Department of Psychology
Dr. Deborah Holoien is an assistant professor at Amherst College. Her research focuses on understanding how people can enjoy intimate, successful, and positive relationships across intergroup divides.
What drew you to the field of psychology and your current interests (e.g., Asian American issues, multiculturalism, stereotyping, etc.)?
Social psychology seemed like a natural fit for me because I’ve always been interested in observing and studying people. I moved to the United States from South Korea at an early age and had to be more perceptive than other children in order to figure out how to fit in. Growing up as a racial minority in a predominantly White neighborhood definitely shaped my interests in intergroup relations. I still remember the first day of elementary school—one of the White students asked the only other Asian kid in class if I was his sister. Even as a child, I had the nagging sense that race mattered in my interactions with other people, yet I couldn’t articulate this idea because classrooms and society in general discouraged talking about race. You can imagine my frustration! In many ways, my undergraduate courses in social psychology inspired a sense of relief and empowerment: I finally had the means to empirically study when and how racial differences affected interactions with others.
A doctoral degree in psychology can lead to a number of different careers. Can you tell us about how you chose your current career path?
I knew that I wanted to be at an academic institution that valued research and teaching. My graduate and postdoctoral training helped solidify my commitment to research. I’ve always liked solving puzzles and research seemed like a big puzzle to me. I also learned that I enjoyed teaching and mentoring students. I find it immensely rewarding to equip students with the skills and knowledge to study the world around them and connect psychology to their lives. Fortunately, I was able to find a great fit for my research and teaching interests at Amherst College, where I am currently an Assistant Professor.
As you think back to your undergraduate days, what were some experiences that were helpful in bringing you to where you are today?
I took an introductory social psychology course early on and was intrigued to discover that scientists could empirically study people’s behavior and inner states. Other courses on close relationships, stereotyping and prejudice, and multiracial issues further honed my specific research interests. I also worked in several labs as a research assistant, which introduced me to various research methods and skills. During my senior year, I conducted an honors thesis on interracial attraction. The research process of designing experiments, collecting data, and disseminating findings fascinated me and motivated me to pursue a career in social psychology.
How do you think we can get more Asian Americans interested in psychology, starting at the undergraduate level?
I think greater representation of Asian Americans in psychology would help attract Asian American students to the field. This means hiring more Asian American faculty: Seeing Asian American psychologists “in action” might encourage students to pursue psychology themselves. Closer to my area of specialization, I encourage research on intergroup relations to be more inclusive of Asian Americans. For many reasons, much of the work in this area focuses on Blacks and Whites. Where do Asian Americans fit in? In what ways are we similar or dissimilar to other racial groups, and why? As an undergraduate I would have loved to learn more about what psychology had to say about Asian Americans.
What advice would you give any undergraduates who are thinking about majoring in psychology, or pursuing graduate school in psychology?
Get as much research experience as possible, especially if you plan to attend graduate school. There is a world of difference between learning about psychology through coursework and actually conducting research firsthand. The tidy findings summarized in textbooks won’t teach you that research can be messy and time-consuming! I strongly encourage undergraduates to become a research assistant or lab manager and conduct an honors thesis. Getting involved with research also provides the opportunity to interact with professors and graduate students. Get to know these people because you might need them to write recommendation letters and they can be invaluable sources of information.