I’m Dean McKay, Professor of Psychology, and This is How I Work


For the past twenty years, I have been a Professor of Psychology at Fordham University, where I am a member of the faculty for the Doctoral Training Program in Clinical Psychology.  My substantive areas of expertise are the anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive and related disorders, and the role of disgust in psychopathology. I oversee a lab, the Compulsive Obsessive and Anxiety Program (COAP).  In addition to this, I co-own a private psychological practice in White Plains, New York.

Location: Fordham University
Current Gig: Professor of Psychology
One word/phrase that describes your work style: Fits of manic productivity followed by lulls of writer’s block.
Current computer/mobile device: I now use a MacBook Air, and find it highly suitable to my needs. I take it with me most places, and given its size and that it is lightweight, I am able to be productive at times when the fit of productivity hits me.

What apps/tools/software can you not live without?

While I am heavily reliant on my computer, smartphone, and tablet, overall I am not terribly tech-savvy. This may sound surprising, but I often get into routines with various computer software packages and resist change or updating.  Only recently did I begin to use EndNote, which is possibly the clearest mark of my recalcitrance to change. That said, the recent addition of EndNote to my software usage may adjust my attitude toward adopting new programs.

What’s your workspace set up like?

I work in several locations, owing to my productivity surges.  In general, however, when working at home, I spend time in my family room, which has a lot of natural light and overlooks our backyard.  I find that I need to have ambient outdoor light to facilitate productivity. My university office overlooks a large lawn and walkway that heads toward the library.  At both places, I have a fair number of reference works that I rely on regularly in my work. These are various books on the philosophy of psychiatry particularly the multi-volume edited set by Kendler, classic texts on psychological processes, especially an out-of-print book with writings by Meehl, and some specialty texts on anxiety disorders.

How do you keep track of things you need to do (any to-do-list apps)?

I find that oftentimes I have a lot of ideas, but nowhere near enough time to execute them all.  In an effort to track these, I maintain a spreadsheet of tasks organized by: collaborations with students, collaborations with colleagues, and those that do not yet have any clear place in my plans but will someday.  This last category is largely aspirational.  Sadly, I have some on that list that have been there for a long time.  However, I have found this is my most effective method of keeping track of everything, and I refer to the spreadsheet weekly, and tick off any items once it is completed.

Besides your phone or computer, what gadget can’t you live without, and why?

The one gadget I find I cannot live without at the moment is my tablet computer, which I rely upon for reading and other entertainment when I go to the gym.  Without this, there is little chance I could possibly endure a workout on the elliptical trainer.

What everyday thing can you do better than most people? What’s your secret?

Reflecting on my skills, I have to say I chronically believe others do things better than me.  This is not necessarily inferiority, but more a recognition that most people have a wide range of skills.  Perhaps my one skill that really distinguishes me from other people is the ability to call up useless information and make it seem relevant.

What do you listen to while you work?

There are not necessarily specific genres of music that I associate with work, except that when I am under a deadline, I will gravitate toward music that is more hard rock in nature, although this is not exclusively the case. At home when working my wife and I often have our preset station on Pandora running, which is Styx and associated bands.  However, other times I may have Queens of the Stone Age, Them Crooked Vultures, Foo Fighters, Cage the Elephant, or The Pixies in heavy rotation.

What are you currently reading?

I am currently reading Trouble Boys, the biography of The Replacements.  I always liked the band, and reading about their history has been fascinating.  My reading tastes tend toward science fiction, with one of my favorites being The Light of Other Days by Arthur Clarke, and most anything by Philip Dick.

How do you recharge?

Working out is a priority for me, as it facilitates my thinking. In the winter months, my fitness routine keeps me indoors a good deal, cycling on a trainer, or using the elliptical in my home.  This allows me to stay current on a wide range of television shows and movies.  At the moment I have just started watching Silicon Valley on HBO, but I am also keeping up with VEEP, and during the season diligently watch Better Call Saul, The Walking Dead, and Homeland.  If I end up sleeping late, my workout would likely take place at the university where I use the gym and catch up on reading various periodicals, mostly political magazines such as The Nation, The New Republic, and The Economist. This is probably my best method of recharging, although I do also go completely ‘off line’ one to two times a year for a week or more at a time.  This is highly recharging, with my wife and I, along with our daughter, going someplace for vacation.  Going without any electronic communication is hugely refreshing. The first day or two of this is extremely stressful – email and other communication weighs on my mind – but then my preoccupation with it suddenly stops, and then the real recharging begins in earnest.  After such a break, I find I return refreshed and much of my work is approached with a new perspective.  On a daily basis, a brief recharge comes in the form of my wife and I taking the dogs for a one-mile walk each morning, where we discuss each other’s work and plans for the day.

What’s your sleep routine like?

My sleep routine is not necessarily ideal, and so I don’t recommend this for everyone. I generally sleep around 5 to 6 hours per night. In general I don’t find that I need more than that, although on weekends it would not be unusual for me to take a nap.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

I’ve benefited from many informal mentors over the course of my career. I’ve tried to emulate their styles interpersonally in working with students or junior colleagues more than anything. So while I have no single piece of advice that I can cite that was most influential, my work is greatly informed by graduate school mentors Professors Mitch Schare, Howie Kassinove, and Kurt Salzinger. When I started at Fordham, Professor Warren Tryon took me under his wing, and I am truly indebted to his guidance in my early academic career.


Dean McKay

Website: www.fordham.edu/homepage/2789/coap


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