For this year’s Spring Seasonal Series, entitled Post-Princeton Life: The Experiences of PCUR Alumni, each correspondent has selected a PCUR alum to interview about what they have been up to. We hope that these interviews will provide helpful insight into the many different paths Princeton students take after graduation. Here, Alec shares his interview.
Jalisha Braxton ‘16 was a member of PCUR during her junior and senior years at Princeton. She concentrated in Psychology, with a certificate in Neuroscience. She is now a third-year PhD student in psychology at the University of Chicago, where she studies cognitive psychology with Professors Sian Beilock and Susan Levine. Her research focuses on math anxiety and math education. I spoke to Jalisha over the phone to discuss her work as a grad student, and how her experience as an undergraduate student at Princeton informed her post-grad plans. I found a lot of what she said to be quite helpful, as I personally am considering pursuing a PhD after graduation.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You said your research was on math anxiety and education. Could you go into a little more detail, just about what your research is about?
Math anxiety is people’s attitudes towards math, and has been shown to affect people’s performance in school. So, if you have negative attitudes about math, it affects how you take tests in math because it causes a lot of worries that prevent you from focusing on the test material, and getting out some of the math that you actually do know. A big part of our lab is trying to show that math anxiety isn’t just a proxy for poor math ability. People who are really good at math still may not perform as well on math tests, just because they have this anxiety. But, it [math anxiety] is also not the same as test anxiety. Some people can do really well on tests, but when it comes to a math test, they’re doing bad, just because they have these feelings about math.
My specific part of this line of research is about math avoidance. I’m really interested in how people with math anxiety choose classes, and how they choose careers, and if they are avoiding math because of their feelings.
Did you know that you wanted to go to graduate school when you were an undergrad? Was that a decision you made later on; did you know from the start?
I always knew I wanted to study psychology; I actually wanted to be a high school psychology teacher. But then I got involved in research while I was at Princeton, and after I got to know some of the faculty in the psychology department, I started to think that I might want to pursue this as a PhD. After working in some of the research labs in Princeton, I decided that I wanted to apply straight into grad school from undergrad, and then decided I wanted to become a professor of psychology.
Was the transition from undergrad to graduate school difficult? In your experience, do the two differ significantly?
They differ more than I thought they would, and I think a big part of that is that whenever you’re in graduate school, you’re almost like an employee, and it feels like a job. I come in from nine to five. Sometimes that nine to five includes classes that I’m taking, but sometimes it’s me doing research, and I have officemates that I share a space with. I think I was expecting a campus feel, where I’m walking around and hanging out in the quad and all of these things.
But I do think that in terms of being prepared for the classes in grad school, that that’s pretty similar to undergrad, where you’re expected to be able to write papers. The thesis is a huge help for being ready for grad school, because a lot of my classes, our project would be: write a thesis in a quarter. We’re on the quarter system and not the semester system, so classes are ten weeks long, and by the end of the class you should’ve written an entire proposal for a study. And it’s like, wow, this is like an entire junior paper, but I had to write it for this one class. You have to do the whole lit review and propose an experiment and all of that. And so I think that Princeton really prepares you for classes in grad school in that way.
That said, is there anything you wish you had known to prepare for grad school, or something you would have done differently? Along the lines of something you would tell an undergraduate student who is interested in pursuing graduate study?
I would encourage undergrads to talk to professors and even their TAs about what grad school is like. I saw my TAs, and I was like, ok, when you’re in grad school you teach, but I didn’t really see what their life was like outside of that, and I think that that would have been a really good way to get a handle for what it’s like to be a grad student in a certain department.
Has your experience with PCUR informed anything you’ve done since Princeton?
PCUR really helped me see the value of reflecting on my research experiences in a way that I think I wouldn’t if I hadn’t done PCUR. Even now I often remind myself about how much I’m not writing about my experiences, and how much I should be writing about my experiences, not only to help other people, but also to just help me figure out what have I been doing for the past three years, and how much have I grown, and how much do I want to grow, what else do I still want to pursue? I think writing and blogging really helps you just narrow in on what you want to be focusing on in a way that if you don’t write, you’re all over the place and you don’t know what you want [laughs].
I really enjoyed being a part of PCUR, and I think it’s great that it’s still up and running.
I really appreciate this parting advice from Jalisha: keep writing, keep reflecting; it will do you and your research well. In any case, for me, Jalisha’s experience shows how shifts in your undergraduate experience can open up new and exciting possibilities for post-grad life. I know my own time doing research at Princeton has certainly been influential in my career considerations. Thank you for your time speaking with us at PCUR, Jalisha!
—Alec Israeli, Humanities Corrrespondent