Lance Rappaport completed his PhD in psychology in 2015, specializing in clinical psychology and focusing on anxiety disorders. He is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Windsor.
Q: First, a big question. Was there a specific moment when you decided “I’m going to do a PhD?”
Yes and no. I completed undergrad at New York University where I started in their theatre and film program. After the first year, I decided to try something different and found psychology. There were not many undergraduates engaged in research, so I became involved in the NYU Couples Lab, which, at the time, was mostly composed of a faculty principal investigator, Dr. Patrick Shrout, Ph.D., and graduate students. Through that lab, I got a tremendous amount of support, and enough experience with and exposure to research that I knew I wanted to keep going, to keep developing and exploring new techniques and new questions.
Q: Did your expectations change for the PhD once you started? Did anything surprise you?
Graduate school was fairly similar to what I expected, but something that surprised me was Quebec; I didn’t expect that degree of cultural difference from New York, even though I knew that it is a rich culture. I didn’t really understand, and certainly didn’t fully appreciate it before. That was probably the biggest adjustment.
Q: Why did you choose McGill?
I mainly chose to attend McGill because of research fit with faculty, the amount of impactful research, and the professional support provided by faculty in the Department of Psychology. The PhD is such a specific degree that it often comes down to fit between the student’s research interests and faculty members’ research programs. The faculty were also, in general, so supportive of each other and of students, regardless of whether the students wanted to pursue academic, clinical, or other types of careers.
Q: The department was supportive of both, then?
Yes; all the faculty were involved in academic research, some in more applied research, but even among faculty who didn’t practice clinically, clinical training was still considered a vital part of one’s education. Additional, internationally-recognized clinical training was also available in the community; one had only to investigate opportunities.
Despite McGill’s focus on research and teaching, they’ve also built partnerships with people in the community who can provide really strong clinical training. Many of my former colleagues who went into clinical practice are still in Montréal, and now they’re resources for the next generation of students, part of the network of support in the community.
Q: It’s lovely to hear about how much support you got. How does your direct supervisor fit into your experience?
My doctoral advisor, Dr. Debbie Moskowitz, Ph.D., was incredibly supportive; her example is the benchmark that I try to reach as an advisor and faculty member. I consider it a privilege that we still continue to work together when our work intersects. I got a lot of support from others in the department, too; I could name them, but I’d probably miss some people who were very supportive.
Q: Was the department support more formal and structured, or more casual?
Both, though one of the things that I really liked at McGill was that there was an intrinsic focus on how faculty can help students and support their individual needs, rather than a bureaucratic sense of policy, procedure, and paperwork. It was more of a shared value of the importance of supporting students rather than structures of deadlines and meetings.
Q: Was it always your master plan to have your own lab someday, or were you leaning towards other things?
No, that was always my master plan, as you say. When I graduated, I went to a postdoctoral fellowship in the US. While I was there, I had the opportunity to stay on as a scientist in psychiatry on what’s known as “soft money,” funded entirely through research grants, clinical practice, etc. The US department generously offered several years of support as a buffer while one obtains the grants to support your own salary and research program. That was the only time I really debated not having the traditional lab, and instead working in that environment. But some colleagues in departments of psychology recommended caution and pointed at how variable external funding can be. I agree, but sometimes I still regret leaving that environment.
Q: What kinds of things did you do with the goal of becoming a professor?
There’s no silver bullet, no guaranteed guidebook. I’ve seen advice that you need to graduate from somewhere very prestigious, but I know a lot of very successful colleagues who completed their doctorates from perhaps less prestigious institutions. They did a lot of strong, impactful research or completed a supportive fellowship and are now in professorship positions across Canada and the USA. In my experience, what makes the biggest difference seems to be how supportive an environment is. Otherwise, you keep learning, publishing, and doing impactful research until a position becomes available.
Q: Was there a lot of organized student groups to encourage that environment? Or more unstructured?
Montreal was like my experience at NYU. In Manhattan, in the middle of a city, there are a lot of non-student events. Sometimes student cohorts organized events for themselves or incoming students. But other events? They may have been going on, but I didn’t search for them.
Q: Can you talk briefly about the main difference between being a graduate student and being faculty, having your own lab?
I got this advice in my first year, and I tell my students this now, though it didn’t click for me until my second or third year: it’s to really think beyond one paper.
I really encourage my graduate students now even from the summer before they start, to think beyond your dissertation, to think beyond a Master’s thesis or the first paper to what is the broader question, what’s the broader area? What’s the thing you want to become more of an expert in, something that you want to advance, and then we’ll talk about individual projects and individual papers within that. So what’s the overall goal? What’s the overarching theme or question? And then how do we answer that in different ways? How do we build a program of research that really addresses that question so that when they go on the job market or when they go to hybrid kind of clinical research positions, they have a kind of professional identity, not just a series of things they’ve done, or things they’ve done in my lab.
It prevents me from training people in just what I do, and allows me to to really support them in developing their interests in a way that goes beyond one paper and becomes really finding and honing their real interests.
I’ve been growing my lab slowly, taking one graduate each year going forward, and also being more involved with undergraduate students. And I don’t just have the undergraduate students collecting data or doing basic tasks, but I try to offer them more hands-on mentorship, helping them think through the research process.
My focus on applying statistical methods to existing datasets has also been really helpful for my career, as consortia and team science is gaining ground. It has been helpful to have experience and knowledge on how to leverage innovative methods to ask novel questions in large epidemiological or genetic datasets.
Q: Let’s wrap up with another big question: Is there anything that you wish you knew when you started your PhD, or that you give as advice to current PhD students?
I see many discussions about pressures on students to decide between academia and not academia. But there is a lot of gray area, a lot of jobs, a lot of different ways to set up a career or contribute to research or clinical positions or industry. So I really encourage students to understand the variety of opportunities out there and to not compartmentalize into either clinical or research—it’s not a dichotomy at all, there are just too many dimensions, even within academia, in relation to research, teaching, industry partnerships, tri-council funding and collaboration…it’s really not black or white, even if my career may look like it!
Many thanks to Lance for sharing his narrative! You can find him on Twitter @RappaportPhD or his faculty website and see more about ongoing research to identify psychosocial mechanisms in the etiology of anxiety and depressive disorders and the mental health sequaleae of the COVID-19 pandemic for children on his lab website.
This interview took place in May 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.