Stephen F. Davis received his BA and MA degrees from Southern Methodist University and his PhD from Texas Christian University. In 2007 he was awarded the honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree by Morningside College.
His first teaching position was at King College (Bristol, TN). Subsequently, he taught at Austin Peay State University (Clarksville, TN), and Emporia State University (Emporia, KS). He is Emeritus Professor at Emporia State University. In 2002-2003 he was selected to serve as the Knapp Distinguished Professor of Arts and Sciences at the University of San Diego. Currently he serves as Visiting Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Texas Wesleyan University (Ft. Worth) and Distinguished Guest Professor at Morningside College (Sioux City, IA).
Dr. Davis’s research interests include academic dishonesty, student professional development, student responsibility, conditioned taste aversion learning, and olfactory communication in animal maze learning. Since 1966 he has published over 300 articles, 31 books, and presented over 900 professional papers; the vast majority of these publications and presentations include student coauthors. Among his books are a number of textbooks and references such as The Psychologist as Detective: An Introduction to Conducting Research in Psychology (with Randolph A. Smith), Psychology (with Joseph J. Palladino), the Handbook of the Teaching of Psychology (with William Buskist), and 21st Century Psychology: A Reference Handbook (also with William Buskist).
Dr. Davis has served as the president of APA Division 2 (the Society for the Teaching of Psychology), the Southern Society for Philosophy and Psychology, the Southwestern Psychological Association, and Psi Chi (the National Honor Society in Psychology). In 1987 Dr. Davis received the first annual Psi Chi/Florence L. Denmark National Faculty Advisor Award. In 1988 he received the American Psychological Foundation Distinguished Teaching in Psychology Award, and in 1989 he received the APA Division 2 Teaching Excellence Award. Dr. Davis is a fellow of APA Divisions 1 (General), 2 (Society for the Teaching of Psychology), and 6 (Behavioral Neuroscience and Comparative Psychology).
How did you become interested in psychology?
I seem to have always had an interest in psychology and as high school graduation approached, I knew that I would be a psychology major when I enrolled at Southern Methodist University (SMU) that fall. Even though I was going to be a psychology major, my passion for the field had yet to develop.
I was not an especially diligent student during my high school years; my senior annual suggests that I would make my mark in the world of drag racing and auto mechanics. My fascination with building and racing cars persisted into my freshman and sophomore years at SMU. These activities, plus the “responsibilities” associated with being a fraternity member, were not especially supportive of academics. In short, I came very close to flunking out of SMU.
The summer following my sophomore year at SMU was a turning point for my career in psychology. I traveled to Wisconsin to visit relatives, took a job, and stayed the entire summer. My summer job was as a member of the dish-washing crew at a summer conference center. All of the employees were college students; many of them were psychology majors. Even though I was a psychology major and had taken several psychology courses, my co-workers that summer spoke something akin to a foreign language when they talked about psychology! My errant study habits, missed classes, and frequent “dozing” finally caught up with me. I came face to face with the realization that my future in this field was in serious jeopardy. I returned to SMU with a new sense of purpose and academic dedication. The result, to the amazement of my teachers, was the first in an unbroken series of straight A semesters and a passion for psychology that has not diminished to this day.
What did he or she do that was particularly meaningful for your development as a psychologist?
I would be remiss not to mention the support, guidance, and encouragement of three SMU psychology faculty during my final five semesters as an undergraduate and during my MA program. (Yes, my bad freshman and sophomore grades added an extra semester to my program.) Virginia Chancey, Al North, and Jack Strange provided encouragement, gave support, and opened more than one door of opportunity as I struggled to regain academic credibility. They showed me crystal clarity that they truly cared for their students and that teaching was both fun and very rewarding. In short, they taught me that psychologists can be scientists, teachers, and real people.
How much of your academic lineage or “family tree” do you know?
Yes, I have traced my psychological lineage from both my master’s thesis director and my doctoral dissertation director. I can trace my heritage back to William James on one branch and to Wilhelm Wundt on the other branch.
Do you have any advice for maximizing one’s graduate school experience?
There are several things that students can do to “survive and thrive” in graduate school. Here are several of the more important things that students can do. (Thanks to my friend, Linda Skitka, former Psi Chi Midwest Regional Vice President, for initially suggesting several of the following.)
- Know what you are getting yourself in for; be prepared by having a clear definition of your goals. Know why you are there.
- Learn time management skills; you will need them.
- Learn to make and keep lists. They can save your life.
- Be sure that you have the motivation and drive to deal with the demands of graduate school. Some people call this attribute “fire-in-the-belly,” Matt Huss (Creighton University) calls it “eye of the tiger.” Whatever you choose to call it, you must have it.
- In addition to having a faculty mentor, you need to develop good relationships with advanced graduate students. They have been down the trail you are on and can tell you what to expect.
- Keep in mind that all students in your graduate program have outstanding abilities; they would not be there if they were not talented. However, also keep in mind that you also have outstanding abilities, otherwise you would not be in the program. In short, don’t beat yourself up with social comparisons.
What is your source or inspiration for research ideas?
After completing my PhD at Texas Christian University (TCU), I accepted a teaching position at King College (Bristol, TN). Part of my duties at King College included developing a psychology laboratory. All went well and soon we had rats running through mazes and pressing lever in operant-conditioning chambers. Three years later I accepted a position at Austin Peay State University (APSU; Clarksville, TN). Once again, my duties included establishing a psychology laboratory. Soon my students and I were investigating the olfactory communication in animal maze learning, and I could see myself pursuing this topic for many years to come. However, change was soon to completely change my research involvement.
