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TIP-TOPics: Making the Transition: Insight From Second-Year Graduate Students

Chantale N. Wilson and Aaron J. Kraus
The University of Akron

As second-year graduate students, we have recently transitioned from undergraduate to graduate education and experienced the “surprise and sensemaking” (see classic article by M. Louis, 1980) this change brings. Indeed, many TIP readers may fondly remember their own feelings of excitement and eagerness as they moved from undergraduate to graduate status, and also the apprehension, uncertainty, and trepidation associated with the transition. Regardless of whether one has had several years since picking up a college textbook or continues directly from an undergraduate degree, entering a graduate program involves a range of adjustments, changes, and challenges. This installment of TIP-TOPics will elucidate what we and our peers found to be major issues and changes a first-year graduate student encounters, relate how the I-O program at the University of Akron (UA) addresses these issues, and offer suggestions to help facilitate a smooth and fluid transition process.1 We also address how aspects of the UA model might transfer to other academic and applied situations.

Changing Emphasis in the Classroom

Life as a first-year graduate student is filled with new relationships, experiences, goals, and expectations. For example, as undergraduates we have experienced up to 17 years of formal educational settings that emphasize the importance of achieving high grades. Those grades have signaled our learning of knowledge and skills, our standing relative to other students, and have, in part, helped us to gain entry to graduate school. This emphasis is soon to change, however. Those graduates who will be most desired by employers have professional expertise and ethics, research productivity, applied experiences, teaching prowess, and perhaps some degree of social acumen, but not necessarily a 4.0 grade point average in their graduate studies. This shift in focus changes the graduate classroom dynamic, where mastering content and comprehension now predominate over memorization, and also makes engaging in nonclassroom-based learning activities critical. Potential employers will forgive an A- in Performance Appraisal if the applicant successfully designed a performance appraisal system during an internship, or a B+ in Training if the applicant published a new model for facilitating behavioral change in an organizational setting. Grades and classroom performance are only one component of graduate training, which also emphasizes research, applied experience, and teaching.

The transition from undergraduate to graduate education also creates a new interpersonal dynamic with peers. Sharing classes with an intimate group of similar high-achieving individuals can cultivate a sense of motivation and enthusiasm but also may lead to comparisons of ability and feelings of competition when a graduate student defines his or her goals primarily in terms of relative performance. The resulting emotions and comparisons can be detrimental to one’s self-efficacy and may lead to hesitation in asking for help when needed. Yet, such challenges can also stimulate critical thinking, innovation, and higher levels of learning when one’s peers demonstrate that high standards are achievable. When it comes to setting goals for future success in graduate school and beyond, a learning-goal orientation places individuals on a better path for success with a more optimistic and persisting attitude than a performance-goal orientation  (VandeWalle, 1996; VandeWalle, Brown, Cron, & Slocum, 1999). Individuals with learning-goal orientations strive to develop and become accomplished in and generalize new skills to different situations, whereas performance-goal oriented individuals focus on displaying competence to others by seeking positive, and avoiding negative, feedback about an outcome. Individuals with a strong learning-goal orientation are better at mitigating negative emotions associated with goal setting and can respond more adaptively to adverse events than performance-oriented individuals (Cron, Slocum, VandeWalle, & Fu, 2005). To promote learning-goal orientation in graduate students, UA embraces a model of collaboration. We feel reducing competition encourages a learning-goal orientation among graduate students; therefore, sharing diverse knowledge, skills, and perspectives amongst one another helps develop well-rounded I-O scientist/practitioners who can adapt to different environments.

Expectations of Graduate Students

Graduate students are held to high standards, and rightfully so. Professors and advisors expect graduate students to develop an extensive set of knowledge, skills, and abilities, regardless of their previous backgrounds. At times, acquiring these expected competencies will seem like a challenge, but successful graduate students will consider this an opportunity not only to learn specific skills but also to acquire the metaskill of learning independently. The ability to learn independently and continue to improve skills is critical for both scientist and practitioners of I-O psychology, so developing this capacity early in graduate school contributes to success in graduate school and later professional development. 

