Lina Saud ’15 is a Ph.D. candidate in social psychology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Her work examines the ideological and identity-based motivations of majority and minority group members’ attitudes in a U.S. context. Lina’s dissertation compares white and Muslim Americans reactions to collective blame for violent attacks committed by in-group extremists.
In this Q&A and bonus podcast episode, she discusses the joys, struggles, and even insecurities of being a graduate student, along with the creative process of synthesizing research. Saud also offers advice to women entering academia and reflects on her time at SPIA.
#Changemakers is a podcast series featuring the many Princeton SPIA alumni who built up their policy toolkits at Princeton and went on to change their communities. The show is produced, hosted, and edited by B. Rose Huber, communications manager and senior writer at SPIA.
Q: What have you been up to since you graduated from Princeton?
Saud: I did my senior thesis with Susan Fiske in the psychology department because SPIA has connections with different departments. I loved the research that I had done. I was looking at how Muslim Americans are viewed by the general American public. After I graduated, I worked as a research assistant with Professor Fiske and with Professor Nicole Shelton. I worked as a lab manager for Professor Shelton, who was in the psychology department at Princeton. I did a lot of work about racism in the U.S., looking at how implicit bias toward Black students, for example, influences their experiences on campus, as well as some other work. We wanted to see if the implicit bias levels of students who live near you on campus influences your emotional health and mental health. We recruited Black students on campus at Princeton, and we were able to map out where they lived on campus. We looked at people who lived in their halls and dormitories. We asked their neighbors to take an implicit bias test. We wanted to see whether the levels of implicit bias of the people living around you influence your experience.
Q: What is/are the most important policy issue(s) facing us today?
Saud: I’m going to focus on the U.S. because a lot of my research is based in the U.S. I started graduate school, and in November of that year, Donald Trump was elected. In the past few years, we’ve all witnessed how there’s been this growing rift in our country between liberals and conservatives, where people seem like they can’t even stand each other anymore. We do research on dehumanization in psychology, and that’s my field of social psychology. You see that people are willing to dehumanize certain groups, but the most demonization in the U.S. that you can see practically is between liberals when they think of conservatives and conservatives when they think of liberals. There’s this pure hatred that’s happening. On one front, there’s this liberal conservative divide. On the other end, there’s also this increasing diversification in the U.S. In a few more decades, whites will no longer be the majority in the U.S. We have to think about what this changing landscape is going to be in terms of keeping social cohesion. What we’re finding, at least on the academic research front, is that in increasingly diverse areas, there is decrease in trust in communities. People are more inward. People will start to watch more TV, leave the house less, stop interacting with neighbors. It’s jarring, and that is concerning. There are ways that we can counter it. Those are the two dimensions of social divide or social distance that our country needs to grapple with. We need to guide our ourselves, guide our community to something a little more cohesive. We already knew about these echo chambers that are being built in our social media bubbles. When the few interactions you do have with people who are different from you are removed, all you have is your bubble. And then where are you? Where is the traversing the same landscape that can create open-mindedness?
Q: What has graduate school been like so far for you?
Saud: Graduate school is exciting because you’ve chosen this field of inquiry that you want to dive into, and you're given space to do it. There are also the struggles, the insecurities. Going into academia has its own set of challenges, but a huge perk from it is that you get to read and synthesize different works into your own studies, which is a constant creative process that I love. My favorite part of graduate school has been the opportunity to be creative, to try to see how we can further our field of inquiry, including different voices. My dissertation is trying to diversify theory as well. And for that, I’m grateful to have been introduced to it by Professor Fiske, and to be introduced to this field and to be in it now.
Q: What do you hope your research will do in the world?
Saud: I’m keeping hope alive and, admittedly, I’m applying widely. I’m not only applying to stay in academia. There are many ways that you can apply the kind of work that we do in the social sciences, because it’s so practical. It’s so tangible. The application of it is going to need time. I don't have that much experience in policy. I did some internships while I was an undergraduate, but I have friends who have been in policy. I see how long it takes to implement different ideas to work on certain projects. It’s a long haul. As long as the idea is there, I can partner with others –– work in a think tank, for example –– and try to bring some of these ideas to reality or disseminate these ideas more widely.
Q: What advice would you give to a person who is on the fence about what to do next?
Saud: Graduate programs will look favorably upon relevant work in the field or work out in the world. I was a student and then I continued being a student. It's nice to have that linear progression for ease. If you're itching to go out in the world, do it because you can still go back to graduate school. It’s not going anywhere. I wanted to delve into research. If that’s your feeling, then I think go for it from the get-go.
Q: In the years that you’ve been pursuing your Ph.D., what’s the number one thing you’ve learned along the way?
Saud: There’s a lot of change happening in academia. I came into the field at a time when everyone is questioning the foundational theories in social psychology. They’re being called into question –– were findings even significant? There’s this debate about scientific integrity. For people who are going into graduate school, try hard to read theory critically and immerse yourself in it. Try to base your work in your own theorizing and try to be particular. Even when certain fields like my own are being shaken, try to still use your own insight into what knowledge is useful. Try to hold onto that which looks viable and try to make your own research viable. That’s what I've been focused on as a graduate student.
Q: What would you say specifically to women pursuing academia and women of color pursuing academia?
Saud: You have to have thick skin. As much as there is progress being made, there are still comments floating around. There are still assumptions that people have. You need to be smart in graduate school because you’re at the mercy of your adviser. Once you’ve finished your coursework, you’re working with your adviser on your dissertation project, and you’re working on publishing papers with them. It’s not a bureaucratic system where there’s checks and balances. They have authority. That can be good, and it can be bad. My adviser is positive and supportive. For women of color, try to be mindful of that. The best advice I ever got was to make sure you put things into writing. Email a follow-up after conversations. As a graduate student going into whatever field, as women of color, be mindful of that setup and try to cover your bases.
Q: What advice you have for young people entering the workforce or people looking to make a career shift?
Saud: The most limiting factor when you’re trying to make a change or trying to apply is your own self. That voice in your head saying, why would they let me go into this program? Why would they read this cover letter and think I’m worthy of this? It’s nice to always have examples. My adviser was a dancer and someone who would make stained glass windows, and she did this huge career shift at age 30, and she’s an academic now. I always like to look at examples like that and say, the sky’s the limit. If you have the desire to go to graduate school, the door’s always open. I’ve seen many people who had interesting backgrounds do incredible things in graduate school and do excellent work thereafter.
Q: Any final thoughts?
Saud: For students who are at SPIA, really appreciate your task force experience. My favorite experience coming out of SPIA was my task force and developing that project. We ended up going to D.C. and presenting. That was such a treat. If I ever go back into policy, hopefully I'll be able to do it again. But if I do not, the amount that I've learned, practical experience, and my understanding of how our government works was shaped by that experience.
#Changemakers: Alumni Making a Difference is a Q&A series featuring alumni of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.