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 knowledge building.
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.
American 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 & Row.
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.
Spring 1997 issue of Eye on Psi Chi (Vol. 1, No. 3, pp. 64, 63), published by Psi Chi, The National Honor Society in Psychology (Chattanooga, TN). Copyright, 1997, Psi Chi, The National Honor Society in Psychology. All rights reserved.