I graduated from college 25 years ago with a major in psychology. Interestingly, a question I was asked ("What are you going to do with a psychology major?”) is probably the same question that many of you are asked today.
Put simply, there are two answers to that question: get a job or go to graduate school. I will try to answer the employment question in the next issue. Currently, I would like to answer the question "Is graduate school for you?” by asking several other questions.
Question 1: Are you sick of school? Even the best students find college occasionally stressful and perhaps tedious. Unfortunately, the same is true with most careers after college. A graduate-school advisor once said to me, "All of life involves tedium.” Many people report loving their jobs, yet they probably don’t love every minute of every day. At some level, everyone gets sick of what they’re doing. Perhaps, more precise questions are: Do you find it difficult to complete assignments? Is reading unenjoyable? Do you wish you were doing something else? If the answer to any of these questions is no, then you would likely enjoy graduate school; you can skip Question 2. However, if you answered yes, explore diagnosing your school sickness more deeply by proceeding to Question 2.
Question 2: What are you sick of? Are you sick of the long hours (by yourself) required to succeed? Are you sick of sitting at your desk for seemingly endless sessions of reading? Do you get nervous before exams and suffer from performance anxiety? If you answered yes to any of the questions, then graduate school might not be for you. Graduate school involves long hours, often in solitude, learning on your own. It also involves reading difficult texts, taking exams, writing papers, understanding research findings, and communicating orally. If these things make you anxious, then you will likely be anxious in graduate school. Perhaps you should discuss if graduate school is for you with your advisor.
Conversely, are you sick of core/general education courses outside of psychology? Are you sick of mostly lecture-based learning? Are you sick of studying things that you don’t view as useful? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then graduate school might still be for you. Please move on to Question 3.
Question 3: Do you want to be a producer or a consumer? For those contemplating graduate school, where do you stand in relation to psychological research? Would you like to be a producer or consumer of research? (See table below.)
Research is foundational to our field, which is why Psi Chi’s mission is "to advance the science of psychology.” But after years of teaching psychology, I know research is not for everyone. Still, there are varying degrees of commitment, competence, and interest in research, even among psychology graduate students. In the table on the left, if the Research Producer column describes you better, you should consider a doctoral program with a heavy research emphasis.
On the other hand, if the Research Consumer column describes you, then a graduate program with less focus on producing research would be better. Examples would be master’s level programs in counseling, human resources, or social work. For those of you wanting to be a research-based practitioner with clinical privileges, a PsyD degree might be a good fit. Although there are many ways to evaluate the person-environment fit when it comes to graduate school, I would argue that one of the most important considerations is a student’s self-perceived relationship with research.
Last Question: What are you willing to give up? For those considering full-time graduate school, I recommend asking if you are willing to:
- Work long hours for very little pay?
- Cope with disappointment and frustration?
- Feel like your work is never finished?
For students not bound for full-time graduate school, I recommend asking if you are willing to:
- Give up the flexibility that graduate school provides ?
- Give up the vocational freedom of advanced degrees?
- Possibly live with a lower salary?
No one can have it all. Whatever path you choose, you’ll be gaining some things while giving up others. College years are stressful because the decisions you make now set you on a certain life course. Changing that life path is possible, but not always easy. I encourage you to ask yourself the questions above and to seek the counsel of wise mentors as you discern your life path.
The following characteristics typify people whom I idenfity as either a producer or a consumer of research.
Research ProducerGets excited about researchIs energized by statistics and quantitative methodsSees research as foundational to one's professional identity
Dreams of writing journal articles