Career Center

"One Way" signs pointing in opposite directions

Most people go into graduate school thinking it's going to be challenging, but few expect interacting with members of their cohort to be one of the hard parts. In truth, the dynamics that students encounter when they enter a psychology program are often intense and can lead to conflict among peers, says psychologist Craig Shealy, PhD, the program director at James Madison University in Virginia.

"The experience itself often evokes very strong emotional and developmental issues for students that naturally lead to tension between cohort members," he explains.

Problems can arise for myriad reasons in any sort of academic environment, but tensions can be fueled by learning to work with the sensitivities of diverse client populations, understanding the ethical nuances of psychological research and sorting out research authorship and study direction in collaborative projects. On top of that, there's pressure to keep up academically with a group of highly talented and opinionated peers.

Indeed, students sometimes get caught up in competition with each other, says psychologist David Scott Hargrove, PhD, former chair of APA's Committee on Accreditation and psychology professor at the University of Mississippi. Although programs encourage students to be less competitive with each other than they used to be 10 and 20 years ago, he says, "Students sometimes are competitive anyway, and that can get them caught up in problems of one sort or another."


The intensities of competition are further complicated by bringing together students with different backgrounds and different ways of dealing with stressful situations. Diversity, long seen as a plus in any educational environment, teaches students to work together, but there can be growing pains, says psychologist Linda Forrest, PhD, who heads the counseling psychology and human services department at the University of Oregon.

Problems can pop up when, for example, there's a lesbian, gay or bisexual student in a group with a student who is highly religious and personally bothered by homosexuality, Forrest says.

"In that case, it might make sense for a faculty member to lead a discussion about the intersection of sexuality and religious beliefs in an effort to address any potential problems before they create a hostile cohort learning environment," she notes, adding that students should also feel within their rights to ask faculty for something like this.

Relations can be especially hard for students who finds themselves in the minority, says third-year school psychology student Susan D'Esposito. In her program at Texas A&M University, D'Esposito finds herself in that position because most students are from Texas and politically conservative.

"I'm a liberal from New York in a group that's very different from me," she says. "I'm very vocal about my beliefs, and I felt like in discussions of social issues in classes, both sides of the story weren't coming out."

Because she expressed views in conflict with those of her classmates, such as an acceptance of same-sex parenting, D'Esposito says she's been left out of social events and study groups.

To spark positive discussion, she has asked faculty members to incorporate the school's statement of tolerance in classroom discussions. Helpfully, faculty have been supportive, D'Esposito says. But she still feels like she's fighting a daily battle for acceptance.

"I just try to open people's eyes, keep other perspectives considered and maintain a thick skin for myself," she says. "It's the only way to be here without losing my sense of self."

D'Esposito's strategy of tapping faculty members is a wise one, says Forrest. In fact, she says, a little faculty advice can often go a long way-as long as students seek their input early on.

"Sometimes faculty don't learn about these cohort problems until they are pretty painful for students," she says.


One of the healthiest things students can do to keep from feeling isolated or frustrated is share their experiences and thoughts with people outside the program, Hargrove says.

Indeed, he says, graduate students are often in their twenties and thirties, a naturally stressful time of establishing meaningful romantic relationships, living away from parents and siblings, and self-discovery-all factors that may create some vulnerability that can lead to conflict with peers, he adds.

Hargrove suggests considering a concept from psychiatrist Murray Bowen, MD, of Georgetown University Medical Center: differentiation of self. The term means the degree to which individuals are emotionally reactive to the situations and people around them or think their way through problems, as well as the degree to which they are too dependent or too removed from others.

Graduate students should be careful to "differentiate" themselves from the stresses of their program, Hargrove says. For example, when working with colleagues to determine courses of treatment with practicum clients, disagreements can arise. In such situations, it's important to keep the patient's best interest in mind, even if that means admitting your first suggestion was wrong, he says. Keeping differentiated-using your best judgment despite a bruised ego-helps students to evaluate their relationships and function appropriately, Hargrove explains.

For doctoral candidate Julie Ramirez at the Florida Institute of Technology, "functioning appropriately" meant confronting a practicum colleague with whom she disagreed about their joint treatment of a couple. His more conservative views on marriage led to treatment suggestions that Ramirez felt were limiting. After consultation with her supervisor, Ramirez decided to talk to her colleague about his approach to treatment and was surprised to find how receptive he was.

"Overall, I think everyone in my program has learned to operate pretty much the same way, we all pretty much go to the person we have a problem with," she says. "I definitely learned from this situation, both about what was important to me and how to present myself when I disagree with someone. I think we both got something out of it."

Psychology students pursuing careers in research should also consider consulting with faculty and peers when they encounter problems, says Brian Hall, who is finishing his master's degree in experimental research at Cleveland State University in Ohio. When one of his research projects fell through because of a faculty member's leave of absence, Hall worried that other students had already filled all the research slots. Rather than struggle with them, Hall consulted with various faculty members to come up with a way to continue his research.

"I think you can include your chairperson in concerns, go to whomever you need to get guidance," he says. "Ask a senior faculty member, they'll be able to offer you creative ways to pursue your research and keep on track with your learning."


Learning is, after all, what everyone in the program is after, Shealy reminds students. Toward that end, he offers these tips in dealing with stressful cohort relations:

Know yourself.Everyone has biases and sensitivities that may make it difficult for them to work with particular individuals. Try to be aware of what pushes your buttons and strive to work through these issues instead of minimizing or denying them. Remember that self-awareness, self-assessment and self-reflection are hallmarks of competence as professional psychologists.

Consider whether you're part of the problem.Be open to the possibility that you may be contributing to a negative dynamic. It's possible that something that doesn't seem to you to be a problem may be causing difficulties for others. Try to approach differences as healthy ways to learn more about yourself.

Take the high road.Try to give others in your group the benefit of the doubt in conflicts, listen to others' perspectives, be open to principled compromise and avoid passive-aggressive behavior and retaliatory or manipulative acts.

Consult appropriately.Talk with peers you trust as well as training faculty, supervisors or the program director. Sometimes all you'll need to resolve a situation is a different perspective. Friends and family outside your program can keep you grounded too. If conflicts are severe and you are not able to resolve them yourself, faculty you've consulted with may also be able to design and implement specific interventions.

Avoid splitting and triangulation.Do not try to pull faculty or peers into making a case on your behalf against a peer. The more you try to divide your cohort, the bigger the problem will typically become.

Remain grounded in yourself.Stay aware of the heart of your problem instead of getting caught up in the flurry of tension and emotions.

Learn from your dispute.If you are part of a cohort dispute, consider what the experience might teach you about yourself, others and interpersonal processes in general. For example, you may learn about how you work in groups and under stress. Learning from the conflict can help you make sense of, and perhaps avoid, future problems. It will also help you negotiate a wide range of interpersonal relationships throughout your professional career, Shealy adds.

Students should expect to encounter stressful personal and group issues. "The [graduate training] experience itself often evokes very strong emotional and developmental issues for students that naturally lead to tension between cohort members."

Craig Shealy
James Madison University