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As we progress from undergraduate to graduate training, and finally to junior faculty member, we are bound to find that our life and responsibilities change markedly. As graduate students, we likely have shared a number of experiences we wish we had been primed for while still in undergrad. We felt that the same should be true for junior faculty members. In an effort to ameliorate common trials and tribulations we will encounter in the next few years, we asked some well-known faculty members for some tips. Specifically, we posed the question: What do you know now that you wish you had known in graduate school? Below, our responders share their thoughts on this question, as well as some general thoughts on graduate school.
Morton Ann Gernsbacher
University of Wisconsin – Madison
I now know that a career in academia fits me like a glove. Sure, the pay isn't always that great, and the hours are long. But I wasn't expecting a neurosurgeon's salary or a part-time job. What I also wasn't expecting was the range of flexibility afforded by a career in academia. Weeks of maniacal focus can oscillate with moments of pensive reflection, and most importantly, I get to choose upon what I am focusing or reflecting. Such freedom is rare outside the hallowed halls. Add to these core attractors the perks of travel (I didn't even own a passport until I became an assistant professor) and a network of colleagues that can be as large or as small as one desires. What a life to get to use one's brain (and often my second favorite organ, my mouth) for making a living. I had no idea how well the career would suit me and how grateful I'd be for the graduate training that got me here.
University of Toronto
Although by the end of graduate school, I pretty much knew the intellectual side of the job (how to read the literature, how to design, effect, analyze and write up an experiment), I knew very little about the pragmatics of scholarly and departmental life: (a) grant proposals -how to write, who to talk with about them, what to make of the reviews; (b) publication process - what to make of reviews and how to respond to criticisms; (c) teaching - what really counts as good teaching and what influences student evaluations; (d) life in a department – getting tenure and promoted; (e) time management and negotiation skills!!!.
University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana
Overall, I received excellent preparation for an academic career from my mentors, Dr. Chris Wickens and Dr. Emanuel Donchin. I was given the opportunity to co-author a multitude of conference proceedings and journal articles (with many revisions ...), assist in the authoring of NIH, NSH and DOD grants, and teach both undergraduate and graduate classes. As a senior graduate student I was also given the opportunity to manage several large projects in which a number of graduate and undergraduate students participated as researchers. However, despite all of these great opportunities and experiences I never really appreciated how many different tasks a professor is required to juggle - research, teaching, and committee work - and how rapidly one must be able to shift among these various tasks. Needless to say, my first year as an Assistant Professor was quite a learning experience in the art and science of multi-tasking.
University of Oregon
I wish I had realized how much pure fun this was all going to be. I would have relaxed more and had an even better time than I did in graduate school. I feared that going east to the University of Michigan would mean I was far behind and had to catch up. It didn't really turn out that way. There was work, but more important turned out to be the very interesting people I met, many of whom were and are leaders in different parts of the field of psychology. The field of psychology was more unified then, at least the University of Michigan, but the discoveries of the last forty years have also made it much more interesting. I hope members of your generation enjoy the same excitement in the field as has been true for my cohort.
In retrospect, ignorance probably was bliss. As a student, I didn't worry about a lot of the things that worry (or should) grad students today. My advice falls into two categories. First, while you're a graduate student: Taking general courses in addition to highly specialized ones is very important for two reasons: First, it will inform your research (surprise!). Someday, you will draw on concepts that were developed in seemingly unrelated fields of psychology and apply them in your own research--most truly distinguished researchers whose names you recognize have done so. Second, you'll be prepared to teach a variety of courses to undergrads should the need arise--and you can't predict the job market. If you're prepared to teach something that is needed by a department and other equally strong applicants aren't, then you'll get the job. What nonspecialty courses to take? All institutions require their majors to take statistics and a research methods course, and many institutions offer service courses (e.g., child development). In addition, you should be able to teach some of the following: cognition and perception, animal learning, social or personality psychology, physiological psychology, or drugs and behavior. A graduate course in history and systems will also give you breadth for teaching, improve your collegiality (faculty members like to be able to talk to a new colleague), and enable you to appreciate your roots as a psychologist. It is also important to have experience supervising undergraduate research, as you will have to do this in all academic settings. Finally, research publications in respected journals are critical to grad students, and presentations at meetings increase your number of professional contacts and provide invaluable experience in discussing and answering question about your work.
