It is rare to hear that someone’s career path was decided at 13 years old, but that’s when Dr. John Nezlek, who is retiring from the Psychology Department this spring, decided that he would become a psychologist. Although neither of Prof. Nezlek’s parents attended college and his father did not finish high school, the family environment was intellectually focused which provided him a solid foundation to pursue higher education. Armed with his interest in Psychology, Prof. Nezlek went off to complete his undergraduate degree at Duke University. While there, he had a freshman seminar with one of the leading experimental psychologists in the field, although Prof. Nezlek didn’t realize it at the time. This first year seminar intensified his interest in social psychology and after he graduated with his bachelor’s degree in 1973 he pursued a Ph.D. in Social Psychology at the University of Rochester, receiving his degree in 1977. The life of an academic was attractive to him because, according to Prof. Nezlek, it allowed him to “think freely about what he wanted to think about and allowed him to be creative intellectually.”
Prof. Nezlek came to William & Mary as a visiting professor, meant for one year. During this time a position at William and Mary opened and he was encouraged to apply; however Prof. Nezlek was not certain it was the right job for him. He had attended two research oriented private universities, and he was not certain if the W&M was the right place for him. Regardless, he took the job to replace Dr. Stan Williams in 1977 and began primarily teaching Social Psychology and Industrial Organizational Psychology, which was Prof. Nezlek’s minor in graduate school. He eventually took over the department’s Introduction to Psychology courses, and he oversaw important changes to the courses. He implemented a policy that all sections of the course adopt the same textbook to ensure consistency across the classes and encouraged the department to provide more resources to these important courses. The class sizes grew from 150 to 300 students and interest in the psychology major also grew. In fact, due to the sheer number of students who took these courses, Prof. Nezlek estimates that for a period of 10-15 years (maybe more) approximately 40% of W&M students had taken at least one of his courses during their time at the college.
Prof. Nezlek is one of the most prolific researchers in the history of the W&M Psychology Department, publishing over 120 papers and four books. Many of his publications include W&M faculty and students as co-authors. In recognition of his teaching and research contributions, Prof. Nezlek has received multiple awards from the college including a teaching award and the prestigious Plumeri Award for Faculty Excellence. Addressing his accomplishments in the department, colleague Prof. Connie Pilkington remarked, “John has always been passionate about the psychology department. He has mentored younger faculty and encouraged older faculty to stay fresh. Anyone who knows him will agree that his passion has inspired, provoked, irritated, and motivated. And created change. I will miss his voice.”
Prof. Nezlek’s passion for intellectual pursuits in academia is matched with his love of the simpler pleasures in life such as a good meal accompanied by a good bottle of wine in the company of friends. For years he was an avid golfer, holding a 2 handicap at his best, and he is considering “picking up the sticks again” as he has more free time. Traveling the world has also been a passion of his, and this helped fuel his interest and eventual success in cross-cultural psychology, which he defines as “a way of understanding psychology through an awareness of the fact that human thought, feeling, and behavior are affected by cultural contexts.” Although he has collaborated with colleagues all over the world, his most active collaboration has been with a group of faculty in Poland. Prof. Nezlek says that the highlight of his career was receiving the prestigious Core Senior Fulbright Research Fellowship, which supported his cross-cultural work in Poland. This is one of the highest honors and awards offered in academia, and he is very proud of receiving this fellowship, which also helped to generate a good deal of high-quality research.
In terms of his specific accomplishments, Prof. Nezlek thinks of his work on the development of methods of studying daily experience and multilevel modeling as probably the work for which he is best known, and this work includes numerous articles, chapters, and two books. Collectively, this work has been invaluable to the fields of personality and social psychology. Prof. Nezlek is also proud of the contributions he has made to the W&M Psychology Department, saying, “I think I have made a positive contribution to life in our department. I’ve always been proud to be a faculty member in our department. I valued my colleagues and still do.” After he retires this year, Prof. Nezlek does not intend to stop working. He has spent many years collecting a large amount of data and still expects to publish three to four academic articles per year. His new goal is to out-do his undergraduate and graduate advisors in the number of decades publishing empirical work.
Prof. Nezlek’s parting words are these: “it’s been a pleasure, a privilege, and an honor.” The current and past faculty and students whose lives and careers have been touched by Prof. Nezlek’s intense passion for intellectual pursuits and academia feel the same way.