Interview: Career advice from Thomas Joiner

Thomas Joiner is a Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, where he leads his Laboratory for the Study of the Psychology and Neurobiology of Mood Disorders, Suicide, and Related Conditions.

What are your main research interests?

Suicidal behavior in a nutshell. To understand it and all of its facets, so as to better be able to prevent it.

How did you get to the point of studying this?

Well, it’s sort of hard to trace, not particularly linear, at least early on. Since I was in undergrad I was interested in mood disorders generally. It’s hard to say where that interest arises from. There’s certainly a family history of mood disorders and suicide. I suppose those genes may have been there and driving my interest in it. I can’t say though that it was explicit of “oh, my dad has this, I’m going to go [study suicide].” Until he died, then that was different. But before that it wasn’t like that so I don’t know where that [interest] came from.

I did a senior thesis as an undergrad on interpersonal aspects of depression. I did a lot of work early on, on that same topic in my career. That certainly contextualized a lot of what I later thought of, and worked on, with regard to social and interpersonal aspects of suicidal behavior. I’ve always had an interest in suicidal behavior because of the interest in mood disorders. It struck me as out of proportion that of all the parts of a mood disorder, the worst part, at least in a sense, the lethal part, struck me as getting the least amount of attention. I thought that was strange. It’s a pretty fascinating question. It’s grim, and difficult, and painful, and tragic, and all that, but I don’t really see that as different than a lot of the condition of the human situation. A lot of medical conditions are like that too. I’m not ever really impressed by that part of it. But I think it’s a really intriguing, puzzling thing about human nature. So that’s driven part of it.

I mentioned the family history; when my dad died, that was categorical in many ways. Putting aside the personal, intellectually it was categorical because now it was very personal, a lot more urgent. So that was important.

Can you briefly describe your career path?

In 1993 was when I got my PhD from the University of Texas at Austin. My first job was as an assistant professor, and then an associate professor, of psychiatry at a medical school in Texas. It was called the University of Texas medical branch at Galveston. It has actually become somewhat obscure compared to other Texas medical schools but it was the first medical school in the United States that was west of the Mississippi. It’s a pretty original medical school; it’s a great one too. That had a big effect on me to this day, I learned so much. It was almost like a very good paying 4-year post-doc that I did, just being steeped in things that I didn’t really know very much about. Like psychopharmacology, for example, I learned a ton about that. That was very useful. And all sorts of other things too. That was a great job.

I would probably still be there were it not for managed care. It came about that time, early 90’s, and just overnight almost changed what was a very intense but very collegial and sort of fun and thriving intellectual community. You know, where people could talk ideas. It changed overnight to “we gotta make money, we gotta to see patients”. Unless you had a grant, which I did. I was in a little bubble. But it occurred to me I could take this bubble and could be with other similar bubbles and it would be just like it was until managed care hit the medical campuses. So that’s the only reason I left, otherwise I loved it. And I was there for four years, and have been here [at Florida State University] since 1997.

What would you say your career highlights are?

It’s a weird question for me, it’s hard because it doesn’t roll off the tongue. It used to when I was a younger person because it was a lot more important to me. What does come to mind immediately are my students, my former students and my current students; their accomplishments and what they’re doing. And it keeps going, with their students and then their students. That’s really by far the highlight.

But to try to answer what I think your question is about personal career highlights, I suppose things like that APA Early Career Award. That’s a big deal to people. I’m so proud of the fact that around here [Florida State University] there are four others on the faculty [who received it] besides me, three of them in clinical. I’m really proud of that, for us as a faculty to have that many. And when I got it, I was really proud of that too. It’s a major thing. The Guggenheim is like that too. The MSRC [Military Suicide Research Consortium] has been a big deal.

Books have been, in my own particular case, a pretty big deal. It depends on the book. I’m working on, depending on how you count it up, my 20th right now. Some of them have not been important to me at all really and others of them have been extremely important. So those have been highlights.

What have been some of the low-lights of your career?

Hmm, that is truly an even harder question. I mean, I’ve had just as many disappointments as anyone else on a micro level of “I love this paper and nobody seems to like it, I love this proposal and nobody else seems to like it.” But I think that’s part of the course for somebody in our job. Definitely I’ve had probably more than my share of that because it’s a productive career together with a bunch of productive people, so we just have a lot of volume. I would compare our quality to anyone’s but there is along with that a lot of volume and with a lot of volume comes a lot of rejection and disappointment. I’ve definitely had my share.

The only thing I can think of really is that going forward, I think one thing that is important about this culture around here is that we have achieved major things and then we never act like that. I mean, maybe a little a little bit here and there but we don’t really rest on our laurels. I’ve taken that real personal in a career way and so going forward there are still things I’d like to achieve. They’re probably going to be harder and harder to achieve, so if I don’t achieve those that will be a disappointment. But I’m totally settled with that at this point, and I think it’s because I really don’t care that much about my career. I trust that it will take care of itself because it’s sort of done and established. I’ve still got things to do, I can still contribute still, but it’s less important to me than the careers of these 2 or 3 dozen people that I think have a real chance to change some things. And then their students and then their students, that’s very important to me.

Is there any advice that you would give students about how to get through difficult times in academia or difficult days, especially early on?

I think that par for the course thing that I was saying a minute ago is important for everyone to remember. There’s a lot of posturing, not just in academia, in human life that’s kind of natural. So I don’t begrudge anybody that, I guess. I’ve never been impressed by it even though I’ve been in a bunch of settings where there’s a lot of it.

