An Interview with Lisa Ann Smith
“The best advice I would give to students for selecting a dissertation topic is to start early. In my opinion, students should know their topics and have preliminary research for them long before they start their dissertation proposals.”
Lisa Ann Smith is a first year PhD student at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. She is studying Educational Psychology with an emphasis in Special Education.
Lisa Ann holds a Master of Education in Language and Literacy and a Bachelor of Science in Human Development and Family Studies, both from Texas Tech University. She chose to pursue a PhD in Educational Psychology because she wants to help special needs children to communicate with the world around them. After getting her PhD, Lisa Ann hopes to get published, find a university position and become board certified in applied behavioral analysis.
In your own words, what is educational psychology?
Educational psychology is the study of how individuals learn and are taught. It uses research about human behavior to develop teaching methods and theories.
Do you have a specialty within the field of educational psychology?
Yes, my specialty within the field of educational psychology is special education. My focus on special education means that I will research and develop ways to help special needs children learn about and communicate with the world.
Most teachers who want to work with special needs children get their doctorate in special education, not educational psychology, which makes my particular degree path unusual. However, I think that knowing psychology will give me special insight into helping special needs children.
Why did you choose to get a PhD degree in educational psychology?
I chose to study educational psychology because I wanted to be able to work with special needs kids in a variety of roles. An educational psychologist can work in a classroom as well as research and develop theories. As an educational psychology PhD, I will have more job opportunities in the field.
That said, I never would have chosen educational psychology if a professor had not suggested it to me. She introduced me to special needs children and suggested that I could use educational psychology to help them.
When you first considered pursuing a PhD degree in educational psychology, what were your expectations?
When I first considered studying educational psychology at the doctoral level, I expected to be able to take more than the recommended number of courses. Unlike my masters degree program, however, my doctoral coursework is too demanding to take extra classes and still maintain good grades.
I also feel that the demands and scope of doctoral work are different from my masters degree program. My doctoral program has large projects rather than written assignments, and it also focuses on big pictures ideas, like national education, rather than specific concepts.
What do you find most and least enjoyable about studying educational psychology?
What I have enjoyed most about studying educational psychology has been the coursework. For example, my class on culture required me to live a day in the life of someone from a different country or race. My professors also assign discussion articles that change the way I think about motivating children and encourage me to examine my teaching style.
What I have enjoyed least, however, has been the inability to choose my own partners for group work. Doctoral projects are very important and I feel that students should be able to select group members who complement their own weaknesses and strengths.
How did you choose your graduate school?
I chose to attend Texas Tech because it offered me a quick route to my degree, a well-rounded doctoral program and supportive faculty. The biggest factor in my decision was the 36 credit hours and GRE scores that Texas Tech agreed to transfer from my masters program to my doctoral program, which greatly reduced my coursework requirements. I also appreciated that Texas Tech’s educational psychology and special education emphasis provided a broad overview of the field. The faculty of the department also seemed to care about and value me as a person.
What is your program’s curriculum like?
My educational psychology program’s curriculum is divided between coursework and the dissertation. Students spend the first few years meeting the coursework requirements with classes like Foundations of Educational Research, Human Development in Education and Qualitative Research. The goal of the coursework is to give students the knowledge and skills that we need to pass the qualifying exams and defend our dissertations.
Once students complete the coursework and pass the qualifying exams, we submit a short proposal on the dissertation topic. If the faculty approves the proposal, then we can register for 12 hours a week of dissertation work. The program pushes students to complete the dissertation within 1 year. Ultimately, we will defend the dissertation in a 30 to 45 minute session before a committee of professors.
The majority of assignments for my doctoral program in educational psychology are reading assignments or projects. I might have to go out and find relevant research articles for a class, or form groups and critique a university program.
What parts of your curriculum or particular classes do you think will be most valuable for your future goals?
