not enough to be smart

Think twice about trading a full course load for higher grades

Originally posted December 5, 2011 — My choice of topics to write about today was inspired by a conversation I had with a student during a recent academic advising session. She is a Psychology major, about halfway through her program. She said she hopes to go to graduate school, and she wants to know if her prospects of getting in will be jeopardized if she takes a break from school, next semester.

I could see from her transcripts that she has good grades, but not excellent by any stretch of the imagination. More importantly though, I noticed that since she began her program, she had been taking only 3 courses each semester, rather than the normal full-time course load of 5 courses per semester. She explained that she has difficulty handling a full course load, but she can get good marks if she has a lighter load. It’s not that she has other things going on that compete with school for her time. She doesn’t have a job, or a time-consuming hobby, or anything like that. She just needs to be able to take her time to study and learn, she explained.

She feels she’s been putting everything she can into school, and now she needs a break because she has never really had one. Lately, both she and her family are worried that she will experience burnout or a have breakdown if she doesn’t take an academic break.

To be frank, I think she should take the time off. It’s not worth it to push oneself to the point of exhaustion or exasperation. She should take the break, and come back to complete the program when she feels ready.

But, really, she needs to forget about graduate school in Psychology — not just for now, but also for good. And that would be my advice to her, even if she decides not to take a break from her studies, next semester.

If that seems harsh, let me explain why it is really just realistic for this young person to start making a move to join the workforce, and plan to complete her degree program, on her own terms, and within a time-frame that will enable her to finish with good grades, and without undue stress or anxiety along the way.

In most Psychology graduate programs in North America, an applicant is accepted if, and only if, a faculty member indicates an interest and willingness to supervise the student’s graduate research. Psychology professors supervise graduate students because they need the help of graduate students to accomplish their own research objectives. In most cases, a professor will agree to accept a new graduate student only if he or she believes this applicant is the one who is most likely to benefit the research program over the next few years. Only the most promising applicant will be selected from among those who indicate they want this professor as a graduate supervisor. That is, if the professor chooses anyone at all.

An undergraduate student who is unable to handle a full course load and get solid grades, semester after semester, is unlikely to be able to handle the high demands of graduate studies and research. Professors only want to invite hard-working people who can deal with a full load, all the time, over a period of years — because this is what professors need from their graduate students.

Hopefully, a time will soon come when the student in my story has gainful employment with some sense of job security, and also a bachelor’s degree in Psychology. One might not know exactly when good, long-term employment will actually come along, but in the context of today’s rising unemployment levels and struggling economies, it might be a while. Her best strategy would be to drop graduate school from her long-term plans, and focus on goals that are realistic in light of what she is willing or able to do.

There has been a trend for some years now, at least at my university, of undergraduates enrolled as full-time students taking course loads that are less than completely full. Many students are willing to take an extra semester or two to complete their degree, if it means they can avoid feeling overwhelmed with school work and get good grades along the way. Lightening one’s course load is a sensible way to achieve that goal. But, there might be a high price to pay, later on, especially if one is hoping to proceed to graduate school.

Students often tell me: “I have a job, and I need to work so many hours a week, and I just can’t deal with a full course load.” That’s too bad, because there are a lot of other people out there who also have a job, and who work a similar number of hours each week, and who have a full course load and still get excellent grades in all of their classes. And those who can handle it are not doing something above and beyond normal expectations, either. In fact, taking a full course load in each semester, and getting good grades in every course, is the bare minimum of what is expected of all undergraduate students (except for those who are expressly enrolled on a part-time basis, and those with disabilities that would normally preclude such expectations).

That last point about minimum expectations is an important one, so I’ll repeat it: If all a student does is take a full course load every semester and get good grades, he or she is doing nothing out of the ordinary. Someone who is enrolled in an undergraduate program as a full-time student, but who is taking less than a full course load — whether they began the semester that way or else dropped a course along the way — are doing less than the minimum of what is expected.

Note that the minimum required is far less than the minimum expected. There are no immediate negative consequences for a student who is doing less than expected. As long a student meets or exceeds the minimum requirements in terms of academic performance, the school will happily continue to accept tuition payments. So, most students just continue along until they eventually complete their program of study. Most will attempt to then join the workforce. But, a significant proportion will apply to graduate school, hoping that an advanced degree will bring greater opportunity.

Few, if any, professors are interested in accepting as a new graduate student someone who was an ordinary undergraduate. This means that students who are hoping to go to graduate school need to do more than just take a full course load and get good grades. They need to stand apart from the crowd. There are a lot of ways to accomplish this. For example, one could volunteer to be a professor’s research assistant, or regularly attend symposia or workshops in the field of interest. If a student’s current school has a work-study or co-op program, that might be a good way to get valuable work experience and begin establishing a network within the field.

There are other ways to stand out from the crowd, but that is the topic of another column, so I won’t get into all the options, here. I think you get the point: Most undergraduate college and university students are not exceeding minimum expectations. Even the majority of those who think they will succeed simply by getting excellent grades are not really doing anything special. This is one reason why only a small fraction of college students end up in graduate school. Few are exceptional enough in terms of work-ethic and readiness to make personal sacrifices.

It is simply not enough to be smart: How you come across as a person makes a big difference

One major difference between undergraduate and graduate school is the nature of the interpersonal and work relationships that students have with faculty members, and with student peers. In graduate school, you may need to work closely and cooperatively with others – with other students, or with one or more professors, for example – and your overall success may depend on how good you are at working with others. You will be around certain other students and professors on an almost daily basis, and for a few years. You will likely get to know some of the faculty members well enough to be on a first-name basis with them. Even the ways in which you deal with secretaries and other university staff might be different – probably more friendly – than when you were an undergraduate.

There may be a significant amount of independent work involved in earning a master’s or PhD, but it is not generally possible to avoid certain situations, from time to time, in which good interpersonal skills are essential for success.

In graduate school, you will be part of a special community within your academic department, and how you fare will depend to some extent on how well you get along with others. You will be highly visible much of the time, unlike most undergraduate students who may feel more or less anonymous among the crowd in large classes, without ever having significant contact with any of their professors. In graduate school, certain professors, and other graduate students, might get to know you rather well, and they are likely to develop opinions about your personality and character based on the cumulation of all the interactions they have with you. It is difficult to blend into the background when you are a graduate student, so the social environment of graduate school favors people who are reasonable, likeable, and who communicate well. Admissions committees and other graduate program faculty members want to fill their programs with students who fit this bill.

It is simply not enough to be smart. Unfortunately, this fact is largely unappreciated by the majority of applicants, who pay little or no attention to how they come across as a person to those who will be making decisions about their application. Like it or not, your interpersonal skills will be on display at several different points in the application process. The fate of your application will depend largely on how these skills are perceived.

Most importantly, your chances of being successful in the long-term – even after you get your PhD – will depend, to a significant extent, on whether certain people you meet at graduate school like you, or not. It is a frequent occurrence during most academic careers, for example, to come into professional contact, in any of a number of ways, with one’s former grad-school peers. The other person can sometimes be in a position to either help you with something or not, or they could either put in a good word for you or discredit your character. This kind of situation arises more often than you might expect. For at least a few years after receiving a PhD, people are extremely dependent on positive references from faculty members who knew them when they were in graduate school. Just as you need effective letters of reference from the right people in order to get into graduate school, you will also need those kinds of references when you look for a job, after graduate school. Most employers will be just as interested in your ability to get along with them, and with other employees, as in the specific skills or knowledge you possess.