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Robert Kail

Honoring the Mentorship and Friendship of the Michigan Psychology Faculty

Throughout his academic career, Rob Kail has been inspired by psychology faculty—as mentors and as colleagues.

His professors at Ohio Wesleyan, where he earned his undergraduate degree, inspired him to study psychology in the first place. “They made it seem as if there was nothing one could do that would be more exciting, more fulfilling, and more important than an academic career in psychology,” he recalls.

Later, as a doctoral student at Michigan, the psychology faculty quickly made him feel like he was part of the team. They were, in his words, “incredibly supportive from the day I and other first-year students arrived on campus. They treated us as colleagues-to-be, were incredibly generous with their time, and provided amazing mentoring.”

To honor these faculty members, and to give students the kind of support he enjoyed, Kail has created the Hagen-Stevenson Dissertation Award Fund, an endowment to support the work of developmental psychology graduate students.

Kail originally came to the University of Michigan for the combined program in education and psychology, because he enjoyed experimental psychology but he also wanted to work on improving education. “My idea was to take those methodological tools of experimental psychology, and apply them in the context of educational problems and issues of instruction,” he explains.

Kail calls his experiences at Michigan life changing. The faculty introduced him to the field of cognitive development, which truly felt like his intellectual home. Within a year and a half he transferred to the developmental program, which was now a better match for his interests. He also credits the faculty for encouraging him to collaborate with scholars in other fields, “which allowed me to experience the joys (and frustrations) of interdisciplinary work,” and for encouraging him to be open to professional opportunities that arose unexpectedly.

“My years on this campus represented one of two times in my life when I thought I was in a culture that consistently valued and encouraged excellence,” Kail asserts. “I’ve spent most of my life at other public universities—good ones—but they’ve not had Michigan’s expectation that faculty, students, and alumni will be the very best.”

Kail completed his doctorate in 1975, and after four years teaching at the University of Pittsburgh, he landed at Purdue University, where he spent most of his career. The primary focus of Kail’s scholarly work has been cognitive development, especially the causes and consequences of developmental change in speed of information processing, examining why children process information faster as they get older and the consequences of that increase in processing speed.

Although he spent his professional career at other universities, Kail has remained strongly connected to the Michigan Psychology Department. Because the faculty treated students as colleagues, the transition from colleagues to friends was, in his words, “very natural and easy.” He remained close to faculty members who had been influential on his work, including John Hagen and Harold Stevenson, who were his advisors and co-supervised his dissertation, and Lorraine Nadelman. He and Hagen continued to work together professionally as well, and co-edited the book, Perspectives on the Development of Memory and Cognition, published in 1977. He also collaborated with Hagen, as well as graduate students Chris Wolters and Shirley Yu, on research into cognitive development in children with diabetes.

Kail is now partially retired and lives in Ann Arbor, returning to Purdue to teach one course a year. His primary work has been serving as editor of Child Development Perspectives (a journal of brief reviews published by the Society for Research in Child Development), revising his textbook on lifespan development (with co-author, John C. Cavanaugh), and giving workshops worldwide on scientific writing for psychology. He’ll retire fully from Purdue in May of 2019.

Creating the Hagen-Stevenson Dissertation Award Fund has given Kail the opportunity to carry on his mentors’ model of supporting graduate students as colleagues. “In my years, and it’s still true today, Michigan has plenty of smart graduate students who have good ideas,” he notes. “But sometimes they lack the resources needed to pursue those ideas.” The fund is designed to fill that gap by providing financial support to developmental psychology students as they undertake dissertation research.