SDN Article: Q&A With Stephen Aichele, PhD – Quantitative Psychologist

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Juliet Farmer

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Stephen Aichele, PhD, is a research scientist in Switzerland in University of Geneva’s Psychology & Educational Sciences Department. Aichele received his bachelor’s degree in biopsychology from University of California, Santa Barbara (1994), followed by a master’s degree with highest honors in quantitative psychology (2010) and a PhD in quantitative psychology (2013) from University of California, Davis. As a graduate research assistant, Dr. Aichele worked on both the The Samantha Project and Savannas Forever Tanzania HIV Research Initiative.

Dr. Aichele’s academic employment has included laboratory instructor and teaching assistant at University of California, Davis, in advanced statistical inference (graduate level), causal modeling of correlational data (graduate level), statistical analysis of psychological data, and research methods in psychology. He has been published in Psychological Science; Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research and Practice; Emotion, Psychology and Aging; Neuroimage; PLoS ONE; Health Psychology; Frontiers in Human Neuroscience; Psychoneuroendocrinology; and Attention, Perception & Psychophysics. Dr. Aichele has presented at numerous conferences, including the Annual Meeting of the Gerontological Society of America; 21st International Conference on Computational Statistics; Annual International Meeting of the Psychometric Society; University of California, Davis’ Annual Spring Psychology Departmental Conference; University of California Global Health Day; Computational Neuroscience Society Annual Meeting; and Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting. Dr. Aichele’s research and expertise includes multivariate statistical methods in the behavioral sciences, cognitive aging and epidemiology, and longitudinal data analysis. Most recently, he was awarded the John Templeton Foundation Research Grant ($2.3 million).

When did you first decide to become a psychologist? Why?
My interest in psychology began during high school. I was struggling with the emotional and relational fallout in my family after my mother was diagnosed with a terminal illness (advanced non-Hodgkin lymphoma) when she was 39 years old. At the time I wanted to become a clinical psychologist or perhaps a psychiatrist.

How/why did you choose the graduate school you attended?
I attended two graduate schools. The first was a program in clinical psychology at a private college—within a year I knew it was the wrong decision. Later, after completing additional coursework in computer science and mathematics, I found a job as a research specialist at the university where I ultimately completed my doctorate. There were several reasons I chose to pursue my PhD there: I had already established a direction for my research, they had an excellent graduate program in my area of interest, and I had financial support (through an existing grant).

What surprised you the most about your graduate studies?
Because I had financial support going in, I was able to focus exclusively on coursework and research for the first two years of my education. But when the grant ended, I was worried that needing to TA to support myself financially would slow my progress. As it turned out, I loved teaching the statistics labs.

Why did you decide to specialize in quantitative psychology in particular?
In some ways I feel like quantitative psychology chose me. As a first-year undergraduate student, long before I attended graduate school, I was asked to help as a teaching assistant for a course in quantitative psychology that I had just completed. But shortly afterward I shifted my focus to neuroscience in order to apply to medical school. While I’m glad to have completed the pre-med coursework, my real strengths and interests were in psychology and computing. Following my undergraduate education, I spent a long time looking for a field that would allow me to combine those interests. Later, when I took a position as a research specialist, I discovered that there was a graduate program in quantitative psychology at the university where I was working, and it then dawned on me that what I had been seeking for so long was right there.

If you had to do it all over again, would you still specialize in quantitative psychology? Why or why not?
Yes, absolutely. I’ve pursued other career paths, but I’ve yet to find any that suit me so well.

Has being a quantitative psychologist met your expectations? Please explain.
Actually, it’s exceeded my expectations. Initially I worried that, as a field, quantitative psychology might be too restrictive and boring, but that’s not at all the case. That said, had my research emphasized standardized educational testing, I might feel that way. Also, relative to other areas in behavioral research, there appear to be more job openings for qualified candidates in quantitative psychology.
What do you like most about being a quantitative psychologist?
The flexibility to work on a variety of interesting topics is excellent. As a former mentor put it, “Everyone needs a data analyst.” It’s quite thrilling to apply both novel and well-known statistical methods to discover new things about human behavior and health outcomes. It’s also rewarding to teach others how to use such powerful tools responsibly.

What do you like least about being a quantitative psychologist?
It can be difficult to locate oneself along the working spectrum of technical innovation and practical application. I simply don’t have the time both to be an innovator in a specific statistical methodology and to apply those methods in addressing “real world problems.” The result is that my career can at times feel like a bridge between worlds (statistics, psychology) when I would prefer to better acquaint myself with one or the other world.

