Humans Behaving Blog

PSY Paths: Nina Powell, Class of 2008

Posted on November 3, 2016 by Paul Silvia

Our alumni follow many paths. Sometimes those paths are somewhere in Greensboro. But many of our students move far from the Eberhart Building, and a few move really far.

Nina Powell, Class of 2008—and now Dr. Nina Powell—works in the Department of Psychology at the National University of Singapore. According to Google Maps, it’s around a 24-hour flight or, I would imagine, an inordinately difficult drive.

For this post, we’re checking in with Nina to see what she’s been up to.

psyninapowellWhat was your path here at UNCG?

I first attended Salem College straight after high school, but it was not the right fit for me, so I dropped out and took some time off to work. After working for a law firm for a year, one of the lawyers pushed me to go back to school, so I applied to UNCG and knew almost immediately after taking Intro Psych with Professor Guttentag that Psychology would be my major. I also majored in French and spent a summer abroad in Angers, France, through UNCG’s study abroad program. I was a part of the Lloyd International Honors College, Psi Chi, and College Dems. I also worked in Mike Kane’s and Tom Kwapil’s PSY 433 labs for several semesters, one of which resulted in me spending the summer in England doing research under the person who would become my PhD advisor, Dr. Sarah Beck. I was also awarded the Tom and Susan Ross Civic Engagement Scholarship from UNCG for outstanding achievement in undergraduate psychology research. I worked closely with Rob Guttentag on my Honors thesis project (now published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology), and was a TA for him for several years as a part of UNCG’s iSchool program (college credit for high school students who took Intro Psych online).

Basically, I pestered Mike, Rob, Tom, Janet, and you endlessly for opportunities to work in labs, conduct research, improve my writing, and learn about how to succeed in this field, which made my UNCG experience so rich and fulfilling. It was through these relationships that I was able to move to England on an honorary research fellowship that later became a fully-funded PhD placement.

What was your path after UNCG? What are you doing now?

After graduating, I was a bartender and server at Café Europa for a few months before leaving for England again. After the summer placement there during my undergraduate degree, I was desperate to get back. I was offered an honorary research fellowship by another colleague I worked closely with while there—Dr. Kim Quinn (the person who would become my secondary PhD advisor). I was placed there for three months in 2009, and then returned back to Greensboro to continue working in Café Europa. During the placement, however, I was encouraged by both Dr. Sarah Beck and Dr. Kim Quinn to apply for a PhD placement under their supervision as well as a school studentship that would cover international fees as well as provide a bursary for living.

While working in Greensboro over the summer, I received news (I’ll never forget the text message that came while I was in the middle of a busy lunch shift that read, “YOU GOT IT! You’re doing a PhD, it’s fully funded, and they even gave you a travel scholarship – see you in October!”). I couldn’t wait until October, so I moved over in June and traveled around England and Europe before beginning my doctoral placement at the University of Birmingham, and held a brief research position analysing fMRI data for another colleague.

I finished my placement in three years, and started my write-up in year four. Concurrently, I co-authored a Leverhulme Trust grant with Kim Quinn, which was successfully funded and meant that during my write-up year I would begin work as a named postdoc. The write-up year was tough—postdoc by day/week, mad write-up student by weekend and evening. I finally submitted in March, defended in May, and graduated in July.

The postdoc was written for two-years, but the psychology department was going through big changes that year. My PI and advisor, Kim, moved back to the US, and social psychology was dying while a greater emphasis was being placed on cognitive neuroscience and robotics. I decided it was time to start thinking about my next move.

I applied to what felt like hundreds of postdoc positions around the world, and ultimately decided on Singapore for a mix of personal and professional reasons. I was offered the position, and moved to Singapore in August of 2013, just after graduation. I held a postdoc position here for three years before moving into a lectureship this past July, where I am now jointly appointed with Yale-NUS (a separate liberal arts college and joint venture between NUS and Yale University).

I lecture in developmental psychology, moral psychology (my specific research area), and infant development. I teach two courses a semester (sometimes three), and supervise around 10 honors thesis students a year. I also have a couple of research assistants at any given time working on small grant funded projects, and I do most of my research through my student supervision (including Masters students). I also hold administrative roles including graduate admissions and coordinating the department seminar series. In a typical week, I bounce around between NUS and Yale-NUS for lectures and student meetings (both supervision meetings and course-related meetings) on Mondays and Thursdays (my teaching days starting at 8am and lasting until about 4pm). Tuesdays and Wednesdays are writing and research days (with a sprinkle of student meetings) at my NUS office, and Fridays are packed to the brim with supervision meetings, my lab meetings, and the department seminar series.

What advice would you give to our current students who would like to work in the same kind of career? What could or should they be doing now to get prepared and be competitive?

Get involved! Do as much as you can to take advantage of the wonderful faculty in Psych at UNCG—they can change your life! Do as much research early on as you possibly can, and get as much experience teaching as you can (teaching roles are increasingly more common given undergraduate enrollments are getting higher and higher every year across the world, so this is a valuable skill to have in a tough job market).

The academic job market is saturated and insanely competitive, so having publications even before graduate school is becoming increasingly more common. Volunteer to be an RA in someone’s lab (we always want RA help!), volunteer to deliver a tutorial or lecture for someone, and write commentaries, letters, reviews as much as possible (those count as publications, even if they’re not the critical ones). I wrote several political commentaries during grad school and gave as many talks as possible around England as I could—it’s made for a colourful and full CV!

The only other advice I would give is to take time off when you need it. I’m grateful for the time I had to travel and work in a restaurant—the academic world can be a bit sheltered from reality, so it’s good to get out and keep yourself grounded! 

Thanks, Nina!


“Humans Behaving” is an informal blog run by the UNCG Department of Psychology devoted to matters large and small, from humble happenings to departmental history to our students’ many stories and successes. Have an idea for a story? Are you one of our graduates with a story to tell? Contact Paul Silvia at p_silvia@uncg.edu.


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