On this day, January 1st, 2014, the first day of my retirement from academia, I have decided to look back at the beginnings of my academic career, with the hope that readers embarking on their own careers might find some useful information about the importance of personal connections for career success.
As an undergraduate, I was more passionate about psychological ideas than real people. I was, to put it bluntly, an intellectual geek seeking to understand the way the mind works. I had a strong philosophical bent, with interests in the mind-body problem, states of consciousness, and paranormal phenomena. I was not without compassion for other living, breathing human beings, but I did not have that deep, strong desire to connect with and be helpful to others, one-on-one, like my fellow psychology majors who intended to become counselors and therapists. I thought I could make a greater contribution to humanity by discovering new theoretical insights about the workings of the mind that could be used by others in any context involving human behavior.
In terms of career goals, there was nothing inherently wrong with my orientation toward theories about people rather than people themselves. Plenty of academic psychologists have had successful careers with such an orientation, some of them (e.g., Abraham Maslow), hugely successful careers. But, for me, one drawback of focusing on ideas rather than people was a nearly complete lack of understanding of the importance of social connections for career advancement. The saying "It's not what you know, but who you know, that counts" is not wholly accurate; "what you know" does matter. But being smart and knowing a lot is insufficient for career success. Using personal connections is absolutely vital to career development. Not realizing this as an undergraduate almost derailed my plans to become a psychology professor.
I had a decent GPA with a double-major in Psychology and Biology and figured that this, with letters of recommendation from instructors in courses I did well in, would be enough to gain entrance to the graduate program of my choice. I applied to six good programs including Minnesota and Clark University. To my credit, I tried to consider specific faculty in these programs who might take an interest in me. (But getting detailed information about professors was much more difficult in pre-Internet days.) What I failed to do, however, was to ask my current professors if they had colleagues who might appreciate someone like me.
I further sabotaged my chances of admission by failing to tailor my application letter according to what a prospective graduate faculty advisor might be looking for. Instead, I wrote an unfocused letter in which I described how my evolutionary perspective was influenced by my father (a physicist) and mother (a biologist and artist). I also revealed my fringy interests in states of consciousness and mystical experiences without mentioning accepted paradigms in psychology. I surely came off as fuzzy at best and wiggy at worst. One by one, the rejection letters came in until I had no place to go a few weeks before I was to graduate.
In desperation, I read the entire APA catalog of graduate programs, looking for schools that might still accept applications in May. I found a small SUNY campus with a master's program. I noticed that one of their faculty members, Stuart Appelle, had a degree from Penn State. "Aha," I thought. "Maybe our mutual connection to Penn State will help get me admitted." Because Appelle was an experimental psychologist who studied perception, I rewrote my application letter to highlight my interest in the way that cognitive structures can influence perception. I had a trusted professor review my application letter and edit it for appropriate tone and language. (I specifically remember his writing in the margin: "Mysticism—don't tell them about this interest."). I mailed my application to the MA program in psychology at SUNY Brockport and soon received an acceptance letter.
During the one year I spent in the program at Brockport I made a point of getting to know all of my instructors very well. It seemed to me that Stuart Appelle was too straight-laced to appreciate my wide-ranging, nontraditional interests, so even though I had given the impression in my application that I would be working primarily with him, I spent more time talking to other faculty, including Martin Lindauer (psychology of art and creativity) and Stephen Snodgrass (social cognition). (Little did I realize then that Appelle would eventually become interested in anomalous experiences such as UFO sightings and alien abduction!)
I almost completed my MA degree in one year. I blitzed through my entire course requirements in two semesters and received approval for my thesis research proposal, a study of reaction-time differences to faces and letters at different stages of processing by the left and right hemispheres of the brain. I never did the thesis research though. More important were the serious discussions I had with my professors about their connections to faculty in Ph.D. programs. Martin Lindauer was well-connected to the famous perceptual psychologist Irvin Rock at Rutgers. Stephen Snodgrass was a recent graduate of Johns Hopkins and was close friends with the psychology department chairman, William Garvey. Looking at the astronomically-high GRE scores of students admitted to the graduate program at Hopkins, I voiced strong doubts about applying there. Snodgrass strongly encouraged me to apply anyway. "Trust me," he said. "Bill Garvey will pay special attention when I recommend you."
