Psychology M.A. Student Spotlight: Jordan
Jordan Zuber graduated from San Diego State’s Psychology Master’s program in 2016. Here, she talks about how she got in, her experience in the program, and what she’s doing and planning now.
Before getting your Master’s, where did you go to undergrad and what did you study?
I went to Cal State San Marcos in San Marcos, I studied psychology there as well.
Why did you decide to study psychology?
I liked it; I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I first started college—I actually went to Mira Costa Community College before I transferred to Cal State San Marcos, and prior to starting college, I was actually interested in vocational type programs. I was interested in cooking and culinary arts and cosmetology, but my parents—not pressured me, but persuaded me to seek out a more traditional education. I took like a counseling course my first semester to try and figure out what I wanted to do, and found out I had an interest in psychology and decided to just go with it.
Where else did you apply?
I only applied to one other school—which I don’t recommend—I was told by various people that I should apply to more schools. But I applied to San Diego State and then to San Francisco State as well. I didn’t want to leave California and I didn’t want to go inland, I wanted to stay coastal. That’s why I had also looked into Long Beach and Fullerton, but didn’t really feel like I matched with any of the faculty members there, and after sending a few emails, I felt like my chances of getting into those programs were not as good. I didn’t want to take the time or the money to apply to those programs…and I guess I just got lucky that I managed to get into one of the two programs that I applied to.
Aside from the location, what else was it about those programs that attracted you?
Going back to how I didn’t apply to those other two programs at Long Beach and Fullerton, one thing that’s really nice about San Diego State is that if you go to their website it’s very organized, it’s very clear—if you’re looking at graduate programs, they have their different programs and then within the psychology program, they have the different disciplines, so they have social psych, neuropsychology, all these different sub-categories of psychology, and then it shows all the faculty members that are within that field. I felt like that made it really easy, because I can go right to what i’m interested in, which is neuropsychology, look up the different faculty members I can work with, and it gave a little description of what the research was, and then it also showed you if they were even accepting new students, because sometimes they just don’t have room in their labs and they don’t need anyone.
Another great thing about SDSU’s master’s program is that they usually set you up with an assistantship, and not every graduate program can do that. It’s like, you have to try and find a job while you’re going to school that’s gonna work with your school schedule, and it’s just really nice having that assistantship because if they work around your schedule—they know you’re there, they know what your schedule is, and they set you up basically for the entire two years that you’re in the program. So that’s also a really great benefit of SDSU’s master’s program, and just in general the psychology program—they have a lot of really great faculty there, everything’s very organized. They do have a form for literally everything, so there’s a lot of bureaucracy, but it helps keep things really organized.
Can you talk more about the program—what’s the courseload like, or what kind of time commitment was expected of you?
Generally this program should take about two years. Some people do end up taking a third year to finish their thesis—I took an extra semester to finish my thesis. Each semester, you’re going to be taking about two classes and just like with undergrad, they have certain classes that you are required to take, like statistics and research methods, and then they also have your electives, where you can choose from a few different classes and decide which ones you wanna take.
In addition, during your first year you also take an orientation class, which is every other Friday and it’s a class for you to get to know about the program. Every other week they’ll talk about—one week they might talk about what steps you have to take in order to propose your thesis, or they might have advice about how to navigate the program, or how to approach your mentor—just different things about the program. So you have your two classes each week, in addition you’re spending time in your lab. Usually it’s expected that you’re putting in at least ten hours a week in your lab, doing whatever your mentor or other people in the lab are asking you to do, whether it be different research tasks, lit reviews, testing subjects or participants, just various tasks. You have your research obligation in addition to your coursework, and then of course you also have the assistantship—should you choose to take the assistantship. Most of the assistantships are teaching assistant positions, but there’s also sometimes a general list of positions, and that requires about 20 hours a week. so that’s what you’re expected to do—the assistant ship, the research work, and then your coursework.
What about your professors? What were their teaching styles like?
