Q&A with Evolutionary Psychologist, Robert Kurzban, Ph.D.
Q: How did you become interested in evolutionary psychology?
A: Well, when I was an undergraduate there was barely anything called "evolutionary psychology." I was a bio major at first at Cornell University, and I had the opportunity to see a really good talk by David Buss who was visiting Cornell. He gave a talk that, to me, was just really impressive, and what I was excited about was this idea that you could apply the principles, which I had been learning in biology classes to understanding humans, in particular human social behavior.
Q: What kind of training does a student interested in evolutionary psychology need?
A: The most important thing for evolutionary psychology is to be really good at evolutionary biology. The principles that underlie the fields are similar. So, while it's great to take psychology classes as an undergraduate, it's even better to take evolutionary biology and behavioral ecology classes. Anthropology and philosophy are useful, and, in particular, cognitive science is useful. Having said all that, I just want to add that people come into evolutionary psychology from all different disciplines. Your undergraduate degree, in some sense, doesn't matter as long as you're excited about the discipline.
Q: What can students expect as they pursue a career in evolutionary psychology?
A: Well like the rest of the academic world, the opportunities in evolutionary psychology are very difficult. It's very challenging right now for people to get jobs out of graduate school, or for people to get into graduate school. It's a very competitive business. One of the exciting things about the discipline, though, is that it's growing. Of course, just like anything else, you want to be in the growing industries as opposed to the shrinking ones. So, there are opportunities. There are places where you can do your graduate training that, when I was an undergraduate, weren't available. I did a couple of post-docs before going to the University of Pennsylvania. Those are becoming much more common, but, in general, pursuing a degree in evolutionary psychology really means pursuing a degree to do research.
Q: Are there any specific traits that work well for an evolutionary psychologist?
A: I've found that, like many disciplines, evolutionary psychology attracts people who are just very curious about human nature or what it means to be a social animal. Because it's a new field and because it's not well established, in some senses, it can help to have a personality for which conflict or at least a little bit of challenge is something that you're interested in or can deal with. There's a lot of debate. And, so, I think that people who are interested in engaging in arguments, logic and evidence... are going to be better suited for the field.
Q: What are some of the challenges in the evolutionary psychology field?
A: You really have to be prepared to learn evolutionary biology, cognitive science, anthropology, economics and game theory. The first few years of graduate school can be challenging because you have to master a lot of different disciplines. I think that students need to be prepared to learn a wide variety of fields that aren't immediately obvious. The degrees are going to be psychology degrees, but the training is diverse.
Q: How has evolutionary psychology grown in the last few years?
A: Evolutionary psychology has grown quite a bit over the last several years. The conferences are getting bigger. One of the most important changes that we've seen is at the level of the journals. The sciences are really in the journals. And the impact of the main journal in evolutionary psychology, Evolution and Human Behavior, is now on par with the best [Short Code Error: type value must be either online or ground] have to be tenacious. You can't give up.