News & Events

Q&A with Graduate Student Alexander Christensen

Alex Christensen is a doctoral student who works with Dr. Paul Silvia in the social psychology graduate program. Broadly, Alex’s primary research program centers on network science as it applies to numerous domains in psychology, including personality and neuroscience. Alex has completed his dissertation and is currently awaiting his defense; next, he will begin a Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania, where he will collaborate with Dr. Anjan Chatterjee. Alex will spearhead several projects related to aesthetics engagement involving psychometric and semantic network analysis and neuroscience methods

Alex has been incredibly prolific during his time in the department, with numerous first-authored papers in top journals in the field. Recent highlights include the acceptance of a paper in NeuroImage with lead author Dr. Roger Beaty (a UNCG psychology alum), Paul Silvia, and several other colleagues (see here). An active proponent of the Center for Open Science (COS), Alex was invited to submit his work to the COS Systematizing Confidence in Open Research and Evidence program, for which he will collaborate with a team of researchers who will preregister and replicate the work. Alex has also taken advantage of summer opportunities to expand his research training under the direction of Dr. Mathias Benedek at the University of Graz.

Below, we present a Q&A with Alex in which he shares his thoughts about the graduate program. He discusses the challenges that he navigated, what it means to achieve the elusive “work-life balance,” and offers advice on how to establish a solid foundation for a successful career in graduate school and beyond.

What was most intimidating about graduate school when you first arrived?

“When starting graduate school, I was a bag of mixed emotions. On the one hand, I was excited to be entering into a world where people loved research as much as I did and were committed to producing excellent science. This itself was intimidating but in more of a challenge-seeking way—I wanted to be a part of the great research happening in our psychology department. On the other hand, the organization and time management components of graduate school were overwhelming. I arrived at grad school as anything but organized and had never thought of putting the words “time” and “management” together—let alone in the same sentence. Managing the workload of doing research, taking courses, and assisting with undergraduate courses was like a horizonless mountain.”

How have you overcome challenges during your time here? 

“The challenges of graduate school are many and varied but few are impossible. Learning to accept that the challenges are as much a part of the process as the successes was critical for facing them. When things felt overwhelming, I tried to remind myself that others had made it through the program, so I could too. In retrospect, I like to think that I faced one of my greatest challenges early on, which helped me deal with the rest of the challenges in grad school. One of my first papers was rejected from a top tier journal after two rounds of revision and a final decision by the Editor-in-Chief. The paper was then rejected by six other journals before finally being accepted. This experience—I later found out—was rather unusual. The experience did, however, teach me how to deal with criticism and rejection—perhaps two of the more common experiences in graduate school. After that experience, most challenges in grad school seemed trivial. I mean, seriously, how many times could my thesis committee possibly reject me before succumbing to my persistent proposals?”

How have you dealt with the demands of graduate school while also navigating your personal life (and this could mean happiness, health, relationships, etc.)?

“The key for me was to become efficient: Efficient in coursework, efficient in writing, efficient in ‘lifing.’ By becoming more efficient, I was able to reclaim my time. I use ‘reclaim’ purposefully because, to put it plainly, I did not have a personal life in the first few years of graduate school. I made sure to maintain healthy habits—eating correctly and getting exercise—but there was rarely a day I took off, including weekends. Even now, I continue to work most weekends but the number of hours I work per week has greatly decreased. I spend a lot more time doing things I want to do while still producing as much as when I was working more hours. As a graduate student, you hear a lot about ‘work/life balance’ but it’s hard to define what that means and it’s probably best defined on a person-to-person basis. I’m sure my example seems counter to the lore, but I felt that I had balance. My balance was struck by doing more work at the beginning of graduate school so that I could life more at the end.”

What advice would you give yourself (and others) now that you’ve successfully completed our program?

“Treat grad school as the start of your career—because it is. There is a common misconception among our friends and families that graduate school is just ‘more school.’ This couldn’t be further from the truth. Graduate school is an apprenticeship and professional training for your career. Seriousness aside, what we do for work is pretty freakin’ awesome. Regardless of your area, we get to try to understand, explore, and discover the human mind—the good, the bad, and the unusual. The gauntlets of graduate school are tough but the process provides opportunity for growth and development both as a psychologist and person.”

Is there anything else you want to say?

“As a side note to life in graduate school, I implore everyone to take advantage of the travel opportunities we have for conferences. Most everyone ‘wants to travel’ but very few have the opportunity to. In grad school, we go all over the country and visit many cool cities. Take the time to look up at least one thing you want to do when you’re there and go do it—see the sights and ‘do as the Romans do.’ For me, this was seeing an art museum or eating at a renowned restaurant. These small slices of personal pleasure are perhaps more memorable than the conferences themselves (Disclaimer: No department funds were used in my experiential excursions).”

Thank you to Alex for these outstanding insights! The department wishes him all the best as he begins the next phase of his career.