Matters to a Degree

Does your family really understand what being a psychology graduate student is like? Do they know how difficult your research, practicum and courses are? Do they appreciate what writing and defending a dissertation is all about? Or what it's like to prepare for and apply to internship? Do they know how tough it is to get funded for your research, to pay tuition, or just how expensive graduate school can be?

Are they aware that you must complete postdoctoral training and take a national exam before you can independently practice? Are they sensitive to the competitiveness of academic and research jobs, and the demand to publish or perish? Does your family recognize how stressful, yet rewarding and growth-producing, your experience really is?


If you're like most students, your family doesn't always get it-even when they try. It's not that they're unable to listen and empathize, or that they are disinterested in your life. It's usually a matter of lacking personal reference. After all, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, less than 5% of Americans have earned master's degrees and approximately 1% of Americans have earned doctoral degrees. Graduate school is a hard-won achievement, and it's a serious commitment. You are truly among the privileged.

That said, you may be the first in your family to attend graduate school. For some, this can feel isolating, especially as you learn more and your family understands less. Of course, they are often delighted to hear about interesting scientific findings and psychological theories, but you can't actually teach them everything you're learning or fully express the transformational experience of graduate school.

Sometimes you automatically become the family psychologist in spite of explaining that your objectivity is impaired when you're requested to diagnose and treat family problems. What's more, occasionally you're believed to be a therapist even though you're being trained as a social or experimental psychologist!

On the other hand, your family may not appreciate your knowledge when they attempt to educate you by quoting a psychological principle they just read about in the pop-psychology literature. You can try to explain scientific methodology, the peer-review process or the correct description of a theory, but they may become more certain, defensive or just sulk in reaction. At one point or another, these familial roadblocks happen to just about all of us.


While you'll probably never be able to completely explain your graduate experience to family, here are two strategies to consider for lessening the awareness gap and the strains to your valued relationships.

  • Join the psychology community.
    Classmates, advisers, faculty and mentors can become your family in psychology. Establish a peer support group. Join an APAGS discussion list. Share the challenges and joys of everyday academic life with people who know graduate school well. They can usually recognize your accomplishments in ways that your family cannot. Attend conferences and network. Publish your work in department and organization newsletters. Get involved in student leadership at the local, state or national level.

  • Communicate milestones.
    Although your family may not understand the ins and outs of your training, you can still draw strength from them: Odds are that they want to hear about your successes and be there for you. Share a copy of a research proposal, term paper, literature review or other project that you are proud of. Give your family a copy of the department newsletter in which you're pictured. Explain what your comprehensive exams entail and how you are preparing (and call your family when you pass!). Show them your internship application essays to help illustrate why you chose to pursue a career in psychology. Send your family interesting articles from gradPSYCH, the Monitor, psychology journals or other legitimate psychology publications. When you reach an academic goal, explain why your achievement is important and how you feel about it. Be sure to convey self-respect and satisfaction, not arrogance, about your success.

There's no doubt that talking to family about graduate school can be difficult and complicated. But, finding ways—through family or others—to get the recognition, validation and encouragement you deserve is critical. APAGS is part of your psychology community and a place where you belong and are accepted.

Join a discussion of this issue by subscribing to the gradpsychtalk listserv at