David Silverman (he/him)
PhD Candidate in the Social Psychology program in the Department of Psychology
David Silverman is a PhD candidate in the Social Psychology program in the Department of Psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. His research primarily focuses on how schools can more effectively support students from groups that have been marginalized by systemic inequities—such as those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds—by recognizing and celebrating the valuable strengths, perspectives, and cultures that these students frequently bring to their education and society. David is a participant in the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP).
How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?
My work generally focuses on how schools can better support students who face marginalization as a factor of inequity, discrimination, and oppression. Across my research studies, I demonstrate the importance of schools recognizing and valuing students' otherwise marginalized identities, as well as the unique strengths that they often gain as a direct factor of those identities.
What have been some of the most memorable twists and turns of your career?
The most major twist was going to college and recognizing that I actually did really enjoy learning. Before graduating from high school, I was dead set on opening my own restaurant and worked as a chef up until my senior year of college. But, after taking a research methods class and having an opportunity to work in psychology labs with a couple of wonderful professors, I realized my passion for practical research aimed at reducing inequality.
Tell us what inspired your research and/or work.
My interests were spurred by my experiences growing up in a diverse range of countries and communities in the Middle East and Europe. Through this, I gained firsthand experience with the power of schools to shape students' experiences, particularly among students from lower income families. I got to see the effects of highly engaged and dedicated teachers who went out of their way to let students know they were valued, as well as the effects of teachers who conformed to more traditionally Western ways of doing education that often make students feel like they aren't the kinds of people who can succeed or who belong in school. Seeing where things often go wrong and getting a couple of glimpses into how they can go right drove me toward my work at Northwestern.
What is a mistake you have learned from in your career?
I was a lab manager for one of my amazing mentors in undergrad. Honestly, I think I was horrible at the job in almost every way. I was always so concerned with whether my mentor would think I was smart or think that I was doing a good job that I rushed my work and never thought about the bigger picture. She sat me down one day to pause and think about what matters to me, to my communities, and to the world. This small act really shifted how I dedicated myself to my work. It reoriented me from pushing myself for the sake of looking a certain way or achieving a certain thing to pushing myself for the sake of learning how to change the things that get in the way of everyone living healthy and fulfilling lives.
Whom do you admire in your field and otherwise, and why?
I'm incredibly grateful to say that I admire everyone who I get to work with. My mentor, Dr. Mesmin Destin, and my peers inspire me daily. That's very corny to say, but I cannot speak highly enough about how transformative it's been for me to be surrounded by people who think differently than me, who teach me new skills all the time, and who just add to the personal and professional lives of the people around them. Outside of work, I admire a lot of chefs, musicians, writers, and comedy writers who bring insight, wit, and imagination to everything they do. Anthony Bourdain, Kendrick Lamar, bell hooks, and Jon Stewart are just a few of the people who I think of when I'm walking my dog, writing, trying to come up with new research ideas, or whatever.
What do you find both rewarding and challenging about your research and/or work?
Working with schools is really hard. Administrators, teachers, and faculty have so much on their plates that it can be tough to coordinate my work with them or even feel like my work is worth their time. When I have those moments of feeling useful to people who have such an important impact on students' lives—which could be after running a particularly engaging professional development program with some teachers, or during an exciting conversation with a high school student who resonates with my work—all of the hectic work that goes into my research feels worthwhile.
What is the biggest potential impact or implication of your work?
I hope my work helps people at all different levels of the educational system (e.g., researchers, policymakers, teachers, parents, or students) rethink what school should look like. We're in a moment right now where many schools are looking at how they can do better for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and students of color. I want my work to not only facilitate this process but also push people to be critical of the ideas that schools are founded on and to replace those ideas with ones that authentically care for all students.
What books are on your bedside table?
I used to read a lot of dry or really intense books about economic inequality and racial oppression. Those still come up on my reading list a good amount, but I'm forcing myself to read a lot more fiction recently. Right now, I'm reading The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz.
What advice would you give your younger self or someone considering a similar path?
To my younger self, I'd emphasize the importance of not being so focused on what everyone else thought of me. Learning to focus on the people I love and the values I want to pursue has made me much happier and more fulfilled. To someone considering a similar path, I'd emphasize how many different paths there are to get you to the same goal. When you want a PhD, at least in psychology, there's often pressure to take a pretty traditional and overly constraining route. Give yourself chances to explore different research interests, test out different ways of having the impact you hope to have, and check out other life opportunities. I always hear prospective PhD students, especially those who are just about to graduate from college, who are afraid of "wasting their time" by doing something that doesn't directly lead to that graduate program acceptance. Everything you do, especially things that are way outside of your field of interest, teaches you a new skill or way of looking at things that you and your field will benefit from.
Tell us about a current achievement or something you're working on that excites you.
I'm very proud of the work that I pursue with Dr. Mesmin Destin, Dr. Ivan A. Hernandez, and Josiah Rosario on reshaping university contexts for incoming groups of students from lower-income backgrounds. We work with faculty, financial aid offices, and admissions to ensure that at every level these backgrounds are considered when engaging with students' experiences, needs, and strengths in ways that make them feel valued. This is the kind of research that I always hoped to be part of—melding practical groundwork with the valuable empirical tools of my field. I'm proud of how we work together to have a real impact on students.
Tell us about a time when things did not go as you planned, what did you learn?
I feel like I've never really had a study go as planned. Learning flexibility and that nothing is the end of the world has helped me to be a more relaxed and effective researcher who is responsive to the needs of my collaborators.
What are you most proud of in your career to date?
Publishing my first first-author paper was the moment where I thought, "Oh, I guess I can actually do this." As someone who never thought of myself as a good writer, being able to communicate my work effectively and have it received as an important contribution to the field meant a lot to me.
To learn more about David, visit his website.
Published: February 28, 2023
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