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Interview with Dr. Mitchell Handelsman, Professor of Psychology at University of Colorado Denver

Dr. Mitchell Handelsman is Professor of Psychology and University President’s Teaching Scholar at the University of Colorado- Denver. He is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and licensed psychologist in the state of Colorado who maintains an active presentation, research, and publication schedule, much of which centers on his interest and expertise in professional ethics. Dr. Handelsman also writes a regular blog for Psychology Today, The Ethical Professor. Despite his busy schedule, Dr. Handelsman recently shared a few minutes of his time for an interview with PsychologyDegree411.

In your autobiographical chapter in Teaching Psychology in Autobiography: Perspectives from Exemplary Psychology Teachers, “Personal Patterns Pervade the Path to Positive Pedagogical Performance” (available on your faculty page), you speak on how interactions with professors helped you on the track to becoming a career psychologist. How has this influenced your own approach to the classroom?

mitch-handelsmanAccording to the research, I am typical of lots of people, for whom interactions with faculty members were a very significant part of their college experience. We also know that interactions with faculty outside the classroom (even if it’s just in the hallway or walking across campus) can be very influential. Thus, one of the principles I operate under both inside and outside the classroom is: “Every interaction with a student has the potential to be life-altering.” This principle applies even to my interactions with students who are arguing about grades.

Do you involve students in your research, and if so, what do you look for when recruiting students for assistance on research projects?

I have worked with students on research throughout my career. What I look for is very similar to what employers look for: interest, commitment, writing ability, oral communication skills, problem-solving ability, and an understanding of such things as research methods, statistics, and ethics.

Many of your publications have focused on ethics in psychology, including your previous Eye on Psi Chi column “Ethics Matters” and your contribution to the 2012 APA Handbook of Ethics in Psychology. How do you see the study of ethics in psychology evolving in the next five to ten years?

I will not make a prediction, but I’ll share a hope! Like all areas of study, I hope that the study of ethics becomes more sophisticated and better integrated with research and scholarship in other areas, such as decision making, cognitive psychology, and philosophy. I’m actually working with two other psychologists on a new ethics book that borrows from these areas of study and (in my humble opinion) looks more realistically at how psychologists make decisions—in light of emotional and other nonrational factors. You can also find some of my thoughts about ethics at my blog.

What networking or development opportunities do you recommend to your students?

In general, I recommend treating college as more than 30+ courses to sit through. (See an open letter to college freshmen.) I recommend that students approach college as a professional position, a job, and an entrance into various communities—including their university or college, the field of psychology, the United States, the world, etc.

Specifically, I recommend that students seek out work with professors on their research, internships, volunteer activities, professional conferences, Psi Chi, study abroad, and anything else that opens up opportunities to learn.

What are two or three top recommendations that can help psychology graduates keep their skills competitive in the career arena and continue learning after graduation?

First, while you’re in college, treat every course, not just ones in your major, as if there’s something important to learn from it—because there is. Both in and after college, treat every experience you have, even those not related to psychology, as related to your career. Second, become the type of person and professional you would like to interact with: ethical, enthusiastic, compassionate, collaborative, friendly, etc. Third, keep an open mind—be prepared to be surprised.

What key strengths do you think you bring to the table that make you a better professor of psychology?

I’m not sure I’d presume to admit to a strength, let alone a key one! But I am proud of my ability to (a) work hard, (b) collaborate, and (c) find the common ground between what my employers have required of me and what’s great fun. I often encourage students to find the balance between playing it safe and going with your strengths on one hand, and taking risks and developing new strengths on the other.

Thank you, Dr. Handelsman, for taking the time to share your thoughts with us! You can find more information about Dr. Handelsman’s research and publications on his University of Colorado Denver faculty page, and don’t forget to check out his blog, The Ethical Professor.