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Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 2015

What's Your Problem?
Shawn R. Charlton, PhD, and Tiffany Wierzbicki
University of Central Arkansas

We all have a problem—and some of these problems can be the key to our professional success! Actually, most of us have more than just a problem—we have a collection of them! Our problems can come from many different sources and can range in severity. Being a student or professional in psychology does not exempt us from having problems. In fact, you might have heard the saying that the only difference between a psychologist and everyone else is that the psychologist knows the official name for his or her problems. This is quite true. Most of the time, we think of problems as bad things, but sometimes our problems can be a very good and important part of who we are and what we do, as is the case for the types of problems discussed below.
What Is a Good Problem?
In this article, we are not using the word problem in reference to something that is not working correctly that may be the source of significant personal distress. Instead, by problem, we mean something that you are striving to understand, explore, solve, or change. Focusing on a problem as something that motivates us to change or seek a solution conceptualizes the ability of problems to help us succeed.
As professional psychologists, much of our work is driven by these kinds of problems. Rather than focusing on the problems that cause direct personal or social distress in our lives, we can think about the problems in human behavior that raise questions that drive our work. Psychologists working in the area of positive psychology have problems, even though their goal is to improve the human condition by focusing on when things are going right! Psychological researchers often refer to their problems as their areas of interest or topics for research. This language may sound better than just saying, “Here’s my problem,” but they have similar meanings.
Why Is It Important to Find Your Problem?
The problem that drives you is a critical part of your professional identity. The problem helps you decide if and where to go to graduate school, where to work, what professional sources to read, which conferences to attend, and how you look at the world in general. Identifying your problem is one of the most important career development tasks you will encounter.
The number of problems for you to ask and attempt to answer is limitless! Psychologists are employed and prepared to address problems in contexts ranging from airports (McCarley, Kramer, Wickens, Vidoni, & Boot, 2004; Novotney, 2011), to the circus (Tartakovsky, 2012)! The breadth of available employment opportunities makes psychology a very exciting and attractive field. In many ways, the range of available problems is only limited by your imagination and drive. As long as you look at a context where there is a behaving organism, you will find a variety of wonderful and challenging problems to solve!
After you have uncovered your passion, it can help drive decisions in many domains of your life such as setting goals, prioritizing, course selection, research projects, volunteer work, or even reading an article here and there during your down time. Knowing your problem will help motivate you to do what is necessary to get to the next level, whether that involves completing a degree, finding a job, or continuing your education.
Because of the many benefits that come from knowing your problem, the sooner you find your problem, the better. Many people graduate from college and either continue their education or enter the work field only to find that what they are pursuing is not right for them. Then they return to school or change jobs. In the article, “The Career Path Less Traveled” (Daw et. al, 2001), some psychologists did exactly this, but when they found their problem, they found a job a little off the beaten path that suited them. When attending school, many students change their majors or transfer, both of which may delay degree completion. If you can find your problem early on, you can save yourself the time, effort, and stress involved with making these changes.
How Do You Find Your Problem?
Although knowing what interests you may seem obvious, for many people, figuring this out may be the hardest part of their career. When first arriving at a university, many people are overwhelmed by the variety of different classes and majors. With all of these options, how can you know which is the right fit for you? Even after you have narrowed your focus and selected a major, you still have to determine what aspect of that major is the best fit, and then what kind of job in that part of the field would be best for you. Also, how do you know that a topic in the classroom will interest you in real life? Just because you might have liked your Abnormal Psychology class does not mean that you will find fulfillment in a life focused on researching or treating people with schizophrenia.
Researching all available options would take an enormous amount of time, and time is unfortunately not something that any of us has in excess. Rather than working in a broad-to-narrow fashion by exploring all the majors available and the classes offered, we encourage you to ask yourself “What do I find most interesting about the classes that I have taken to this point?” Then, follow up this question by asking, “What kind of job could lead me to explore these topics in more depth?” These questions help you discover where your interests lie. Discovering your problem, then finding the specialization and graduate training that addresses this problem, is more efficient than a broader career search.
Despite the challenge that many of us face in finding our problem, there are some things that we can do to facilitate its identification. The key here is to become actively engaged in your academic training. The more actively involved you are with your field of study, the more likely you are to find your problem.
How Do You Get Actively Involved?
Here are seven specific ways of getting involved that can help you find your problem.
Read about psychology. Reading can help you encounter your problem. Read the assigned portions for your classes. Read additional sources, links, and passages offered by your book and your professor. You may even stumble across your problem by engaging in personal leisurely reading. This can help you find topics you are interested in, and then you can do your own personal research to read more about those interests specifically by exploring scholarly publications.
Pay attention to your classes. Taking an abundance of classes is required to complete your college degree. Rather than perceiving your classes as a hurdle to overcome, appreciate these classes and what they can do for you. Because you have to be in these classes anyway, get the absolute most out of them. Be actively engaged so that you can recognize all the different problems presented. Take a variety of classes by an assortment of professors so that you can have a wider exposure to problems. Even after you have found your problem, taking a variety of classes and professors can help you to focus and broaden your knowledge and perspective in your area of interest.
Become involved in your department. Be engaged in the opportunities offered by your academic department. Participate in clubs or get involved in projects with other classmates or professors outside of the classroom. Every person has different interests, and every opportunity presents different problems, any of which could be perfect for you! After finding a niche that suits you, developing an ongoing relationship with those who have that interest or expertise will allow you to continue to work in that area.
Attend conferences. Participate in academic gatherings when given the opportunity. Conferences attract students and professors from many different schools, which offer vast exposure to different interests, perspectives, and specializations that may not be present in your home department. Once you have found your problem, these gatherings are a great way to work with those with similar interests. Also, attending conferences relevant to your area of interest is a great way to develop a professional network that may serve you well during your job search and/or graduate applications.
Engage in personal reflection. Going to college is a difficult and busy time, but try not to get too engrossed in your tasks and go on “auto-pilot.” Take time to think about what it is that you are learning and how you feel about it. This can help you to discover your problem and not let it slip through your fingers, as well as to organize your thoughts about how to move forward after uncovering your passion. Even classes that seem disconnected from your problem will likely provide insights and information that can be useful in better understanding what you are interested in if you take the time to really process the course information.
Imagine your future. Dr. Bill Lammers of the University of Central Arkansas encourages students to find their problem by imagining what their daily routine will look like 10 years in the future. During this exercise, you should create as vivid a picture of your life as you can. What time do you wake up? What do you wear? What type of building do you work in? Who do you work with? What is the pace of your workday? Once you are able to vividly imagine the type of work and work setting that you value, you can limit your search for a problem based on these details. These activities continue to be beneficial after you have narrowed down your search. For example, a counseling psychologist may try imagining their daily routine and explore if they visualize themselves working in a hospital or private practice, or with children or geriatric clients.
Write your own acceptance speech. Similar to imagining your workday, imagine giving an acceptance speech for a major award related to your job performance. During your acceptance speech, what kinds of things would you want to be able to say? Would you like to discuss groundbreaking research? Or would you like to acknowledge all the people that you have helped? Would you like to be giving the speech in front of thousands, or to a small and intimate group? The goal is to think about what type of major contribution you would most like to be remembered for achieving.
What Do You Do Next?
Of course, just because there is a problem to be solved does not mean that it will be easy to get into the necessary context and solve the problem. You need the right tools to address the problem such as skills, expertise, education, training, and motivation. This presents a challenge. Although the number of potential problems to address is limitless, the range of graduate programs is not. Specific programs exist to train graduate students in the major areas in psychology such as experimental, counseling, clinical, social/personality, and school (this is not an exhaustive list), but it is not possible to have a specialized program to represent every interest. For example, someone interested in helping homeless clients with schizophrenia would not find a program to reflect this interest exactly, but would instead attend a clinical psychology program or a related program. This is where the selection of your graduate mentors becomes essential. There is more breadth in interests for graduate mentors than there is for programs. The best way to ensure you get the graduate training and opportunities that you need to address your problem is to focus on the faculty at the schools that you apply to for graduate training. This can be done by visiting program websites and researching faculty, contacting current students in potential program choices, reaching out to specific faculty members, making campus visits, and so on. This match between your interests and the interests of the faculty is critical. Who you choose to work with for your graduate degree is often more important than where you obtain your training. After all, the successful pursuit of your problem requires a careful selection of a graduate advisor with the skills, contacts, and expertise you will need to be successful.
Finding your problem, or passion, is essential to finding a career path that best suits your interests and abilities, and can help immensely in designing the path to get you there. Getting engaged is the absolute best way to realize your problem. Get out there, get involved, and find your problem!
Daw, J., Smith, D., Chamberlin, J., O’Connor, E., Clay, R., Foxhall, K., & DeAngelis, T. (2001, February). The career path less traveled. American Psychological Association. Retrieved February 9, 2015, from
McCarley, J. S., Kramer, A. F., Wickens, C. D., Vidoni, E. D., & Boot, W. R. (2004). Visual skills in airport security screening. Psychological Science, 15(5), 302-306.
Novotney, A. (2011). Noise isn’t always loud. American Psychological Association. Retrieved February 9, 2015, from
Tartakovsky, M. (2012). 6 Unusual Psychology Jobs. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 9, 2015, from

