By Kelsey Whipple (Ph.D. Student at UT Austin); Oct 3, 2016
Dr. Charisse L’Pree’s introduction to college began when she was in elementary school. Not long after she started first grade (at a precocious age 4), her mother, a professor at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, began to bring L’Pree to the classes she taught. L’Pree sat in the back of the classroom, listened to her mother’s lessons and regularly graded multiple-choice tests.
As the only child of a single mother, she also watched a “ridiculous amount” of TV — an amount she now estimates to have been around eight hours a day. While glued in front of the television at home, she became curious about how the media affected her concept of self and how she understood the world through the media. “No matter what research you’re doing, you’re learning something about yourself all the time,” L’Pree says about the childhood curiosity that would later inform her own research.
However, her early research concentrated on the hard sciences. When she was in high school, L’Pree was fascinated with biology, and she dedicated her summers to “nerd camps” and college classes she took at area universities. She spent the summer after her freshman year at Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island, extracting DNA from sea animals at the beach. During the summer after her sophomore year, she researched genetics at Columbia University. In the summer of her junior year in high school, she conducted research on vertebrate morphology at Brown University. At age 16, she enrolled at MIT, which would become the most difficult accomplishment of her life.
She began as a biology major but struggled early on during the program’s required organic chemistry class. L’Pree dropped out of college at 17 and spent a year living at home with her mother watching TV, reading books and reexamining her interests. “One day I was just sitting there watching TV at like, 2 in the morning,” L’Pree remembers, “and I realized that someone with enough money could convince me to buy or believe something I’d never heard of before. I was shocked.” That shock motivated her to return to MIT the following year, though she left biology behind. This time, she focused on media studies and neuroscience.
Even with new priorities to fuel her research, L’Pree eventually found herself a fifth-year senior in a freshman intro calculus class — the last course standing between her and graduation. She had registered for and subsequently dropped the class four times at the exact same point — the dreaded triple integrals. She felt old. She felt stupid. But she couldn’t let those feelings stop her again. This time, she hired a tutor and made the class the most important thing in her life that semester in order to pass it. And in doing so, she learned a lesson she still applies regularly to her task load as a professor. “It taught me that the only way to get things done is to do them,” L’Pree says.
Today, she’s not a fan of what she calls the “’My Life Is So Hard Olympics.’ Someone is like, ‘I have 50 pages [to read], and then someone else says, ‘I have 70 pages,’ and I don’t have time for that. I’m like, ‘No, yo, go read the fucking pages.’”
After five years at MIT, she graduated with dual degrees in brain and cognitive science and comparative media studies. But graduation didn’t automatically come with a job opportunity or a clear role for her in the industry. She spent the year following her graduation editing a Frank Zappa documentary and writing a book proposal that made her proud at the time but makes her cringe today. Seeking feedback, she sent the proposal to an adviser at MIT who told her, “‘I can’t believe you’d write something so naive,’” L’Pree remembers. “It was the most scathing response I’d ever received. I go back and read [the proposal] now, though, and it’s just the thoughts of a 21-year-old angry at the media.”
With that criticism lingering in her mind, L’Pree considered her career trajectory and decided to return to school to get her thoughts in order. Researching had always come easily to her, and it felt instinctual to return to it. This time, she joined USC’s Master’s program in film and critical studies, where her past research experience helped her to become the only person in her cohort to get a research assistantship. “For me, research was always the path of least resistance,” L’Pree says. “I was good at it, and I always had questions: Who’s doing research on this, on that? [My professors always said], ‘No one,’ or, ‘This one person.’” I realized then that I had to answer those questions myself.”
After getting her MA, L’Pree continued her studies at USC in the school’s psychology doctoral program with a full fellowship. This time, she applied her childhood time watching TV at home to research questions about what it’s like when people don’t see other people who look like them on the screen. USC gave her the freedom to do her own research and engage the questions that motivated her. Today, L’Pree mentors young people interested in academia through the McNair Scholars program and gives them the same advice she learned throughout her own four degrees. “You shouldn’t think about grad school as a means to an end, which is how we think about undergrad,” she says. “In grad school, someone is giving you money to spend four, five or six years to explore a question you care deeply about and figure out the answer. You should be enjoying every day that you wake up and research. Think about getting a job, but don’t let that drive you.”
It’s not always easy to harness that inspiration throughout your entire time pursuing a PhD, L’Pree says, which makes it that much more important to have a good reason behind your studies and remind yourself of that reason when your program gets tough. “There’s always a point where you’re like, ‘This shit is not gonna end,’ and you feel like you are wasting your life,” L’Pree says. For her, that moment came four years into her doctoral program at USC. “These are prime times in your life — your mid-20s — when everyone else is getting married and having babies and shit, and you’re like, ‘I’m going back to school.’ You should derive pleasure from learning this material and teaching it to others. It’s a career choice that you’re making, not just school.”
When those concerns hit L’Pree the hardest, she separated herself from academics — and Americans in general — during a six-week camping trip across Africa. She “turned her brain off,” at least when it came to her research. (“When you’re in academia, you’re paid to think, which means you’re never away from your job,” L’Pree says with a laugh.) When she returned, she was refreshed enough to push through it. The only good dissertation, she says, is a done dissertation.
Her time in USC’s PhD program also taught L’Pree not to be afraid of findings that aren’t significant, which happened to her during a research project her second year. An adviser told her that, “If you needed significant findings to graduate, a lot of people wouldn’t graduate.” And it would be a lot harder to graduate without the support of a cohort.
“Your cohort is your best resource,” L’Pree says. “You can always learn from everyone. You can’t listen with your mouth open, because you’re not gaining anything or learning new things. You should think about that with every single person you engage with.”
Today, Dr. L’Pree is an assistant professor at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, where she continues to conduct research about how media messages shape audience’s identities, perceptions and behaviors. Her favorite aspect of a career in academia is the privilege of setting her own schedule, but with that opportunity comes a responsibility to schedule her time wisely. “It’s nice to make your own schedule, but if you treat school like a job, everything will get done. If you don’t find the time, you’ll never have the time.”
L’Pree enjoys her teaching role as a professor, and she finds ways to connect her research to what she teaches. She chose to work at a university that prioritizes teaching because her life goal is to improve the media and impact public discourse. “I can write all the papers I want, but nobody reads them,” she says. L’Pree values her research but considers peer-reviewed journals to be the currency needed to succeed in academia, rather than a practical way of affecting change in the media. “For me, working with students, getting out there in the world and teaching them, is more valuable in the grand scheme of things. It a bigger impact on the world.”
After 15 years in college spent on five degrees, L’Pree still feels like a student. (“I’m such a good student that they let me sit on the other side of the table now,” she jokes.) Today, she drills that decade and a half down into four key pieces of advice she gives to all of her students every semester: Set aside time for reading, turn in satisfactory work on time, be detail-oriented and connect every class to something you enjoy. “Research should be me-search, and you should always focus on something you’re passionate about,” L’Pree says. “If not, it’s just work.”