How one psychology professor uses Medium to share complex research and ideas with a broad audience
An interview with Catherine Sanderson, Author & Psychology Professor
Catherine Sanderson, Author & Psychology Professor teaches at Amherst College and is the author of Why We Act: Turning Bystanders into Moral Rebels and The Positive Shift: Mastering Mindset to Improve Happiness, Health, and Longevity. A specialist in improving mental health on college campuses, she has also written for The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and other publications. She lectures regularly around the country and has been named one of America’s top professors by the Princeton Review.
Sanderson began writing regularly on Medium last year, and has since become something of an evangelist for academics posting on the platform. “I would say professors should go for it. It’s fun and rewarding and I think it’s made me a better professor.”
I spoke to her about how she got started on Medium, the value of Medium to academics, what advice she has for other Medium writers, and more. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
JG: Let’s get straight to Medium. When did you get started on the platform and why?
CS: What I love about teaching at Amherst is that I don’t have graduate students. My entire focus is undergraduates. That means that what I’m trying to do in my teaching is to convey complex, challenging material to smart, motivated people, but people who don’t necessarily have PhDs in my discipline.
I have the same goal with my writing. About three or four years ago, I became interested in writing for a more general audience, but in short form, as opposed to books. I’ve had op-eds placed in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and The Conversation, and a colleague of mine in the Amherst publicity department has been super useful in helping me make my writing more engaging. She suggested Medium to me last fall.
JG: Do you remember the first piece you posted?
I do. I was getting ready for Thanksgiving with my family, which I was hosting. And I was thinking about traditions and our family getting together. I live in Western Massachusetts, but my extended family lives all over the United States. I have an uncle who lives in Montgomery, Alabama, an uncle who lives in Tallahassee, Florida, an uncle who lives in West Palm Beach, Florida, and other relatives who live in Manhattan, Kentucky, and Chicago. At a time in which politics in this country is very divisive, and we hear a lot about red states and blue states, I was thinking about how we were all coming together. I’m pretty certain different members of my family had different reactions to the 2020 election, that we went into voting booths and checked different boxes. And yet we have gathered basically every year for as long as I can remember, and it’s something that feels super meaningful to me and that I feel really grateful for. So my piece was about what the science says about gratitude, with a focus on that holiday.
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JG: What was the reaction?
CS: I remember being blown away by how it seemed to speak to so many people. To be honest, it was something I wrote in one setting, which is unusual for me. But that one just poured out of me. I wrote it, found a picture, posted it, and said, “Okay, I’ve done that. It’s off my to-do list.” But then the number of people who commented on it, responded to it, highlighted parts of it, and shared it was just overwhelming. One of the reasons I love psychology is that it can contain practical advice. My goal is to share the nerdy science stuff and be like, “Hey, here’s something you can do with it.” To know that so many people read that story, responded to it, and maybe got a little nugget they could use in their life moving forward was really meaningful.
JG: What do you like most about posting on Medium?
CS: I like the immediacy of it. I can see something, observe something, or be thinking about something, and I can sit down and write about it and right away, there it is, it’s published. Writing a book or getting published in a newspaper or academic journal can take months or years. You have to pitch ideas, get them approved, go through multiple rounds of editing, wait for editors to get back to you. I also like the immediate feedback I get from my Medium pieces. When you write a book, you honestly have no idea if anyone is reading it, let alone what they think of it. With Medium, you get that feedback right away. People will clap or they’ll comment, “This was really helpful” or “I needed to hear this today,” or whatever. And their comments are generally thoughtful. I also like that Medium promotes your writing. The fact that pieces can get boosted and shown to a broader audience, the fact that there’s a weekly newsletter that says, “Hey, here are some pieces that struck our staff as noteworthy” and so on. Medium is also easy to use. I’m super incompetent with technology, but it’s very straightforward.
I like doing research because it matters to the world in some way. But it can only matter if people hear about it.
.JG: Let’s go back to the immediacy factor. You wrote a timely piece about Mike Pence at one point.
CS: When you asked me when I started writing on Medium, I said last fall. But that’s actually when I started writing regularly. I published my first piece, a one-off, back in May of 2020. It was about Mike Pence not wearing a mask when he went to the Mayo Clinic.
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I wrote that piece because I saw a picture of Pence at the clinic without a mask. My mom died of cancer, and when she was having chemotherapy, I remember how worried we were about protecting her from anyone with a cold or sore throat. Pence was there during the COVID pandemic, when someone with cancer who got COVID was very likely to die. I wrote and published the piece pretty much right after seeing the picture. That was an example of how I can respond on Medium to something that’s timely and matters.
