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Eye on Psi Chi: Fall 2017

Eye on Psi Chi

Fall 2017 | Volume 22 | Issue 1


Some Factors to Consider Before Attending Graduate School: Intrinsic, Extrinsic, and Unconscious Motivators

Jody A. Thompson, PhD1, and Carey J. Fitzgerald, PhD,
University of South Carolina Beaufort

View this issue in Digital and PDF formats.

There are a number of reasons to decide to attend graduate school. Some of the factors are external such as notoriety within one’s field of study and monetary compensation. Some are internal such as goal motivation and need for cognition. And some are unconscious aspects such as personality (Deckers, 2010). Let’s explore some individual factors that are from our personal motivations to attend graduate school.

Intrinsic Versus Extrinsic Factors

Although this may not be an overtly conscious motivator, sexual selection plays a role in going to graduate school. Charles Darwin (1859/1936) used this term to describe men attempting to obtain female attention. Women tend to look for earning potential, ambition, and loyalty (Wiederman & Allgeier, 1992). This fits with the point of view that seeking out a postgraduate degree shows ambition. Very few individuals are accepted into a graduate program, plus those capable of gaining acceptance have to be motivated to do the work. By obtaining a graduate degree, it is also true that future earning potential increases, which leaves individuals better able to provide resources for offspring.

Behaviors can become addictive. Although it has been shown that exercise can become addictive (Adams & Kirby, 2002), it is also possible that behaviors to increase knowledge can become addictive too. Learning new things and making new discoveries can become quite reinforcing. In graduate school, it was not unusual to get into a flow-state where students stay in the lab all day and neglect food and drink in order to learn more.

Stress plays a major role in graduate school as well. Graduate students are expected to attend class, help professors with their undergraduate courses, conduct experiments, and publish findings. These activities provide daily stressors (Seyle, 1976) but are not the only stressors involved in pursuing one’s graduate education. Stressors such as lacking enough money to pay for food, bills, and a place to live can be quite common. Depression, low self-confidence, and negative emotions such as anger can surface. Not only do these psychological symptoms emerge, but physical symptoms such as nausea, sleep disturbances, and other illnesses can appear too. Maladaptive behaviors such as drinking more alcohol and/or caffeine, as well as poor eating habits, can occur as well (Deckers, 2010).

Other major stressors related to graduate school may involve relocation, causing some (or many) important social and romantic relationships to end. These provide some major life changes and can really impact the lives of graduate students (Holmes & Rahe, 1967). Being able to adapt, make new friends, and build new social support systems make dealing with stress much more effective (Cohen & Willis, 1985). Also, having a sense of humor can greatly help one cope with this stress (Lefcourt & Thomas, 1998).

Goal Motivation is important in decisions to attend graduate school such as having an overarching goal of becoming a professor of psychology. To achieve this goal, you should create a subset of goals. As an undergraduate, this major goal should motivate you to have a high GPA, join a lab to gain experience, and initiate contact with potential graduate school advisors. You have to work hard to prove your competence and earn letters of recommendation. You also have to prepare for and score highly on the GRE, as well as complete graduate school applications, write personal statements, and pay application fees to prospective schools. Once you are in graduate school, you are one step closer to obtaining your major goal. Each step has closed the discrepancy from my current or previous state to my desired state. Locke and Latham (1990) call this the negative feedback loop of goal achievement behavior. The change in discrepancy by moving closer to your goal will lead you to be much more likely to stay committed to your goal.

As a graduate student, one should have a drive toward achievement rather than to just avoid failure (McClelland, Atkinson, Clark, & Lowell, 1953). This need to achieve can be seen by wanting to obtain higher grades, develop original research ideas, and publish in journals. If your motivation is to avoid failure at all costs, then you most likely would not be in graduate school.

Graduate students have both extrinsic and intrinsic motivators. However, there needs to be more intrinsic motivation than extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is doing a task for the enjoyment of doing the task whereas extrinsic motivation is completing a task for some material reward such as money (Deci & Ryan, 1985). Although many appreciate a reward for doing some amount of work, these rewards can make the activity less likely to occur if there is no outside reward. There is an extrinsic reward for graduate school in that earning potential increases if the graduate degree is earned. Graduate students do need a high amount of intrinsic motivation to make it through graduate school. The rewards of graduate school take years to obtain and delay discounting can take effect. Delay discounting is when an individual would rather take a smaller earlier reward such as going to a party than a larger later reward such as working hard to become a respectable psychologist in order to get a career (Green & Meyerson, 2004). Graduate students have to be able to forego the smaller earlier rewards and focus on obtaining the larger later rewards. The intrinsic motivation needs to be higher than the extrinsic, but having a small amount of extrinsic motivation is beneficial (Wiersma, 1992).

