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Keith Renshaw

Researcher Spotlight

Department Chair and Associate Professor at George Mason University

How long have you been a member of ABCT?

Since 1997

What tips can you offer to colleagues trying to start a research lab or begin a career in research?

Starting up a research lab and an independent program of research can feel daunting! I think one of the most important starting points is a clear focus and conceptual framework. Having an overarching model of how various constructs fit together in relation to an overall area of interest can drive years, or even decades, of fruitful research. Your conceptual model will evolve over time, as you learn more, and more research is done, but it offers you a starting point.

Once you have a comprehensive model, there are typically multitudes of research questions that can be addressed. What parts of the model have been tested, and with what level of rigor? What parts of the model remain untested, or have only been tested in limited ways? As you unpack these questions, you want to be attentive to designing and tackling research projects in as logical and rigorous a fashion as possible – but you also want to be attentive to reality.

If you are starting in a career in academia, you are likely to be evaluated on both quality and quantity of publications. Balancing these two metrics means ensuring that you do not devote all of your efforts to a single, rigorous study that takes months or years to come to completion.

If you are starting in a career in an academic medical center, you are more likely to be evaluated (and possibly paid) based on your ability to secure grant funding. You will need to evaluate which questions related to your model are in line with funding agency priorities, and work toward securing the funding needed to conduct your research.

Regardless of which career path you choose, never underestimate the value of collaboration! Except for ensuring that you can demonstrate your own independence, you are rarely evaluated on your ability to do everything solo. Look for collaborators with whom you have synergy. At the same time, be prepared to be a bit selfish and say ‘no’ to offers of and requests for collaboration that simply don’t make sense for you. Along these same lines, recognize that, particularly early in your career, you may have less flexibility to mentor students with interesting projects that do not connect to your own research in a meaningful way. There will be time for that down the road – but in some ways, you will have to be selfish at times as you get yourself started.

Finally, try to build in reminders of why you are pursuing this career in the first place! If the only path you see to success is making you miserable, it is time to step back and evaluate your path. If you are following your passion in research, it can be an incredibly rewarding career – but if you are not, then it is incredibly punishing.

How did you first become involved in research? What was this first research experience like?

I still, to this day, am not quite sure how I got accepted into graduate school. I had no actual research experience beyond an independent study of directed readings I had done with a faculty member in my undergraduate training. I was also fresh out of college, with about the maturity level that one might expect of a 22-year-old (or perhaps even less).

My first experience with research in graduate school was desperately trying to come up with an idea to test for my master’s thesis and designing a study that was woefully short on theory and data collection. As I entered my 3rd year of graduate school, I happened to come across parallel sets of findings related to how the family environment impacted those with physical problems and how the family environment impacted those with anxiety disorders. That led me to approach a faculty member, Dianne Chambless, in our department who was conducting research along those lines. Dianne agreed to have me work on a project as a “trial period,” to see if it might be a good fit for me to switch into her research lab. We developed a coding manual related to family environment and worked up the beginnings of an article submission within the year. It was a stressful experience, but I loved it and was finally excited by research!

At the end of the year, she asked how I thought things were going. I told her I had been thrilled with the experience and very much wanted to formally switch into her lab. She then let me know, in a very kind way, that she continued to have reservations about whether or not I was truly serious about research, and worried that she might regret taking me on. However, she agreed to take a chance on me, hoping that I wouldn’t disappoint. That entire process left a deep impression on me. Not only did I get incredible mentorship on research, but I also began to learn firsthand how to mentor – how to have important, difficult conversations in an honest and constructive manner. To this day, she still serves as my ultimate model of what a mentor should be, and I am more grateful than I can express that she took that chance on me. I hope she agrees that it paid off!

What have you found most rewarding about your research?

For me, the most rewarding part of my research is actually the mentorship of and collaboration with students. I thrive on thinking through ideas with others, on working through theoretical models, research designs, and statistical analyses, and on thinking about long-term career progression. While I love actually crunching data to look for the answer to questions, I love the experience of guiding students through that process even more. Seeing students progress to the point where they are driving their own research programs is incredibly gratifying. Moving beyond that to the point where I am simply a collaborator learning from them is the ultimate satisfaction. When I started, like most of us, I had pretty serious imposter syndrome, and was terrified of having a student know more than I did. Now, it is my goal for students to know more than I do. I intentionally seek collaborations with others when mentoring students, because it is better for them – and it also stretches me! The continual learning that takes place in research, and being able to facilitate that for others, is something I don’t think I can ever tire of.

How do you balance research with the other demands of your position?

Over the past few years, I have taken on increasing degrees of administrative responsibilities, with a 3-year stint as the Faculty Senate Chair at George Mason, and an overlapping 2 years serving as our Department Chair. I’m now down to just 1 Chair job, which may be the only way that serving as Department Chair can feel like a relief.

Balancing research with the demands of these roles is incredibly difficult, because a large part of both involves responding to unpredictable crises. Things can be humming along smoothly for weeks, and then a crisis can consume entire days at a time. One of the primary ways I maintain a focus is by maintaining close contact with my doctoral students. I schedule weekly meetings with most of my students well ahead of the semester, so that as other meeting requests come in, I can work around those as much as possible. Their continued progress and needs keep me plugged into our projects and demands my response. I’m not always successful – and disappointing one of my students is one of the most distressing things professionally that I can think of – but we typically are able to continue making progress on their work and mine.

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