Again, you can do that in theory with op-eds, but there’s often a lag time, and it’s often fruitless. You write a pitch, write a piece, shop it around a little, but then editors don’t respond and it’s just frustrating. You don’t control your own destiny. With Medium, you can post things instantly and without having to get past gatekeepers.
JG: Why do you find Medium particularly useful for academics?
CS: The joy and curse of academics is that none of us are trained to write for a general audience. We’re trained to write for other people who have PhDs, sometimes in arcane subfields, no less. When I write for a journal, I’m not just talking to people who have PhDs in psychology; I’m talking to people who have PhDs in social psychology and study this particular little thing. To me, writing for Medium is an opportunity to develop a new muscle. Writing titles, for example, is something we have zero training in as academics. If your paper gets accepted in a big journal, that’s great, but no one cares about the title. They care about the research, they care about the quality and the sample and the findings and the theoretical advancement. I struggle to write titles for Medium, but I see it as a chance to develop a new skill.
JG: What’s the impact of a Medium piece compared to a journal article?
CS: To be honest, Medium posts feel more meaningful to me. More than 3,500 people read the post I wrote about Thanksgiving. I had a paper published last month in a journal called Psychological Services. I do not believe 3,500 people will read that article; it might not even be four digits. (And we conducted the research four years ago, by the way.) For me, the point of doing research is that it should matter. It’s not just, “Hey, I’ve found something new that’s this esoteric little finding.” I like doing research because it matters to the world in some way. But it can only matter if people hear about it.
JG: How do you decide what to write about?
CS: In an ideal world, I have a plan, I have a schedule, and I’m intentional about it. In my actual world, it’s really just when something occurs to me. Sometimes it’s prompted by something happening in my life, like when my dog died, other times by something I’m reading. I wrote a piece earlier this year about avoiding regret. I was reading something on the subject in The Washington Post or The New York Times, and I was like, “Huh. What do we know about the research on regret?” When something strikes me, and I’m like, “You know what? I’m curious about that” or “I have something to share about that,” I’m going to share it.
JG: How often do you post, and how long are your posts typically?
CS: I aim for once a month. Sometimes I hit that, and sometimes I don’t. Most of my pieces are 800 to 1,000 words. I think of them as “op-ed size.”
JG: How do you promote your stories?
CS: I promote them on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn. The follower overlap on those three platforms is almost non-existent, so I feel like I reach different people on all three.
With Medium, you can post things instantly and without having to get past gatekeepers.
JG: Do you have any writing rituals, a time or place you like, for example?
CS: I’m talking to you from my study at home, which is my favorite place to write. It’s a room that no one ever saw prior to COVID, but now I’ve taught from here, I’ve done virtual lectures from here, I’ve done podcast interviews from here. It’s a room that’s entirely mine, and it has a desk that belonged to my mom. It was her kitchen table. So that has meaning. It’s also full of books and has nice windows. I like the aesthetics of it. Periodically, I don’t have the luxury of writing here — I wrote a recent post on a plane from San Francisco to Minneapolis — but in my ideal world, this is where I’m writing.
JG: Are you a morning writer, an evening writer, a whenever you can find the time writer?
CS: I’m an any time of day writer, although I do like to have a chunk of time when I can get in the zone and not be interrupted. I’m a big believer in working smarter, not harder, so if I’m not feeling it, I’m not feeling it. If I’m in the zone, I can write pretty easily and quickly. But if I try to force it, it’s tedious and bad and trust me, you won’t want to read it.
JG: Do you have any favorite reader comments?
CS: My intention with my writing on Medium is to give people tools they can use in their lives, so the comments I like most are the ones like, “I’m going to start a gratitude practice,” “I’m going to get a dog,” or “I’m going to take a risk.” I like the ones where people say they’re going to do something.
JG: Any advice for other Medium writers or people who might be interested in writing on Medium, particularly other professors?
CS: When we’re teaching, we’re trying to convey thoughtful information to our students in ways that they can understand. That’s exactly what I try to do when I write for Medium. I also try to write about something new, or at least put a new-ish spin on something. And before I post anything, I read it aloud. It needs to sound like something an average person, not just someone in your discipline, would understand. I try to channel one of my college students or a friend who’s not in my field. When I feel like they would get it, that’s when I hit Publish.
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