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Greetings fellow grad students (and other readers)! Since this is our first column, we thought we would start by introducing ourselves and some of our ideas for future issues. Our lab mates, Rich and Nash, are just about finished here at Georgia Tech (thatís right, eventually one does have to finish), and so they have elected to pass the pleasure of managing this forum on to us. We are Jim Broadway and Tom Redick, graduate students in the Attention & Working Memory Lab (a.k.a., the Engle Lab). With us, you will get a different mix of perspectives. Jim is almost compulsively irreverent, and old enough not to really care anymore. Tom is a very candid guy, but he plays it pretty straight. Sometimes youíll have to figure out when weíre being facetious.
Jim: I am just a first-year, but I bring a wealth of life-experience, most of which I need to forget. I mean to say, most of my previous knowledge is patently irrelevant, and provides a fair amount of interference to my current learning to become a behavioral scientist. I must be one of the most non-traditional of all non-traditional students in this field, I imagine. I have been to grad school before, but it wasnít like this situation at all. I spent many years training to be a visual artist. I even spent some time practicing art after grad school. Eventually I went back to college and got a whole brand-new Bachelorís degree in psychology with a minor in math. (First tip: Learn as much math as you can before you get to grad school!)
Back in the day, I studied visual perception, attention, memory, categorization, and the production of meaning, emotion, and so on, but it was all in the form of maximally uncontrolled experimentation, just playing around. There isnít much measurement in art, and usually thereís just a single subject. A lot of fun, but what does it get you here? I might as well have studied theology!
So from me you might get some views on what itís like to be a beginner in this adventure, what itís like to try to adapt to it after already learning a lot of other stuff that doesnít really matter any more. If we have any undergraduate readers who are thinking about going to grad school, donít let anything you read here discourage you, we just want to wise you up a little beforehand. So since this is recruitment season, and my first year is winding up, Iíll imagine for a little while that Iím addressing an audience of incoming grad students.
Here are a few nuggets Iíve picked up so far. I heard somewhere that grad school is like trying to get a drink from a fire hydrant. I was also warned that I would feel more confused than ever before in my life. Both characterizations seem apt. Youíll feel stupid and confused most of the time. You will despair at times that you will never ever get ahead of the work. Try to disregard these feelings. Many times while reading papers or listening to talks Iíll start to get discouraged, thinking, ďIíll never know enough to master this topic, there just isnít enough time and thereís too much information!Ē That may be true, but so what? Whatever you manage to learn will be more than you started out with. Keep focused on being curious. Donít worry about what you wonít have time to learn, focus on what you manage to learn in the meantime. I heard that fear is a good motivator, but I prefer being motivated by curiosity. And remember, you know more than you think you do. Always try to answer the easy questions when you can, and donít belittle that accomplishment. I also heard that grad school represents one of the longest continuous periods of behavior-shaping without reinforcement on the planet. That must be true. Do you think itís natural to sit in a chair for hours on end randomizing word lists? How do they get us to do such things? You get very little feedback about how youíre doing, good or bad. If your advisor ever gives you even the slightest bit of praise, believe it and savor it for all itís worth! They donít give that stuff out all the time.
One of the biggest adjustments youíll have to make is kind of a funny one. All the time through undergrad you made a lot of sacrifices and worked hard, with an uncertain and peculiar delayed-gratification motivating you: ďI have to do this to get into grad schoolĒónow you donít have that motivator anymore, because youíre in! Now what? You could try to substitute ďI have to get a good job,Ē but that wonít get your carcass off the rotisserie. Again, my mantra is to try to be curious about a few particular questions. That curiosity about the end results (of an experiment, say) is one of the few things you can draw on to get you through the many tedious little tasks youíll have to perform in grad school and in life generally.
Tom: I am a third-year student, but it seems like just yesterday I was the first-year student in the lab. In contrast to Jimís route to graduate school, I went directly from high school to college to grad school. The journey that began among Indiana cornfields now has me looking out the window at downtown Atlanta. As a college freshman, I wasnít even sure what people were talking about when they mentioned going to grad school, so I have had to learn a lot on the fly. I guess that brings me to my first piece of advice, one that Randy stresses all the time: You will learn as much (or more) working with your fellow graduate students than you will from your advisor.
As Jim mentioned, he will be able to give some perspective on the trials and tribulations of being a newer grad student, while I hope to provide some insight about some of the issues grad students face the longer they are in school. Comments about theses, prelims, dissertations, and hopefully at some point, job interviews, will be some of the numerous topics for which we hope to provide a forum for inquiring minds. If you have any topics that you would especially like to see covered, please contact us at any time.
Well, thatís our spiel for today. In future columns weíd like to present input from the many wise and good people out there working in the field of psychology, whether as grad students, esteemed faculty and researchers, or dedicated practitioners. Responses will be published without names attached; only we carry the onerous burden of attaching our names to our comments. We would like to invite you to contact us by email: Jim at email@example.com or Tom at firstname.lastname@example.org, to give us your insights on the next topic. Here it is:
Since this is recruiting season, you have probably heard a few job talks. Even if you donít have any current openings, most of you have comments about either observing or going through the job interview process. What have you liked and what have you disliked about them? What have you seen that is good to do and what not so good? Again, donít use anybodyís names!