Adam Stanaland (PhD Candidate) researches how powerful norms and stereotypes shape people's identities and self-concepts
Joint Psychology & Public Policy
Can you tell me a little about your background?
Sure! I was born and raised in a small coastal town in South Carolina called Little River. It’s in the very northeast corner of the state, so I also spent a lot of time in North Carolina and feel very strongly connected to both states. That said, the coastal part of the Carolinas is pretty rural, and over 60% of public-school students (as I was) qualify for free-or-reduced lunch (i.e., are classified low-income). So I grew up around pretty rigid social norms about gender, race, sexual orientation, etc. that I didn’t question until I went to college, studied abroad in London, and eventually moved to New York City. I think it was my experience growing up around rigid norms and stereotypes (and realizing that they can change) that prompted me to study what I do at Duke.
What do you think are the pros/cons of working before enrolling in a PhD program?
I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot talking to prospective students for PhD recruiting interviews. I think the pros and cons (of working or not pre-PhD) boil down to the individual, their experiences, and their goals. When I left undergrad, I was pretty burnt out from academics and extracurriculars and didn’t think I’d ever go back to grad school. It wasn’t until I was in a job that used my research skills that I came to realize that (1) I love the research process and (2) I have really specific research questions that aren’t answered yet. For me, having time “off” between undergrad and grad school gave me clarity, motivation, and life/professional skills that I needed to commit to a PhD. That said, I’ve also seen students be really successful coming straight through from undergrad. Mostly, though, I hear PhD students say they wish they had taken more rather than less time off.
I chose Duke for a few typical reasons and some not-so-typical reasons. Typical reasons included obvious considerations in like advisor fit and quality of life. My advisor, Dr. Gaither and I, clicked really well compared to other faculty I interviewed with, and we share a lot of the same priorities: being motivated, hard-working, and innovative in research approaches. She also really cares about her teaching/mentoring, lab culture, and overall student well-being. We bonded about the great food in Durham, which I am able to enjoy thanks to Duke’s really generous PhD funding package. On the less typical side, Duke offered me the very unique opportunity to design and build Duke’s first joint PhD in psychology and public policy. This was important to me coming from a government/policy job because I wanted to learn how to work with policymakers to have a real impact on societal problems. Lastly, it was important for me to be to be back in the South close to family and close to the populations that I wanted to study.
Can you tell us a little more about the joint PhD in psychology and public policy?
Definitely! From what I understand, the idea for joint programs came from Sanford (Duke’s school of public policy), and there are now joint programs between public policy and psychology, sociology, economics, and political science. Traditionally, Sanford PhD students pick a concentration in one of these areas, while psychology PhD students can also concentrate in public policy. The joint degree is a more formalized/intense version of these concentrations, where I take all of the core courses required of both degrees and also attend graduate student workshops, programs, seminars, etc. in both programs. My dissertation committee is also made up of scholars from across different schools at Duke. Though this has meant more classes and meetings for me, it’s been hugely beneficial in terms of how I think about my research. In listening to and working with scholars from other fields, I’ve been pushed to challenge the ways I do/think about my research, frame my work, and consider its impact on the public.
If someone outside of academia asked about your research, how would you explain it?
I always start by reminding people that so much of how we feel, think, and behave is because of social role norms, like gender. In short, I study why social role norms exist, how they affect us, and if/how we can change them. For example, where I grew up in South Carolina, I was expected to dress, look, and act a certain way because I was a boy. I didn’t dress, talk, or show interest in “girly stuff” because I wouldn’t fit in, or worse, be bullied. The main focus of my research is how these experiences of conforming to social role norms out of a sense of social pressure (e.g., “be a man; man up”) affects kids’ and young adults’ development. What I’m finding so far is that masculine norms—being assertive, independent, strong—aren’t inherently bad and may be very useful in certain contexts (e.g., sports, the workplace). However, the problem is that some men—men who feel a lot of pressure to be masculine—seem to develop a fragile sense masculinity that invokes aggression (or other dangerous behaviors, like homophobia and bigoted policies) when they think manhood is being threatened.
When it comes to your research, what are you most proud of?
My first 2-3 years of graduate schools just culminated in the publication of my first first-author paper in one of our top social psychology journals, so I’m really proud of that! This was a set of two studies that I designed from the ground up and that are really foundational for the psychological model I proposed in an under-review paper and test in my dissertation. It was a ton of work—from scale development and testing, to experimental in-lab work, and online data collection—so I’m glad to see my ideas being accepted by the scientific community and even some media outlets.
How did you become a part of the Duke Identity & Diversity Lab??
My advisor, Dr. Sarah Gaither, is the PI of the ID Lab. I was drawn to the lab when I was applying to grad school because of Dr. Gaither’s innovative approaches to studying social groups and human development. In addition to my research on gender and masculinity, our lab also does a ton of work on racial identity, multiculturalism, bias, and discrimination that I think/hope is pushing the field (and practitioners) toward a better understanding of how these processes are shaped over the lifespan.
Why do you think social science research is so important?
Every day, all of the time, people are trying to understand other people’s behavior. With the recent uptick in disinformation, many have turned to social media and/or their (loud but misinformed) family members for answers. Whether we realize it or not, these oft ill-informed opinions affect how we interact with the world on important topics ranging from racial injustice to COVID-19 vaccination. Instead of making baseless claims about human behavior, social scientists devote their lives to meticulously deconstructing the social world using controlled and (hopefully) transparent methods. Social scientists are by no means perfect—we are subject to our own biases as humans—but I believe our commitment to the scientific process allows us to contribute knowledge that creates a safer, more productive, and more inclusive society.
What advice do you have for other Ph.D. students?
I have two pieces of advice that have helped me in my PhD, especially recently. First, do research on the problems and questions that keep you up at night. I heard this a long time ago, and I tried to Google it to attribute it, but I couldn’t find anything. PhD students are often pulled in a bunch of different directions by well-intended advisors, friends, and “sexy” new research topics and methods. While this is exciting, it’s so important to learn to say no to the projects that don’t keep you up at night; they’re probably going to be boring (to you) eventually and likely aren’t informing your main line of research. Second, especially for experimentalists, I love Kurt Lewin’s advice, “If you want truly to understand something, try to change it.” This advice may be lost on people who like to think of themselves as more basic scientists, but I think applying your ideas in the “real world” can be a great test of your theory and also have real, positive impact (if done carefully and correctly!).
What’s next for you?
Since I’m in my fourth year (and trying to finish in five), I am beginning to look at post doc options. In the very short term (next couple of months), I am trying to push out a few more papers that are *so* close to submission, and then my full attention in late spring/summer will be on writing an NSF (National Science Foundation) postdoc fellowship proposal, among others. I’m also excited to be teaching a couple of courses this summer and mentoring some awesome undergrads. Teaching and mentorship are important to me because I hope to teach a cool new course on masculinity during my postdoc and end up at a SLAC (selective liberal arts college) or smaller R1 (research university) where there is a primary focus on teaching/mentoring undergrads.