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Getting Ahead of the Curve as a Graduate Student and Beyond

Adam S. Weissman, Ph.D.


Judge Baker Children's Center, Harvard Medical School

Department of Psychology, Harvard University
53 Parker Hill Avenue, Boston, MA 02120-3225, USA
Phone: 617-278-4247/Fax: 617-730-5440

      Graduate school is a pivotal time of personal and professional growth, knowledge acquisition, and opportunity. Many opportunities are created for us by our supervisors and graduate programs; others we carve out for ourselves. This article provides some recommendations and "keys for success" for current graduate students to help get an early edge in cultivating your professional network and identity, and make your mark as an emerging clinical scientist. 

Taking Opportunities: Embracing Challenges and Prioritizing Your Agenda

      Like academia, graduate school is a balancing act; an integration of multi-tasking, self-care, and stress-management skills are essential to a balanced and successful graduate school experience. Many interesting and exciting research/writing projects and clinical training opportunities will be shared and/or promoted by your academic advisors, clinic/research directors, and graduate programs. As a result, one of the most important "keys to graduate student success" is learning to pace yourself and prioritize your agenda, without letting those potentially important and career-shaping opportunities slip by. A number of experiences, including specialized clinical training, grant and award applications, and targeted research/writing projects - albeit time-consuming and anxiety-provoking first time around - may be well worth the investment. Consulting a trusted mentor about which projects and experiences may be most helpful to your future goals may help minimize your anxiety and improve your overall efficiency as a graduate student.

      In general, opportunities tend to inspire and build upon opportunities. For me, the practice of co-authoring a book chapter with my advisor as a 3rd-year graduate student was instrumental in developing my confidence as an academic writer, and has been indispensable in future writing projects, including book editing, grant writing, and manuscript preparation. Equally important to embracing/prioritizing new challenges, however, is your ability to resist the temptation to compare your progress and productivity to fellow students and colleagues. It is helpful to keep in mind that there are many ways to achieve success as a clinical psychologist. Identifying what you are passionate about, staying true to yourself, your values, and your long-term goals, pacing yourself, and finding the path that works best for you are just some of the ingredients for success.

Opportunities to Take

·       Co-author peer-reviewed articles and book chapters.

·       Write a peer review.

·       Write an article for an ABCT SIG newsletter or website.

·       Present your research at graduate school colloquia.

·       Teach a class in an area you hope to pursue.

·       Diversify your clinical portfolio en route to becoming a skilled, well-rounded clinician.

·       Apply for grants and awards to build your CV and fund your research. You've gotta be in it to win it!


Making Opportunities: A Little "Exposure Therapy" Never Hurts

      We all know that new ventures can be intimidating and may require lots of time and initiative first time around. However, sometimes the best way to grow, both personally and professionally, is to be proactive and take risks. One of the most rewarding and effective ways to disseminate your research and make a name for yourself as a graduate student is to present in front of colleagues at graduate school colloquia and professional conferences. Presenting is a great way to get some exposure, while undergoing a little "exposure therapy" of your own. For example, chairing your own symposium in which you present your masters or dissertation research is a great way to forge collaborations with new friends and colleagues and overcome your own performance anxiety in the process. My advice to every graduate student is to practice presenting your research at professional conferences in the form of a talk or symposium, even if it seems daunting at first; and if you are feeling particularly bold, coordinate a panel based on your own area of interest. Get your name out there, and more importantly, get some practice feeling comfortable in front of a crowd. Regardless of where your career is headed, you will most likely be speaking in front of colleagues the rest of your life!

Opportunities to Make

·       Attend/volunteer at professional conferences.

·       Present your research at professional conferences in the form of a talk or symposium.

·       Chair your own panel/symposium.

·       Join 1 or 2 smaller professional groups (e.g., ABCT SIGs).

·       Run for student leadership positions.

·       Reach out to professors whose work interests you.

·       "Pay it forward" by mentoring junior colleagues and graduate students.


Networking 101

      Networking is one of those intangibles you don't learn in the classroom or by working in a research lab. However, it may be equally important (if not more so) than your productivity as a graduate student. There are plenty of smart, well-qualified students with good clinical experience and a pub or two under their belt. But, what sets them apart? Using your people skills in the professional arena and cultivating your collegial network by volunteering, attending, and presenting at professional conferences is an integral part of "getting ahead of the curve." Forging your own collaborations and getting involved in projects requiring multiple collaborators within or across institutions (e.g., symposia, papers, books, correspondence as a SIG student representative), are great ways to build lasting professional relationships and give colleagues a sample of what it is like to work with you. Not only will you find yourself emailing and sharing ideas with some of your favorite researchers, but over time, your name (and contributions) will gradually become recognizable to many more, and new collaborations/opportunities may come your way. Making these important connections and forging strong, lasting, collaborative relationships may especially come in handy when applying for internship, post-doctoral, and faculty positions down the road. At the very least, you will find yourself in a larger circle of friends and colleagues at professional conferences, and in the "virtual world" of academia.


      Don't be afraid to schmooze; it's an important skill in any field - and clinical psychology is no exception. But remember, there is an important distinction between pestering a busy professor about your interest in his/her work following a conference symposium versus meeting someone in a more relaxed, social context - perhaps at the SIG student poster exposition and cocktail party, or if you can bear the sight of your own academic advisor "breaking it down" on the dance floor, maybe even at the ABCT dance! Believe it or not, professors and post-docs do have lives outside of academia and may be lots of fun to get to know on a more personal level if you can catch them in the right atmosphere.

Closing Thoughts

      In summary, if you are willing to put yourself out there, think outside the box, take chances, and show a genuine interest in learning from and getting to know your fellow colleagues - graduate students and beyond - the academic world will become a friendlier and more fulfilling place to be. So, go ahead; dust off that "power" tie or that favorite pair of shoes, attend/volunteer at ABCT or WCBCT, join and become active in one or two smaller professional groups, run for student leadership positions, present your research and coordinate panels, and embrace new and exciting opportunities/challenges as they come your way; and most importantly, be yourself and don't forget to bring your unique personality! 

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