Where can a graduate degree from the University of Illinois take you? In this monthly series, we catch up with one recent Graduate College alum and ask the question: "Where are they now?".
Michelle Voss earned her PhD in Psychology with a focus on Brain & Cognition (now Cognitive Neuroscience) at the University of Illinois in 2011. Today, she works as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Iowa. In addition to teaching undergraduate and graduate students, she runs a lab that does research on how the brain changes with aging and brain injury; how these changes to the brain impact the way we think, perceive, and act; and what factors (like exercise) improve cognitive and behavioral outcomes associated with aging and brain injury.
What skills, competencies, or experiences are essential to your work?
Essential skills include writing and communicating clearly and concisely, leadership, perseverance, and time management. Experiences that have improved writing and communication stem from being proactive about getting feedback from colleagues and students on my writing, making time for weekly discussion of research ideas, mentoring, and teaching. I started working on all of these in graduate school by frequently meeting with faculty and students to discuss my drafts and ideas, attending talks throughout the psychology department and at Beckman, and seeking opportunities to mentor undergraduates and teach either formally or informally via workshops. I think perseverance will come naturally if you follow your heart and pursue what you’re passionate about. I learned time management throughout graduate school, and really became disciplined about it when we had our first child.
What is the most interesting, rewarding, and/or challenging aspect of your job?
The most challenging and rewarding parts of my job are mentoring students and managing the lab. It’s challenging because students and staff come to the lab with different strengths and weaknesses so there is no cookie-cutter approach for maximizing each of their potential while also advancing the overall goals of the lab. You need to be open to working with each person to figure out the best training approach for them, and then be able to step back and promote teamwork among all the lab members. At the same time it’s incredibly rewarding to see students develop into insightful and critical thinkers about our research and to see them independently generate and pursue great ideas. It’s also exciting and rewarding to experience the outcomes of great teamwork and collaboration, where through discussion, good ideas and approaches become better and better and new ideas surface that we all get excited about.
What has been the most valuable transferable skill you gained from graduate school?
Learning how to delve into the complexities of a research problem and then effectively write and present my ideas to a broad audience. I had to work on this a lot in graduate school, and I’m still (forever) working on it. I think it is crucial for being able to collaborate and get feedback on your ideas, getting funding to do your work, teaching, and for talking about your research and its implications with different people in the community.
What experiences made an impact on your career choice?
Taking courses in psychology as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois first inspired me to be a psychology major and peaked my interest in being a professor. Working in Brent Roberts’ lab as an undergraduate and participating in the undergraduate honors program reinforced my interest in doing research as a career. I’ve always loved reading about neuroplasticity and mind-body interactions, and I found a place to explore research on these topics in Art Kramer’s lab. As a graduate student in Dr. Kramer’s lab, I really fell in love with studying neuroplasticity using human neuroimaging and I just couldn’t imagine doing anything other than having a lab where I could lead research on this topic. Along the way I was also inspired by many strong women that I saw doing research on topics they loved while also having a family and a life outside the lab.
What is one piece of advice you would give to graduate students at Illinois?
Regularly zoom in and out between evaluating goals for the long-term and the details of each day. This can help you evaluate if you’re going in a direction that excites you, help you prioritize your time to achieve your goals, and will generally help to bring a mindful perseverance to each day.
This interview is part of the monthly Grad Life series called "Where Are They Now?" which chronicles the career paths of recent Univeristy of Illinois Graduate College alumni. Interviews are conducted by Laura Spradlin. Laura contributed to Grad Life throughout its first year. She is an alumna of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Illinois and studied English and French at Illinois Wesleyan University.