A Year Can Change A Lot: Part 2

by Angela (Oh She Glows) on September 24, 2009

Missed Part 1?

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.


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{ 40 comments… read them below or add one }

Megzz @ Megzz Wins At Life September 24, 2009 at 12:40 pm

I am loving this Angela!! RIght now I am struggling a little bit and seeing all the obstacles you faced and overcame means so much to me! Thank you!!


Sarah @ The Foodie Diaries September 24, 2009 at 12:42 pm

I’m a firm believer in not accepting any offer you get. I think it takes a lot of courage to find a way to do what YOU want to do, versus what is being offered to you. I think this is one of the greatest things that has developed in our society, career-wise… the idea that you can create your own job, future, etc. And that you don’t have to fit yourself into any 9-5, or in your case, doctorate-required, mold.


Angela (Oh She Glows) September 24, 2009 at 12:45 pm

I totally agree! Unfortunately sometimes we have to learn the lesson the hard way. I am hoping that I can save others from making my mistakes!


kay (eating machine) September 24, 2009 at 12:47 pm

one of the best things i had in undergrad was one of my professors spending a class talking about what we wanted to do after college. it had nothing to do with the class (feminist thought), but our prof thought it was important and took the time to do it. she talked about what careers were possible from a masters and a phd, funding, not going to school just because you felt like you should, and told us her own experiences as a grad student. it was nice to have someone tell us about what the future holds and be honest and realistic (but not dream crushing)
i wish more profs would stop and talk to their students about things like this, it was one of the most valuable hours from undergrad
(and i now have a masters :-) )


Jessica @ How Sweet It Is September 24, 2009 at 12:47 pm

This is such a great story! I am in such a similar situation right now! Thanks for this.


Ashley September 24, 2009 at 12:49 pm

I am loving this series.

This is exactly what I need to be reading right now.


Angela (Oh She Glows) September 24, 2009 at 12:56 pm

I’m glad you are enjoying- there is much more to tell so stay tuned for Parts 3 and 4 (and possibly 5 and 6!) haha


Shelly September 24, 2009 at 12:57 pm

Yes, my situation was incredibly similar to yours! I’m really glad you are writing this b/c I wish I’d read it prior to grad school- not so much to dissuade me, but to make my expectations more realistic and so I could brace myself for what it would be like! I also had the best undergrad adviser in the world and loved my research then (cosmetic chemistry- so much fun!), and the actual grad school experience (cold and stark indeed!) came as such a shock. Good for you for writing your truth!!


Sarah September 24, 2009 at 1:00 pm

This is awesome! I can’t wait to read more. You have come so far, Angela.


Chloe September 24, 2009 at 1:07 pm

That sounds like a horrible institution. While some places are like that, the academia that I have come across through school and work is NOTHING like that. Maybe it’s becuase I’m in the biological sciences, or in the U.S., or I haven’t experienced a lab or research facility like that in the past 3-4 years.

I’m glad you stuck to your morals, it must have been hard being a student there and sticking up for what you believed in. Hopefully I’ll have better experience with academia in grad school – so far I love working in it!


Katie September 24, 2009 at 1:15 pm

I’m very much enjoying this series, and it has made me appreciate my clinical psych doctoral program even more. It’s easily ranked in the top ten but infamously has disregarded many of the “traditions” many clinical psych programs adhere to, particularly as the field has become more research oriented. We were encouraged to wait a semester before choosing an advisor, and the research our department produces is very student-driven. Our department also houses programs in applied social, cognitive, perceptual brain sciences, and industrial/organizational psychology in addition to our clinical program, and there’s a lot of camaraderie going around our building.

I hope this doesn’t come across as bragging about what our program has and yours apparently did not. Instead, I’m trying to express that I can only imagine how frustrated and sad I would have been in a program similar to yours. And it does make me frustrated and sad to know just how many psych grad programs out there provide similar experiences. I LOVE psychology, and I am passionate about every aspect available to me: research, teaching, clinical work. It saddens me to know that the environments of other programs disparage this.


Angela (Oh She Glows) September 24, 2009 at 1:17 pm

No it doesn’t come across as bragging AT ALL. Trust me, I fully know about the ‘good schools’ out there- and there are many good ones! I always wonder what I would be doing now had I had a GOOD experience, but just think- I bet I wouldn’t be doing this and the bakery that I now love with all my heart. Life works in crazy ways!


