Matters to a Degree

I write this column while in transition to a new position as the incoming head of APAGS. As I pack my boxes and move to Washington, D.C., I've been thinking about the many moves and transitions APAGS members and other psychology students make throughout their careers. In my new role, I hope to help APAGS members identify ways to smooth these transitions.

What to expect

Like a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly, as a psychology graduate student, you face a variety of transitions throughout your career. Common ones include:

  • Becoming a graduate student. The transition to graduate school involves adopting a more participatory role in one's learning, as well as a more personal relationship with faculty, particularly in smaller doctoral programs. As a graduate student, you may also face a significant increase in your academic workload as compared with what you came to expect from your undergraduate courses. The transition may require you to move across town, state or even country. For me, the most difficult part of the transition was moving from Los Angeles to upstate New York, where I attended Binghamton University, the State University of New York.

  • Becoming a professional trainee. As a graduate student, you are likely to take on the roles of teacher, scientist and clinician. In these new roles, students learn to work under supervision and to work more independently. You'll become an expert collaborator, and you'll sharpen your critical thinking and writing skills as you critique projects or clinical situations and pen studies and clinical reports.

  • Becoming an early career psychologist. As you prepare to enter the field, you will apply for predoctoral internships, defend your dissertation, locate appropriate postdoctoral positions and secure your first job. You may feel significant anxiety at this stage—I know I did.

Managing transitions

Luckily, you don't have to face these new roles alone. To handle these transitions, you can:

  • Tap your support networks. Identifying people who can lend a hand or an ear is crucial to any grad student's success, particularly if you've had to move for one of these transitions. Fellow students or interns are an ideal support system, but be sure to maintain relationships with your old friends. Like many of you, I like to use Facebook to keep track of my far-flung friends.

  • Seek out mentors. A trusted and experienced colleague can give you invaluable professional guidance. You may find a mentor from among the ranks of your university's faculty or your supervisors, or you may find one among your program's advanced graduate students. Graduate students can also find invaluable mentors in the wider psychological community, through APAGS and in their community.

  • Manage your anxiety. Even happy transitions can be stressful, so take steps to curb your angst. This may take the form of applying to a few more grad school programs or postdoctoral positions to make yourself feel more confident you'll be accepted somewhere. When I applied to grad school, I reduced my anxiety by completing my applications a week before the deadlines. The move saved me money by not needing to use overnight delivery and allowing me to rest earlier. For more resources on easing your transitions, check out APAGS listservs at—ideal forums for posting questions about transition challenges you're facing. You may also want to read the "Ethnic Minority Survival Guide" and "Succeeding in Practicum: An APAGS Resource Guide," available from APAGS.

As I transition to my new job, I know I will be tapping my support system and many other resources. I wish you luck and success in all your transitions as well.

By Dr. Nabil Hassan El-Ghoroury
Associate Executive Director, APAGS