Josh admits, “Applying to graduate school, I didn’t know what I was doing.” He applied big, contrary to the some misguided advice from his undergraduate professors. U-M was on the list because a faculty member talked about U-M as THE place for psychology. He explains, “When I looked on the department website, everyone was engaged in so many different topics and I thought it all was interesting. I picked a few people I wanted to work with, and it was at recruitment weekend that I really got excited. I liked the grad students – they were so smart, collaborative, and very friendly. They described a balance between hard work and real life that excited me. The culmination of resources, faculty, and grad students made me think U-M would be a great fit for me.”
And he says it has been, particularly around other grad students. “That’s what I love the most. I’ve come up with collaborations with office mates and other grad students who I’ve heard present their research. That peer group has been helpful. My advisors have been great, as has been taking classes, research, and conversations with others in the department. I’m going to have a great professional network when I leave here,” he says.
Josh’s research examines empathy – feeling emotions for other people when we are not in the same situations as them. He says, “I was interested in this subject before I came to U-M. There are a lot of interesting questions to tackle but I didn’t know how to go about it.”
He became interested particularly after taking a class on emotion with his current advisor. He recalls, “Work on empathy is separate from emotion. The two areas of research have been split. My advisor works on how the way people perceive a situation they are in can lead to different emotional responses, and I thought this is the missing piece in the empathy research. I wanted to pursue how empathy might have more to do with how we perceive the situations others are in than with the emotions we think they feel.
Using mixed research methods, Josh collected data by exposing people to someone’s emotional situation and asking questions about that situation. He has used material such as staged newspaper articles, videos, photos with captions in the style of Humans of New York social media posts, and a This American Life-type radio show that participants review. He then measures how subtle changes in the material affect their empathetic responses.
Read the full article "Student Spotlight: Josh Wondra" at the Rackham Graduate Schoole Website.