Clinical and Cultural Psychology
Dr. Shu-wen Wang is an assistant professor at Haverford College. She is a clinical and cultural psychologist whose research examines stress, coping, and health and well-being in the context of relationships and families. She studies social behavior, with an emphasis on social support process, and its links with mental health and biological stress responses (e.g., the HPA-axis and cortisol reactivity).
What drew you to the field of psychology and your current research interests?
I’ve always been fascinated by human behavior. I actually started out as an anthropology major in college, and then added psychology as a second major after I took (and fell in love with) intro psych. Why do people do what they do, think how they think, feel how they feel? And how can we, then, help people who are suffering? Those questions drew me to psychology with its rigorous and scientific study of human behavior, while my anthropology studies continued to reinforce the importance of cultural context on the human experience. In graduate school, I focused on the study of stress, relationships, and health. I’m currently continuing that line of work — examining social support processes (e.g., how relationships are used when bad things happen) and capitalization processes (e.g., how relationships are used when good things happen) — with an emphasis on how cultural factors shape those processes with implications for Asian American mental health.
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’m currently an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Haverford College, a small liberal arts college. I had gone to Barnard College (a women’s liberal arts college) for undergrad and absolutely loved it there — close student-faculty interactions, small classes, strong intellectual atmosphere, and many opportunities to get hands-on research experience. At UCLA (where I received my PhD in Clinical Psychology), the emphasis was largely on research training. I love research — the whole process of thinking, generating hypotheses, designing a study, collecting and analyzing data, and interpreting the results. It’s like a big treasure hunt. I really concentrated on research while at UCLA, but realized that I loved and missed the energy of the classroom, and in particular, the energy of classrooms that you find at places like Barnard. So when I graduated from UCLA, I was really intent on joining a liberal arts college that strongly supported high quality research in addition to teaching undergraduates. I hit the jackpot when I got the job at Haverford. I also like clinical work, and may find a way to include that in my career again in the future.
As you think back to your undergraduate days, what were some experiences that were helpful in bringing you to where you are today?
Absolutely the senior thesis! I actually wrote two separate senior theses — one for my anthropology major, one for my psychology major — and it was a blast getting to study topics I was already so interested in, using very different methods, and working closely with professors I admired and had strong working relationships with. It’s great to get research experience through labs and coursework, or even through research assistant positions with faculty members. But I don’t think you really get the full independent research experience until you complete a senior thesis, where you take full ownership for the project from beginning to end. Writing the senior thesis gave me a really good preview of what graduate school would be like, and what a career as a professor would look like. And it confirmed for me my wish to keep going down that track.
How do you think we can get more Asian Americans interested in psychology, starting at the undergraduate level?
I think that as we generally continue to decrease stigma around mental health issues in this society, more Asian American students will get interested in psychology. I also think that as more Asian Americans become educators and practitioners and put more of a familiar face onto the discipline, more students will feel attracted to this field and more headway will be made in the study and clinical treatment of Asian Americans. When I was in college, I don’t think I had a single Asian American professor, much less an Asian American psychology professor. There wasn’t even a course offered on cultural psychology — and I went to school in New York City as a part of a consortium with a large university. I’m glad that this is changing with each generation — that cultural psychology courses are becoming more core to psychology offerings, that there are increasing numbers of Asian American psychologists. The work of organizations like AAPA really helps this cause by advocating for Asian American issues and creating a community for those interested in Asian American psychology at every level of training. Even this undergraduate consortium (that I’m writing this profile for) is a fantastic resource that simply just did not exist for previous generations. Endeavors like this make all the difference.
What advice would you give any undergraduates who are thinking about majoring in psychology, or pursuing graduate school in psychology?