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Interview with Dr. Laura A. Freberg, Professor at California Polytechnic State University

Dr. Laura A. Freberg is a professor of psychology at California Polytechnic State University and the author of a range of textbooks in psychology. She also writes about psychology topics at Laura’s Psychology Blog. In the following interview, Dr. Freberg offers a rare glimpse of her struggle to gain the education required to become an accomplished professional psychologist. Dr. Freberg also discusses her range of experiences during a typical workday now, and when she was a young mother juggling all the demands of career and home life. The span of her accomplishments and assortment of outreach to wide variety of populations is a central component of this highly informative interview.

What event or series of events led you to pursue psychology as a professional choice?

laura-frebergI began college as a Political Science major intending to go to law school. I changed my major to psychology my first year, because I liked the classes better. My senior thesis advisor then encouraged me to become a professor instead of an attorney. I guess he didn’t think much of attorneys! I had never considered teaching—my family all were in small, private business. But I’ve really been grateful for having a career that is so much fun!

Name 1 or 2 specific challenges you have faced in your career in psychology and the steps you took to overcome them?

My parents were unable to finance my education, nor were my husband’s, so we paid for 17 years of college (he has two masters degrees, and I have my PhD) by ourselves. It was very difficult. I actually got in trouble with the graduate dean at UCLA when he discovered I had three half-time jobs. I argued that I also had straight A’s, so it didn’t matter, but he didn’t buy it. I had to go over his head to the Chancellor to be able to stay in school.

Figuring out what to do for my dissertation was also very difficult, as I had a hard time settling on a question. I am very grateful to my dissertation advisor, Robert Rescorla, for being patient with me.

Can you give us an example of an interesting case or project that have worked on and your role in helping to achieve a positive outcome?

I really enjoyed collaborating with John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago on a textbook for introductory psychology. We wanted something new that helped students see the “whole” of psychology, not just its parts (abnormal, developmental, and social) as isolated entities. We also wanted students to see where psychology fit in their lives, because most students taking intro psych courses are not psych majors. I think we met our goals.

Can you describe what a typical day looks like for you or the activities you spend the most time on at work?

I thought I was busy when I was younger (three children over five years with the youngest having autism, full-time position as professor), but if anything, I’m busier today. On a typical weekday, I teach three hours of class, hold an office hour, spend the afternoon doing research, writing (textbooks, blog, and I’m the Content Expert Writer for Psychology for Answers.com), preparing for class, and answering emails. At 4 p.m., my poor husband drags me away from my computer, and we walk our Australian Shepherd to our favorite coffee shop a mile from our house. Then there’s dinner and another walk (our dog is VERY active). I return to the home office and work on my online course for Argosy University and do more writing. Then I sleep with whatever is left.

What aspects of your work do you enjoy the most?

I like seeing light bulbs go on when people think about behavior in new ways. Psychology has so much to offer. If you understand people and why we do what we do, life is so much easier and better.

What advice would you give to new graduates for getting hired after graduation?

That’s a tough one, as the market is tough right now. I think it’s helpful to build as many skills as you can in areas that other people don’t like to work, like statistics. It’s also helpful to do things Baby Boomers aren’t very good at, like social media. You have to be flexible about geography. Academic pay is level whether you live in California or North Dakota, so guess where the money goes farther? I would strongly recommend that new hires “go with the one who loves you.”

What is the key strength you bring to your career and how would you advise new graduates to mine their own strengths to further their careers?

The Kenyan Olympians have a saying I like: “Train hard, win easy.” I think having a good work ethic sets successful graduates apart from unsuccessful ones. Yes, I like kicking back in the evening as much as the next person, but in today’s climate, that becomes a rare luxury. I’m as likely to get an email inquiry from my publisher at 10 p.m. on Saturday night as I am at 9 a.m. Monday morning, and I have to answer that.

Research productivity over a career is highly correlated with research productivity as a new graduate. Think of the process as a snowball. If you get your work out there, it attracts other people who want to work with you. Develop good team research skills and pretty soon you have a lot on your CV and you haven’t had to do it all by yourself. That only works, of course, if you have something important to offer your team. So combining a strong, narrow expertise while building teams at the same time is the key.

We thank you, Dr. Freberg, for being so generous with her time and sharing her insights and advice with our readers. You can learn more about Dr. Freberg at her blog, Laura’s Psychology Blog.