Thoughts on graduate school and research… the good, the bad, and the ugly!

An Essay By Christa // 7/16/2007

Who am I?
I am a 5th year graduate student, getting a PhD in psychology. For those of you unfamiliar with the PhD process, I’ll give a quick outline. In my program, I am paid a barely livable stipend to work as either a research assistant (and since I am the senior graduate student in my lab, this means I am in charge of conducting all the research that the lab is involved in) or as a teaching assistant (meaning I grade a lot of papers and teach the occasional class). My program also pays my tuition for the classes I take and basic health care. I am not allowed to work any other jobs; my business card job title reads: Graduate Student.

What is research?
The psychological research that I am involved with largely centers on surveying or interviewing adults and children, and one of my favorite parts of my job involves interviewing children – you get some of the most thoughtful and funny and spontaneous answers from kids. Anyway, in this area of research, we come up with a theoretically driven hypothesis about a particular subject on human behavior, and then we figure out an unbiased, reliable, and valid way to measure that behavior. This measurement translates human behavior into numbers, and we see if those numbers support our original hypothesis. We then replicate our study (if the numbers support it) or revise our original hypothesis and test the new hypothesis. We then write up our findings, present the findings to our colleagues at conferences, and try to publish to findings in journals that hopefully our colleagues will see. Sadly, very little research winds up becoming public knowledge but we persevere because we hope that at some point our research will result in some type of positive change in the world.

What I am NOT:
Everyone’s first assumption when I say psychology is that I am going to be a clinical psychologist (and I always get rather bad jokes about how the person has a friend/sibling/parent that should come see me). I am NOT a clinical psychologist – I’ve taken classes in it, but I am not qualified to tell a person how to deal with a child who has ADHD, nor do I have any interest in doing so.

What I AM:
I am a developmental psychologist. I study children’s development – or the study of the process by which kids grow up. I have a secondary interest in quantitative psychology – the study of how human behavior can be measured. Together, this means I enjoy writing, reading, math, and kids. I also enjoy analytical and critical thinking about human interactions. I spend a lot of time reading and summarizing previous research and theories, coming up with questionnaires and interview questions, administering these measures, entering in or coding data into a spreadsheet, crunching numbers, and writing up what the numbers mean.

My take on being a graduate student:
Sometimes being a graduate student in the psychological sciences is the best gig in the world. I am blessed with a wonderful advisor who values my work. I value the other graduate students I work with, and I enjoy teaching college undergraduates. I love being able to interact with kids of all ages, and I never cease to be amazed at how much children do and don’t understand and at what age kids just suddenly start understanding something.
Sometimes being a graduate student is not the best gig in the world – you can visit www.phdcomics.com for rather funny takes on being a graduate student in the world of academia. Preliminary exams and qualifying exams and major area papers and thesis defenses are all painful, regardless of what field you might be in. Sometimes it’s hard to self-motivate and write the dissertation (and a little too easy to become distracted by writing for apricotpie!). It’s hard to live on a small salary for 5 years, and its hard to see your friends in med school and law school make more money straight out of school than you’re likely to see in 10 years. For me, ending my 5 years of graduate servitude, I find it stressful and anxiety inducing to think about the future. I have been a student ALL MY LIFE – and suddenly I will not be. I have to find a job – and the only thing I’m truly qualified to do is become a professor (which is a difficult job to find).

What I hope to accomplish with my research:
1) I currently study parental involvement. I wish I could figure out the best paths of development for kids and how parents and other adults can influence that path. A lot of things you take to be common knowledge about parenting (e.g., DO NOT NEGLECT YOUR CHILD) winds up happening even by well-meaning parents. I think it’s important also to help parents understand that normal developmental activities (such as the increasing need for independence as a child ages) can be suppressed even by well-meaning parents.
2) I enjoy studying the home-schooling population in my line of research. Home-schooling provides a distinctive setting in which parents and kids interact far more regularly than other types of schooling provides for, so I think it’s fun to see what parents and kids think about that, and how that interaction might uniquely impact how kids grow. I am also interested in why parents make the choice to home-school because it is such a unique (and possibly difficult!) decision to make. And since I was home-schooled, I think it’s interesting to see what similarities and differences exist between my experience and other folk’s experiences.
3) I like to be unbiased when I study anything – I firmly believe there are at least two sides to every issue. I enjoy thinking about that, and I hope with my research to demonstrate that different sides can peacefully co-exist.

Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed my rambling – give yourself a big pat on the back for getting to the end! I’ve really enjoyed reading all your writing up on apricotpie. I’d love feedback on all my writing – as a graduate student I’ve had a chance to develop my factual writing and little chance to develop my more artistic writing side, so I’m sure my writing can use some helpful feedback. Thanks!