Professor Spotlight: Dr. Bethany Butzer

A degree in psychology can help you better understand yourself and others. It also can significantly enhance your career prospects, providing you with a set of skills suitable for further employment in numerous areas. UNYP psychology graduates have gone on to work as counselors, academic researchers, representatives at NGOs and nonprofits such as UNICEF and European Union diversity programs, and as corporate training consultants and managers in companies such as DHL, Oracle, Skoda, and Amazon. At UNYP, you have the opportunity to learn from international researchers and clinicians who make exciting discoveries in the fields of psychology and mental health. 

Study psychology at the University of New York in Prague and become part of a diverse, dynamic, and supportive learning community. 

We continue our UNYP Professor Spotlight series with an interview with Dr. Bethany Butzer (Lecturer in the School of Psychology at the University of New York in Prague). Dr. Butzer completed her Ph.D. in Social Psychology at Western University (Canada), and then went on to do postdoctoral research in Dr. Sat Bir Khalsa’s lab at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School. Dr. Butzer assisted with research for the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health’s Institute for Extraordinary Living “Yoga in the Schools” program, which evaluates yoga for child and adolescent mental health. In 2016, Dr. Butzer joined UNYP’s School of Psychology, where she teaches courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Dr. Butzer became a TEDxUNYP speaker in 2017, and her TEDx talk about the concept of “downstream effort” recently hit over 1 million views. 

How did you get interested in the fields of positive psychology and transpersonal psychology? 

When I was in my early 20s, I struggled with anxiety and depression. On the outside, everything looked perfectly fine – I was succeeding academically, and I was close to my friends and family. But inside, I was suffering. I wanted to figure out how to reduce my suffering, which led to an interest in the psychology of well-being. 

Over a period of around ten years, I managed to reduce my anxiety and depression by implementing a variety of techniques, including psychotherapy, yoga, and meditation. However, the universities that I attended did not offer courses in positive or transpersonal psychology, so from an academic perspective, I had to seek out resources about these topics on my own. From a young age, I was interested in what you might call the “bigger transpersonal questions” of human existence, such as “why are we here?” Unfortunately, I was not given any opportunities to study these topics during my undergraduate or graduate degrees. 

Around five years after finishing my Ph.D., I was offered a job as a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard Medical School, where I studied yoga and mindfulness in school settings. This was the first time that I was able to formally study topics related to positive and transpersonal psychology. And I continue my studies to this day. Right now, I’m completing a second Master’s degree in “Consciousness, Spirituality and Transpersonal Psychology” so that I can gain even more training in these fields. 

What is the current focus of your research?

My research currently focuses on two main areas. One is the effects of yoga and mindfulness on youth (particularly in school settings). In addition to my work at UNYP, I also work as an independent research consultant, where I help companies and schools evaluate the impact of yoga and mindfulness programs. 

My other area of research is based on topics related to transpersonal psychology and meta-science. I'm very interested in topics related to self-transcendent and mystical experiences, as well as post-materialist science. Post-materialist science involves expanding the worldview of science so that it goes beyond the current materialist paradigm, which suggests that consciousness is simply a result of brain activity. 

I recently conducted a study on the biases that people have against topics that fall outside of materialism (such as parapsychology/psi phenomena). My study showed that people with a background in psychology rated a neuroscience study as having stronger findings and as being more reliable and valid than a parapsychology study, even though the two study descriptions were virtually identical. You can read the full study here.

What courses do you teach at UNYP? Which is your favorite course to teach, and why?

At the undergraduate level, I teach Positive Psychology, Research Methods, and a course called “Mind, Body, Consciousness: The Cutting Edge of Psychology.” 

I also teach two courses for the UNYP Masters in Psychology program: Research Methods, and a course called “Performing Psychological Professions in CZ, EU and Beyond.”

I would say that my favorite course to teach is “Mind, Body, Consciousness” because it tackles what I believe are some of the most interesting and important questions and topics within psychology, such as the nature of consciousness, the mind-body connection, and evidence for things like psi phenomena and mystical experiences. 

What do you think students ought to know about studying psychology at UNYP?

In terms of studying psychology in general, I think students need to be prepared to handle uncertainty. Unlike some topics in the “hard sciences,” there are very few certainties in psychology. Different professors can have completely different views about the same theory. Even for well-established theories, there is always debate about various intricacies, such as contextual and cross-cultural differences. The study of psychology often leaves us with more questions than answers – but this is what makes it such an interesting area for research.

In terms of studying psychology at UNYP specifically, one of the great things that UNYP offers is the opportunity to be surrounded by people from different cultures. This becomes especially interesting in psychology classes, because mind and behavior can vary widely across cultures. UNYP psychology students have the benefit of learning from each other in this way. 

UNYP psychology students need to be prepared to receive conflicting information from different professors, and this relates to my point above about learning how to tolerate uncertainty. Each professor will share their own unique perspective on the topics and theories, which helps students develop the critical thinking skills necessary to come to their own conclusions.

What advice would you offer to people who are considering pursuing a career in psychology?

I think it’s important to realize that the skills you learn in psychology can be applied to many different types of careers – even outside of psychology. At a broad level, a psychology degree cultivates skills in critical thinking, research, writing, data analysis, and the ability to synthesize large amounts of information into a coherent argument. These skills are needed in a variety of careers.

As an example, when I finished my Ph.D., I spent a couple of years working as an Information Technology (IT) Research Analyst. I had no background in IT, but I knew how to do research and write reports about the results. The company that I worked for really valued my skills, and they ended up hiring many other psychology students after me.

Long story short: I encourage psychology students to get creative about formatting their CVs to emphasize these high-level skills, which are often skills that they don’t even realize they have!

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