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Eye on Psi Chi: Summer 2020

Eye on Psi Chi

Summer 2020 | Volume 24 | Number 4

An Honest Look Into the Life of Psychology Graduate Students

Bryant M. Stone, BS; Amanda B. Chamberlain, BA; and Emily M. Bartholomay, MA
Southern Illinois University – Carbondale

After months of suffering through GRE preparation, gathering letters of recommendation, preparing your curriculum vitae, writing your individualized personal statements, and then being rejected by several institutions, your years of hard work finally pay off. You receive the news that you have been accepted! You are overcome with joy, relief, gratitude, and optimism—a combination of powerful emotions you have never felt before in such a manner. You start to think of how bright your future will be and how your friends and family will be so proud of you. You may even be nervously hopeful in anticipation of your newly invited endeavor. However, what many individuals may experience as they continue their journey throughout graduate school is the wonder of what happens to these emotions and why do we think about it so infrequently. As psychology graduate students, it is easy to become caught up in the chaos of our profession and lose track of how hard we worked to get where we are and why we decided to start this journey.

As current psychology graduate students, we often joke about how attending graduate school is a fairly portentous decision. These witticisms seem to be a running joke among many graduate students across the country, spoken with sarcasm and cynicism, but sprinkled with seeds of truth. Those sparring bits of truth mean more than we would like to, or can currently, acknowledge. We could have written this article like many other published articles concerning graduate school—it will be a transformative experience, you will be doing what you love, and you will become an expert. Although those experiences are true and uphold that graduate school is a rewarding path filled with growth, there are sides to graduate school that are often not spoken about and do not get the public recognition that they warrant. In the current article, we hope to provide you with an honest and open discussion of several aspects of pursuing a graduate degree in psychology that are often overlooked.

Coping With Sacrifices

Pursuing a graduate degree in psychology may require making sacrifices, which as you progress further in your field, may become more apparent. Many people in graduate school begin their journey in their late twenties and do not finish until their early or midthirties (Dechant, 2019; Comeau, 2018)—an important stage of development that influences the trajectory of your life. Depending on your program, you will have to dedicate anywhere from 2 to over 7 years obtaining your degree (Hoffer & Welch, 2006). Further, covering the living costs while paying for graduate school can create a financial burden (Wei et al., 2009). Finally, you may spend very little time with your friends, family, and significant others, seeing them only a few times a year if you move away from home, which may negatively impact your functioning (Kapadia, 2015). These sacrifices begin to add up as you continue to pursue your advanced degree.

To cope with these sacrifices, you must first recognize that they are a normal part of the graduate school experience and worthwhile to our ultimate goal. Students eventually come to find strategies to reduce the impact of these sacrifices on their lives. Although sacrifices are inevitable, there is also a degree of flexibility in graduate school. For example, if you have children, it may be possible to schedule work to accommodate your family. If you are pursuing a graduate degree in psychology, then learning or helping others may be some of your values. However, pursuing some value at the cost of your other values (e.g., family or fitness) leads to an unbalanced and less fulfilling lifestyle. We stress that making these sacrifices may not be a choice, however, finding balance with these sacrifices and moving toward all of your values is a choice and a possibility.

Imposter Syndrome and Graduate School Guilt

We would like to elucidate two psychological phenomena that graduate students in psychology may experience. First, after working tirelessly to get into one of the graduate programs, you may find yourself doubting your own abilities and thinking that someone will find out that you are unqualified. This effect is called the imposter syndrome (Langford & Clance, 1993). The imposter syndrome occurs when individuals have difficulty internalizing their successes and often attribute their success to external sources (e.g., the only reason people talked to me at my poster is because they did not want to be rude; Clance & Imes, 1978). This may lead to having thoughts about why the admissions committee accepted you. For instance, “their decision must have been a mistake or a fluke.” Despite contradictory evidence, the fear creeps in that people will find out that you do not actually have the skills or intelligence to keep up with the demands of graduate school in psychology. These anxiety-fueled and self-sabotaging thoughts can be roadblocks that inhibit your ability to actually flourish in graduate school. It is critical that you challenge those thoughts and make efforts to recognize your successes as your own. Do not discount your skills as a student. You may find that you are more qualified than you feel.

Graduate school guilt is the feeling that slowly sneaks up on you after a normal 40- to 60-hour work week when you are out having a casual drink with friends. It is the experience when your mind starts to nag you to call it a night and go home and work on one of your ongoing projects. Graduate students tend to work until they have nothing left to give, potentially sacrificing well-being in the process (Beaumont, Durkin, Hollins-Martin, & Carson, 2016). Graduate school guilt can be difficult to manage because the only temporary remedy seems to be more work, more reading, or more time in the lab. The first step we recommend is that individuals experiencing this phenomenon accept that it is a normal part of the graduate school experience. Some individuals recommend keeping a healthy separation between your identity and your job (Pronovost, & Bienvenu, 2015). This distance may allow you to recognize that your whole world is not your job, and taking breaks should be liberating, not penalizing.

Burnout, Self-Care, and Productivity

Navigating graduate school is a challenging journey. As graduate students, we are pushed to be as productive as possible for future success in obtaining internship, postdoc, and eventual employment. In some cases, this productivity can lead to clinically significant depression symptoms and burnout (Beaumont et al., 2016; Peluso, Carleton, & Asmundson, 2011). In any helping profession, you may have difficulty helping others while you are struggling. Thus, one must vigilantly balance self-care and productivity during tenure in graduate school. Although some students are incredibly productive, they often suffer from overworking, experiencing burnout, and neglecting self-care (Colman et al., 2016). On the other hand, some students prioritize self-care, family life, and relationships, which may improve their productivity (Burton, McCalister, Chen, & Edington, 2005). Thus, being an effective graduate student involves a balancing act that requires constant self-monitoring and introspection.