Each professor I had was a little bit different, for example the statistics professor—her classes were very difficult, and she will intentionally leave information out of her lectures because she wants people to ask questions. She kind of makes you struggle a little bit to learn the information. If you don’t kinda speak up in her class or ask questions, sometimes she might call you out and put you on the spot, so that was stressful—that was my most stressful class that I had to take. And the way they teach statistics there is very different from traditional statistics in undergraduate—she teaches it from a model comparison approach, and it’s just very different, so it’s really hard to grasp. That class in particular takes up a lot of your time during the first year of the program.
I also took a research methods course and social psychology with another professor and she was very laid back. She would do a little bit of lecturing, but then let the students lead discussions, and it was just a very relaxed environment—very different environment from the statistics course.
Same goes with a clinical psychology course I took with another professor—she was also very relaxed, very nice and approachable. She did a little bit a lecturing but then we had a lot of discussion.
Most of the courses at the school are very discussion-based. I did take one neuropsych course though, where he pretty much lectured the entire time, which is unusual in the graduate program. Usually it’s a lot of reading and a lot of discussing what you’ve read, but he lectured the entire time, and he was very ad-lib and kind of went on little tangents and stuff.
So each professor was a little bit different, but for the most part you can expect the professors are going to do a little bit of lecturing, but mostly you’re going to be doing lots of reading and lots of discussing.
All the professor were actively researching—were any of them also active on the clinical side? Or were they primarily research and faculty?
I don’t know of any that were doing clinical work on the side at all. Pretty much all of them were all doing research. There was one professor, my clinical psychology professor, she used to do clinical work but then she had come over to academia and started doing research, so she was no longer doing clinical when she started working for San Diego State.
Would you say the program was mainly geared towards students who wanted to go into research, or if you knew you wanted to be a clinical psychologist would you also have a path there?
It was definitely more research oriented, although going into the master's program there would also set you up really well for a clinical program. I know a lot of people who chose to go the clinical route, and when we take that orientation class the first year, that was one thing that they would talk about, is different paths you can take beyond the master's programs. They do go over different routes with academia, or if you want to just research, or if you want to teach. They do discuss it and it’s definitely an option, but the program itself is much more research oriented.
What was the focus of your research lab? What kind of work were you doing?
I was in Dr. Claire Murphy’s lab. Her lab was called the Human Senses Lab and we were looking—it was neuropsychology research—we were looking at this relationship between chemosensory function—like odor and taste—and cognition across the human lifespan. We would look at how chemosensory function, mostly smell, how that was related to both degeneration in the brain or performance on different cognitive tasks.
She would look at different neurodegenerative disorders, but mainly we looked at how chemosensory function would affect neurodegenerative disease such as Alzheimer's. What was believe or hypothesized was that those who were susceptible or were developing Alzheimer's disease, or even mild cognitive impairment, would have performed poorer on tests such as odor ID or odor recognition, or even memory for odors. These sorts of tasks showed that they performed worse on those tasks than people who are normal older controls. That was one of the main focuses in the lab. Another project in the lab that I wasn’t as involved with was an imaging project, so they were interested in BMI and how things like BMI and metabolic syndrome were related to developing neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's later in life—so showing that people who had poor diet and poor exercise, or who were obese, were more likely to develop Alzheimer's later in life than those who were not. That was another project in the lab, but as I said I don’t know as much about that project because I wasn’t as involved with it.
You mentioned you were involved in anything from research and reviewing literature to actually working with test subjects.
Exactly—every week, once a week, we’d go test someone that we had recruited from the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center, which is actually in La Jolla at UCSD. Once a week someone would go and ask people who are already involved in another research study if they would be willing to participate in ours, and then schedule a time to test them. We would actually usually to their homes—we’d bring the whole test kit with us, the test battery—and we would be with them for about two hours, and we’d perform this battery of assessments, including this odor and taste threshold test, odor memory test, odor identification test, a fluency test, and an alcohol sniff test.
