Before I begin with the cliffhanger that I left you at, I wanted to add a few things to Part 1.
What they don’t prepare you for as a undergraduate student applying to grad school is what the academia environment is like.
What I am going to say is my experience and I no way intend to claim that all academia environments are like this. It was just my experience, so please keep that in mind and read everything with a grain of salt.
What is academia anyways?
Wikipedia defines it as the community of students and scholars engaged in higher education and research.
Soon after entering my grad program, I became very aware of what the academic environment in my selected program was like. I have spoken to tons of psychology grad students during my education, probably over 100 or more, and many of them shared my experience.
What my professors during my last year of my undergrad did not prepare me for was that academia can be a cold and isolating environment. And I’m not just talking about the windowless, cement office that I had for 2 years.
Sure, they helped prepare us for the GRE’s, the huge application process, supervisor interviews, and scholarship applications, but they didn’t talk about the politics that are involved in academia.
But I would soon find out.
You see, it wasn’t the workload or the pressure to publish that really got to me (although I admit it was intense), it was more the fact that I disagreed with many of the foundations of academia. I was actually ready to do the work (and oh how I did) and I felt confident that I could eventually have my own publishing’s in respected journals.
However, I found that I couldn’t feel passionate about a place that I didn’t fully agree with.
Let me explain.
In my research-oriented program (please note this differs from a clinical psychology program), we quickly learned the following:
1) Doing research that was ‘hot’ or ‘sexy’ (e.g., terms indicating that the research topic is popular or a hot topic in top tier journals) was more important than doing research that you loved.
Of course, no one directly said that, but that was what was implied all the time. We were told to look at the top journals (for example Social-Personality Psychology) and find out what topics were currently getting published. I guess it makes sense if you want to improve your chances of getting published, but it just didn’t jive with me. I had absolutely no interest in the topics that were currently hot at that time. I refused to change what I loved and enjoyed about psychology just to get a publishing when I truly hated the research! But many people did go this route, and guess what they did have a publishing by the end of their 1st year, but I didn’t care. I wasn’t going to sell myself out.
2) There is a Great Wall between the Branches of Psychology. Within any psychology graduate program there are several ‘branches’: Social-Personality, Cognition, Developmental, Clinical, Neuro, etc. These branches are strongly divided.
Often my professors would make snide comments about research going on in a branch like developmental or they would talk down about research that was not ‘hard-core’ experimental.
[Which by the way is quite funny seeing as psychology as a whole is generally laughed at by the sciences for trying to be a hard science. But that is another can of worms.]
We were given the impression that the branch that we were in was the best. I never gave into this type of thinking. In fact, I despised it. I thought it was absolutely ridiculous to ridicule other domains of research just because they were not the same as ours. I knew many professors that would scoff at the idea of doing case studies or field research, but I always thought, so what? Just because you are not manipulating variables does not mean that you are not obtaining valuable information by interviewing someone or watching people in their natural habitat.
I always had the mindset that I loved a variety of types of research and I was not too happy when I was told that there was one BEST way to conduct research. I felt like I couldn’t be true to myself. That really pissed me off.
3) Supervisors can make or break you. In my undergrad program, I had a wonderful supervisor. He was a role model for me and someone I could talk to about all of my worries. He was one of the ‘good ones’ that all the students respected and admired. It is funny because when I got accepted into my chosen school, my undergrad supervisor warned me about the program. He had known people who had not had great experiences in the program and he knew what that school’s academic environment/culture was like.
He warned me, but I told him it was my only option. I wish I had known back then that it wasn’t.
4) Doing Research You Dream of Doing May Not Possible. In my undergrad, I did a lot of research on norms and stereotypes surrounding women. My thesis was on the topic of women’s sexual stereotypes and how women are often looked down upon for being sexual or pursuing sex. My research was quite ground-breaking at the time because it contributed to a small body of research by my supervisor that examined women as initiators of their sexual experiences. My research showed that many women were taking charge of their sex lives and weren’t afraid of it either. I was interested in doing research that broke the mold for women and I dreamed of studying sex role stereotypes for career women. I wanted to study the whole glass ceiling effect.
I was actually lucky with my graduate supervisor because she encouraged me to find a topic that I at least enjoyed. The only problem I soon found out was that you are sort of forced to select your topic that falls under the research topics that your supervisor does. If I selected a topic on the psychology of pets and my supervisor has been researching cancer for 40 years, it doesn’t really make sense. So while there were topics that I really wanted to pursue, I quickly realized that I couldn’t. I found a common ground with my MA thesis and researched sexual harassment in the workplace. It wasn’t my favourite topic, but it was at least something I could see myself doing for my thesis.
That was my cold and stark experience. It was nothing like I imagined it would be. I am not trying to discourage anyone from going to grad school, but I want to say that you must, must, must do your research about the school and program you are applying to. You need to talk to grad students who are currently attending those schools and ask tons of questions about their experiences. I wish I had asked more questions. I was afraid of saying the wrong thing I guess. No one tells you that you need to really research the culture and politics of the school you are applying to. It is so competitive to just get accepted that many students (including myself), didn’t really care.
So the moral of this part of the story is to never just accept any offer that you get. If your gut tells you that something is not a good fit, then it is probably right! If you got one offer, you can probably get another (or 2 or 3) next year that might be a better fit for you.
No, it was not the end of the world that I went to a school that wasn’t a great fit for me. I am very proud of my degree and no one can take it away from me ever. I just wish that I hadn’t accepted the first thing that came into my lap, or better yet, felt like grad school was the only option for me to be successful in life. That is so far from the truth.
I clearly did not get to my bad decision in April 2008, but I promise that will be part 3. I just had to get this off my chest before proceeding. ;)
I feel much better already.