So, I applied to both Rutgers and Johns Hopkins. I also applied to the history of psychology program at New Hampshire and to both the experimental psychology and social psychology programs at Temple. During a visit to my in-laws, who lived near Philadelphia, I made a special trip to Temple just to talk to Uriel Foa, a social psychologists I envisioned working with.
I was accepted into all five of the programs to which I had applied. Stephen Snodgrass confided that the graduate selection committee at Hopkins was uncertain about my application, so Bill Garvey called him and asked, "Should we take a chance on this Johnson fellow?" Without hesitation, Snodgrass said, "Absolutely." That was all it took. (By the way, Stephen Snodgrass left his position at Brockport to attend law school, and is now an attorney.)
So, that is the story about how knowing someone who knew someone helped to get me into a graduate program where I probably would have not been accepted simply on the basis of my undergraduate GPA and GRE scores. How I landed my first job was another story about the importance of knowing someone.
It was January of my final year at Hopkins, and I managed to get an interview at Harvard University. As fate would have it, the chairman of the Harvard psychology department had gone to graduate school with my father at the University of Michigan, so my father gave me an insider, name-dropping line to use when I talked to the chairman on campus. Boy was he amazed and delighted to find that John Johnson he was interviewing was the son of the John Johnson he knew from the acoustics program at Michigan! My talk went well and I thought I had a good chance at the position. I was told that Harvard would be interviewing one more candidate before making their decision. That candidate turned out to be David Buss. Yes, the David Buss—who in seven years would win the APA Distinguished Scientific Award for Early Career Contribution to Psychology. The David Buss who would become one of the most well-known names in evolutionary psychology. The chairman at Harvard called me soon after the Buss interview to tell me that I was their second choice.
The job trail grew very cold after that. Williams College did not want to interview me. Within two weeks after my first son was born, I made a six-hour round-trip from Baltimore to Virginia State University for an interview, and they never called me back. I was excited to see a position opening at Penn State Erie, the largest campus in the system after University Park. That trip was a disaster. My itinerary included being on standby for a connecting flight from Pittsburgh to Erie, and there was no room for me. By the time I reached Erie, after midnight, the administrator who greeted me was clearly not happy about waiting so long in the airport. After a few hours of sleep in the hotel where they put me up, I left my favorite pajamas on the back of the door when I checked out. And then after the interview they did not offer me the job, explaining that they thought that I might not be able to relate to Penn State students at their level. [Fast-forward: I eventually won three teaching awards at Penn State DuBois, including the university-wide Alumni Fellow Teaching Award. I guess my potential just did not show.]
At that point I was running out of options. I applied for a position at Hofstra, but had not heard back from them. There was a serious possibility that by the end of the summer I might be caring for our infant son while my wife went back to work for the Maryland State Office on Aging.
Then it occurred to me that the next time I visited my parents back in Happy Valley that I should drop in on former psychology teacher and department head Robert Stern to let him know that I was on the job trail and would appreciate his passing on any leads to me. One late summer day I did just that. To my surprise, Bob told me that he thought that the DuBois Campus of Penn State needed a full-time instructor. It was a fixed-term rather than a tenure-track position, which meant that the contract would have to be renewed each year. Nonetheless, it was a full-time job, and, furthermore, Bob said that I could have the position if I wanted it. Just like that. He told me that I might want to do an interview anyway just to see if I liked the campus. So I set up an appointment, made the 65-mile trek west on interstate 80, and found the campus to my liking.
(Hofsta called me about two weeks before I was to begin teaching, saying they were very interested in having me interview. I thanked them and told them that I had already found employment.)
By now I was more aware than ever about the importance of personal connections. Even though I was a fixed-term faculty member, I did everything I could to be fully involved in all aspects of campus life and to get to know all of the faculty and staff. When a tenure-track position opened up two years later, I was a well-known and reasonably-liked commodity, and easily won the permanent position, which I kept for thirty-two-and-a-half years, until I retired yesterday. Who you know really does matter.