about my application screw up. Bob was chair of the Social program and director of the Institute for Social Research-- a heavy hitter. Al said that Bob could sign a couple of forms and move me to Social asap.

I waited until the social hour and found Zajonc. I did not kiss the hem of his gown or his ring. I told him my mis-application story, and he laughed so hard that he blew beer out of his nose. When he finally composed himself, he told me that he would NOT move me to the Social program. He promised me that if I stayed in Experimental for a year, he would move me over if I still wanted to move. He said he would honor the deal even if I failed in the Experimental zone. He said I'd be OK. 

As part of my Experimental education, our incoming class had to take the same course.... every day. 2 hours M, W and F, only one hour T and Th. There were 9 of us. One guy who had worked for the CIA for the last 5 years, a guy recently out of Air Force Intelligence, a Japanese guy who had invented touch-tuning for Zenith.  Scary smart. Our first 3 weeks were about Artificial Intelligence, about which I know nothing. I was lost beyond words--had actually never even seen a computer until that semester. But I made it. Not smart but stubborn. I was the only one in that group of 9 who actually wanted to teach college classes. They thought I was strange. And their subsequent industrial salaries show that they were right. 

About a month into it, and Artificial Intelligence was done... we were off to other abstractions. Clyde Coombs came to the seminar to talk a little utility theory, and damn damn damn. For the first time, I was the one in the fucking room who got it, and I delighted in helping my friends get it. I knew then and there, that I would stay in Experimental. I wound up spread all over the map. Math psych from Clyde and Frank Yates, Motivation theory from Ed Walker and Jack Atkinson, and Psychobiology from the best there ever were...  Valenstein, Butters, and Utall. I was hugely educated and absolutely unemployable.

Summer '77 was approaching. I was nearly done. My advisor was ready to retire. There were 3 jobs in the country that wanted someone sort of like me. One was Yale, another at New Mexico, and a third at some awful southern university. My wife told me that she would come with me except to Alaska, Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, Tennessee , etc. SO, there were only two jobs out there. I called New Mexico to see if the job was still posted. They said no. So I applied to Yale. We stayed in touch for a couple of years, Yale always wanting to see copies of my publications. I kept throwing away their letters. 

Late July of 77, I had been crunching data at the Michigan computer center for about 24 hours. I took a bus home, had a beer, and crashed. I was awakened by the telephone and a nice lady who wanted to know if I could come to Hamline University for an interview. I told her I would call her back, finished my beer, and took a nap. When I woke up, I remembered the telephone number. Not sure how, but I did.  I made arrangements to visit Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota. My wife said she would like to edit the "no" list.

 

What had happened was this: My grad advisor was one of the two founders of Brooks/Cole Publishing Company. He was at Hamline, helping the chair develop a book. The guy who had a temporary Hamline teaching job for the next year walked in and quit because the salary was so low. As the chair began to meltdown, my advisor saw his chance to retire. He told the chair that he knew just the right person for the job and that he would get me there immediately. Before my flight, I asked him about how I should approach the interview-- you know-- some tips for success. He told me 'Just lie to them. Tell them yes you can teach any of that stuff. You'll be fine." My one-year, temporary position has held pretty steady for a few years. 40 is coming up soon, and that will be it. 

So there you have it. A blueprint for becoming a professor. Worked like a charm for me, and it will not fail you. Just count on random events to be your guides. Be sure to figure out what you don't want to do. Carve all that away, and the rest is great.