Asian American Psychology
Dr. Sharon Goto is a professor at Pomona College. Her research interests lie in Asian American Psychology and Asian American experiences in a cross-cultural context.
What drew you to the field of psychology and your current interests?
I was drawn to Psychology because the field addresses real world issues using methodology that is logical, empirical, and quantitative. In Psychology, insights into individual, group, and cultural practices grow out of something more than “because I think so”. This was a good fit with my intellectual sense. I didn’t necessarily fall in love with Psychology after one course. It took a few courses after Intro Psych that delved deeper into the subject to convince me that this field was right for me.
My favorite undergraduate class was Asian American Psychology with Stanley Sue. How lucky was I to take that course from him! It was important to see someone that ‘looked like me’, survive and thrive as an academic. He was asking questions in the classroom and in research that were compelling. I had been thinking and wondering about things like acculturation, cultural differences, cultural values, and race relations. This course gave me labels for these wonderings, and access to an intriguing extant literature.
In retrospect, I’ve always been interested in the interplay of different cultural values. My senior thesis compared how Asian Americans versus Europeans socialize self-regulation in their children (supervisor Dr. Claire Kopp). I observed mother-child interactions in supermarkets. It was a HOOT! I was hooked on research. Graduate studies with Dr. Harry Triandis helped give me the theoretical framework (individualism-collectivism) for understanding how cultural values can vary. For me, these cultural value constructs are a powerful tool for understanding how bicultural individuals negotiate two cultures, and for how perceptions of culturally difference affect stereotyping and prejudice.
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?
Now, I see obtaining a doctoral degree as invaluable training. It really instills a way of thinking and approaching issues that can be applied to almost everything in life.
When I was thinking about career paths, I thought differently about the doctoral degree. It was a means to an end, rather than a ‘lifestyle’. I wanted to maximize my options. I knew that through a doctoral degree I could be a traditional academic (teach and research), be a researcher in a think tank or for public policy, or be a practitioner. I decided to get a minor in industrial/organizational psychology because I knew that I could also consult in the business sector as an option. I applied to doctoral programs that had the strongest reputations for research knowing that this would also expand my options.
Toward the end of graduate school, I applied to academic positions first knowing my back up plans. Academic positions are competitive and a lot about ‘fit’. Because of my strong geographic preference, I knew that it would be a long shot to find an academic position…but I felt confident knowing there were good alternatives.
As you think back to your undergraduate days, what were some experiences that were helpful in bringing you to where you are today?
Undergraduate research experiences were fundamental to obtaining my current position. I volunteered in research labs and did a year long, original, empirical senior thesis. I still recall my thesis, and even though my research hasn’t continued in the same vein, it helped me decide whether I liked the conceptual processes of research, the individual and team aspects of research, and the delay of gratification J. My thesis also helped me to learn how to work well with a supervisor; how to ask questions, articulate my theoretical and design ideas, and work independently when possible.
In addition, read anything that interests you! Talk to people to understand the range of experiences. I always find inspiration for my work in the most surprising places.
How do you think we can get more Asian Americans interested in psychology, starting at the undergraduate level?
It’s important to show the relevance to Asian American people and communities. Psychology has received great media attention on shows like “Brain Games”. Showing how the same methodologies can be applied to Asian American issues to better understand experiences and help communities can inspire future careers! Also, knowing that there are organizations like AAPA with established histories might lead them to seek more information and utilize resources.
What advice would you give any undergraduates who are thinking about majoring in psychology, or pursuing graduate school in psychology?
I would seriously consider pursuing Psychology at the graduate or undergraduate level! No one in my family encouraged me to pursue psychology. I did not have specific goals in mind, but I followed an instinct that turned out to be the single, best professional move I made. The combination of being academically inclined toward the psychological approach, and passionate about culture, social justice for Asian American communities will provide the motivation needed for success.
In today’s changing world of work, no one really knows where their career will ultimately take them. It’s the ability to go with your well-informed instinct, and to change and adapt to take advantage of opportunities that will lead to career satisfaction. Psychology is a discipline that fosters a variety of skills (e.g., technical, writing, statistical, interpersonal competencies). You may very well end up practicing psychology with underserved communities or researching issues in Asian American Psychology, but if not, you’ll certainly have the tools through Psychology to help you.