An Interview with Dorothy Espelage
“Many people want to practice psychology and have a personal life as well. For students who want a family, I recommend becoming a social worker, a clinical psychologist or a counselor. Those jobs offer regular work schedules with weekends off, and they allow for more personal time. Typically, people who pursue those careers need to earn a masters degree in clinical psychology or counseling.”
Dorothy Espelage is a Professor of Educational Psychology at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign with a specialization in counseling psychology. She earned a PhD in Counseling Psychology from Indiana University in 1996. Prior to her doctoral program, she earned a Master of Science in Clinical Psychology from Radford University and a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University.
Dorothy’s research is housed by the educational psychology department within the child development division. Her current research is focused on studying children within the context of school. Specifically, she studies bullying, peer victimization, dating violence and sexual harassment in schools.
In your own words, what is educational psychology?
Educational psychology is a discipline that encompasses many types of psychology. As long as a given psychologist is focused on applying psychological principles to the context of family, schools and community, he or she may be considered to be working under the educational psychology umbrella. For example, the educational psychology department at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where I teach, contains cognitive, child and counseling psychologists.
What classes do you teach in educational psychology?
I am not currently teaching, since I am operating on a $3 million research budget. But, over the years, I have taught a handful of classes, including research methodologies, classroom management, psychology in the school setting and theories of psychotherapy.
I am predominantly known for teaching a class called Theories of Psychotherapy, in which undergraduate psychology majors discuss the core beliefs that psychologists hold about human nature. We discuss the assumptions that past and contemporary psychologists have made about human nature and how to bring about change in therapy.
How long have you been a professor of educational psychology?
I have been a psychology professor for about 15 years now. This is the only academic position I have held since I earned my PhD and finished my doctoral internship in 1997.
If a student said to you, “I am interested in studying educational psychology,” what would your response be?
As a psychology professor, I am approached frequently by students for that reason, and I always respond by asking them, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I try to get them to define what they envision as their career so that I can direct them toward a realistic career path, because psychological practice and research are not for everyone. If a student is set on pursuing psychology, I reinforce the need to have their ducks in a row by preparing adequately for graduate school. That means they need to score competitively on the GRE and participate in research early on in their studies.
What personality traits do you think would help someone succeed as an educational psychologist and what traits would hinder success?
Among the many important personality traits for a psychologist of any kind to have are perseverance and mental toughness. You have to be able to withstand criticism and bounce back from it instead of letting it drag you down, because every aspect of this field is peer-reviewed. Even as a professor, your performance will be evaluated by federal panels each year. In addition, as an educational psychologist, you will be submitting papers for publication. And, unfortunately, rejection is in the nature of publishing, so people who want to go into psychology cannot let that rejection destroy their confidence.
What courses in educational psychology are most important for a student to take?
It is very important that a student interested in educational psychology first become proficient in the methods of general psychology. Educational psychology is just 1 aspect of psychology, and it is not generally pursued at the undergraduate level. Therefore, I recommend that students interested in this field take classes like statistics and research methodology.
Students will also benefit from taking a class in the history of psychology because it will give them a solid base upon which to build new theories and research. It might seem distasteful to learn about people like Freud and Jung, but a familiarity with the theories of the past will help students to understand the complexities of contemporary psychology.
Outside of educational psychology, what courses would you recommend to a student?
Outside of psychology classes, I would also recommend that students take some writing classes so that they will learn how to effectively present their research. They will be submitting papers to academic and psychological journals, and the better their writing the better chance they have of being published.
For a student who is not interested in an academic career, what is the optimal level of education needed for a job in the field of educational psychology?
The optimal level of education for someone who wants to go into educational psychology depends on his or her career goals. For instance, as a research psychologist at a prominent university, I work 7 days a week and up to 15 hours a day. This is the life I love, and it is the reason I got my PhD. So I would love to see every student go on to get a PhD because I think it is wonderful to research at this level, but I recognize that not everyone wants to work as much as I do.
Many people want to practice psychology and have a personal life as well. For students who want a family, I recommend becoming a social worker, a clinical psychologist or a counselor. Those jobs offer regular work schedules with weekends off, and they allow for more personal time. Typically, people who pursue those careers need to earn a masters degree in clinical psychology or counseling.
What is the job outlook for students with degrees in educational psychology?
The job market for research psychologists in the educational sector is extraordinarily competitive, but the private practice industry has not been hit hard. Take my institution as an example of the current state of the academic market. My university is seeking to hire 2 faculty members and we received 120 applications for those positions. So you can see that there is quite a backlog of highly qualified psychologists looking for academic positions, and the job market is saturated.
Despite the recession, the private practice is still flourishing. This is not a bad time to start your own practice. In addition, there are other areas of psychology that need people, such as special education, in schools or at VA hospitals.
How can undergraduate students prepare themselves if they are interested in studying educational psychology at the graduate level?
If a student wants to pursue educational psychology at the graduate level, it is imperative that he or she gets experience in the research lab. At a research institution like mine, there are tens of thousands of students and a limited number of laboratory spots available, so people aren’t going to come knocking on an undergraduate’s door to ask for their participation in studies. They have to actively seek out opportunities. That said, if students present themselves to a professor or a project coordinator as a motivated individual who wants to learn, chances are there will be work for them. And if a given lab can’t use them, they should keep asking around until they find a lab that needs warm bodies to collect data.
What advice do you have for students who are interested in studying educational psychology?
The most important piece of advice I have for students is to know yourself and what kind of psychology you want to practice. Think about the quality of life that you want before you decide to commit 5 to 7 years to earning a PhD. It takes an immense amount of dedication and focus to do this, and if you aren’t cut out for this level of study, there are other options available that are not as demanding.