Role Transitions in Graduate School

In interpersonal therapy, one of the focal interpersonal problem areas that the therapy targets is role transitioning. Basically, it’s hard to shift roles, like from being married to being divorced, from being a college student to a college graduate, and the list goes on. I think that based off my very limited experience in graduate school, graduate students in psychology also have to go through shifts in role, often within the same day or even within a 4-hour time span, and I think more attention should be paid to the difficulties inherent to that. Some roles a graduate student may have to shift back and forth between:

  • Student: For the first however many years of graduate school, grad students are still actively taking classes, and overall, you are still learning and being trained over the course of your program
  • Teacher: Grad students also often serve as teaching assistants for undergrad classes, leading reviews, teaching lab or discussion sections, and occasionally teaching their own independent class
  • Researcher: Grad students are expected to be doing quality research, which involves trying to emulate an independent researcher as much as possible, and hopefully acting as a colleague to other researchers
  • Advisee: Grad students often come to a program to work with a specific faculty member, and hopefully can lean on that person for guidance
  • Advisor: Grad students might also advise undergraduate students working on their own independent research projects, or maybe supervise research assistants
  • Therapist: For those students in clinical programs, they are expected to also see clients and deploy therapeutic techniques

This isn’t even an exhaustive list, but you already can anticipate some of the difficulties that may come with role transitions. An obvious example is transitioning between paired roles, such as from student to teacher or from advisee to advisor. There are also different levels of “power” among various roles, different sets of skills required, different expectations, and so on and so forth. In our program, we sometimes reference “putting our different hats on,” but I think that metaphor really doesn’t do justice to these role transitions. These can be hard shifts; you may have to compartmentalize emotions from one role for some time, or you might feel confident in one role but really dread taking up another role.

So what’s the solution? It’d be awfully presumptive of me to know, but I think that mere awareness of role transitions is important. Perhaps even departmental support/advice on making role transitions, even in the form of just a brief workshop or guidelines, would also be helpful. It’s something I hope to monitor in myself over the coming years, and I hope to navigate it successfully.


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