A Gut Decision

May 5, 2024 at 7:29 PM
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A Gut Decision

by Helena Horvat UA’23 and Jim Stellar

An earlier blog post of ours focused on the decision of whether or not to go to graduate school, and if so, what program? My (HH) decision narrowed down to a PsyD and once my interview decisions started coming in, I was faced with another choice; which school? I managed to narrow the list down to Alliant International University in San Diego and The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. I turned to my mentors as I have in the past with other milestone decisions. Everyone seemed to have the same commentary, ‘congratulations, they are both great programs, it is up to you’. The agony of making such a serious life choice lingered until I decided to be honest with myself and follow my gut.

If both of the programs were APA accredited and led by passionate professors, the logic is sound. It came down to how I perceived I would feel while in the program. Research shows that well-being is positively correlated with productivity and efficiency.  The happier you are, the more engaged you will be with your studies. This particular well-being factor, I believe, is composed of two other factors; the faculty and staff support I will get while in the program and my life outside of school. Well-being is especially important in grad school, it seems, as a study shows about one third of graduate students experience anxiety, and this number is even higher for doctoral students.

Getting answers to simple questions from Alliant University such as, “how much will this program cost?” was difficult. I was offered a meeting with a financial advisor, but it was clear that they were in charge of all of their programs and were learning the answers to questions as they were teaching me. The Chicago School, however, sent me a clear itemized list of all costs with a clear, estimated total. This trend of uncertainty with Alliant continued, while The Chicago School made me feel like I was in good, honest hands.

In terms of location, San Diego and Chicago are polar opposites. The warmth of California is enticing, but I felt out of place as a New Yorker. Chicago felt familiar, easy to get around, and I immediately felt like I could see myself living there. While this was a choice of graduate school and not simply a place to move, it was a crucial factor in determining where I will have the most protective factors to keep me from entering the pool of anxious graduate students. Another important aspect of location for my specific program, a PsyD, is that a major part of my learning comes from practicum – a form of experiential learning where I will get to practice assessment and therapy in various settings. Chicago’s racial and socioeconomic diversity was attractive, as I want to feel comfortable working with patients different from me, and have the opportunity to discover the setting and populations I want to center my career around.

Anxiety in graduate students

A cross-over discussion that is both clinical and relevant to my own career development is anxiety.  This discussion also offers the opportunity to go back to the main theme of the blog series which is cognitive-emotional integration in students who are developing a profession at either the undergraduate or graduate level. Again, studies show that ? of grad students experience anxiety and it is greater for doctoral students even though well-being is central to productivity, as also discussed. JS has observed a kind of anxiety in his own PhD students who have to define for themselves in graduate school a line of research that fits with their advisor but yet is also their own and will help them get a job they desire after graduate school.  He also remembers long ago going through this developmental stage himself.

The research on anxiety in doctoral students comes vastly from PhD students in which your success is defined by research publications. The program I (HH) will be starting is a PsyD and this type of program is more focused on practice with a final dissertation. This alleviates the pressure of having to publish research but requires opening up yourself emotionally to all the patients you will be serving as a therapist. While I have some clinical experience, this level of practice will be new to me. I will be learning to balance moving to a new city, academic testing, and providing therapy as a student. This is where my passion for psychology will intrinsically motivate me and my desire to help others will have to be kept within reasonable limits. A common phenomenon for graduate level psychologists is “the fear of doing nothing”. Valery Hazanov describes this well in his novel “The Fear of Doing Nothing: Notes of a Young Therapist”. Students in clinical psychology programs have an unrealistic expectation of being capable of quickly “solving” their patients’ issues with the therapeutic skills they learn. In reality, some of the patients that struggle most will heal very gradually and improve in small ways. In this case, a student is determining their worth by the improvement of their patients which is a bit more sensitive and subjective than the publication of a research article. Grounding oneself in logic during these times will be helpful and supported by the required supervision by your practicum supervisor. This is why the faculty in the graduate school you choose to attend is important, and one of the reasons I choose The Chicago School.

Note: This blog is part of an emerging development in this blog series where we move from undergraduate into graduate school the examination of how cognitive-emotional integration (facts/theory and experience) works to determine a career path. Look for more of that in the future.

Broken heart syndrome – an example of cognitive-emotional integration and vagus nerve function
Preparing for graduation – the ultimate internship?
1 Comment

One Response to “A Gut Decision”

  1. Jasmina says:

    Thank you very much for this excellent article. Not many times we can meet with such deep analysis and good look at all challenges our students meet. I am really glad that Helena and Jim list important factors for making such decisions but also link their ideas with scientific literature, making decision process well balanced both emotionally and rationally.

    Also, this article is an excellent example of how and why scientific literature should be used. If you do not mind I would love to share it to our master students next year.

    Finally, this article, gently but fimly, opens important ethical question of criteria for advancing in science. The time has come that we all, scientists on all continents re-think this old fashion value structure and build new. We need to integrate our contributions to teaching qns applied science to help our communities into criteria for scientific career advancment.

    I thank you very much for this thoughtful article.

    Wish you all the best
    jasmina maric

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