Self-care is a topic of discussion throughout psychology graduate education and often addressed in introductory courses in graduate training. A recent meta-analysis found that graduate students who engage in regular self-care tend to have better outcomes than those who do not (Colman et al., 2016). However, self-care is not a one-size-fits-all prescription, and what works for one student may not necessarily work for another. Further confusing the implementation of effective self-care is the amount of self-care practice required to produce benefits. Although researchers have not yet found an empirically driven answer, self-monitoring, introspection, and experimentation may be a crucial step in determining how often and for how long you need to practice self-care to recuperate and stave off burnout.

Productivity is another topic prevalent in graduate education. In any one day you may be completing coursework, writing manuscripts, conducting research, engaging in therapy, or grading. Although numerous resources exist that can help boost productivity, similar to self-care, individual differences are paramount in determining which strategies work best for each person (Phillips & Russell, 1994). Identifying when and where you work best are essential to enhance productivity, and more advanced elements may include eliminating distractions and setting boundaries. Again, there is a learning curve regarding these factors at the start of graduate school. For example, setting a specific time of day to check emails or learning which tasks you can complete when mentally fatigued can help graduate students’ complete responsibilities without wasting time and energy. Similar modifications may not be apparent during your first few semesters of graduate school. Productivity in graduate school is important, and prioritizing self-care will make the experience more manageable.

Mental Illness, Suicide, and Seeking Help

Mental illness is very common among graduate students and can have irreparable side effects. Researchers have demonstrated that graduate students experience unusually high levels of anxiety and depression (Evans et al., 2018; Garcia-Williams, Moffitt, & Kaslow, 2014). Regarding suicide, approximately 7% of students had suicidal thoughts, 2% reported making plans, and 10% reported having attempted suicide in their lifetime (Garcia-Williams et al., 2014). Many risk factors for suicide are factors that are inherent to the graduate school process, such as isolation, a high stress environment, disrupted sleep, a poor work-life balance, and other departmental characteristics (La Touche, 2018). The risk for mental health concerns in graduate school students is evident.

Although these statistics and issues may be news to some, many current graduate students are already keenly aware of these issues. So, what do we do about it? Seeking help when distressed in graduate school is crucial and may need to be a part of graduate clinical training (Flowers, 2018). However, there are several barriers graduate students must overcome when seeking help. First, students often do not seek help due to dismissing or minimizing their suffering. Graduate students may be able to mask their struggle on the outside, thereby not appearing as if they need help. The dysfunction manifests in other ways such as falling behind in research, withdrawing socially, or using substances to cope. Additionally, students in the clinical and counseling fields must find resources while navigating potential dual relationships with practicum or internship sites and potential supervisors. Although research is highlighting graduate student mental health concerns, programs are developing resources for students to receive help without having to blur these relationships. Finally, therapy requires time and money. Graduate students are already financially burdened; however, therapy may be an expense that is cheaper in the long run, as mental health issues often slow down progress and lead to additional years of graduate school. Although there are drawbacks and challenges to seeking help, using resources and advocating for your well-being should be emphasized during graduate school.

Remaining Hopeful

It can be easy to focus on the hardships that accompany graduate school in psychology. However, although these programs are challenging, they are designed to set you up for success in whichever career path you decide to follow, whether it be academia, assessment, clinical work, consulting, teaching, or research. Students must learn to trust the process. Whereas it can be difficult at times, the process and all that comes with it will mold you into a knowledgeable and empathic person and psychologist. Graduate school also presents a unique opportunity to challenge yourself, find your boundaries, and hone your sense of identity. It makes you keenly knowledgeable in a profession that has the ability to make a real difference in our world, both on a larger scale and a smaller one. Finally, you will develop invaluable friendships with your colleagues, which will be the support you need to thrive in the program and life outside of it. After all, life still goes on while you are in graduate school. In the end, the sense of accomplishment and resilience through it all will outweigh the trials and struggles of the arduous, yet worthwhile journey.


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Bryant M. Stone is a clinical psychology doctoral student at Southern Illinois University. He has published articles on positive psychological interventions and the importance of positive psychology research, particularly for graduate students. He is interested in how and attention bias modification programs and positive psychological interventions interact and affect the process and outcome of emotion regulation.

Amanda Chamberlain is a clinical psychology doctoral student at Southern Illinois University. Her research and clinical interests include acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), technology-based interventions, psychotic disorders, and anxiety-related disorders. Her master’s thesis project is on the development and validation of a web-based ACT values measure.

Emily Bartholomay is a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at Southern Illinois University. She has published articles on the topics of assessment and intervention of anxiety-related disorders. Her research interests include transdiagnostic factors related to anxiety and depression, assessment of psychopathology, sleep, cognitive mechanisms, and dimensional approaches to studying psychopathology.

Sydney Timmer-Murillo is a doctoral candidate at Marquette University. She earned her MS in clinical psychology at Marquette University in 2017. Her research explores the role of emotion regulation across a range of contexts including outgroup perspective taking, emotionality after trauma exposure, and wellbeing.

Copyright 2020 (Vol. 24, Iss. 4) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

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