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Posted April 27, 2016

Francesca Falzarano and Christina Rucinski
Applied Developmental Psychology, Fordham University

After years of classes in developmental theory and advanced statistical methods, experience with rigorous research designs, and teaching undergraduates within a university setting, graduate students are sometimes are left wondering what skills they have that will translate to more practical contexts.

This is where practicum comes in. Though it may be dreaded by already over-burdened and tired grad students, practicum diverges from the often obscure and esoteric domain of academia to offer rare opportunities for “real-world” skill-building during graduate school.  

So what is practicum?

Practicum is a required applied experience during the third year of our program. With the help of faculty, each student chooses a non-academic site that is aligned with their research interests. Over the course of the year, we design our own research project from start to finish, with the goal of producing a publishable work; the weekly course meetings provide a forum for discussing project progress and challenges, as well as building our professional development skills.

For one of us, practicum is creating and testing prospective content for a major children’s media organization; for the other, it is researching effective practices for a network of nursing homes with the goal of improving the lives of older adults. At opposite ends of the lifespan, we have each found a niche where our research interests come to life in the real world. And whether we spend our days in the world of preschoolers or elderly patients, practicum offers common benefits to us both.

What do we gain from practicum? Things we didn’t have before.

Exposure to a “nonacademic” career track. “The tenure-track job market in recent years has been likened to a lottery system, a Ponzi scheme, the Hunger Games, and drug gang,” says Karen Kelsky, former tenured professor and current consultant. Only about 10-15% of PhDs go on to become tenure-track professors, despite the fact that this is the career that many grad students envision for themselves and the one our advisors prepare us for most. As advanced graduate students thinking about our futures, we have to face the reality that tenure-track university positions may not be in the cards. As the tenure-track career path becomes more and more elusive, the opportunities afforded by the year-long practicum grow more valuable to doctoral candidates seeking alternatives.

New mentors. Mentors outside of academia, who also have doctorates. Practicum is a win-win—some free labor for the organization, and fantastic mentors for us. They’ve been there; they understand how stressful graduate life can be. They’ve been faced with the academic/non-academic fork in the road and have successfully navigated the latter path. They see different sides of you; different skills or traits that may shine through more than in your typical academic setting. Put the work in at your placement and hopefully it will be appreciated and remembered when the time comes for letters of recommendation and connections on the job market.

The art of research. In graduate school, we learn the hard science of social science research. In practicum, we are exposed to the art. Our practicum mentors are trained in rigorous research methods, but they also know how to translate them into productive work in non-traditional settings. Academia is built on long processes of grant writing, applying for funding, painstaking data collection, meticulous analysis, and perfecting the end product: a publishable academic journal article. In practical settings, timelines can be much tighter, with the need to balance high standards for research with quick turnaround times. For some formative research, results are demanded within weeks or days. These projects may also involve a host of people with varying degrees of appreciation for psychological research—business departments, medical doctors, artists, producers—each with their own perspective and goals. Practicum provides insight into communicating with a greater variety of people around the projects being conducted.

Time away. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. For graduate students who spend hours and hours in the same building and the same offices and classrooms, even one day a week in an alternate setting provides a much-needed change of scenery and of mindset. In academia, it’s easy to access a data set and stare at a computer screen all day. In practicum, each of us have opportunities to see our population of interest up-close, whether that means asking a preschooler’s opinion of a video or administering cognitive assessments to older adults. These small interactions can be a refreshing reminder of why we care about these areas in the first place.

Our practical experiences are the most valuable thing we’ve experienced so far in graduate school, allowing us to meet new people, gain new skills, and giving us more options to find gratifying careers in what seems an increasingly terrifying post-PhD world.

 

Francesca Falzarano is a third-year doctoral student in the Applied Developmental Psychology program at Fordham University in the Bronx, New York. Prior to studying at Fordham, Francesca obtained her bachelors degree in psychology from Manhattan College. Her primary research interests are in successful aging, caregiver well-being, and memory. Follow her on Twitter @f_falzarano

Christina Rucinski is a third-year doctoral student in the Applied Developmental Psychology program at Fordham University in the Bronx, New York. Prior to studying at Fordham, Christina obtained her bachelors degree from Tufts University with a major in psychology and a minor in child development. Her main research interests are in social-emotional learning programs and mindsets in elementary and early childhood education. Follow her on Twitter @CLRucinski