The class that I think will be most valuable for my future goals is qualitative research. This course taught me to use and test the methods of research for special needs education. Although my masters program did not prepare me for how strict doctoral programs can be about obtaining and using research, this class and its professor did.
I also appreciate how my course curriculum in general has prepared me to teach special needs children. At times, my advisor has had to push me to take courses I do not think are useful for special needs, but I am often surprised to find that they are critical for my career goals.
What personality traits do you think would help a student to succeed in an educational psychology program and what traits would hinder success?
The personality traits I think would help a student to succeed in educational psychology are inquisitiveness and determination. A major factor of success in a PhD program is asking the right questions. I think an inquisitive student will know who to ask for help and will do interesting research, but those who do not take an interest in the world may find that the faculty will overlook them to work with students who do.
I also think determination will keep successful students reaching for their goals. The desire to continue working hard at all costs will help them to remember why they chose their degree paths, what they plan to do with their education and why their goals are worth struggling for.
On the other hand, students who procrastinate or cannot be pushy when necessary may have difficulty succeeding in this field. A lazy student will fall hopelessly behind on coursework, and a student who cannot be assertive could fail to get the attention and resources they need from staff and faculty.
What is your dissertation topic?
I have not yet started working on my dissertation, but my topic will involve autistic children and their learning processes. Specifically, I want to examine the effectiveness of the pictures that teachers use to communicate requests to autistic children. This topic became relevant to me after working with a group of non-verbal autistic children during my masters program.
What words of advice or caution would you give students for selecting a dissertation topic?
The best advice I would give to students for selecting a dissertation topic is to start early. In my opinion, students should know their topics and have preliminary research for them long before they start their dissertation proposals. If I had chosen my topic earlier, for example, I might have been able to do more relevant volunteer and teaching work.
Do you have an advisor, and if so, how does your advisor support your academic progress?
Yes, I have an advisor and she is central to my academic career. I selected her because she has a PhD in educational psychology and works with special needs children.
The role of my advisor is to point me in the right direction. She gives me information and guidance and offers criticism on my dissertation. She also works with my emphasis advisor to help me choose the right classes and stay on top of my coursework.
One recommendation I have for students who want to get the most from their advisors is to be assertive. I think that students who want their advisors’ assistance must politely insist that their busy advisors help them.
What is your weekly schedule?
My weekly schedule is split between school, work and tutoring. I spend about 15 hours a week in class and 15 hours finishing assignments outside of class. During the week, I teach at a Jewish school from 7 in the morning until 1:30 in the afternoon. I also tutor most evenings of the week, including weekends. I devote any extra time I have to sleeping. I have very little free time.
How do you balance your studies and your personal life?
I balance my studies and personal life by scheduling both my assignments and my personal life. I developed this time management skill during my masters program. I would give myself windows of time for assignments or free time.
One of the most helpful time management strategies I used was to plan my coursework in advance of big events, such as my family taking me to dinner. By planning early, I could complete my assignments without too much stress and enjoy myself more fully.
What are your plans for after graduation?
After I graduate, I plan to pursue publication with a research journal, find a university teaching position and get board certified in applied behavioral analysis so I can continue working in special education. My ultimate goal is to become a professor who also teaches special needs children.
Now that you have completed 1 year of your educational psychology graduate program, if you could go back to college, what would you do differently?
If I could go back to college as an undergraduate student, I would have chosen a different major and advisor. I originally majored in retail for more than a year, which I disliked. My advisor at the time gave me poor guidance and would not let me take additional courses to make up for lost time when I switched majors. This set me back in time for completion of my degrees.
What advice do you have for students who are considering a PhD degree in educational psychology?
I would advise students considering a PhD degree in educational psychology to choose their advisors based on their research interests. Students will be learning for years under the guidance of their advisors, so I think it is critical that students make sure their research interests align with their advisors’.
I also advise students to ask questions and understand the quality of the program they are pursuing. I think a good program will teach them to write and research at the doctoral level, which is a skill that not all masters or undergraduate programs teach.