Friday, July 29, 2011

You’re a psychologist, right? What do you mean you don’t see clients?!

Perhaps you, our most interested and involved reader, have taken a look at the “About the Bloggers/Researchers” section of Psych Your Mind (PYM). Here you learned that we’re either doctoral candidates (Amie, Juli, and I) or post doctoral scholars (Michael) in psychology. Like many of my friends and family, you might be confused about what that actually means. For example, when I tell people that I’m a psychologist, they naturally assume that I’m a therapist and see clients. Then, when I try to clarify, and explain that I’m actually a social-personality psychologist, not a clinical psychologist, I’m regularly greeted with a puzzled expression, and the question – “What the heck is that?”

Given that it’s Friday Fun, and you might be looking for a break from our (very) interesting, yet dense, research reviews, I thought I’d take a moment to step back and tell our readers a little more about us at Psych Your Mind.

 What is personality psychology? What is social psychology?
The four of us at PYM are either enrolled in or have graduated from a social-personality psychology PhD program. Social psychology is the scientific study of the way in which people's thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are influenced by the social situation (i.e. other people). Social psychologists study a diverse array of topics from romantic relationships to stigma and prejudice.

As its name suggests, personality psychology is the study of personality – or characteristics of a person that describe consistent patterns of feeling, thinking, and behaving. Personality psychologists study questions like – what are the key dimensions on which personalities differ. Or, what is the biological basis for personality?

In psychology departments these two areas (social and personality psychology) are often placed together because both characteristics of the individual and of the social situation help to determine how people behave. We call this the person by situation interaction.

So if we don’t see clients, what are we being trained to do?
Students in these sub-fields of psychology are typically not trained to be therapists, but rather spend their graduate school careers learning how to conduct research in social and personality psychology. We think of ourselves as researchers or scientists first and foremost. Side note: Graduate students in clinical psychology PhD programs (another sub-field), marriage and family therapy programs, PsyD programs and sometimes social work programs, are typically trained to be therapists. The end goal for most students in social-personality psychology PhD programs is to become a professor at an academic institution and continue to do research and teach undergraduates.

What does our training involve?
In graduate school we develop our own unique program of research - the specific topic we want to understand or question we want to answer. For example, in one of my research programs I study how self-esteem impacts the way in which individuals think about, attend to, experience, and remember positive social feedback from others (see the About the Bloggers/Researchers Section for a summary of Amie, Juli, and Michael’s research).

MANY skills are required to successfully conduct our research. This is why graduate school is so challenging and so long (we usually take 5-7 years). Here are some important things we need to learn:

1. Content – We take many classes on existing social and personality psychology research and theory. Even more than that we devote hours upon hours to reading scholarly journal articles that are relevant to our research programs. We must become experts on our area of interest.
2. Methodology – In order to conduct good research we need to learn research methods. What's the best way to design a study? Should we do survey research or conduct an experiment? Should we counterbalance our conditions? Did we include a proper manipulation check? This might sound like gibberish, but these are essential questions for creating a methodologically sound study. We need to make sure that the question we want answered is properly being assessed.
3. Statistics – After our study has been designed and run, we need to analyze our data. We take extensive classes in statistics and spend a ton of time learning how to analyze our data in various statistical packages such as SPSS, SAS, or R.
4. Writing – To be a good researcher you need to be a good writer. Once we’ve finished a study and know the results we must write them up for publication. This is how research findings get out to the psychology community and the world at large. In order to get published you need to be able to write up those results in a clear and coherent manner.
5. Public Speaking – In addition to writing up our results we must also present them to our colleagues – both in our own psychology departments and at psychology research conferences. We typically have to convey a lot of information in a short amount of time to a huge audience. Not easy.
6. Teaching – Above and beyond conducting our own research, we also have to learn how to be good teachers. Once we’re professors we will be teaching our own personality psychology, social psychology, or even statistics courses. In preparation (and because we’re cheap labor) universities hire their graduate students to serve as teaching assistants. Here at UC-Berkeley, most psychology courses involve a lecture – given by the professor, and a section – taught by the graduate students. Each graduate student assigned to a class typically teaches 3 sections/week – 75 students total.

What’s the difference between a doctoral candidate and a post-doctoral scholar?
Amie, Juli, and I are all doctoral candidates. This means that we are still in graduate school moving toward our PhDs, but haven’t gotten them yet. Interestingly, graduate students can’t call themselves PhD “candidates” until they have passed their qualifying exam – the oral and written examination that occurs in the middle of graduate school. Michael, on the other hand, is a post-doctoral scholar – or post-doc. This means he’s finished graduate school and received his PhD, is continuing to do research at an academic institution but is not yet working as a professor. Completing a post-doc before you start a professorship is a great way to learn more skills, build your CV, and become an even stronger candidate for the most sought after professor positions. Post-docs don’t usually have to teach undergraduates, thus it’s a great time to focus solely on research.

I hope this primer has been helpful in clarifying what we here at PYM really do. If you ever run into a social or personality psychologist, you’ll now know that they likely conduct research but don’t see clients.

Have other questions about what we do? Ask them here!


  1. Sorry to leave an unrelated comment, but I couldn’t find any contact info for you. I’m wondering if you’d be interested in a guest post. Please drop me an e-mail at Thanks!

  2. Thanks. I'm starting a graduate MFT program in Sept and you really clarified a great deal of the confusion surrounding different directions in psychology academia. As I probably already said. This is my new favorite (educational) blog!

  3. Daniel-
    So glad that the post was helpful! Congrats on getting into a MFT program! Not an easy feat.

    I'll email you in a second about guest blogging. Good reminder that we need some contact information up on the blog. Will get to that asap.

    Thank you both for reading!

  4. Very interesting, I'm applying to some graduate programs and am recently enrolled in a Personality Psychology course at Stanford. I came across resiliency and it seems so interesting! Do you know of any researchers looking a physiology and resiliency?

    Thanks for your help! Whenever I tell anyone I have a Bachelors in Science in Psychobiology they ask me to diagnose them at a party or ask if I can give them meds so I hope more people read your blog to see that research is what I want to do with my Ph.D.!

  5. Hi FluffsEnough-
    Resiliency is not my area of expertise (though I will be reviewing a cool paper on this soon). That said, I did a quick search on resilience and physiology. It seems like their is a group in the Netherlands doing research on this (e.g. Oldehinkel, A., Verhulst, F., & Ormel, J. (2008). Low heart-rate: A marker of stress resilience. Biological Psychiatry, 63(12), 1141-1145.). There also seems to be some work being done at Yale on genetic contributions to resilience. Check out Steven Southwick. Other PYM-ers that have more info on this, please chime in.

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  7. The art of mastering maturity and effective interpersonal encounters taught by someone who is a little too familiar with the concept of melodrama. Originally published by The Interrobang.

  8. I’m regularly greeted with a puzzled expression, and the question – “What the heck is that?” master's degree in clinical psychology

  9. i find social psychology and personality psychology are almost same because both deal with behave, thought and thinking. would you please give some more example of differing between them.