We’d also be responsible for preparing the stimuli for those tests, so changing out the odors as needed, refreshing the bottles with all the different odors in them, and then we’d also do data scoring and data entry of the results from the testings that we did. So I would do that—I did a lot of that my first year, and then my second year, I took over the recruitment and the scheduling of the participants. I’d go to the ARC and talk to people, and try to get them to participate in the study, and also schedule students in our lab to go on those testings or to do scoring or data entry or preparing of the stimuli—so delegating tasks. And then, of course, I was also in the meantime trying to work towards my thesis, and look at data in the lab that had already been collected, and just helping out with any other random research tasks.
Overall, what did you enjoy most about the psychology program?
I think what I liked the most is getting to interact with people a lot. It’s kind of weird for me to say that because technically, I feel like I’m really an introvert at heart, but I had a lot of opportunities to get to know people on a more personal level by going on these testings. I really enjoyed doing that more than doing things like data entry or data scoring or preparing of stimuli. I liked going out and getting to know the person and being with them. I liked going out and recruiting them, and I also really like the teaching assistantship. I really cared about my students—I was fortunate that the class I TAed for was a very small class. I only had 20 students, as opposed to TAing for a class that had, like, 300 students in a lecture hall, so I really got the opportunity to get to know my students on a more personal level. I actually got to know all of their names, got to help them out with their projects. Occasionally I would do guest lectures. That was a really really great experience, and it’s one that has actually made me consider going into teaching eventually.
So what I enjoyed the most about the program was interaction with the people, and actually the interaction with my fellow grad students, because the only people that are gonna understand what you’re going through are the people that are in the program with you. It really helps to get to know them and make friends with them, you can vent to each other and you’ll know that they’ll make you feel so much less alone, so much less overwhelmed—you won’t feel like such an imposter in your program, you’ll realize that other people feel the same way.
How big was the cohort?
It was about 30 students, San Diego State accepts about 30 every year.
On the flip side, what was the most challenging part for you?
Definitely my statistics course—I really, really struggled with it. Partly it’s just that the material itself was very difficult to master, and the other part of it was that I felt the professor’s teaching style didn’t work with my learning style. I was very happy when that course was over with.
I would say the second biggest challenge was just finishing the thesis. It’s just one of those things where you gotta put a lot of time into it, and there’s gonna be so many moments where you’re like, you think you’re there, and then you’ll run an analysis and it doesn’t come out the way you want, or something doesn’t get approved and you have to change something, and something comes up with your data, or just little hiccups constantly throughout.
When you were first starting, what were your expectations for the program and for graduate school in general?
I think prior to going into it I didn’t know what to expect, but I kind of thought that it would just be a little more of an extension of my bachelor’s, and I didn’t realize that it was just a completely different level of education. I don’t think that there’s anything I could have done as an undergraduate that would have really prepared me for it—it’s just one of those things where during your first semester it’s like a slap in the face. You feel really lost—everyone feels really lost—you feel like an imposter, you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re not really quite sure yet what’s expected of you, you have all these responsibilities that take up your time. It’s about learning how to balance everything, and it’s about trying to make time for self care—I know that that’s something I neglected a lot my first year of the program, and I think that’s really important for incoming students to know—you have to somehow make time for things like that.
Classes are very different, the expectations are different, everyone in the program is really brilliant and intelligent, so you go from feeling like, as an undergrad you’re top of the class, and then…it’s very humbling, I’ll put it that way. In regards to incoming students I would say, expect the unexpected—expect to feel lost and confused and overwhelmed.
What were some of the biggest surprises about how it was different?
How much time it takes, and the expectations are different so it’s like, they’re not gonna hold your hand, and they’re not going to give you all the information. You really have to work for it and you have to figure things out on your own. I feel like when you’re an undergrad, you just get to sit in class and listen to a professor give a lecture, then you have a multiple choice test on it three times a semester or whatever. There’s no such thing as multiple choice in graduate school—it’s all about being able to critically understand and analyze the information that you have in front of you.
