Matters to a Degree

With this year's elections soon behind us, you — like me — are probably not sorry to see the end of the constant, repetitive and often negative political ads. Nonetheless, while we are lucky not to be elected officials, the truth is that most classrooms, research labs, internships and workplaces have a political aspect to them.

As a graduate student, you may face difficult departmental politics. We've all heard stories of faculty members fighting a proxy war with a student's dissertation proposal, or advisors discouraging students from collaborating with colleagues they don't like. Then there are politics on a larger level. Many psychological internships, for example, depend on two key sources of federal funding: the Graduate Psychology Education program and the Mental and Behavioral Health and Education Training Grants. These programs offer nearly $8 million of funding for psychology training, including funds for doctoral internships. APA is advocating for more money, but in the current political climate, keeping programs funded at all can be an uphill challenge.

All these situations can have a huge effect on grad students' lives. While you may not be able to persuade warring professors to make friends or earmark funding for more quality internships, you can navigate political minefields and even turn sticky situations to your advantage. For instance, when I was in graduate school, I was able to switch labs from one professor to another, though it took a lot of delicate conversations to keep from stepping on any toes. Here are some tips that I learned during that time and since:

Observe and learn.

It's important to understand your environment. Who gets along and who doesn't? It's easy when it's obvious, but the subtler conflicts are more difficult to discern. Notice how your advisor gets along with other professors in your department or if your dissertation chair frowns when you mention a particular colleague. Sometimes the pause before they speak says volumes more than what they actually say. Also, ask advanced graduate students and staff about potential minefields. But don't believe everything you hear, and be sure not to take sides.

Nurture relationships and develop allies.

It is much easier to climb over an obstacle when you have a hand helping you. Relationships are a key component in negotiating political difficulties. In particular, it is important to have allies who believe in you and have got your back. Allies can help you think over your next steps when facing a problematic advisor, help you practice talking to a difficult colleague and provide constructive criticism when you need it. When I was switching labs, I had two key allies: the director of clinical training and a friend in the lab I planned to switch to. Both helped guide me through the process.

Don't burn bridges.

Psychology is a small world, and it is so important to maintain your relationships. While it might feel good to tell off a colleague, you never know when you'll cross paths again. Maintain professional and cordial relationships, even if you're being treated unfairly. This can be done: Despite a rocky relationship with my master's advisor, I was able to publish my thesis with him after leaving his lab.

These tips are helpful in both personal and systemic issues; APAGS leaders demonstrated this same sort of political acumen through their advocacy for the internship stimulus package, designed to significantly increase the number of APA-accredited internships. This grant-based program will provide up to $3 million over three years to individual programs to defray the costs and barriers associated with seeking accreditation and could lead to more than 500 newly accredited internship positions. APAGS did this by building relationships with key players, including APA's Board of Educational Affairs, the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers and others in the graduate-training community. Together, these groups advocated to APA's Council of Representatives to support this item, which passed by an overwhelming majority.

It may seem daunting, but it is possible to navigate the politics of your department and the profession. Mastering these skills in graduate school can help you when you encounter these challenges in your future jobs.