Dean McKay, Ph.D., A.B.B.P. on mental health in academia, getting into grad school, authorship, and personal planning

Dean McKay, Ph.D., A.B.B.P. is Professor of Psychology at Fordham University where he is a member of the clinical psychology doctoral program. His lab, Compulsive, Obsessive, and Anxiety Program (COAP) provides instruction to undergraduate, masters, and doctorate levels. Dr. McKay’s expertise is in anxiety and obsessive-compulsive behavior, with his current focus being on Covid-19 related stress and anxiety. He has further interest in anxiety pertaining to political conditions, and he has a passion for clinicians to receive ongoing continuing education. Dr. McKay conducts some private practice and does some consultation as well. He has published over 200 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters, and he is the editor or co-editor of 19 books. He is board-certified in Clinical and Cognitive-Behavioral Psychology from the American Board of Professional Psychology.

Today Dr. McKay shares his thoughts about the obligation of people in academia having to do work that “may potentially raise some uncomfortable questions and allow us to advance topics that maybe people in other settings don’t have the luxury of doing.” Dr. McKay addresses the types of things mentors look for in students who are applying to their programs and offers tips on identifying and screening good candidates. It could be surprising to hear that a major thing he asks about in an interview is how they manage to relax. In a day when being accepted to programs is increasingly difficult, Dr. McKay sees this ability as an indicator of how the student will manage in the future. He addresses the intense struggles with stress that come from the benchmarks of performance students must achieve. His compassion for students and sound advice to regularly disconnect from work stem from personal experiences where he actually found himself bedridden from stress and at one point needing surgery for gastrointestinal issues at a very young age. While he is quite serious about his counsel to take vacations and guard weekend time for rest and non-work activities, he admits that during the past COVID-year the lines between work and home have become increasingly difficult to maintain. As he jokes with his colleagues, “every day is Blursday.” Time has little meaning, and schedules and organized events are difficult to maintain. Dr. McKay wishes to be a good example to his students and believes that, as a psychologist, it is important to do the things he would advise his clients to do. Protecting his down time in an environment where work is constantly in his space is vital.

In addition to his recommendations to take time out for self-care, Dr. McKay discusses the tricky territory of defining what a “co-author” actually is. In a world where everyone needs to be published, he sees a need for mentors to be careful with balancing the desire to be generous with credits and making sure there is legitimate call to cite names. Allowing a student recognition is important, but the students must be able to defend work they contributed. Dr. McKay shares a personal anecdote in which he worked on a project with a litany of co-authors and two of the credited authors contributed only two sentences to the work. He sees situations like this as doing a disservice to students who, when faced with the real-world demands, won’t have the knowledge to back up their claims on their resumes. 

Finally, Dr. McKay shares some of his personal methodology for balancing writing time to make it more productive and his thoughts on taking stock of the “50,000 foot overview” of his future plans. He concludes with his ideas about his personal clinical work and suggests that, “researchers do themselves a little bit of a disservice by not actually seeing clients periodically.”

In this episode, you’ll learn…

  •   The obligation academia has to advance causes that could raise some uncomfortable questions.
  • Things to look for when screening students for a graduate program as well as things students should think about when picking a mentor.
  • The importance of guarding personal time and taking vacations.
  • The difficulties of disconnecting from work in Covid times.
  •   The importance of giving valid credit for co-authors on published works.
  •   How to manage writing time and maintain productivity.
  •   Mental tools for organization.
  •   About balancing a clinical practice while maintaining research work and how the two dovetail.

Tips from the episode

 On finding good candidates for a research program…

  • Students need to have a baseline ability to relax and destress. The rigors of the graduate program world are intense and will take a mental and physical toll if a student does not understand how to balance time and seek time disengaged from the work.
  • Students should be able to back up their research work and defend their publications. Too often mentors are generous with credit, which does a student a disservice when they enter the real world and don’t have the actual background or knowledge to function well.
  • While conducting a stress interview for the sole purpose of making students uncomfortable is not a good choice, asking the hard questions and requiring a student to defend their ideas is not unreasonable. How they respond is a good indicator of how they will handle other things in the future.

On finding a mentor …

  • Remember to look for someone who is genuinely nice and compliments your values.
  • Remember that it is a six-year commitment and that is a long time to live with a person who wears you down instead of builds you up.

On the balance of work and relaxation …

  • It is vital to disengage from work to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Vacations should be enjoyed. Going off grid is advisable. Weekends should be protected as non-work times.
  • The Covid year has made it increasingly difficult to separate work and home, but now more than ever a firm determination to be away from work for scheduled periods is advisable.

On co-author credit…

  • There is a delicate balance of mentor generosity in sharing credit and making sure the claimed acknowledgement is legitimate.
  • Offering co-authorship to someone who has not contributed much paves the way for students to enter research programs and real life unprepared.

On maintaining productivity in writing while balancing work and home…

  • Take stock of your week in the beginning and plan for times to focus on writing.
  • Have “protected time.” Stay away from emails and social media.
  • Facilitate blocking out the world by maintaining your environment. Some people work well with music, some do not, for example.
  • If you need to step away from the computer, go exercise or do something alone where you can think and work through ideas mentally.

On maintaining a clinical practice while doing research …

  • Seeing clients periodically is important to keep a perspective and learn.
  • It is important to see procedures implemented rather than just talk about them.
  • You need to know about clinical care if you’re going to teach people about clinical care.

Links from the episode:

Dr. McKay’s Fordham profile:

Research Lab:

Psychology Today profile and list of books:



P.E. Meehl Article:

Research Matters Podcast is hosted by Jason Luoma, who can be found on Twitter @jasonluoma or Facebook at: You download the podcast through iTunesStitcher, or Spotify. Reach out with suggestions, questions, or comments to