They don’t expect you to just be able to regurgitate it, they want you to be able to critically think about it and be able to discuss it and talk about what the implications of that information are in the real world. It’s a lot more abstract thinking and higher level thinking.
What did you do while you were at San Marcos to prepare?
I joined Psi Chi, the psychology honors society. I recommend joining some sort of club on campus, whatever undergrad institution you’re at, whatever they offer—it's a great way to meet other students who are trying to get into graduate school. They’ll also set you up with opportunities—they’ll have speakers come in and talk about graduate school, or they’ll talk about their research, there’s opportunities for volunteer work—which also looks really good on your CV or resume to graduate school.
Another thing I did was get into a lab, which I highly recommend. Even though the tasks I was doing were just low level research tasks—we would do weekly journal readings and then discuss the literature—but even doing that was helpful, because you do that a lot in graduate school—you’re reading multiple journal articles a week and then discussing it.
I also was a confederate for the study, so I was in on the experiment and I would pretend to be another participant when I was really in on the study—which was fun. It didn’t necessarily prepare me, but it looks good on your resume or CV. Any kind of research experience you can get, take it. Joining a lab is something I highly recommend—also if your undergrad offers lab courses. At Cal State San Marcos, it was actually required in order to graduate, whether or not you were going to graduate school, you had to take two lab courses. You got to choose from different disciplines—you could do social psych or developmental psych, you could do physiology, cognition, sensation and perception—they offered all different types of labs. However, San Diego State, for example, they offer just a general psychology research methods lab, and it’s not required for those students to take it in order to graduate—but it’s recommended for those who are going on to graduate school. I do recommend taking a course like that. If it’s not required to take it anyway, because that will also help prepare you for graduate program in psychology.
And then just any sort of volunteer work you can do. Especially if you’re interested in a clinical route, try to find different clinics in your area and see if they need any help. Because of confidentiality issues, you can’t always sit in on a therapy session, but you might get lucky. I got an opportunity to intern at a drug and alcohol treatment center, and they would do a group processing thing twice a day. It wasn’t individual therapy, but everyone would sit in a circle and they would talk about what was going on, and the therapist would sit and ask each one questions. I was able to sit in on that, which was a really cool opportunity. It definitely sparked my interest in clinical work as well.
Sometimes your undergrad institution will offer a field experience—that’s how I was set up with that. I was actually able to get course credit for that as well. If you can, find some sort of field experience course, or any kind of internships or volunteer work, whether they be through the university or outside the university.
Did you take any time off between undergrad and starting graduate school?
I took a year off. Some people don’t recommend doing that because they say that you lose that ability to effectively study, but for me personally, I feel like I really benefited from it. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, even when I applied I still didn’t know what I wanted to do. So I took a year off and it was good for me, but I can’t speak for everyone.
What did you do in the that time?
I worked a lot, I saved up money, and I applied to the grad school programs. I went to Vince for tutoring for the GRE. I did that for about two months, so that’s pretty much all I did—I just worked and applied for grad school programs.
Where did you work?
I worked at Welk Resort in Escondido and I just drove a beverage cart around the golf course. It was a really easy, fun job. I also had a restaurant job where I worked as a bartender and a server. Eventually they offered almost full time at my other job, at Welk Resort, so I quit the restaurant job and I was working about four or five days a week at the other one.
Were you living at home to save money?
Yes, honestly if I could’ve, I would have even lived at home while I was going to San Diego State, but I’m from North County San Diego and I didn’t want to do that commute. so I ended up moving closer.
What would you tell someone who’s considering San Diego State for grad school—what should they expect about the school, the campus?
I would tell them to go for it. It’s a really great program. The campus—honestly it depends on what lab you’re in. Some labs are on campus, my lab was actually off campus, so other than the two buildings I had classes in, I knew nothing about the campus. I didn’t know where anything was—I only went to go to those two buildings that I had classes in and that was like, twice a week, and then the rest of the time I was in the lab. I spent a lot of time in lab—I wasn’t always doing lab work, sometimes I’d be reading articles, doing homework or studying or grading for my teaching assistantship, so I wasn't always doing lab work in the lab. but I spent a lot of time there.
