Thursday, August 4, 2011

A glimpse into the abyss of psychology prelims

Over the past month, I endured the crucible of the so-called "preliminary exams", or as they are more affectionately called, "prelims".  These exams go by different names in different areas ("qualifying exams" or "quals", "comprehensive exams" or "comps"), but across institutions, the intent is the same: complete an exam (or more rarely, write a paper) to prove your mastery of a body of knowledge.  Following prelims, graduate students are allowed to begin their dissertation research and, eventually, their PhD.

Needless to say, taking prelims is an intense and exhausting process.  While the specifics vary from place to place, it usually involves studying for months, followed by a multi-day exam with a strict deadline.  My own prelims consisted of a five-hour in-class test, followed by a six-day period in which I wrote four six-page essays.  I studied for my own exams for around five months and, according to my prelims notebook, I read some 75 papers and book chapters.  By the end of prelims I felt like I was leaking social psychology out the ears.

For me, one of the frustrating aspects of prelims is that despite the long hours of study and the intense testing process, the papers you write are largely useless.  They can't be published (though sometimes the ideas can make their way into other papers) and they don't give you practice with the practical aspects of academic life, such as obtaining grant money, submitting papers to journals, or navigating nasty departmental politics.  So, it is with the vain hope that my experiences will be useful to someone that I am publishing what I think is my best prelims essay on this blog.  It will give you a taste of what a prelims essay is like, and perhaps it will even interest the more masochistic and nerdy among you.  I can always hope.

Here is the prompt:

For almost three decades, social psychologists have argued that humans have surprisingly little insight into the underlying causes of their behavior. More recent research has gone so far as to argue that human will or volition is an “illusion”.  Please provide an overview of the bases for these arguments and critically examine the empirical evidence used to support them. Link these basic assumptions of control versus automaticity to other phenomena in social psychology (e.g., stereotyping and prejudice, persuasion, etc.).  Finally, give us your opinion on the notion of control and automaticity.

My response is a little lengthy, so I'm linking to a document on my Dropbox rather than publishing it in full on the blog.  You can find it here.

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