Dr. Toni Schmader Ph.D. `99 holds the Canada Research Chair in Social Psychology at the University of British Columbia. She received her Ph.D. in Social Psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She spent 10 years on the faculty at the University of Arizona, and has held a visiting position at Harvard University. Her research examines the interplay between self and social identity, particularly when one’s social identity is accord lower status or is targeted by negative stereotypes. In exploring these issues, her research draws upon and extends existing work on implicit gender bias, social stigma, social justice, social cognition, intergroup emotion, self-esteem, and motivation and performance. Her research has received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Mental Health. She has served as an Associate Editor at the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin and on the Executive Committees of both the Society for Personality and Social Psychology and the Society of Experimental Social Psychology. She has published over 60 peer-reviewed journals and book chapters and co-authored or edited two books. In 2013, she was the recipient of the Killam Faculty Research Prize.
In this Alumni Spotlight Q&A, Dr. Schmader shares insights into her graduate school experience, her research, and what she loves most about pursuing a career in academia.
What drew you to choose UCSB for your graduate studies?
The social psychology graduate program at UCSB had and still has a fantastic reputation for the training it provides. Still, I’m not sure it’s fair to say that I chose UCSB. Rather I lucked into the opportunity to come to UCSB for my graduate studies. I had started by Ph.D. studies that the State University of New York in Buffalo in 1994. Halfway through my first year, I learned that my Ph.D. supervisor and her husband were recruited to join the faculty at UCSB and she graciously offered to facilitate my transfer into the social psychology graduate program. I was thrilled at the opportunity to continue working under her mentorship in a world-class university. It didn’t hurt that Santa Barbara gets less snow than Buffalo.
What was your graduate school research focus? What was it like working with your mentors and colleagues at your department?
In graduate school, the central question I was trying to understand was when and how do members of stigmatized groups disengage their self-esteem from negative outcomes. My very first experimental study found that when white and black college students were given feedback on a test of their intelligence, White students felt good at earning a high grade and felt bad when learning a low grade. But black students’ were less affected by negative or positive feedback especially when they believed the test might be racially biased. This work was part of a broader program of research on how people can attribute their negative outcomes to prejudice in order to remain resilient to the discrimination they might face. In my dissertation, I found that people also remain resilient by devaluing those domains where their group does poorly. However, it’s also more difficult for members of a lower status group to devalue what the higher status excels at, unless they believe that the status differences between those groups is inherently unfair. Although I’ve gone on to research other topics over the years, recently I’d picked up on this theme again to study how women and men come to self-select out of roles and careers that are associated with the other gender. Most notably, women see more value in choosing a male-dominated career in science or engineering than men see in choosing a female-dominated career in health care or teaching.
When did you first realize your fascination for your chosen discipline?
My interest in how structural inequalities might disadvantage people began in high school. I grew up in a very rural part of the country. I was fortunate to have a social studies teacher who did a fantastic job of piquing our curiosity about how one’s social context might shape the way we think about ourselves. I distinctly remember learning about the idea of self-fulfilling prophecy – that others’ expectations might shape the way we behave in ways that lead us to conform to and thus confirm those expectations. After reading books by Jonathan Kozol on how inequalities in educational resources reinforce racial disparities, I was really hooked on how broader social forces can impact and disadvantage individuals’ lives. Still, I came into college not really sure of what my major would be – physics had been my favorite subject in high school and so I thought astronomy might scratch my itch to make new discoveries. But even though I had done very well in high school physics, our school’s lack of an AP program meant that I’d scored quite low on physics subject test of the SAT that I had voluntarily signed up to take. After a couple of years, I discovered that social psychology was a discipline where I could apply a scientific and quantitative method to understand how social inequalities affect people’s behavior and sense of self. It’s with some irony that 30 years later, my research now examines how gender stereotypes can constrain women’s opportunities and ability to see themselves as feeling a sense of fit in science, technology, engineering, and math.
What did you enjoy most as a student at UCSB?
I feel so incredibly fortunate for the four years I spent at UCSB. The people there at the time were amazing. Not only were the faculty incredibly talented and supportive, but there was a unique cohort of students in the program that have become lifelong friends and even collaborators. It was the first time in my life around peers who truly enjoyed their scholarship and sought out opportunities to share ideas and begin collaborations with each other. Our cohort of students worked very hard, but also found time to enjoy all the opportunities that living in California can provide – skiing at Mammoth or Tahoe, a weekend trip up to San Francisco or down to LA, overnight sailing trips around the Channel Islands, and camping or wine tasting in the Santa Ynez valley. It really is a magical place to live and as we told every new class of incoming graduate students – the only bad thing about going to Santa Barbara as a graduate student is that you will eventually need to leave to find a job elsewhere.
What do you love most about your work?
There is a lot to love about a career in academia, but I think one aspect that makes it truly unique is the freedom and independence to chart your own course. It’s an honor and a privilege to be able to make a career out of being a lifelong learner. I also like the adventure and creativity that comes from building theory and designing research projects to make novel advances to our knowledge base. Perhaps most importantly, I’m inspired to pursue my particular research interests when I see the positive effect this work has on others. This includes playing a role in mentoring members of my lab to develop their own unique programs of research. In addition, when one’s research deals with important social issues, perhaps the largest motivator is the gratitude people have when they learn that others are devoting their careers to understand and solve these problems.
At this point in your life, what is the most important advice you can give to someone who hopes to succeed in your chosen discipline/career path?
Stick with it and focus on what you value. It’s no secret that graduate school and the academic career that comes after can be a real roller-coaster. The job market is competitive, grants are competitive, and getting your work published is an exercise in extreme delayed gratification. But there is a path through for anyone who can find enjoyment in the process of discovery and collaboration, and prioritize these over the look and length of your C.V. Clearly one needs the job, the publications, the grant funding to do well, but these come as byproducts of building good working relationships with your research teams and finding the research itself intrinsically rewarding.