Football has been very important to me. There’s a million reasons why but this is one reason, you can’t posture, there is no faking in football. And I think that’s sort of beautiful. And so that’s always been my ethic. Know there’s a lot of posturing, and that it doesn’t matter…That’s a useful idea. Related to that, imposter syndrome. That’s just an extremely helpful idea to people, to know that everyone feels that way and that it really doesn’t ever go away. I mean the edges of it come off but it never goes away entirely. It shouldn’t. I think when it does that’s a bad sign because it means people are either too far in some dimension or they’re resting on their laurels and that’s never a good thing.

I don’t really think there’s much to the idea of inherent talent, inherent genius, that kind of stuff, this is all just work. I mean probably there’s a little bit of the natural ability part but you all have been selected for that and as long as you’re here it’s just “alright, now who’s going to work?” I actually think that’s mostly good news. I guess the bad news is that it’s a lot of work. But I think that’s good news because it’s in your control, you can choose to do it or choose not to do it. I think there’s something good in that.

I think a lot of people’s thoughts on this question turn towards self-care, personal life, and I think that’s more individualized than people recognize. For some people I agree that’s essential and it’s important to know where you are and who you are on all that. If that’s something that is essential, then you definitely need to prioritize it. But there are people for whom that’s not essential, and I think it’s distracting for them to be forced to think about that all the time when really they’re not like that. So there’s all types of people and you just have to personalize it to you. That’s a helpful idea. Similarly, life balance is the same idea. Definitely for some people you really need to attend to that, or everything else is no fun, everything else loses meaning. But there are people for whom this is everything sort of, and that’s okay too, or it can be. There’s just diversity on that. And I think that and other forms of diversity need continued respect. So, I wouldn’t pigeon-hole oneself on that prematurely.

I would try to figure out where you are on that, and occasionally examine it and reflect on it and see if it needs tweaking. But for me, the self-care stuff has been “as long as I’m contributing I don’t really care.” I mean, I’ve got to be fed, and sleep occasionally, but beyond that I don’t need it and I’m not interested in it, but I respect people who do. My wife and sons have been the only exception to what I’m about to say. Other than that this is sort of everything and I’m real comfortable with that. But you have to find your place in that continuum.

For you personally, what’s essential to your well-being?

A sense of contributing is a huge one. To be honest, I think things don’t matter very much. I don’t think it matters what I think, or say, or feel very much. I mean I’d rather it be positive and helpful but it’s just so trivial. However, I feel pretty much the same way about my career. In this cosmological scheme of things, it’s very trivial. On the other hand, it might make some difference; it might touch someone, or push someone , or spur someone to do something. And it could end up making a real difference. And that’s it, everything beyond that is not that important to me professionally. I mean, personally, what I’ve been saying about my students, how I care so much more about them than I do about me, is even more 1000 fold about my sons in a personal way.

What do you look for from early career researchers or when hiring early career researchers?

It’s kind of similar to what I was saying a moment ago about you all in the PhD program. If you’re in the conversation, and far more if you’re already here, there’s a really good reason for that. It means ability, talent, accomplishment. From here it just matters what you put into it and the drive that you have. And I think it’s the same for the early career, the assistant professor crowd. They’re here because they can do it, they won out in an intense competition with dozens and dozens of other people. So there’s a reason they’re here but now it just all becomes drive, who wants it.

What helps an individual stand out from the dozens of others that are applying?

These days to me, I think it’s the credential, the calling card, that definitely catches our attention. By no means a requirement, but catches our attention immediately, is something like an F-31 or an NSF. It is by no means a requirement, and yet it is a calling card that has this benefit of immediate attention. We have to at least very carefully look at this record because there is some reason why that’s there. We have seen examples, and I myself have never had an F-31 and a lot of my students haven’t had one. Some of them have, but a lot of them have not, and they’ve been fine. And I don’t think that should be overdone. But that definitely is something.

I think a lot of this boils down in a career sense to grants and to papers. And so the papers, where they are getting placed matters a lot. The quantity doesn’t matter too much, and I say that as someone who generates a lot of volume. I don’t really care about that; neither do I shy off it. To me, it’s just that we have a big group, a productive group, lots of ideas, lots of energy. If it were the case that we were generating mediocre after mediocre paper, never appearing in the main outlets, okay, that would be something, but that’s not true. So we look for that kind of stuff. Quantity is not it, the quality has to be there, whether there’s volume or not.

That’s pretty simplistic but it boils down to those two things more or less. And that drive thing. There are a lot of qualities that are in the neighborhood of that: backbone, grit. Whatever you want to call that, I don’t know what it is really, but I do think there is something to that.

Anything else that you would like to make sure early career researchers walk away with, from your previous wisdom and experience?

Well, two other favorite talking points have to do with writing a lot, daily pretty much. The thing more important is that I’m a daily writer. It’s not so much about the volume of writing. As long as people will commit to pretty much daily writing of some small amount. It can be really small; it can make a world of difference. So I think that’s important. It’s kind of easy to understand but hard to do. Not that hard to do if you set up a low minimum. But it’s still hard even with the lowest minimum, it still takes discipline. That’s just crucial.

I’m finding this more difficult in my post 40s, into my 50s now, but I used to be completely intellectually omnivorous across campus. I used to go to talks in every department and read books and articles all the time. I think it made a difference in terms of my continued development through my 20s and 30s and 40s of my intellect. We have a lot of really pigeon-holed intellect in academia. That has its advantages but I think there’s something lost there too, wisdom. Wisdom and a bunch of qualities that are hard to state. I’m not sure I would recommend that really urgently because it doesn’t pay off in today’s climate, but I think there’s something to it that benefited me.

Interview and transcription by Ryn Linthicum (@RynLinthicum).
Ryn is a graduate student in the clinical psychology PhD program at Florida State University. Her current research focuses on applications of machine learning to predict suicidal thoughts and behaviours.


Featuring photo by Jackson Myers at Flickr. [Free use under CC licensing].

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