Traveling all day with a phone that is out of battery gives you a lot of time to think about the preceding and proceeding days. The preceding days were filled with an interview at the University of Minnesota with Dr. Bob Krueger and his colleagues, nights were spent watching The Good Place with my grad student host. The proceeding days will be filled with exams and homework that have been neglected in favor of focusing on interviews and preparation for the next stage of my education.
The next stage of my education definitely involves research, a fact that was cemented in part by the Dietrich Honors Fellowship program. This summer was the first time I got to spend all of my time doing research (whether it was in my lab or on my personal project). I found it really fulfilling to sit down and do the work of preparing my study and manuscript during the summer, and I realized that studying personality was something I wanted to continue.
In order to continue on this path, I applied to PhD programs that would allow me to research personality disorders. In both my personal statement and on the interviews I’ve had for programs, I have talked about my senior project. I’ve talked about the rational, the study design, how I’m paying participants, how I came up with the idea, and every other aspect of my project ad nauseam. This is a good thing, however, considering my whole summer was preparation for just these types of questions. Writing my introduction and methods was just practice for these interviews, where my intellect is judged by my ability to succinctly and intelligently discuss my previous work.
Even though my senior thesis isn’t done yet, I am already flaunting the skills and knowledge that this process has taught me. The study is about to be launched through Qualtrics, and it is just today that I finalized the last details with our representatives at Qualtrics and gave them the go-ahead to launch the survey. While data is being collected, I am going to continue editing my introduction and methods and work on figuring out the syntax needed to run my analyses. Once the data is collected (in a couple weeks time), I will analyze my results and try to understand what they mean in the context of the broader literature on personality and addiction. I can’t wait to see what my contribution can be to the field of personality, both in this senior thesis, and in graduate school.
Back home in North Carolina, the work still continues to prepare for the upcoming school year. I submitted my project for IRB approval three days ago, so that is finally off my plate. But, I am still working away at my introduction and the actual survey I’ll be administering. Being back home, I’m trying to balance both making sure everything is ready for August 27th, and also spending time with my parents and sister (who just got engaged on Friday!). I am chipping away at piloting my study, and each run through is getting me closer and closer to my finalized study. I never realized how time consuming it would be to simply have a completed survey, with all of the complicated logic that my survey requires. This project has also showed me how time consuming a literature review can be! When the topic has been discussed since the ‘70s, it is hard to determine what’s important, who’s papers I should read fully, and most importantly, when I have read enough.
To get ready for the beginning of the school year, I’m finalizing my class schedule with my cross-registered class at Pitt, and determining the steps I have to take in my grad school applications this fall. First, I’m studying for the GRE, which I’m taking in September. I’m also researching clinical psychology grad school programs and professors, so I can have a better idea of whom I would want to work with for my PhD. Still much to do on that front, but I’m excited at the prospect of going into grad school next year! Hopefully my senior project will be an integral part of my application to grad school, and help to demonstrate my research proficiency to potential mentors.
The piece of my project that has been the biggest struggle for me this summer has been my introduction. For psychology research, the introduction is where you lay out all of the background research that motivates your study, the gap that you are filling, all of the work that underlies your hypotheses, and the methodology for the study. The introduction should weave a cohesive and understandable narrative for the psychology researchers that are going to read your paper in the future.
My first introduction draft was a little rough, with not enough explanation on some concepts that I didn’t think warranted attention and not enough of a narrative for my research. Dr. Creswell suggested I go back to the drawing board and re-write my outline: connecting the dots before I sat down to write again.
The same week I was rewriting my introduction, I participated in a three-minute research competition. This competition required me to present on my entire summer research in three minutes to a lay audience. This meant I couldn’t use any shortcuts when explaining my background or methodology. While writing and practicing this presentation, I learned how to concisely explain the reason for my research and its implications, and I understood how to distill my research for anyone to understand.
After the competition, I focused on my introduction once again. And this time, I could use the narrative I used during my presentation to structure my argument and flesh out the research. Being required to look at my research in a different way and tell the story of my research in a different manner ultimately helped me to understand my introduction.
My advice from this experience is to try to look at your research from a different perspective. And sometimes you need to take a step back from one aspect of your work in order to understand it better.
Last summer, I worked at the National Institute of Mental Health, where I researched and programmed a memory and a masked word task for the Noninvasive Neuromodulation Unit. As I programmed my masked word task, I found I needed to know why this task activated the parts of the brain we were interested in, and how to make the task similar to those already used by other researchers. As a result, every day, I would read as much as I could in order to understand the research going into the task I was programming, and that experience helped me to understand the amount of work that goes into even the smallest part of a research project.
Taking on my own research this summer, I knew I had to do the same thing: just read as much as I could every day. I need to understand what personality disorders are, why they are related to nicotine dependence, and how the new dimensional model of personality may play into this relationship. And I want to learn all this in order to understand the relationship between personality disorders and smoking more fully to motivate interventions and preventative measures for nicotine dependence.
The last month has had much more unstructured time and freedom to go about my goals in any way I see fit than last summer, so it took a little adjustment to get used to. What I’ve been finding hardest is how to read everything I need to read without being burnt out by just close reading psychological papers. Here are some tips I’ve gathered throughout this month for being able to work long hours on my project:
- Take breaks when you think you need them.
- Make small, attainable goals for each week. Preferably, have a tangible goal so you have something concrete to show for your work each week.
- Coffeeshops are your friend! Sometimes a change of scenery is all you need.
- Make sure you take time off at night. You can still get everything done without working every second.
- Keep a good to-do list. It feels good to cross things off, and it keeps you focused on what you need to do next.
I have found all this advice from super helpful as I’ve been discovering how to do research full-time.
I’ve always been interested in books. When I was young, my dad would read to me and my sister every day as we ate breakfast before school. A Separate Peace, Lord of the Flies, Tom Sawyer… Later, my stack of books turned to John Grisham and Michael Crichton, as my best friends and I swapped books and discussed our favorite authors. Now, my table is filled with something different. It’s filled with Differentiating Normal and Abnormal Personality, Smoking: Individual Difference, Psychopathology, and Emotion, On the Psychobiology of Personality…
I’m not sure about the specific focus of my senior thesis, but I know that I am going to do an experimental study on nicotine dependence and personality. For my project, I will be working with my research mentor, Dr. Kasey Creswell. I have worked in Dr. Creswell’s behavioral health lab for over two years, and the first population I worked with was heavy smokers. This initial experience is one of the key reasons that I am interested in working with heavy smokers. I am also interested in mental health and personality disorders. Right now, I am planning on looking at the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th Ed.) Section III trait model of personality pathology and how this is related to nicotine dependence. Previous research has shown that nicotine dependence and smoking severity are related to personality disorders as defined by the DSM-4 and DSM-3, but little research exists on the new DSM-5 Section III categorization of personality disorders.
I am still doing my background research to make sure that this is a viable research topic. I know, armed with my pile of books, that I’ll be able to design a great research project and run participants in the fall!