Grad School vs. Undergrad

By Michelle Lobermeier

During the first few years of my undergraduate degree, graduate school felt like a big question mark. What is graduate school? Why might someone go there? How do you get in? And the biggest, most important question: Is it for me? 

Fast forward a few years and here I am in a graduate research lab working on my dissertation. With some guidance from Dr. Lopez and other wonderful folks at St. Norbert College, I learned that grad school was a feasible option for me and, most importantly, that it was something I wanted to pursue. Before I go any further, let me take a moment to introduce myself. My name is Michelle Lobermeier, and I am a DDM Lab alumni who graduated from SNC in 2019. I’m currently a Clinical Psychology PhD student at Eastern Michigan University and am studying to become a pediatric neuropsychologist. I have absolutely LOVED my grad school experience so far and have found that while grad school is similar in many ways to undergrad, there are also some important differences. In this blog post, I’d like to share some things that are different about graduate school to help demystify it for those of you wondering if it could be in your future. 

The first and most apparent difference that I noticed was the level of focus that students place on their degree. In addition to classes, many undergraduate students play a sport, participate in a music ensemble, have an on campus job, and join multiple clubs. In contrast, graduate students’ schedules are filled with different activities affiliated with their academic programs. I spend my days attending classes, participating in lab meetings, meeting with research participants, conducting therapy and assessments, and attending other clinical meetings. While my schedule is no less busy now than it was during undergrad, I have honed my focus to everything psychology related that is helping me complete my degree. The responsibilities of a graduate student require much more reading and writing than was required in undergrad, meaning that (a) you get to learn a ton of cool stuff about the brain and behavior and (b) you spend a lot of time in the library in front of a computer. Spending so much time immersed exclusively in my field of study has infinitely deepened my knowledge of clinical psychology and is slowly making me feel like I am becoming an expert.  

Another important difference that requires some mental adjustment is that your classes are no longer your priority in graduate school, or at least, in a PhD program. As an undergraduate student, receiving good grades in your classes and obtaining the highest GPA possible is the most important (or maybe the only) thing determining your progress toward your degree. I still take classes as a graduate student, but now I also have research and clinical responsibilities that are program requirements. My future after graduate school depends mostly on my research output and the number of clinical hours I receive. While I still need to maintain a 3.5 GPA or higher, coursework is not my primary focus and will not be a large factor in determining the internship or postdoctoral fellowship placement I obtain. This shifting of priorities takes a little while to get used to, but allows you to find a more even balance between coursework, research, and clinical work.

Finally, the level of independence provided to students and the close working relationships that develop with faculty members set graduate school apart from undergraduate training. As graduate students, we have a great deal of independence in determining our focus of study and the direction of our program of research. In my cohort alone, there are students specializing in eating disorders, concussion protocol, health literacy in older adults, trauma responses in the military population, pediatric anxiety, and developing executive functions throughout childhood. While we are all in the same clinical psychology program, we have the ability to tailor our experiences to what we are most interested in. This independence provides a ton of flexibility, and really allows you to determine the course of your training. It also requires a lot of self-sustained motivation; while your mentor is there to provide guidance in moving you through your program, completing your research milestones and other projects requires each student to set their own pace and take initiative in remaining on their preferred timeline. In my undergraduate training, the small class sizes at SNC were a wonderful asset to allow for more individualized instruction and personal relationships between faculty and students. Moving to graduate school, PhD cohorts are EVEN SMALLER, often consisting of under 10 students, and sometimes as few as 4 or 5. Being part of a smaller group allows students to seek out individualized instruction during classes and provides many opportunities to work closely with faculty members as co-authors on research papers and presentations. 

Overall, undergraduate training provided me with a strong base of knowledge about the entire field of psychology, and graduate school provides me an environment to further specify my interests, become a skilled researcher and clinician, and develop working relationships with professors and supervisors who will one day be my colleagues. There is no doubt that graduate school is a wild ride, but I am loving every minute of it.

If anyone has questions about psychology graduate school in general, or clinical psychology programs more specifically, please don’t hesitate to reach out ( 🙂