Explaining Your “Profession” to Others

Parents, friends, acquaintances, and others usually understand the nature of one’s undergraduate pursuits and interests, but graduate students soon find it is more challenging to describe the purpose and scope of graduate school and the field of I-O psychology to others. In a previous TIP-TOPics article, Thoroughgood (2010) argues the importance of developing and mastering a “2-minute elevator speech,” as well as strategies to break down communication barriers faced when describing the highly specialized field of I-O psychology. Beyond the task of explaining what I-O psychology is, one may also need to explain to college friends who have now entered the working world that graduate school is, in fact, a job! Graduate students may not be able to share stories of a “9 to 5” day or earning a sizeable paycheck with old high school or college friends, and this disconnect may create unsettling feelings and reemphasize the need for that impressive “2-minute elevator speech.”

When faced with the disconnect between our own graduate student experiences and that of our peers who have already entered the working world, with its increase in dollars and status, it is helpful to remember that one day we too will enter the professional world. Furthermore, we will have excellent training that allows us to have a real impact on a continuously evolving workforce facing challenging problems that affect people’s lives as well as national and international economies. We hope the individually targeted thoughts and strategies just presented are helpful to other graduate students making the transition from being undergraduates. In the next section we describe potential types of support that are more collective and institutionalized.

How Akron Smoothes the Transition Process

The process of self-discovery and identifying one’s purpose and goals as a graduate student is facilitated by the autonomous nature of a graduate program. Graduate programs embrace students who are proactive, opportunistic, and highly ambitious. The most successful graduate students surpass the basic requirements for coursework and seize additional opportunities. At UA, graduate students are encouraged to find unique and relevant opportunities to gain knowledge and experience beyond the classroom. Those opportunities range from applied projects coordinated through the department’s in-house consulting center (the Center for Organizational Research, or COR), developing research proposals from class term papers into publishable studies, interning at companies in the greater Akron/Cleveland area, and even volunteering I-O consulting services.

Many of these practical skills exercised externally originate in the classroom. UA’s collaborative model stresses cooperation and teamwork through the assignment of multiple group projects, the implementation of study groups for quantitative methods courses, and engagement in applied team projects. After all, a supportive, team-based workforce can increase both productivity and satisfaction (Campion & Higgs, 1995). Consequently, frequent collaboration is visible throughout UA’s I-O psychology department. Group projects are required throughout the curriculum. Dr. Dennis Doverspike’s class on personnel selection is no exception. As part of the course requirements, student teams develop requests for proposals, conduct adverse impact analyses, and create mock selection systems. These activities provide practical experience and help produce graduates who are professional, adaptive, and astute scientist/practitioners. UA’s culture embraces a supportive and collaborative nature, consistent with findings that supportive teams and organizations tend to have higher levels of creativity and satisfaction (e.g., Pirola-Merlo & Mann, 2004).

UA helps to ease the transition of first-year graduate students through a socialization process congruent with the department culture. The I-O psychology program is cohesive and supportive, recognizing the challenges faced by first-year graduate students and endeavoring to reduce them. Students are encouraged to work through issues and adversity together, both as a cohort and an entire program. Relationships developed among first-year students, mentors, officemates, and faculty members provide incoming students with both academic and social guidance. These relationships often lead to collaboration on research teams, applied experiences, and extracurricular activities. Furthermore, the close-knit culture encourages an “open-door policy” in which students feel comfortable walking into a fellow student or faculty member’s office to freely discuss any issues or concerns they may be having.

As an example of actions taken to build student–faculty relationships, Dr. Andrea Snell refers to UA graduate students as “junior faculty members” and treats them as such. Another way that UA helps forge faculty–student relationship bonds is by sponsoring joint informal activities that take place outside of the department such as potluck dinners, meeting for happy hour, intramural flag football, or putting together a faculty–student Akron Marathon relay team.

