Kelly Wilson, PhD, on the importance of theory, chasing your interests, and giving away ideas

Dr. Kelly Wilson is a recently retired, emeritus faculty at the University of Mississippi. He is a leading researcher, theorist, and trainer of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and an important contributor to clinical behavior analysis. He has published nine very well selling books.

Dr. Wilson’s path into research is certainly atypical. If you had seen him as a young adult, he would probably have been the last person you would have expected to have a successful research career. He had an active, severe drug addiction, had been placed in inpatient psychiatric care, and been in drug and alcohol rehab. He encountered behavior analysis at a pivotal point in his life and this helped transform his life path into something he would never have expected. He eventually went on to earn a PhD and was mentored by Steven Hayes at the University of Nevada, Reno and has since become a leader in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and behavior analysis. The bulk of his work has been in theory and meta theory of applied arenas, with a particular interest in clinical theory relating to behavior analysis.

In today’s episode, we learn about Kr. Wilson’s interesting background and path. We discuss the importance of theory, the importance of understanding the “why” of your research, and why it’s better to give ideas away than to hide them. He also discusses how to have a career in academia that focuses on the importance of theory and meta theory and on finding the right fit between your interests and your work setting. He talks about how he organized his lab and the importance of having a good lab culture.

In this episode, you’ll learn…

  • The importance of the process of creating theories
  • The kind of theory that interests Dr. Wilson: deep [0:09:31] variables, which are directly observable, and independent variables, which are both directly observable and (in principle) can be manipulated.
  • Why Steve Hayes selected Dr. Wilson as a grad applicant, in spite of a terrible interview objections from others on the panel
  • Why you shouldn’t guard your ideas but give them away as quickly as you have them.
  • Why Dr. Wilson would occasionally lecture with a baby on his knee.
  • The importance of a good lab culture and guidelines on how to create it and why he says, ““The beginning of a research presentation in my lab starts with why this matters.”
  • How to find the right person-environment fit for your research
  • Why theory is particularly important and undervalued at this current time in science

Tips from the episode

On the types of environments that will let you focus on theory…

  • Mid-sized universities, where you don’t have to have millions of dollars of grants (which are not awarded for theory construction)
  • Evaluation not based on the amount of grant dollars produced but on other criteria
  • Find a chair who “wants to take advantage of your enthusiasms.”

On how to make decisions in relation to your strengths and weaknesses…

  • Recognize that every weakness carries strengths with it.
  • Know what you want.

On fostering an environment that encourages chasing interests…

  • Talk about “why” first – not “what.” Address “why this matters.”

For new researchers:

  • Ask, “What do I need to succeed?”
  • Ask, “How can I make a kinder, better, richer process for the next generation of researchers?”

Links from the episode:

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