Learn more about psychology and what life in practice is like for different psychologists:

Describe a typical day at work—walk me through a day in your shoes.
Currently my work is heavily research focused. I have access to a vast amount of data that have been painstakingly collected, over decades, from thousands of individuals. It’s my job to use sophisticated statistical methods to clarify what those data have to say about age-related changes in mental health – and then write the story. Because my work is cyclical by nature, I don’t so much have a typical day as a typical week or month. When I begin a new project, I will often spend several weeks cleaning and then analyzing the data that I receive in order to answer several key questions that I have formulated ahead of time. Then I shift gears from data analyst to behavioral researcher, diving into the empirical literature to better understand the results of the analyses and to deepen my knowledge of related work. Depending on what I learn, I may or may not need to reconfigure the analyses. Rinse, repeat. Then I combine the information from the literature review and data analyses into a manuscript to be submitted for publication. Throughout this process, there are also meetings to attend, talks and/or seminars to give, and grants to write. At the moment I have no teaching obligations, but that will likely change if I remain in academia.

On average, how many hours a week do you work? How many hours of sleep do you get per night? How many weeks of vacation do you take annually?
I typically work a 40-hour week, but it fluctuates. My hours are flexible, which can both be helpful (I have two young daughters and associated responsibilities) and at times aggravating (because my spouse’s work hours are not flexible, I often end up shouldering any unanticipated household and/or childcare needs, which means I make up for missed work at night or on weekends). I get about six hours of sleep per night – often less, rarely more. I think sleep will be better once the kids are a little older. I have about 10 weeks of vacation per year (I live and work in Switzerland, after all). Here, people actually use their weekends and vacation days to recuperate and spend time with family – I almost never receive work-related email during a weekend or official holiday as it is generally considered unprofessional.

Do you feel you have enough time to spend with your family? Why or why not?
Yes, I am very fortunate in this respect. I get ample vacation time, and I work in close proximity to my children’s school/daycare. By comparison, my wife, who has less vacation time and who commutes to work, is envious of the time I have with the kids.

How do you balance work and your life outside of work?
Despite the generous downtime from work, life has felt insanely busy the past two years, and I have struggled to find balance. As a family, we’ve been adjusting to a new country, new language, new jobs, and the demands of parenting (two children under the age of five, one of whom was a baby when we first arrived). I travel internationally between Europe and the U.S. twice per year with my family and once or twice per year for work. There are amazing perks to living and working abroad, but there are also certain socio-cultural handicaps one faces as an outsider that place strains on time and energy (and finances). Also, because I’m an American, I have no real long-term job security here, which means that I constantly need to be thinking ahead, which can be stressful. I am only now starting to feel like we are mostly adjusted to this new lifestyle – and that there is a bit more room to breathe.

Do you feel you are adequately compensated in your field? Please explain.
Yes, quite. Academic salaries are good in Switzerland. However, positions in Swiss universities are closely guarded, and it is nearly impossible for an American to secure long-term employment in one of the more lucrative posts.

If you took out educational loans, is/was paying them back a strain? Please explain.
I feel strongly that the system of student loan debt in the U.S. is disgraceful, and I made a point of not going into debt to fund my graduate education. However, I also realize that I was fortunate to not need to take out student loans, and I certainly appreciate the difficulty posed by the decision of whether or not to take out loans in order to attend medical/professional/graduate school.

In your position now, knowing what you do, what would you say to yourself back when you started your quantitative psychology career?
If I could, I would give advice to myself during my undergraduate years, but the undergraduate me would probably not have listened to such trite remarks: Start early and stick with it. Take an internship in a lab as an undergraduate and build connections and experience outside of class. Keep sharpening your practical skills, because that’s where the opportunities are. Don’t follow the herd, but also recognize the value of working within an established system.

What information/advice do you wish you had known prior to beginning graduate school?
I was older and relatively savvy about academia by the time I started my degree in quantitative psychology. If anything, I wish I hadn’t wasted the time and money that I did in my earlier attempt to pursue a doctorate in clinical psychology at a private college.

From your perspective, what is the biggest problem in health care today? Please explain.
Well, that’s a huge question. Globally, the main problem seems to be differential access to quality health care. But with respect to my research, I would say that what concerns me most is the increasing need for medical and functional support for older individuals with mental impairment.

Where do you see quantitative psychology in five years?
With the growth of computing, the internet, and data mining technologies, there has been a lot of hype about “big data.” But “big data” are not necessarily “smart data.” Anyone interested in statistical and computational approaches to studying human behavior (and related health outcomes) would do well to consider lessons learned by quantitative psychologists over the past century. I see increasing need for such individuals, both within and outside of academia.

What types of outreach/volunteer work do you do, if any?
I currently perform very little outreach/volunteer work due to parenting responsibilities. Previously, I spent several years working for a not-for-profit educational center focused on teaching communication and community-building skills to school-age children in Southern California.

What’s your final piece of advice for students interested in pursuing a career in quantitative psychology?
Learning statistics is a non-linear, iterative process that requires time and effort—but also one that quickly starts to pay off. But quantitative psychology is not just about statistics: It is equally important to learn how to approach behavioral and health-related analyses as a theoretically minded scientist. Sometimes technical curiosity will outweigh interest in psychological phenomena, or vice versa, but in the end a quantitative psychologist must be able to skillfully integrate the two.

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