In particular, faculty members expect graduate students to direct their own efforts, ask pertinent questions, and seek frequent feedback from their advisors. Developing strong, high-quality advisor–advisee relationships can lead to beneficial outcomes such as career development and increased productivity in the mentee (Allen, Shockley, & Poteat, 2010). For many students, advisors not only provide the obvious opportunities for professional experience but are a force for diversifying those experiences by pushing students to explore multiple research interests and challenging them to think creatively as they develop conceptual, methodological, and analytical approaches for shared projects.

How the UA Way Translates to Diverse Settings

Readers considering how to transfer aspects of the UA model and culture to their own academic or applied contexts may find that providing employees with autonomy and personal control over information and decisions at work is a good place to start. Employee perceptions of personal control positively relate to well-being and negatively relate to perceived workplace stressors (Skinner, 1996; Spector, 2002). Likewise, employee perceptions of organizational support for development and perceived career opportunities are significant predictors of high job performance and lower turnover (Kraimer, Seibert, Wayne, Liden, & Bravo, 2010). These and other works suggest both the institution and students (or organization and employees) mutually benefit from fostering an environment of support, autonomy, and encouragement to seek opportunities for development.

A strong network of open communication in an academic or work institution can encourage students and employees to strive for improvement, particularly when they are newcomers and face uncertainty. Finding the right mix of individual autonomy and cooperative activities can be difficult, but a balance is key for helping students or employees to succeed. The use of feedback systems and the promotion of a supportive feedback environment in organizations may be effective in encouraging open communication and understanding for individuals going through transitions. Organizations with strong feedback environments continuously receive and solicit high-quality feedback from various sources (London & Smither, 2002). This is demonstrated at UA through the constant formal and informal feedback exchanged among students, faculty, and peers. The encouragement of such processes can give individuals a sense of competence, personal control, and intrinsic motivation to perform, while also leading to greater role clarity and understanding of the expectations for performance (Ilgen, Fisher, & Taylor, 1979). In addition, a strong feedback culture can promote more satisfied, committed  individuals who see feedback as valuable to successful performance in the organization (Linderbaum & Levy, 2010; London & Smither, 2002), which is seen in the development of our own first-year students. Providing such outlets for consistent communication and improvements in understanding can help smooth transition periods filled with ambiguity for both the individual and organization and lead to increased synergy.

In summary, the transitions a first-year graduate student experiences mark an exciting and challenging rite of passage for aspiring I-O psychologists. Having recently completed this transition, we are thankful for the supportive environment created by peers and faculty, appreciative of the opportunities and feedback from which we have learned, and grateful for the collaborative culture that prepares us to be effective scientists and practitioners. It is important to build and maintain strong, supportive relationships, whether it is between first-year students and other graduate students, an advisor and advisee, or faculty members and students. First-year students should be proactive in facilitating this socialization process by developing these relationships early in their graduate careers, embracing a learning-goal orientation, and seeking unique opportunities for growth outside the classroom. Intertwining these suggestions with a collaborative culture, throughout academic and nonacademic settings, supports a strong, cohesive, and productive department. Although every program has their own way of easing the first- year transition, the model here at UA has been successful and could be extended to other programs and applied settings to help newcomer transitions. Applying these methods in the midst of novelty and change can have short and long-term benefits for the development and achievement of individuals and organizations alike.

The next edition of TIP-TOPics will address the work–life balance graduate students face. At UA, students are involved in many activities beyond coursework. The next commentary addresses stress and time management in graduate school and considers how to maximize the amount of time a graduate student can spend on other areas of life beyond academics in order to obtain an appropriate balance. If you have any comments, suggestions, or ideas you would like to share, feel free to e-mail our team at akrontiptopics@gmail.com.

Aaron Kraus is a second year MA/PhD student who joined the I-O psychology program at the University of Akron after receiving his BA in psychology from Western New England College, in Springfield, MA. His research interests include attitudes and behaviors of younger and older job seekers, and social networks in personnel selection.

Chantale Wilson is a second year MA/PhD student in the I-O psychology program at the University of Akron. She received her BA in business, psychology, and Spanish from Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. Being born and raised in Singapore has led her main research interests to include global I-O and cross-cultural topics, as well as feedback, performance appraisal, training, and work–family balance.


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