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Hurdles on a track

In the first days of grad school, a lot of students have the feeling that they somehow fooled their school into admitting them and they're never going to match their peers. Psychologist Julie Quimby, PhD, calls it the "imposter syndrome."

"It's really common among high-achieving people: lots of self-doubt, fear with the first challenging experience that they're the only one having trouble, and a genuine sense that they don't belong," says Quimby, who teaches counseling psychology at Towson University in Maryland.

Indeed, first-year students can be overwhelmed with how much they have to learn, says University of Wisconsin-Madison cognitive psychology professor Art Glenberg, PhD.

"They worry whether they're going to measure up to the other students who are very, very bright--especially the advanced students who seem to know so much more," Glenberg says. "You have to keep in mind that you were specifically selected for your intelligence and your skill and with the expectation that you're not going to be at that advanced level right away, but you'll get there."

But just how do students navigate that first year of "getting there?" Professors and advanced students advise first-year students to learn to manage coursework, make the most of adviser and peer relationships, get started on research and take care of themselves.

"I tell my students to not look at grad school as a hurdle to overcome, but an end in itself," Quimby says. "If students are invested in learning and make a point of getting involved in the program, they begin to naturally take on the appropriate professional identity."

Handing coursework

  • Use a divide and conquer approach. The amount of work can be daunting, but it becomes less so when you take it step by step, says counseling psychologist Lewis Schlosser, PhD, who teaches counseling at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. He suggests finding students in your cohort whose academic ability you trust, dividing up some of the readings and taking turns teaching each other the ins and outs of a topic or a new skill.

"People have different personalities and strengths, and if you figure those out and work with them, you can help each other immensely," says Schlosser, who finished his doctorate in 2003.

  • Remember there's more than coursework. Once students hit the graduate level, priorities shift, Glenberg says, particularly for students in research disciplines who are launching themselves into academic careers. "Some students come in with the undergraduate idea that the most important thing is classwork and grades, but the most important thing is getting integrated into your major professor's program and establishing a line of research for yourself," he says.

And for students in counseling and clinical disciplines, the focus should be on the skills you are learning, says Schlosser.

"Students shouldn't be getting all Bs, but for the most part, grades do not matter: It is not going to say 'just barely' on your diploma," he adds. "You're developing a skill set you didn't have before, so there's much more to it than grades."

  • Be open to new ideas. First-year classes will ask you to look at your own biases and open your mind about other cultures, says fourth-year clinical psychology student Ken Liberatore at Alliant International University, Los Angeles.

"I entered grad school very much unaware of some flagrant biases I carried as a member of the dominant culture," Liberatore says. A yearlong multicultural course helped knock some of these biases down and increased his cultural sensitivity, he says.

Also be open to new thoughts on what you want to research, Schlosser says. "You will pick up a lot of information along the way," he says. "It may refocus your research interests for you, or it may send you in a totally different direction."

Connecting with your adviser

  • Read up. Before you get to work with your adviser, make sure you know his or her body of research, Glenberg says. For example, go the library and read a large selection of your adviser's published papers or talk with an upperclassman about your professor's work. It'll get the ball rolling early for collaboration.

  • Develop a relationship. Your goal should be to cultivate a meaningful professional and personal relationship with your adviser, so make sure to spend time with him or her--be it on a research team or just chatting at department functions, Schlosser says. Ideally, not only will you be very engaged with your adviser's research, but the adviser will take a personal interest in your professional development.

Understand an adviser change is possible. Students who want to change their advisers often feel that they're about to commit political suicide, Schlosser says, but changing advisers is common in most psychology programs. Switching makes particular sense when your research or practice interests change and working with a different professor would better suit your new interests. Being aware of your department's politics by querying more advanced students can help you navigate a change without alienating anyone, Schlosser says. For more on advisers and mentors, see the January issue of gradPSYCH.

Getting started with research

Invest the time necessary. Glenberg says doing major research in psychology is more than a full-time commitment. "To be successful in a research institution in a psychology program, you've got to be putting in 60 or 70 hours a week," he says. "You have to make sure that you love your topic because then those hours are a joy."

Second-year personality psychology student Jennifer Sweeton of Stanford University in California has encountered the more-than-full-time commitment Glenberg describes.

"Now I realize success isn't as easy as coming up with good ideas," Sweeton says. "It requires pushing through the mundane tasks, staying up late redoing that Excel spreadsheet you made an entry mistake on, running subjects even when you know that you'll end up not being able to use their data and writing and rewriting that proposal that has been covered in red lines by your adviser."

Make it approachable. For students in counseling and clinical disciplines, getting involved with research may feel daunting, says Schlosser. So, keep it manageable: Take on small responsibilities within a research team to get a feel for the work and, later, consider getting more involved.

Look inward for research ideas. Consider a research topic that you personally care about, Schlosser says. "It gives you a passion for the topic, which will keep you going during the more difficult times in the research process," he says. "And what happens developmentally is eventually the topic becomes interesting in its own right, not just because you had a personal experience with it." That said, don't pick something that hits so close to home you'll be uncomfortable thinking about it everyday, he adds.

Avoid tunnel vision. Choosing one research topic and planning to stick with it through your dissertation may be an attractive idea, but, at least in the beginning, you are better off looking at a broad range of topics, says third-year cognitive psychology student David Havas of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "It's more important to gain a breadth of research experience than it is to design your career," he says. "Consider your first-year research as a time for developing your identity, not as a topic, but as a scientist."

Taking care of yourself

Develop a strong network of friends. Find people both within your program and in the community to spend time with, says second-year counseling psychology student Christine Williams of the University of Akron. "We try to adopt as many nonpsychologists as we can to balance the shop talk," Williams says of her pals. For more on self-care, see the March 2005 issue of gradPSYCH.

Consider therapy. Therapy can help you understand yourself better and manage the stress of the first year, Schlosser says. "It's amazing that counseling and clinical students can be really reluctant to see a therapist," he says. "But that's a mistake. Therapy can be a really beneficial source of support."

Get away. Because there are fewer classes in grad school than in an undergraduate program, there's more flexibility in your schedule, Sweeton says. Use that time to make room for activities that will provide you with an enjoyable outlet for stress. "For me that's sitting on a beach for a week," Schlosser says. Sweeton takes a gymnastics class.

"For others maybe it's getting to yoga once a week. Going to the gym. Sitting down to eat," Schlosser adds. "Life doesn't stop because you're in grad school."