Eran Magen, PhD, is research director at University of Pennsylvania, Counseling and Psychological Services, where he was previously a post-doctoral fellow. Magen earned his bachelor’s degree in behavioral sciences and business administration from University of Ben-Gurion in Israel when he was 18 years old. Prior to earning his graduate degrees, Magen served as operations officer (lieutenant) in the Israeli Defense Force. He then went on to earn a master’s degree in education with a concentration in learning processes and educational policy from Stanford University.
He stayed at Stanford and earned his PhD in psychology with a concentration in affective science and behavioral economics. While at Stanford, he worked his way from teaching assistant and master’s thesis mentor to instructor of undergraduate and graduate students. From there, he attended University of Pennsylvania as a Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholar at the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics.
Dr. Magen has been published in Psychology of Women Quarterly; Psychological Science; Handbook of Personality and Self-regulation; and Self Control in Society, Mind and Brain. He currently serves as peer reviewer for both Judgment and Decision-Making and the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition.
When did you first decide to become a psychologist? Why?
I decided to go to graduate school in psychology when I was 22 years old, after thinking long and hard about what I wanted to do next in my life. I was very interested in character development and how people can effectively learn (and teach) how to have better lives. I believed this was an area in which I could make a real contribution, and decided that the best way for me to answer these questions was to study psychology and focus my research on these topics.
How/why did you choose the school you went to?
The short version is this: I looked up the research interests of all psychology professors in the top schools, and contacted all of the professors whose research interests were similar enough to mine (there weren’t that many of them). I applied to all universities where I could imagine living for a few years. I eventually was accepted to Stanford, which has a very well-regarded program in psychology. The particular adviser I had applied to work with is a very remarkable and inspiring man. At that point, the choice was pretty clear.
I actually wrote up the full story of my application to graduate school, and posted it on http://www.HowIGotIntoStanford.com (since so many people helped me with my own application, I wanted to pay it forward once I got into a good program).
What surprised you the most about your studies?
I thought I was going to learn a lot about psychology, and not much else. It turns out that the most important things I learned in graduate school had to do with time management, project management, communication skills (written and spoken), and people management. The “content” was almost secondary to all of those things.
Why did you choose to pursue a PhD in psychology (versus a Psy D)?
I originally had no intention of doing clinical work, and was very interested in doing psychological research. Since PsyD programs are geared toward training clinicians, they were not relevant to my interests when I was applying to graduate school.
Why did you choose the concentration(s) you did?
I had a very specific research question when I started graduate school: How can we help people have better self-control? I found that the people doing the research I was most interested in were mostly in the personality/social psychology areas, and these were the people I applied to work with. While at graduate school, I collaborated fairly broadly with other people who were interested in the same topic, and ended up working with a neuroscientist, an economist, and a physician, all looking at the same topic from different angles.
If you had it to do all over again, would you still become a psychologist? (Why or why not? What would you have done instead?)
I am very happy with my life as it is, and there is not much I would change on the professional front.
Has being a psychologist met your expectations? Why?
I did not go in with any clear expectations, other than wanting to make a positive impact on lives. I am glad to say that, in my small way, I believe that I am contributing to this goal.
What was it like finding a job in your chosen career field? What were your options and why did you decide what you did?
Toward the end of my graduate program, I decided not to pursue an academic position – I wanted something more applied, which wasn’t so focused on the “publish or perish” motto that guides so many academic lives. I eventually joined the Robert Wood Johnson Health & Society Scholars program, which is a very multi-disciplinary post-doctoral program that encourages and teaches researchers from diverse fields to apply their research to real-world problems in ways that would result in policy changes.
During my time in this program, I fleshed out a model for teaching supportive listening skills in communities as a way to reduce stress and the prevalence of emotional disorders such as anxiety and depression. Toward the end of my time in the RWJ program, I approached the department of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at the University of Pennsylvania, which provides therapy and outreach/prevention services to students at the University of Pennsylvania. I proposed testing this model as a way to reduce stress among all U Penn students. The leadership at CAPS is incredibly progressive, and they invited me to join the staff in order to continue developing and testing the program. I am now at CAPS, dividing my time between doing individual therapy with students and developing a campus-wide initiative to reduce stress through supportive interactions between students. I cannot imagine a better way for me to be spending my time.
What types of research have you worked on in your field?
I have been working on two big-picture questions: (1) Why do we do things that we know we are going to regret, and how could we do less of that? (2) How can friends and family members help each other be less stressed, just by talking with one another in everyday conversations?
Describe a typical day at work.
In the last semester, we did a large pilot test of the initiative I am developing, involving about 1,500 students. I now spend much of my time analyzing the data we collected, as well as managing other research activities (overseeing interviews with students and housing staff to collect their feedback, designing experiments to test components of the initiative). I meet with CAPS leadership in order to update them on how things are going and to consult about what changes we should make to the intervention. If it’s one of my “therapy days,” I will also see between two and four students for individual therapy sessions, for an hour each.
On average: How many hours a week do you work? How many hours do you sleep per night? How many weeks of vacation do you take?
I work about 35 to 50 hours per week. The “extra work” I put in depends on how inspired/motivated I am feeling, and I try to honor periods during which I feel less motivated or creative and not push myself to do work, since I see those times as “incubation” periods that eventually lead to more creative work. I sleep about eight hours a night. I probably have about four to five weeks off per year (including times when the university is essentially shut down for breaks, which is a great perk), but I’m not keeping good track of that, so I might be off by a week or two.
Are you satisfied with your income?
Not entirely, but it certainly allows me to live a good-enough life.
If you took out educational loans, is/was paying them back a financial
I was fortunate enough to be able to go through my schooling process without having to take out loans.
In your position now, knowing what you do – what would you say to yourself 10 years ago?
Focus on what feels meaningful, and do it as well as you can.
What information/advice do you wish you had known when you were beginning your psychology studies?
In the research world, the ability to create your own funding (i.e., through federal and foundation grants or gifts from donors) is incredibly important. Start cultivating that ability early, by applying to grants, going to grant-writing workshops, etc. Similarly, the ability to collaborate is becoming more and more important, since it’s becoming impossible to be an expert in more than a very narrow field – and good work is almost always inter-disciplinary. So learn to collaborate.
From your perspective, what is the biggest problem in healthcare today?
The education achievement gap, which leads to income gaps, which leads to tremendous health disparities. It would also be nice to have a “pay for results” healthcare system.
Where do you see psychology in 10 years?
I honestly have no idea. I guess we’ll see.
What types of outreach/volunteer work do you do, if any?
Professionally, much of my work involves outreach on campus through workshops and media campaigns promoting supportive listening. More personally, I facilitate a dialogue group (Jewish/Israeli students talking with Muslim/Palestinian students about the Palestine/Israel conflict). I am also donating my time to developing a national project for promoting reading ability of low-achieving school children. I used to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, and would like to get back into that, as well.
Do you have family? If so, do you have enough time to spend with them?
I am married. We spend a good deal of time together, but since my wife owns her own business and teaches adults (who generally takes classes during “leisure time,” since many of them have regular jobs), we have to do some work to make sure that our free time overlaps.
Do you have any final piece of advice for students interested in pursuing psychology as a career?
Read http://www.HowIGotIntoStanford.com . Also, more generally, talk with other people when you’re not sure about something. Ask any question that comes to mind. There is a lot to learn. People who’ve been there are a great source of information, and they are usually very happy to share their knowledge (and to feel appreciated for it), as long as they are approached respectfully.