What do you wish you’d known before applying?
I wish I knew what I had wanted to do a little bit more so I could choose a program that was a good fit for me—but I feel like I’m actually a year and a half out of the master’s program and I feel like I still don’t know quite what I want to do. I’m working in a research lab right now, but I don’t know if research is what I wanna do forever.
What would you tell someone about the application process?
I would say that don’t focus so much on test scores, GRE scores, GPA—those things are important to get in, but I felt like my GRE scores and my GPA was fairly average. I feel like I barely made the cut off in terms of GPA and GRE—I didn’t have a 4.0, I didn’t have perfect GRE scores, but I had really good letters of recommendation and I had a good statement of purpose.
I think that the subjective portion of your application is possibly more important than test scores and GRE scores, so that’s one thing that I would recommend for people—don’t stress so much about getting that A over the A- or the B+ or whatever. Try to develop relationships with other people, try to find a good mentor or mentors while you’re in undergrad that can guide you and that can also eventually write a good letter, because that’s going to be really important. When I wrote my statement, I had no idea where to start—Vince helped me with my statement as well as my GRE tutoring, and I think that was really important. You want your personality to shine through. You don’t want it to just be an extension of your resume.
What are you doing now after graduating, and what are your hopes or plans for your career in the future?
While I was actually finishing my master’s thesis, I wasn’t taking any courses or anything and I was able to get a job at a place called The Neurology Center. I heard about the position through another person in my lab—so networking is important, it’s all about who you know. It is about what you know, but it’s also very important to know people. I was able to get a job there with basically no experience administering these other neuropsychological assessments because I was just doing this odor test battery in my lab—we were looking at chemosensory function, I didn’t have a lot of experience with neuropsychology testing, so he took a chance on me, this neuropsychologist. He taught me how to administer a bunch of these tests—it was actually in a clinical setting, so I was seeing patients. I wasn’t doing any diagnosing, but I did get to sit in on some clinical interviews and clinical feedback sessions, which was really interesting. I would basically do administering assessments and scoring.
I was there for about five months, and then I was looking to grow a little more—being there I didn’t have an opportunity to move up at all, so I was looking at jobs at UCSD and I was able to get a job doing the exact type of work. I administer different neuropsychological assessments and I do it in a research setting now. I’ve been here for almost a year and a half. I’m not sure if research is what I want to do forever though—I do have interest in clinical work, I have interest in teaching, and I am actually considering going back to San Diego State and getting a community college teaching certificate. They offer a program there—I found out about it just recently—if there’s any graduate students or master’s students who are in the program currently, it’s a great certificate to add on to your master’s degree. As far as I can tell, it’s just four classes, one of which is an internship—which they set you up with at a community college—and I think it’s a combination of online and in-person class work. As long as you have the master’s and this community college teaching certificate, you can teach at a community college. So I’m interested in that.
And then I don’t know, maybe eventually if I feel like I want to go a more clinical route, I may go back at some point for a master’s in clinical work. I don’t see myself going back to school to go into a doctorate program, but that’s just me—I just can’t imagine spending another six years of my life doing graduate school. I would maybe be willing to go back to school and do another master's degree, so that’s kind of my future plans. I don’t have anything set in stone—I’m just going with the flow and figuring it out as I go along.
Is there anything that you would change about the psychology program?
Oh man, I’m going back to this, the statistics—I really wish that it was taught like traditional statistics were taught. As far as I know, the way that SDSU teaches statistics is completely different than where anywhere else teaches it. I don’t know of any other university that teaches it from the model comparison approach, and I feel like once I was done with her statistics course, I felt like I didn't know enough—I didn't feel confident forming statistics from a model comparison approach, but I also felt like I didn’t remember enough from undergraduate statistics to feel confident and comfortable doing it the traditional way either. So I feel like, had she taught it from the traditional standpoint, I would’ve been more prepared using statistics when it came to my thesis.
