From Trade School to a Psychology Ph.D.

September 8, 2023

By Abe Loomis

For first-year Ph.D. student Sean Bennett, life experience planted the seeds of scholarship.

Sean Bennett headshot
Sean Bennett (Photo courtesy of Bennett)

Sean Bennett never imagined himself as an academic, until he returned to college as an adult.

“My passion for social psychology came about a year into my undergrad,” says Bennett, who is now a first-year Psychology Ph.D. student at the Graduate Center. That was when he encountered Jennifer Perillo, then an assistant professor of psychology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Perillo, who earned her Ph.D. in Psychology at the Graduate Center in 2013 and is now an associate professor at The University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center, had a teaching style that clicked for Bennett.

“At that time, I wasn’t 22,” Bennett says. “I was much older. And so a lot of the technology and just general ways of going to college, I didn’t understand. But she was able to talk to me in words that I understood.”

Learn More About the Ph.D. Program in Psychology

In discussions with Perillo, Bennett found his own research interests coming into focus. In November, he will present a paper based on his undergraduate honors thesis with Perillo at the American Society of Criminology Society National Conference in Philadelphia: Relationships Between Childhood Maltreatment, Social Dominance Orientation, Moral Disengagement, and Perceptions of Controversial Police Tactics.

Bennett’s curiosity about childhood trauma and policing, he says, is rooted in hard personal experience. He left his home in rural Pennsylvania at the age of 18 and was unhoused for several months, a period in which he had several encounters with police. After a furnace repairman took him in and taught him the basics of heating, air conditioning, and plumbing, Bennett decided to attend trade school. When he graduated from Triangle Tech in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, he started his own business, rigging air conditioning to cool the cabs of large machines such as bulldozers, backhoes, and excavators. In 2019, he sold his business and decided to finish his undergraduate degree.

“I felt like I needed to do it to prove I could have finished it before,” he says.

Bennet applied to the Graduate Center at Perillo’s recommendation, and because of the presence of scholars like Professor Maria Hartwig (Psychology) and Distinguished Professor Saul Kassin (Psychology).

“I never dreamed that I would ever meet or speak to them,” he says of Hartwig and Kassin. “I’ve read their work. To me it’s kind of like, you know, having a favorite sports star or something like that. I just want to be around those kinds of minds.”

As he begins his Ph.D. journey, Bennett is particularly interested in the ways adverse childhood experiences are measured, and he hopes to find ways to improve such measurements. Given some of the attitudes he observed in rural Pennsylvania, he says, he is also eager to pursue research that might benefit people of color. His own outcome, he suggests, might have been very different “had I been anything other than a white man.”

Perillo’s mentorship, Bennett says, has informed the advice he would offer other older students contemplating pursuing a doctorate: “If you find some good professors,” he says, “talk to them, get involved in their work. But also be mindful that it’s possible to get involved with too many things.”

When he finishes his own Ph.D., Bennett hopes to work for a legal-reform nonprofit such as the Innocence Project or the Vera Institute of Justice. But he also wants to keep an open mind and see what emerges.

“I guess one of the lessons I’ve learned is to not just marry yourself to something right away,” he says. “But reform, fairness, and equity are what I’m interested in, whether I can be involved in research or teach or both — it’s just something I’m not willing to let go of.”

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