AGS September 25, 2009 at 10:26 am

I agree — it’s not bragging, and that is WONDERfUL that you have had a good experience. My graduate work beat me to a pulp, but I was a very happy student just the same. . .


Nikki T September 24, 2009 at 1:26 pm

Bring on Part 3!! (and 4, 5, 6…) :)


Allison (Eat Clean Live Green) September 24, 2009 at 1:31 pm

I’m enjoying this series Angela. It’s interesting to read about your background. :)

That said, I’m feeling like I need to stand up for grad school a little bit. The workload is crazy, and the atmosphere is competitive, but it can also be really enjoyable, if you’re studying something you enjoy.

And I am a little confused about your statement that you’re forced to do research that your supervisor does. Did you not get to pick your supervisor? To me it just seems obvious that you would research in your supervisor’s area of expertise…

I completely agree to go with your gut. That nagging feeling that something doesn’t fit is usually right! And when something does fit, crazy work weeks don’t hurt quite so much (for instance, I bet you work more than 40 hours a week on your bakery, but the key is that you enjoy it :))


Angela (Oh She Glows) September 24, 2009 at 1:41 pm

No I wasn’t given a choice for my supervisor really. Well, I got to chose between two supervisors, which was not a big selection by any means.


Mellissa September 24, 2009 at 1:32 pm

I think a really important thing about this post is how un-prepared for life, grad school, a career you feel after undergrad. It is more about facts and figures and not about the bigger picture.


Eliana September 24, 2009 at 1:38 pm

Angela…You are driving me nuts, I am dying of suspense. ;o) I can’t wait to read part 3.

I have to say, I am very proud of you for putting all of this for us to read. It takes someone very strong and secure of themselves to open up so much to “strangers”.

Thank you!



Kristin - runningsongs.wordpress.com September 24, 2009 at 1:40 pm

This series is really hitting home with me. I can’t wait to read the third part!


Jolene (www.everydayfoodie.ca) September 24, 2009 at 1:41 pm

I love these posts!!! Can’t wait for part 3!!!!


Rose September 24, 2009 at 2:19 pm

This just showed me the big difference between research-based grad programs and otherwise. Being in a Creative Writing program, the competition is there – but it’s very different.

Good post!


Meg September 24, 2009 at 2:36 pm

Angela, I don’t know what to say. I literally had to stop myself from crying in my office after reading this as part 1. This is exactly, exactly, exactly what I am going through at this very moment while I am trying to finish my dissertation for my Ph.D. I have never felt worse about myself in my life than I do right now in this program, and knowing another beautiful and intelligent person had a similar path makes me feel so much more confident that it’s not all in my head! I cannot tell you how often I cry over exactly what you did, how your grips with academia are the same things I tell my husband about at night. I feel the most helpless and hopeless I’ve ever felt in my life, and reading your story makes me think maybe there is hope. I can’t wait for part 3. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.


Morgan (lifeafterbagels) September 24, 2009 at 3:10 pm

Angela – I’m dying to hear the rest of this, thank you for sharing!


Lynna September 24, 2009 at 3:23 pm

I’m also really enjoying reading your story. I like that you are expressing some of the things that other people really don’t tell you. I recently graduated from undergrad and am trying to figure out what direction I want to go in so hearing someone elses story is very helpful and informative.

I’m also interested to hear how you made your career change because that’s something else people often don’t share specific details about.


natalie September 24, 2009 at 3:37 pm

This is so interesting. I’m sure it’s taking a lot of time and effort to write these long pots, but it has been really enjoyable to read. I’m looking forward to part 3!


Jo @ Seeking Healthy Balance September 24, 2009 at 3:44 pm

Thanks so much for sharing these stories with us. I think that understanding the path someone has taken to reach today really helps you to understand them. Looking forward to the next instalments! :)


Deirdre September 24, 2009 at 4:27 pm

I’m really enjoying these last two posts and I can’t wait for the next ones! I definitely believe in following your gut. When I was a senior in college, I thought about going to law school. I took the LSAT, but I didn’t feel like my heart was in it. So I didn’t go to law school and decided to take a job at a law firm instead. Two years later I am still working at that law firm but know now that I definitely DO NOT want to go to law school. I’m so glad I didn’t waste the time and the money of going to law school.I’m just hoping my gut will help me figure out what I want to do next!


emily September 24, 2009 at 5:43 pm

I love this series too!
So many of us can empathise. I often feel like I made the worst school and career choices possible and that there is NO WAY to fix them and that I’m TOO OLD to do anything about it, but I’m slowly changing my negative thoughts.


Angela (Oh She Glows) September 24, 2009 at 6:14 pm

Its never too late!!!


Saima September 24, 2009 at 5:53 pm

Angela, did you go to UFT for grad school? :D i had a friend who admitted that her worst mistake was to go to UFT for health sciences as she wanted to get into med school!! Programs in Canada are so hard to get into….i tried for my masters in SLP in ON and didn’t get in….am now studying in the US!


Angela (Oh She Glows) September 24, 2009 at 6:13 pm

I chose not to reveal where I went just for the privacy of myself and the school.


Nicole September 24, 2009 at 6:45 pm

“We were told that sometimes you need to keep re-running analyses until you get the results you are looking for.”
This blows my mind and kind of infuriates me!!! Shocking!


Alicia September 24, 2009 at 6:47 pm

I’m not an academic but I do work at a university and have a masters degree.
I’ll say that people need to go in with their eyes open as best as they can, but nobody really knows what grad school is about until they get there.
That said, the best advice is to find a single professor whose research you want to be a part of and follow them.
I actually thoroughly enjoy being in an academic environment, but some people find it very isolating. I love being around bright people who are driven and curious, and most of all respectful, but of course I can only speak to my experience.


Elise September 24, 2009 at 10:04 pm

Wow, I can’t tell you enough how much I appreciate and identify with your words on this topic. I am a senior psych major who has become completely disillusioned with the research community thanks to my job working in a professor’s lab. Though it may “work” for some people, I too was appalled by all of the realities you mentioned. Thank you for, among other things, making me feel that I have made the right decision to NOT go to grad school for psych research.


One Gillian Reasons September 24, 2009 at 10:11 pm

Thank you so much for this post. I find myself re-reading your post over and over again, and Im eagerly awaiting to hear the rest of your story. I was reading an article today on leadership, and I think Rachel Maddow says it well: “Humans are ambitious and rational and proud. And we don’t fall in line with people who don’t respect us and who we don’t believe have our best interests at heart. We are willing to follow leaders, but only to the extent that we believe they call on our best, not our worst.”


Heather September 24, 2009 at 10:54 pm

Wow – I really appreciate your honesty! Honestly, the research that you wanted to do is incredibly interesting to me and now I want to read it!


Oxidaisy September 25, 2009 at 2:34 am

I am so sorry that you had to go through this hellish experience! I am currently in a PhD project, and I have one of the problems you (and others, as I read through the comments) had too: I don’t match well with one of my supervisors, it makes me dread going to work and I feel like I’m never working hard enough or good enough. Luckily, most of the time I deal with other people and then it’s pretty much ok. In the Netherlands things are totally different anyway. A Master’s degree is a pretty standard thing to do and usually does not involve applying and all kinds of horrible experiences. As a PhD you actually start working (paid, and the project is made so you can fit it in a regular 40h work week) as a researcher, it just happens that you write a doctorate thesis about you extensive research project. That is also how it feels for me most of the time. I like the research I am doing, but at this point in time I am really focusing on the end product: my PhD. I like doing research a lot, but I am a bit scared too that I may have to become one of those scientists who live and breath their work, working 60 hours a week. I don’t think i’m that ambitious, there are so many other things I love! But I still have some time to figure it all out.
Thanks for being so open about this, not many people are. And I don’t believe that every MSc/PhD student is sailing smoothly through the whole thing.


AGS September 25, 2009 at 10:22 am

Ange —

I’m really surprised no one told you that academia is like this. Of course, it varies quite a bit by school/program — but many programs are very much like what you described (particularly psych). Academia is *tough* and of course whatever is going to get the funding is what will be the focus of research — so, I have to say, no real surprise.

But I’m absolutely shocked that you were given the impression that jeapordizing the integrity of your models was appropriate to achieve the type of “story” you were telling about the data. This is a very serious thing to suggest about an academic program. Data can be finessed — and is — in many studies (because you want to get something to publish), but this was something that your program suggested as appropriate? Or just something that was acknowledged as unwritten rules of the game?


Eri November 24, 2009 at 9:49 am

hey is it ok if i use some quotes from this series on a project that I am doing for career explorations in my college class?


linda April 22, 2010 at 12:47 am

i’m wondering what field of psychology you were in? as i’m guessing it was social psych…? so sad to hear about your experience in grad school!


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