What would you tell incoming students they should NOT do while in this program—what are some pitfalls they should avoid?
If people ask you to you know take on stuff, definitely do it. Even if it’s just a menial research task or whatever, it’s gonna look good—unless of course, you’re feeling really overwhelmed and you’re literally just buried and have no time to do something. Then let someone know, but any opportunity—if your mentor or someone else in your lab that’s superior to you is asking you to do something, it’s usually a good sign that they trust you, so definitely do that. I guess my recommendation is if they ask you don’t say no.
Another thing—make sure to make time for self care, don’t do what I did—I didn’t make time for self care. I gained a lot of weight, I was very unhealthy, very unhappy, and honestly it probably made me less productive. I probably would have been more productive had I just taken time out to clear my head, go on a run, go hit the gym, go do some yoga, go on a walk, something. Make sure you make time for self care—do not underestimate the power of it.
Try not to get sick, that will get you far behind. Don’t be afraid to ask for help either. Don’t isolate yourself and don’t feel like you’re in it alone because I think that is very damaging on your mental health, and it’s going to affect your progress in the program. Definitely ask for help if you need it—ask for advice from whoever, whether it be other people in your lab or other people from your cohort. Those are the people that are gonna understand what you’re going through, so don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help.
Would you say the tuition was worth it?
Yes, and actually it was not as expensive as I thought it was going to be. I think per semester, it was probably only about a thousand dollars more than what I had paid for undergrad.
I had heard while I was in undergrad that you couldn’t receive financial aid as a graduate student, but I applied for the FAFSA anyways because I was gonna need student loan money. The first year I just used student loans, but then at the end of my first year, in my account, I noticed I had like $8,000 for tuition, so I called and I was like, there’s this money in my account, I don’t know if it’s a mistake, I’m not sure what this is. They said basically that they had extra money left over and that they were able to give me a grant. I think it was actually from the school, so I got a state university grant and I ended up getting it my second year as well.
So for the most part, I actually was able to get my education mostly paid for—they paid the tuition, I just had to pay the extra $700 a semester in fees, and then of course for any books or supplies or things like that. I got really really lucky—definitely apply for FAFSA, you never know, you might get lucky. They might get extra money and they may award you a state grant. Or apply for scholarships. I did that as well—I didn’t get any scholarship money, but at least I tried and you never know—you could be that lucky one that gets a scholarship.
So you still took out loans but not as much as you were expecting?
Exactly, basically the loan money was just extra money that I was able to spend on things like food or toiletries. The wages I was making as a teaching assistant were just enough for me to cover my costs of rent and my bills. Then the money I took out in loans was to help with the extra $700 I had to pay per semester, and it helped me with food, groceries, toiletries, when I wanted to go out to dinner or do something fun with friends. It was basically some extra spending money. I ended up with about $10,000 in loans before interest, which is not as bad as some people or as bad as I would have expected. I was thinking it was gonna be $20-30,000.
If you could go back, would you still pick the psychology program at San Diego State?
Yes I would. I think had I known what graduate school was gonna be like, maybe I would’ve chosen a different program. But then again if I went to another program, I can’t say that I would’ve come out of it and not say the same thing—let’s say I decided to go the clinical route and I decided to do marriage family therapy or something, I can’t say I would’ve come out of that program and say, oh maybe I should’ve done research, maybe I should’ve done the neuropsychology program at SDSU. Hindsight’s always 20/20 and the grass is always greener on the other side, and you don’t know until you’ve already gone through it.
I absolutely don’t regret my decision, and I think that having the master's degree is helping in the long run—I think it’s helped me get a job and learn a lot, and it’s built up my resilience. It definitely humbled me a lot and I learned a lot. It really helped me grow as a person, as a researcher, as a student, in my career. I definitely recommend it—I don’t know what other programs are like at other schools, but overall SDSU is a really great program.