Degree In Sight

Dating dilemma

Joshua Tabak hates talking about his research on a first date. As a social psychology graduate student at the University of Washington, Tabak studies snap judgment and first impressions. Sharing that information inevitably leads potential romantic partners to ask, "Well, then what's your first impression of me?"

Rather than answering the question directly, Tabak gives a generic description of his work, saying his research is more about the cognitive processes behind first impressions, and then he quickly changes the subject.

University of Cincinnati clinical psychology graduate student Jenessa Price also finds herself hesitant to divulge much about her psychology training early in a relationship. "I feel like it often puts people on guard, and I always have to deal with the question, 'Are you reading my mind right now?'" Price says.

As Tabak, Price and other psychology students will tell you, studying psychology can gives you an edge in understanding people and their behaviors. But potential dating partners can find that knowledge of human motivation intimidating, or think that they are constantly being analyzed. And occasionally, they're right, says Tabak.

"Sometimes you just feel like you know more than you want to know about how relationships work," Tabak says.

Knowledge is power

Though his psychology expertise sometimes puts off potential partners, Tabak's studies have, on balance, been a boon to his romantic life, he says. For his master's thesis, he studied "gaydar" — our ability to recognize sexual orientation through observation or intuition. He found that while people typically score above chance in correctly detecting sexual orientation after viewing a photo of someone's face for less than 50 milliseconds, we're still wrong a lot of the time. So, when Tabak's friends all thought his new love interest was straight, he wasn't deterred from asking the guy out.

"I decided to pursue my gut feeling and it turned out I was right," Tabak says.

Stony Brook University graduate student Dylan Selterman says that the scientific knowledge he's gained about love and attachment has helped him distinguish good relationships from not-so-good ones. For example, Selterman says he used to avoid hanging out with female friends because it made an insecure ex-girlfriend feel uncomfortable. "But now because of my knowledge of attachment, I know that I shouldn't fall victim to a partner's insecure jealousy," he says. "If I'm faithful — which I am — there shouldn't be a problem."

Lehigh University counseling psychology student Brandon Knettel says his training in multicultural psychology course has helped him better understand the intolerance and racism he experienced in his small, mostly white town in rural Minnesota. To expand his world view, he sought out volunteer and practicum work with underserved populations and taught for six months in Tanzania — experiences that left him more open to starting a relationship with his now-fiancé, a first-generation Indian American.

"By the time I met Christine, I was prepared to see her as a person with a unique background, certainly different but by no means irreconcilable with my own background."

In addition to being more accepting of a potential mate's differences, clinical psychology students also say that their burgeoning therapy skills help them better understand a partner's motives or intentions. "Those skills can give you some important insights into a relationship," Price says.

But those very skills can irk your partner, says Tara Wagner, PsyD, an early career psychologist at Georgia Regional Hospital in Savannah. When she and her fiancé argue, he at times will tell her to "stop treating me like one of your patients." Wagner thinks this may have to do with her attempts to speak slowly and deliberately in a calm, monotone during disagreements.

"I think this can contribute to his frustration because I'm not getting riled up about whatever we might be arguing about," she says. Instead, she tries to use her best psychology skills to analyze the situation and take an objective stance, frequently ending arguments with a simple "We will have to agree to disagree," or, "There's nothing wrong with your opinion, I just don't agree with it."

Grad school blues

Of course, exasperating partners with one's research or clinical knowledge is just one dating hurdle psychology grad students face. Another one is finding time for a romantic life at all, says Price. She spends most evenings preparing for the next day's clients and says that after a day of intense conversations at work, the idea of more talking can be less than thrilling.

"First dates can sometimes almost be like another interview session," she says.

To some students, it can seem as if relationships aren't worth the time and effort — and research does support the idea that they can be costly, particularly in terms of narrowing your social circle. In one as-yet-unpublished study, Oxford University evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar, PhD, and his colleagues found that romantic partnerships can reduce your support network, with typically one family member and one friend being pushed out to accommodate the new lover.

But on balance, it's a good idea to make time for dating, according to research by Cornell University professor Cynthia Hazan, PhD. She's found that people in secure romantic relationships are happier, healthier and also cope with stressful situations more effectively than people who lack such ties.

Despite the hassles and possible paranoia that you may generate among boyfriends and girlfriends, love is one of the keys to happiness — as a graduate student and beyond.

"There's always going to be more work you can do as a graduate student," Tabak says. "Taking the time to invest in a romantic relationship is really valuable and will pay dividends in every other part of your life."

Amy Novotney is a writer in Chicago.