Shawn R. Charlton, PhD, earned a bachelor of arts at Utah State University and his graduate degrees at the University of California, San Diego. He is currently associate professor of psychology at the University of Central Arkansas (UCA). His primary research interests are in human decision-making, with an emphasis on decisions across time and social influences on decision-making. Recently, Dr. Charlton began a line of inquiry into the characteristics of successful graduate applicants and the skills and abilities that are sought by different types of graduate programs in psychology (e.g., clinical, school, industrial/organizational). His Behavioral and Social Decisions Laboratory recently began the National Survey of Academic Expectations in Psychology to assist students in preparing for graduate applications. Dr. Charlton has served as the faculty advisor for the UCA chapter of Psi Chi since August 2007.

Tiffany Wierzbicki graduated from the University of Central Arkansas in May 2013 with a bachelor of science in psychology. She is currently obtaining her doctorate in counseling psychology at the University of Central Arkansas. Beginning as an undergraduate student and continuing into her graduate years, she conducted several research studies, resulting in numerous presentations, two of which were award winning in research competitions at regional conventions. Through these experiences and participation in her Psi Chi chapter, as well as two other local psychology clubs as an undergraduate, she benefited from several perspectives on professional development and felt that she could offer valuable insight to others following this path.

Please address correspondence to: Shawn R. Charlton, PhD,University of Central kansas,

Copyright 2015 (Volume 19, Issue 2) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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