Psychology isn't one of those professions that many children dream about going into when they grow up. Ballerina, fireman, astronaut, rock star-psychologist? Just doesn't have the same ring to it. So why are more than 50,000 students in the country enrolled in graduate school psychology programs?
"Most people go into psychology for remarkably personal reasons," says Joseph Campos, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, for nearly four decades. But while students enter the field for widely diverse reasons, what they may have in common is a drive to help people through research, practice or both.
That was the case with Sean Moundas, a fifth-year psychology graduate student at Yeshiva University in New York City. When Moundas was 12 years old, he and his parents went to family therapy, and he found it to be a profoundly positive experience. He said they benefited from having a nonjudgmental place to express their feelings and work on adjusting their own behaviors. When he attended individual therapy as a teenager, he found that it gave him a chance to reflect on his struggles and come up with strategies for dealing with them. Inspired by the potential to spark reflection in others, Moundas enrolled as a psychology undergraduate at Yale University. However, he soon began to wonder if he had made the right decision.
"When I started undergrad, I realized that psychology is predominantly quantitative-research focused and I became a little disheartened," he says, adding that he prefers qualitative approaches.
But soon Moundas found out about the possibility of enrolling in graduate programs where all courses-including the research-based ones-would prepare him to become a therapist. He found such a program at Yeshiva University. Hoping to graduate in 2009, Moundas works part time as a therapist at an adult outpatient clinic. But he remains committed to helping youths, doing outreach work with Yeshiva's counseling center, where he's developed an interest in helping transgender clients-an interest that stems from his own experiences with gender confusion as a child.
While research was a turnoff for Moundas, it's a major attraction for others. Campos was initially drawn to psychology because he was fascinated with philosophical questions of the mind. Psychologists in the '60s were exploring the big questions proposed by such philosophers as Locke, Kant and Hume-What is the mind? How much knowledge is innate?-and Campos wanted a piece of that action.
While earning his PhD in experimental psychology at Cornell University, Campos became interested in how mirrors could be used to explore then-uncharted areas of the mind. As a kid, he'd spent afternoons staring at mirrors, pondering how they could inspire the feeling of depth. Today in his research, Campos regularly employs mirrors in his research on infants' depth perception and how that factors into a fear of heights.
But far from being a modern-day Narcissus, he's using mirrors to answer the big questions, too. Campos is tracking the development of babies' sensorimotor self, or the understanding that sensation and movement are linked. His work is leading to the development of a mobility device that would enable more movement for people with disabilities and would stimulate their spatial cognitive development. Helping people is just a natural consequence of Campos's researchgoals, which both aim for the sky and remain grounded in real-life application.
But what about students who want to combine research and therapy more directly in a clinical setting? Ask Candice Conner, who found a way to balance her therapy and research interests, and found they often complemented each other.
Conner got into psychology to help young people. After earning her master's degree in counseling from the University of North Texas in 1993, Conner started working as a crisis counselor for North Garland High School in Texas. In time, though, she realized her master's education wouldn't be enough to sate her compassion for her students and curiosity about what ailed them.
"As the years passed, I started getting more and more referrals for students with emotional and behavioral issues, and I wanted more knowledge about how to help these students," Conner says. To that end, Conner enrolled in a clinical psychology program at Argosy University-Dallas. Now in her fifth year, Conner says that her research experience has greatly enhanced her abilities as a school counselor.
"Every step of the way, I've been able to use what I'm learning in the program in my daily work," Conner says.
FINDING A PATH
Learn as you go. That's the route David Justin Hardisty has taken. Hardisty, a graduate student in Columbia University's psychology department, joined the field "to help people"-though he wasn't sure exactly how. After finishing a Stanford University undergraduate psychology program, he taught English for a year in Japan, then worked as a freelance Web developer in France for two years.
"But I found that I missed psychology," Hardisty says. So he went back to school. Today, he studies how individuals and groups make decisions about risk, combining behavioral studies with brain scanning.
He still wants to help people-albeit indirectly, through research-but he's decided to forgo his ego. That's the kind of flexibility that Campos likes to see in psychology students. Graduate school is a chance to explore and grow-not to train for a predetermined vocation, he says. "You have to look around in different areas and find what interests you," he says. "Sample, explore and select something that taps [your] creative potential."
And that's what ultimately motivates people to enter psychology: the opportunity to carve out a niche in the mind. Aiming for the grace of ballerinas and the frontier spirit of astronauts, psychologists peer deep into the mysteries behind what makes us tick.