Second, after your degree: If you aspire to a faculty position in a major research university, then you should seek a postdoctoral position after grad school. Wherever you apply, whether you are interviewed will depend on your research area because that affects what courses and research opportunities at both the undergraduate and graduate levels you will be expected to offer. During the interview or job talk, you should indicate what line of research you intend to pursue in the future and why (try to think of the Big Picture in terms of what your ultimate goals are--don't just articulate narrow, parametric manipulations of what you've already done). You may be asked, "Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?" At some point, the department chair will ask you what equipment, lab space, and "start-up" funds you will need to set up your research. You must have a ballpark figure in mind. (Your graduate or postdoc mentor should be able to help you with this.) You should inquire whether there is an institutional source of research funds for which you can apply. Smaller schools may offer no start-up funds but may provide a small stipend for travel to meetings--but ask. You should inquire about the basis for awarding tenure--what is expected in terms of research, and whether teaching, research, and "general usefulness" (or whatever the third category might be) are weighted equally. You might be surprised that even smaller schools who offer no research funding will expect new faculty to publish in order to receive tenure--and they can--it's a buyer's market! Almost always, publications "count" toward tenure only for research that is completed since being at that institution; what was published as a grad student or postdoc only predicts future productivity. Finally, at many universities, successful tenure candidates must have a record of external grant funding and a couple of publications a year.
Washington University in St. Louis
I make the analogy of entering graduate school directly from being an undergraduate as like going to live in a foreign country. That's how I felt 35 years ago when I entered the graduate program at Yale. In graduate school, the language is different (specialized jargon that must be deciphered), the faculty are often different (primarily researchers rather than teachers), the expectations for performance are different (research performance in addition to excellence in the classroom), and one's compatriots are different (serious students dedicated to knowledge rather than a huge mix of students in college for various reasons, including mostly having a good time).
Some things I wish I had been explicitly told:
1. Yes, you should do well in your classes, but your real focus should
be on research.
2. Establish a close relationship with a mentor or, better yet, two
(I eventually had two).
3. Take courses from great professors even if they teach something
different from your main interest. Keep an open mind and explore.
4. Publish or perish applies to graduate school, too, if you want to
5. Seize good opportunities and don't say "I'm too busy."
6. Read the journals in your area whenever you have any time and not
just for what is assigned.
University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana
What I wish I had learned in graduate school can be represented both by my own personal experience, as well as by the knowledge I try hardest to impart to my own students. This is to try to keep one part of your attention focused on “the big picture”, which I will define in a moment after I define the “little picture”. The “little picture” which it is very easy for students to see, can be operationally defined by “getting statistical significance from an experiment, (or set of experiments) within the context of a paradigm”. The “big picture” in contrast, is actually two pictures. One big picture is understanding how the experimental results fit into the bigger framework of psychological theory of cause and effect. A single experiment in psychology will never “prove” or “disprove” a theory, but may provide incremental evidence as to the extent to which one theory or another is relatively more powerful in a particular domain. Alternatively, it may provide evidence on the constraints of a given theory, or even its viability in accounting for behavior outside of the laboratory. This brings me to the other “big picture”. This is the relevance of the experimental paradigm, revealing some causal aspect of human behavior or cognition to that aspect that is manifest in real world behavior – either the behavior of the average person, as he or she goes about a daily routine, and/or the behavior of a specialist in some line of work (and often both).
In contrast to these “big pictures”, too often experimental paradigms and “statistically significant” (p<.05) results are seen as ends to themselves, because they lead the students’ advisors to happiness, and because they often lead to publications. But without putting such results in the context of the big picture(s), they may make only limited contributions to theoretical advancement and to applying psychology to make the world a better place.
Having mentioned “p<.05”, I close with a word about statistical significance. My view is that .05 is a somewhat arbitrary point along a continuum, and its value, importance and meaning depend very much on the statistical power of the experimental design, as well as the magnitude of the effect expressed in raw units (like seconds or percent correct). Thus on the one hand, a “non significant” (e.g., .07) effect could be very important indeed, if it is based on a measure that has, of necessity, low power (such as the response of a participant to a single unexpected event, which cannot be replicated in the experimental design because then it would no longer be unexpected). On the other hand, a highly “significant” (p<.05) effect of 10 msec., observed in a highly controlled experiment, with lots of power because of lots of replications were collected, probably has only limited relevance to real world performance, where controls will be absent, and the effect will be swamped by other variables. So here again, my wish is that students understand the “big picture” of what statistics really mean, and not just the little picture of how to determine if a p value exceeds .05.
Next time: In the next edition of Graduate Student Corner, we will address publication issues. In particular, we will try to get some tips from the general editor of major journals that both graduate students and junior faculty can benefit from.
Richard P. Heitz
Georgia Institute of Technology
Please address all comments and suggestions for future articles to Rich Heitz or Nash Unsworth: