Study Professional Psychology
They also find support from others by, for example, forming dissertation groups, and they
in the Pacific Northwest
find mentors to ensure they’re getting the guidance they need.
Grad school success also requires you to be open to criticism and to apply that feedback
to your work, says Shannon Wiltsey Stirman, PhD, a clinical research psychologist at the
Women’s Health Sciences Division of the National Center for PTSD. “Regardless of what
personality traits you might have, if you can’t try to continue to improve, that doesn’t bode
well for your eventual practice or your research career,” she says.
That’s why it’s important to develop a self-regulated learning style, says Barry
Zimmerman, PhD, distinguished professor of educational psychology at the City
University of New York. Self-regulated learning involves setting challenging goals and
figuring out strategies to reach them, implementing your plan and keeping track of its
effectiveness, and then tweaking those strategies based on how successful they are at
getting you closer to your aims. “A strategic approach to learning is one that really focuses
on processes that precede success, rather than the indices of success, such as grades,”
So, for example, a self-regulated approach to a research project starts with setting a
goal that pushes you out of your comfort zone, such as publishing a paper in the first
few years of your program. Next, break the process of achieving that goal into smaller
chunks — perhaps reading a textbook on research design, identifying populations you
might want to work with or meeting with a professor to discuss your design. Zimmerman
suggests keeping a diary for this stage. “Consult it on a regular basis so that the feedback
you take from it has the opportunity to be a source of adaptation,” he says. Finally, reflect
on your progress and decide whether you need to change your strategies.
Above all, Zimmerman adds, be sure to cultivate your curiosity. He suggests finding
topics in a class syllabus that interest you and going beyond the assigned reading, tracking
down books on the subject or looking at the latest research, and discussing the concepts
with your professor.
“Going beyond having an interest and actually searching for additional information is
really important,” he says. n
Faculty interests include:
Neuropsychology, child psychopathology, forensic psychology, health
psychology, organizational behavior, bilingual psychotherapy with Latinos, assessment, behavior therapy,
empirically supported treatments,
integrative approaches, psychotherapy with minorities, and single case
Nikhil Swaminathan is a writer in New York.
*Names changed to protect privacy.
What impedes grad school success?
A personality factor that may inhibit grad school performance is the
Big Five trait of neuroticism. A 2003 study of 145 undergraduate
students at University College London published in the Journal of
Research in Personality found that neurotic students tended to perform worse on exams than non-neurotic peers, likely due to feeling
increased stress from tests.
The downside of neuroticism goes beyond test-taking, says Tomas
Chamorro-Premuzic, PhD, a business psychology professor at University College London. High neuroticism combined with low self-esteem, for instance, can lead students to react poorly to negative
feedback from faculty.
Interestingly, though, other neuroticism combinations may work
well for grad students. “High ambition and high neuroticism can
result in a very high-achieving combination: If you are insecure but
ambitious, you will work extra hard and do even better than if you
are secure and ambitious,” he says.
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