The impetus for this change originated with the APSU students. Numerous students who visited my office started proposing some of the “strangest” (at least to an old-time rat runner) research ideas I had ever heard of. Thankfully, I had the presence of mind to give these unorthodox research ideas a fair hearing and we began to follow through on some of them. So, nearly 40 years ago, I found my research focus beginning to shift. I came to the realization that my laboratory and research interests did not exist for any specific type of research; they existed for the training of quality students. In short, the vast majority of the research projects that my students and I have conducted over the years originated as an idea that a student proposed.
Do you have any tips for developing a successful research program?
A description of my research program appeared in a book chapter (Davis, 2007). Hopefully, a few excerpts from that chapter will give you an idea of how my research program operates. Please fell free to use any or all of these ideas in your own research endeavors.
I call my model the “junior colleague model” because the research ideas typically come from the students and because the students are always growing and developing in their ability to add meaningfully to a project(s). Under this model, we conduct research on a year-round basis; the inception and completion of projects are not linked to the beginning or end of the academic term. Moreover, I offer students the opportunity to enroll for academic credit (1-3 hours as determined by the student and myself) during a maximum of two semesters. Because we conducted research on a year-round basis, new students are able to join the “lab group” (as the students call it) at different times during the year.
I am a firm believer in peer teaching (McKeachie, 2002) and use it extensively with the lab group. The more experienced student researchers act as mentors to the neophytes. As students complete projects, they undertake new ones that involve increased involvement, input, and responsibility. I have found that my student researchers are capable of making significant contributions to the design and implementation of an experiment by the time they are working on their second or third project.
You recently finished editing 21st Century Psychology: A Reference Handbook with Bill Buskist. What was your vision for this handbook? Did working on this project influence your perspective on psychology?
Our purpose in developing 21st Century Psychology: A Reference Handbook was to provide undergraduate psychology majors (and beginning graduate students) with an authoritative reference source that would serve their research needs with more detailed information than an encyclopedia but not as much jargon, detail, or density as a journal article or a chapter in a research handbook. We envisioned that students would use 21st Century Psychology in several ways, for instance to get an initial foothold on a topic in preparing term papers, to assist in preparing for the GRE, to select a topic for a senior thesis or their own personal research, and to consult in determining directions they might wish to take in pursuing a graduate degree.
Reading and editing the 104 chapters that comprise this two-volume set gave me a clear view of the great breadth and depth of the contemporary field of psychology. Psychology is a large, all-encompassing discipline and I believe that all psychologists need to stand back from their specialty area from time to time and look at the big picture as it currently exists. Additionally, working on this project reaffirmed my faith in the excitement that is at the core of our field. To me psychology is the most exciting field of study; it asks and attempts to answer the most intriguing questions that I can imagine.
What is psychology’s biggest problem today?
I believe that narrow specialization and a lack of unity are the biggest problems currently facing psychology. Gone are the days when the contemporary “giants,” such as B. F. Skinner and Carl Rogers, were instantly recognized by all psychology students and faculty. In some respects, narrow specialization and focus may not be all bad. Without question, exciting advances are occurring in all areas of our field.
On the other hand, unless psychology students are taught the importance of developing/having a comprehensive view of the field, it is likely that these current, exciting developments will become isolated from each other. The result easily could be that we fail to ask big questions and lose sight of the richness and complexity of the total organism.
Where is psychology as field headed? What will be the most important areas of psychological research in the future?
I believe that the “hot” research areas in the future will be biological psychology/neuropsychology, evolutionary psychology, therapy, and interpersonal relations.
What is the biggest area(s) of application for the psychology?
Although the application of psychology continues to grow at an unprecedented rate, I believe that the application of psychology in the areas of education, international terrorism, therapy, and human performance in extreme environments will lead the way.
Are there any social issues that psychology should address?
Within our own country there are signs that we are rapidly becoming a nation of “haves” and “have nots.” I believe that psychology will have to help deal with the social issues this situation will spawn.
Although recent years have heralded in numerous advances in communications technology, there are signs that we are growing more isolated from each other. I believe that this is another social issue that will impact psychology.
Although you retired from university life, you remain extremely active in psychology. Looking back over your career, what advice can you give upcoming psychologists about sustaining a long and productive career in psychology?
It may help you put my comments in better perspective if you understand what I mean by “retired.” For me “retirement” simply means that I am in complete control of my time; I can decide what and when I teach, pick and choose the projects I undertake, and so forth.
Now, concerning advice for upcoming psychologists, I believe there are three keys to sustaining a long and productive goal as a teacher and researcher in the field of psychology:
- You must truly have a love affair with your discipline. Anything less will result in you “going at 3:00 PM to water the tomatoes.” Also, you need to realize that you did not choose psychology because of the high pay; monetary riches are to be found elsewhere.
- Your love affair must be passionate. You need to keep the fire-in-the-belly (eye of the tiger) that propelled you through your graduate program alive and well throughout your career.
- Never lose sight of the fact that psychology “Teachers must be willing to work for intangible rewards that may not come until many years after students graduate, which gives new meaning to the ‘delay of reinforcement gradient.’ …you must learn to be patient with your students and especially with yourself” (Brewer, 2002)
Brewer, C. L. (2002). Reflections on an academic career: From which side of the looking glass? In S. F. Davis & W. Buskist (Eds.), The teaching of psychology: Essays in honor of Wilbert J. McKeachie and Charles L. Brewer (pp. 499-507). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Davis, S. F. (2007). Student-faculty research collaboration: A model for success in psychology. In D. S. Dunn, R. A. Smith, & B. C. Beins (Eds.), Best practices for teaching statistics and research methods in the behavioral sciences (pp. 15-23). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
McKeachie, W. J. (2002). Teaching tips: Strategies, research and theory for college and university teachers (11th ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.