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“Get B’s—stop getting A’s.”
This is the message I give new graduate students. My annual ritual lecture. This lecture is met with doubt from the students. Faculty tend to view this with bemused tolerance. Students have worked long and hard to attain their high GPA and they are appropriately proud. However, the benefits of attending to a GPA are now gone. The payoff for those long hard hours has been achieved, entrance into a quality PhD program. But progression through the PhD program is unlike previous education. Grades are not the indicator of quality work. First, there is little variance in grades in graduate school and the modal grade is often an A. So a high GPA carries little information as most everyone has one. Of course, students can beam regarding the high GPA and brag to their mothers (who no doubt will also be proud). But beyond this, there is little value provided. A PhD program is more than courses. Of course, there are many courses students have to take and a great deal of information that needs comprehension. Each instructor has content that he or she appropriately thinks is crucial. Students have been well socialized to discern what each instructor requires and then to provide this. In essence, a student with a 4.0 GPA is thus someone who is skilled at pleasing various faculty. But graduate school is a time for students to decide their own goals and to rely less on the structure provided by courses. A well-planned education is one where students decide what goals are desirable and then structure their time to attain these goals. Much of this is work outside of classes, working closely with mentors. I urge students to focus less on the courses and more on deciding on and achieving their goals. There a myriad of opportunities in graduate school and these should be seized. While all students who receive a PhD degree have met requisite skills, the quality of the education varies greatly. Those that take initiative and search out opportunities learn much more than those that focus on doing well in courses. My message to new students is simple: “Graduate school is different. Figure out what you wish to gain and then seize opportunities to do so. There are many opportunities there and it is up to you to decide which are best for you and then to diligently seek them out. These opportunities do not generally arise in your courses. Search out mentors to give you wisdom”
All of higher education involves assisting students move from viewing knowledge as a collection of facts and truths to a critical process of evaluating information and creating reasoned arguments. This is especially cogent in graduate school. Having a higher degree does not only indicate that someone knows more in a content domain, but more importantly, that one can evaluate and produce knowledge in that domain. The focus is thus less on facts and data and more on the evaluation of information. This has always been true but especially today with technology providing instant access to a wealth of facts and data. It becomes less important to have data easily retrievable in our memory but more crucial to learn and be able to evaluate and use these data. The goal of graduate school is to stimulate students so that they gain skills in this evaluation process. We focus on teaching students to think critically and use the various sources of data to create a reasoned argument. This creation of an individual skilled in reasoned arguments is the goal of all education but especially graduate education. I see this reasoned scholar as an appropriate model for all content domains. Clearly different areas focus on different data but more importantly, they each have characteristic manners of evaluating such data. The teaching and learning of these content-specific processes is the essence of graduate education. Coursework certainly helps in this process but I see most of this learning coming outside courses.
The goal is to move students from receivers of information to contributors of knowledge. This is a difficult process and not all students embrace this goal. Some view education as a certification and seek to gain facts and a degree. All graduates have demonstrated via coursework and requirements at least a minimum understanding of a field. While this certification model is a common view, it is indicative of a wasted opportunity. Graduate education is a time where one can spend extended time thinking about issues that are important to the individual with others who can help the student focus and learn. Graduate education is an opportunity unrivaled. Nowhere else do students get such extended time to ponder and pursue key issues of importance with mentors working closely with them. Students vary with respect to their desire to seize these opportunities. Those that do, have a quality of learning that far exceeds those that do not. This increased learning occurs outside of class in activities working closely with mentors.
Mentors are the providers of this learning. By working closely with one or more mentors do students learn the subtleties of this reasoning process. Students learn how to think like a scholar but also how this manifests itself in one’s life. Mentors serve as stimuli to prod students to move beyond viewing knowledge as something to be collected and gathered from others, to something that is active and created by oneself. The process of struggling with content together with a mentor is one of the most impactful experiences in life. The mentor serves to help the student approach and engage in difficult processes but also supports the student in this process. I see quality mentorship as the skillful balance of challenge and support. Too much challenge or support results in no learning. The goal is to help students work with complex material. This can obviously be very difficult and threatening in some cases. The mentor’s job is to present material that is just a little out of the grasp of the student such that the student is motivated to struggle with it until it is understood. Too much challenge serves to stymie the student. The mentor thus needs to balance the amount of challenge with an appropriate amount of support. This support can take the form of emotional support for the student but it does not have to be this alone. Support varies by student. Some students find working on a team supportive because they can share experiences while others find this more threatening. A key aspect of mentoring is thus to gain a good understanding of the student to know the unique challenges and supports for each. A common example is structure. Beginning students often require a good deal of structure in the tasks undertaken. This structure provides some support as it details what is to be done. If a task is well laid out for the beginning student, then he or she is more likely to be able to work it though. However, for an advanced student, structure may deter learning as there is not enough challenge to think differently and too much support in the familiar process.
I see my role as mentor as encompassing two components: assisting in goal selection and managing the relationship to attain it. Since graduate education is based on the students deciding where they wish to go, I look to them to determine goals and content. Certainly, I help them focus their goals and refine them, but the specific goals are theirs and my job is to assist them in their attainment. I seek to provide opportunities for students to struggle to attain their goals. During this process, I assign experiences to seek the optimal balance of challenge and support. This means that I am doing very different tasks with different students. With some, my tasks are very structured and we meet regularly to go over small steps in the process. For others, the tasks are less structured and the student is given wider latitude to work on the task and report in only at major transitions. But in all, my goal is to help students struggle content that is a little ahead of where they are. These principles are certainly not new to education (cf., Vygotsky, Piaget, or Sanford). They are cornerstones of many pedagogy models and I find them very useful in my work with graduate students.
My specific area is counseling psychology, a field of applied psychology. Applied psychology is unique in that it is both a training for practice as well as research. The scientist-practitioner is the model I endorse for our graduates. Each graduate should be skilled in applying the scientific approach to practice and also to using practice to enable better research. However, the pragmatics of the employment setting dictates that students must choose one of these two emphases. Students define themselves as primarily clinicians or researchers and they often assume that the education process is different in these two tracks.
I have an extensive history of supervising both clinicians and researchers. While the content is different, I do not see the process of knowledge generation as varying much. In each, the student needs to struggle to understand the subtleties and then work to resolve these. Both involve a good deal of anxiety over being right, correct or appropriate. A key learning task in each is to learn how to separate oneself from one’s behavior and ideas. To understand a client, a therapist needs to step back and look at how the client and therapist interact together in an objective manner. Personal feelings and reactions are key information to help understand how the client operates within the world but only when these are examined from a distance. The same process applies to research. In some ways, research is even more threatening to the self than is clinical practice as it is more public. More people see the result and can evaluate it.
A key point that I highlight in my work with students is that their ideas, feelings, and behavior are not them. They may have “poor” ideas or “inappropriate” feelings but these are not a reflection of their worth as an individual. Only by separating ones feeling and ideas from one’s self-worth can a student learn to examine both feeling and ideas more closely. Many “poor” ideas, then, may prove to be very exciting and accurate. I work with students to prod them to be able to make reasoned arguments in all things professional, be it clinical practice or research.
Graduate education is an exciting time for students. There are a wealth of opportunities and the students that embrace these experience a learning that will form the basis of future thinking. It is a rare opportunity that we grant to a small number of students and I am honored to be a part of it.