Graduate school admission is often in our fondest
dreams as undergraduates. As students we want to extend our education to
include graduate training either at a master's level, a specialist level, or at
the doctorate level. I know when I was a preadolescent I had already made up my
mind that I would be a psychologist, and my thinking included only the applied
side of the field. I had not been exposed to any researchers in the field. As I
worked my way through school, I realized that I had certain characteristics
that helped me achieve my goals along the way. These are the very
characteristics that I want to relate to you.
As I began reading and working in the
biology and chemistry labs during my high school year, taking drama and
advanced English courses, working on logic and mathematical reasoning through
the secondary math and science courses, I began to understand the need to delay
gratification and develop good study skills. It was during my junior and senior
year of high school that I thought about my future professional life. As all
teenagers do, I imagined myself doing different kinds of work, which made me
consider my likes and dislikes.
Another important factor during this time
was the development of my adult identity. My identity had been imprinted in me
by my family and my community, and I was busy examining whether the
"suit" fit. During the late 1950s and throughout the '60s, our
country was undergoing massive changes in social order and unrest. Several of
our social and political leaders were assassinated, and I remember very well
how it took extra strength and courage to continue my studies during these
extraordinary changes. I would hear about them on the radio, see them on TV,
and read about them in newspapers and magazines. Even though the world seemed
smaller with our landing on the moon, as a family we still lived in a very
small-town atmosphere. Though personal computers were not available at that
time in my school or in my home, and therefore this type of technology did not
have the same infonnational impact as it does today; nevertheless, the flood of
new information and its resulting impact had a powerful influence on my
personal identity and helped me identify my personal and professional goals,
which included a life of service in a helping profession.
During the last half of my junior year
through my senior year, I continued to be shy when it came to public speaking.
Even though I had taken voice for many years, I still felt extremely anxious
when asked to speak in class or in church. As the result of this anxiety, I
tried to develop public presentation and debate skills. I followed other
student leaders in my school, and I participated in speech and drama
competitions. I felt these would be needed to argue points and influence my
peers and possibly could provide me with opportunities to reduce my anxieties.
I was right! Later in my career, these same skills were important when I argued
with my professors over grades or in class debates in philosophy. Little did I
know that years later, these same skills would be called on when I offered
testimony before the House and Senate committees in my own state and in
lobbying for a children's mental health bill. I then went on to use these same
skills to work at the federal level in lobbying for the federal education
bills. These skills have been invaluable in my professional life, if not
sometimes troubling in my personal life.
During my senior year and during application
time for college and university work, I chose a program in a university that
had a curriculum with depth and breadth. I also chose a program far enough away
from home that I would not be tempted to visit my family very often. In the
fall of 1965 I was off to college, and I was so excited to be away from home. I
had a part-time job in the psychology department as an undergraduate assistant
and later became a research assistant on a grant a faculty member had received.
I was fairly self-supporting, having both scholarships and part-time work.
Working closely with faculty members in the department gave me a working
knowledge of department operations, and I got to know faculty well enough to
ask for professional recommendations.
During my freshman year, I soon learned that
the self-discipline I developed in secondary school was insufficient for
university success. At the recommendation of one of my professors, I read B. F.
Skinner's books and several publications on study skills and placed myself on a
tight study schedule. I would overprepare for courses for which I felt ill
prepared, and I used the Premack principle to regulate my work, alternating
less pleasant tasks with more pleasant academic tasks. I also chose a fixed
schedule of reinforcement based on meeting a certain criterion in study time
and accuracy. Later, after I was in the habit of studying on a daily schedule
and completing papers and projects ahead of the deadline, I changed to a ratio
schedule in which I rewarded myself after the completion of a set number of
tasks. I learned early that studying and preparing for classes took precedence
over all other activities. I learned that keeping myself on a strict study
schedule allowed me time for some fun activities. I limited my work hours to 10
hours a week and only worked at psychology-related tasks. I often used the
power of "positive thinking" in the face of setbacks and
disappointments. I found myself reading psychology and philosophy during my
spare time, and I still pull out the set of philosophy books I bought during my
senior year. Socially, I associated with students who had similar academic
goals and became active in the psychology club and later Psi Chi when my
department was granted a chapter. I continued to use behavioral and learning
principles to regulate my leisure time.
After a few courses in psychology, I learned
that there were certain characteristics that were valued by psychology faculty
and professional psychologists. Current authors (APA, 1994) suggest that
personality characteristics, coping style, and motivation are significant in
predicting success in graduate school programs. After reading these materials
and reflecting on my experiences, I believe I was highly motivated and had
developed some level of adequate coping skills. I also began to notice that
even though my college working experiences were in research, I seemed very
interested in the applied side of psychology. My schoolmates, and later my
professional colleagues, often discussed characteristics that successful
students in psychology tend to have. These characteristics included having a
high interest in psychology, possessing a mature outlook, being a self-starter,
willing to put in hard work, being highly organized, and energetic. As far as I
was concerned I had some of these characteristics, but needed to develop
others. Among my undergraduate friends, the successful students seemed to be
serious, responsible, committed, curious, focused, and scientifically oriented.
