Susan Carey

November 14, 2023

Official Story

Susan Carey entered at Radcliffe College with an interest in math/science, settled on cognitive science in her junior year, graduated summa cum laude in 1964, having worked with Peter Wason, George Miller and Jerome Bruner in the earliest days of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Harvard. After a Fulbright in London, she returned to Harvard for a PhD, settling on cognitive development/language acquisition as a topic of study, working with Jerome Bruner and Roger Brown. After finishing her PhD in 1971, she was a lecturer at Harvard for 1 year, and then moved to MIT, where she taught for 24 years, then moved to NYU for 5 years, and then back to Harvard where she held a named chair for the last 23 years of her career and served as the first female chair of the Harvard Department of Psychology. Her career in developmental cognitive science was much lauded, recognized by the Nicod Prize (Paris), the Rumelhart Prize (Cognitive Science Society), the Eleanor Maccoby Award, (Cognitive Development Society), election as the fourth president of the Society for Philosophy and Psychology, an APA Distinctive Scientific Achievement Award, an APS William James Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Atkinson Prize (National Academy of Sciences), and election to the NAS, the American Academy of Arts of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and as a corresponding fellow to the British Academy.

Unofficial Story

Susan Carey came to college from rural Illinois with no idea of what exactly she was really interested in, tried anthropology and biology and settled on cognitive studies in her junior year. After working as a research assistant for Peter Wason in the summer before her senior year, after which he returned to the University of London, she wrote an unmentored undergraduate thesis on the cost of negation in on-line processing, and also worked as a paid research assistant to Jerome Bruner on Piaget's conservation of matter phenomena during her senior year. Bruner subsequently plagiarized the paper she wrote for a graduate seminar he taught in the spring of her senior year, publishing it word for word with a footnote thanking Susan Carey "for help in analyzing the data..." This being 1964, Carey decided studying science was too far from the pressing political issues of the day (the Civil Rights Movement, the beginnings of the anti-Vietnam war movement). Women's Liberation and Gay Liberation (the terms of the day) were still years away. She went off to work with political refugees in East Africa where she met Malcolm X and then to London to study African history. She soon realized that African History involved a lot of time alone in dusty libraries. Fortunately, joining Peter Wason's lab meeting (she had never encountered the institution of "lab meeting" before) at University College London, she discovered that the issues in cognitive psychology still interested her, and she loved the collaborative nature of science. Now 25 years-old, she realized she actually had to find a job, and the only thing she knew how to do well was be a student, so she decided to apply to graduate school, where she could be supported for being a student. She wasn't really committing herself to being a scientist, which was not surprising, as she had never been taught by a woman or even heard a professional talk by a woman. Back at Harvard for a PhD, her attempts to find an advisor for work in cognitive psychology spectacularly failed (including the suicide of one short-lived advisor). She also had several experiences which gave her the message that that there was no role for women in academia. This led her back to politics, and she became active in the fledgling "second wave of feminism" the Women's Liberation Movement. The searing experience with her advisor's suicide led her to choose Bruner as an advisor, as he was sane, his work was very interesting, and he was a champion of women in academia, very unusual at the time, even as he stole from them (he plagiarized from her PhD dissertation also). Her unpublishable, unmentored, PhD dissertation was a piece of juvenalia, and the only time she even presented it in a conference, well-meaning, slightly older colleagues who were already established as leaders in cognitive psychology, took her to lunch and told her to abandon what she had settled on as her life work or she would surely fail in academia. She rejected this advice, but correctly concluded that she had humiliated herself in her first conference presentation. The next 4 or 5 conference submissions related to this work were rejected, and she got a similar message from the chair of the MIT department, when he offered her a job under the pressure of affirmative action but suggested she might prefer to be a research associate than an Assistant Professor. She said no, she preferred being an Assistant Professor. In the third prong (neuroscience, perception/computation, cognition) of MIT's forward looking "psychology" department--later renamed the Brain and Cognitive Science Department, she was constantly reminded that the third prong did not have tenure (in the words of the chair). Indeed, the brain scientists repeatedly tried to dissociate themselves from the work done in the cognitive wing of the department, including trying but failing to kick her wing out of the department. Carey's presentation will focus on coming into science during a sink-or-swim approach to graduate training, during the transition to women having a place at the table, and on dealing with failures and set-backs, (a thick skin is helpful) which continue to today, as well as the role of accident and luck in a career in science.