Sophia Vinci-Booher is a graduating Ph.D. student and soon-to-be postdoctoral researcher in IU’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. She has spent the last 5 years here completing graduate coursework and conducting research in order to earn her Ph.D, and she is now one of the leading researchers in the field of functional brain development. She says, “I’ve always been very interested in understanding different viewpoints — how I can see something one way while another person perceives the same phenomenon in a very different way. I’m particularly interested in the role of experience in the formation of these differences and how, despite these differences in perception, we’re able to communicate with each other effectively.” However, her path to this work has been a long one, and she has encountered many obstacles along the way.
In the present, Vinci-Booher’s research with Dr. Karin James is pioneering in this field, which looks at how our actions in the world change how our brains function, especially during childhood. That means she links the tasks we do when we’re younger to our brain’s development and growth. Her work so far has focused on the importance of learning handwriting, a skill many think is growing less important due to the prevalence of computers and tablets. She disagrees, and she argues that handwriting still has an important role even in a digital age.
Vinci-Booher and her colleagues’ research has been instrumental in showing how changes in handwriting skills at young ages impact how children learn to recognize and identify individual letters in the alphabet. In other words, they study how learning to write individual letters leads to changes in brain function and distributes the workload of common tasks. This may support how people integrate the visual task of reading letters and the physical task of writing those letters.
Vinci-Booher is poised to complete her Ph.D. in the coming months and will soon begin her postdoctoral fellowship, spearheading research on how these processes can change the physical structure of the brain, pointing to a dynamic interaction between learning new skills and brain development.
However, Vinci-Booher has come a long way to get to this point. Like many college students, she was driven to learn more, but she struggled to pinpoint what she wanted to do next — an important first step in considering graduate school. She says, “as an undergraduate student, I always knew that I wanted to continue on to graduate school. I liked the environment and I liked the challenges that academics presented. I had a very vague sense of what I wanted to study (how people change), but it was too vague to know to what programs I should apply.”
And she faced a number of challenges along the way. In addition to changing her mind about what she wanted to study, she also describes worrying about the cost of a graduate degree. Most importantly, however, she worried about what it would take to study and become an expert in brain development. She says, “I was somewhat intimidated by the idea of studying ‘brain development’ — it seemed like an immense challenge. I started to realize that studying brain development was really not too far out of reach while working as a research assistant in several imaging labs after [getting my undergraduate degree].”
Indeed, this is her first piece of advice for any student interested in graduate school: get first-hand experience in the field you’re interested in. It will help you see if you even like that type of work and, if that’s not the case, can guide you to other career paths or areas of study before you apply to graduate school. It can also show you that you do have the experience and the skills to embark on such a path. Working as a research assistant, Vinci-Booher found that she did feel confident in pursuing the graduate training she would need to continue studying functional brain development in children.
Working with and around graduate students and researchers will also teach you some of the fundamentals. For example, Vinci-Booher learned that most Ph.D. programs cover students’ tuition and pay an annual stipend with health care, removing her worries about the cost of a graduate degree.
Vinci-Booher’s next advice for students interested in graduate school is to look for advisors who will meet your needs. She says, “A lot of students think that the most important thing is to pick an advisor who is working on a topic that you want to study. I would argue that the most important thing is to pick an advisor who will be a good mentor who is at a university that values graduate students.”
“Graduate school is objectively difficult,” Vinci-Booher explains. “A major part of this difficulty is the emotions that come with trying your best in a very competitive environment (e.g., rejection). You need an advisor and department that understand that you are a developing scientist and that help you set goals that are in line with where you are and where you want to go. This type of mentorship is, in my opinion, extremely important to a graduate student’s sense of efficacy and often translates to their ability to complete the degree.”
In addition, many graduate students spend long hours in their labs, conducting research. This was one of the biggest adjustments Vinci-Booher had to make when transitioning to graduate school. The workload and long hours often felt overwhelming, especially since she came back to school after working for 4 years as a clinical technician. Many graduate students follow a similar path, returning to graduate school after spending time employed elsewhere. As she notes, “I had to remember how to actually study and how to function well when everything was so confusing. I felt like I was always having to talk with people about things that I had no idea about–like we were speaking in another language. And, on top of that, I had to do that all day long, everyday. Of course, things got easier over time, but it was a big adjustment for me in the beginning.”
Ultimately, Vinci-Booher recommends that those considering graduate school think holistically about what they want to get out of graduate school and how they will manage their lives during that time. She adds, “What’s important is that you can live a healthy life, physically and mentally, in that environment.” Like many psychologists, she reminds people to take care of themselves, to find balance, to evaluate how they can best achieve their goals, and to identify what help they will need along the way.