During the last semester of my senior year, I noticed that my fellow students
had become more flexible thinkers. I especially noticed this development
through the discussions and special presentations we all chose to do. I
realized that I did not have this flexibility, so I decided to examine some of
my most cherished beliefs. Having a highly spiritual background with much
religious training, I continually felt the struggle to entertain philosophies
foreign to my own personal beliefs.
After finishing my bachelor's degree, I went
straight into graduate work. I completed my master's work in a year and a half
and took my first job as a school psychologist. I found that in my clinical
work I needed to develop some additional characteristics, such as being
empathic, having good boundaries, and being able to set limits under stressful
conditions. I also found that I needed to learn a tolerance of high levels of
stress and chaos on the job while working with children and their families. It
was at this time that I read Glasser (1976) on positive addiction and, thus,
began developing my own positive addictions to reading and running. These
hobbies later helped me cope with graduate study.
Very often I found that my lack of
experience with various populations and clinical problems put me at a
disadvantage; therefore, I reenrolled in the local university to gain
additional knowledge to help me perform my job more effectively. Looking back I
feel that I would have benefited by volunteering with human resource agencies
and emergency shelters during my undergraduate experience. My new training,
coupled with my job experiences, helped deepen my knowledge of interventions to
help eliminate human suffering and to develop programs that provided positive,
growth-oriented experiences for developing children.
Over my years as an advisor and professor, I
have noted that students with some of the same characteristics and experience
as I had were successful in school and later as practicing professionals.
During my Psi Chi advising experience over the last two decades, I have seen
students develop some of the leadership skills and presentation styles they
will need as professional psychologists, and I often find myself looking back
to my college years. I encourage students to present their research papers at
conferences, since I had limited opportunities for these activities in my
undergraduate preparation. During the last 10 years I have tried to help
motivate students to publish their papers in the various journals available. Of
course, now our honor society has an undergraduate journal to which all Psi Chi
members are encouraged to submit research papers. Presentation and publication
skills are almost as important to undergraduates as to graduates
(Keith-Spiegel, Tabachnick, & Spiegel, 1994). Most students do not seem to
realize that research is just as important to clinical work as it is in basic
Why do I think these characteristics are so
important in psychology graduate work? As a graduate student you will be
required to spend long hours in reading and writing. These long hours will bear
fruit in the form of research projects such as theses and dissertations, oral
presentations in class, and persuasive arguments as you defend your ideas for
research. You will be required to take comprehensive exams and orals that will
demonstrate your command of the entire body of knowledge in your areas of
concentration. In your internship or practicum, you will need knowledge of
psychology-related topics to assist your clients in decision making and
accessing needed services. If you decide to pursue a research career, you will
need a firm grasp of research design and techniques of analysis that can be
applied to your particular area of interest. To gain these skills you must be
highly motivated and emotionally ready to commit your entire self to this part
of your professional development.
In clinical work, you will likely deal with
people in crisis situations, and you will need to rely on your skills in
assessment and treatment, as well as effective communication skills. You may
also need to be proactive and become an advocate for services, research, and
education. Your ability to think on your feet and to influence others will be
called upon in many ways. Your stamina and patience will need to be highly
developed, along with your self-efficacy. Bandura and Cervone's (1986) research
on self-efficacy and Seligmans's work on learned optimism (1990)) would be
excellent reading for all of you to understand helpful coping and dispositional
characteristics. These writers stress the importance of a belief in self and of
looking at life in a positive way. I cannot forget Rollo May's writing (1969)
in Love and Will, and how his
words were those I turned to for inspiration and refreshment. All of these
writers, and many more that I cannot take time to name, can help you become
optimistic, confident, and responsible professionals and researchers who
possess the personal motivation to achieve your career goals as psychologists.
Psychological Association (1994). Getting
in: A step-by-step plan for gaining admission to graduate school in psychology.
Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Bandura, A., & Cervone, D. (1986).
Self-evaluative and self-efficacy mechanisms governing the motivational effects
of goal systems. Journal of Personality and
Social Psychology, 45, 1017-1028.
Glasser, W. (1976). Positive addiction. New York: Harper
Keith-Spiegel, P., Tabachnick, B. G., &
Spiegel, G. B. (1994). When demand exceeds supply: Second-order criteria used
by graduate school selection committees. Teaching
of Psychology, 21, 79-81.
May, Rollo (1969). Love and will. New York: W.W. Norton.
Seligman, M. E. P. (1990). Learned optimism. Knopf.