Unconscious Factors

Graduate school does in fact seem to show distinct personality types. When looking at the Five Factor model (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism; McCrae & Costa, 1987), graduate students are typically high in Openness to new experiences. This is beneficial because students do not need to shut themselves out of new experiences or else they will gain no new knowledge. Conscientiousness is another trait in which graduate students tend to rank highly. This is because graduate students need to be deliberate, dependable, and cautious with their work. Sloppy work will get them nowhere in their field. Graduate students tend to be higher in extraversion, but introversion is not always uncommon. Extraversion is helpful in joining collaborative efforts and networking for future jobs. Introverts may spend less time with large groups, but more time focusing on their particular area and not spread themselves too thin. Agreeableness is beneficial to graduate students because they need to be able to work with other students and their advisors. Being disagreeable may lead to others not wishing to work with them. Low Neuroticism allows graduate students to keep calm and not let stress affect their work.

Motivational Costs

So, for many individuals, what graduate school really comes down are the motivational costs. Response costs, time costs, physical energy costs, psychological energy costs, and opportunity costs need to be examined (Deckers, 2010). Response costs are the number of responses required to get through graduate school. This is a very large number of keystrokes, letters written, and so forth when dealing with graduate school. Time costs for those seeking a masters’ degree is roughly two to three years. Those seeking a doctorate will spend approximately four to six years in graduate school. This cuts into some opportunities. Opportunity costs are the activities that individuals give up in order to go to graduate school. Some may hold off on starting a family for graduate school. Others may refrain from immediately joining the workforce for graduate school. Physical energy cost is the amount of energy exerted or number of calories burned, which is not as high of a number for graduate school since most activities are less physically demanding. Psychological energy cost is the ability to keep on task, not fall victim to temptation, and other self-control measures. Graduate school tests psychological energy because many students are tempted to quit and find careers that provide less stress. Graduate school is a very long and stressful ordeal.

As we can see, graduate school is made up of several types of factors including intrinsic, extrinsic, and even unconscious motivators. Although it is only one phase to achieving an overall goal, it is a major step that helps us to stay committed to that goal. It is not always easy and can be quite challenging, however that challenge can be a fun and exciting experience. Stress is heavily involved and coping mechanisms are a must. If you decide to continue your education into graduate school, you need to be a highly motivated individual and not be afraid to face the possibility of failure.


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Corresponding author: Jody A. Thompson, Department of Social Sciences, University of South Carolina Beaufort, One University Boulevard, Bluffton, SC 29910. E-mail: T: (843) 208-8175.

Jody Thompson, PhD, assistant professor of psychology, is a new faculty member at the University of South Carolina Beaufort (USCB). Dr. Thompson went to the University of Alabama for his undergraduate degree, Jacksonville State University for his master’s, and recently earned his PhD in applied experimental psychology from Central Michigan University in 2016. He joined the USCB Department of Social Sciences in August 2016. He teaches courses in social psychology, consumer psychology, cognitive psychology, learning and memory, and many others. In addition to teaching, Dr. Thompson conducts research on influence, persuasion, as well as brand priming. Dr. Thompson has been assisting with the USCB Psychology Club and Psi Chi Honor Society since he joined USCB.

Carey Fitzgerald, PhD, is an assistant professor of psychology at USCB. Dr. Fitzgerald earned his PhD in applied experimental psychology from Central Michigan University in 2011, and joined the USCB Department of Social Sciences in August 2014. He teaches courses in research methods, social psychology, personality, community psychology, and many others. In addition to teaching, Dr. Fitzgerald conducts research on the social and biological influences of prosocial behavior and aggression. Dr. Fitzgerald has also recently begun engaging in important community research to further understand Beaufort County (SC) residents’ quality of life in five key areas: social well-being, health and wellness, education, economic development, and the quality of the natural environment. He is also researching local residents’ perceptions of tourism in Beaufort County. Dr. Fitzgerald has served as the faculty advisor to the USCB Psychology Club since 2014. He is also the founder of USCBs chapter of Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology, which was formed in 2015. He and Dr. Thompson are both alumni of Central Michigan University’s doctoral program in applied experimental psychology and have coauthored a number of professional publications and presentations together.

Copyright 2017 (Vol. 22, Iss. 1) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

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