Education Leadership Conference

Ali Mattu, PhD, wasn't really listening to what his professor was saying. Instead, he was studying for his qualifying exams, using a presentation a friend had given in the same class a few years earlier. Then something strange happened: The professor started saying out loud the words that Mattu was reading.

"I looked up and realized my professor was plagiarizing what the student had presented in the class two or three years before," Mattu told participants at APA's 2013 Education Leadership Conference. "It was a really scary situation."

That's just one kind of ethical conflict faced by psychology graduate students and trainees, said Mattu, now a faculty member at the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders. Mattu outlined several concerns:

  • Unethical behavior by superiors. Mattu's experience isn't unique. Graduate students frequently witness unethical behavior by professors, supervisors and mentors, whether it's plagiarism, falsified data, confidentiality breaches or other problems. But students typically aren't trained to handle conflicts involving those with power over them. "There are consequences for reporting your superiors," said Mattu. "We need to debate as a field how to help students when they encounter ethical conflicts with superiors."
  • Unacknowledged power dynamics. Faculty members don't always keep in mind the power they have over students, which can make those students reluctant to challenge them. To be ethical, said Mattu, faculty members should be upfront about such issues as who gets authorship credit on publications.
  • Lack of informed consent. Before graduate school, Mattu said, he didn't know much about student loan debt, the importance of accreditation, the internship crisis or the shortage of tenure-track academic positions. "No one sat me down to say, ‘Ali, here's the reality,'" he said.
  • Lack of gatekeepers. Graduate schools may no longer be serving their traditional roles of making sure only truly qualified students are accepted, said Mattu. But without them, he asked, "Where does the buck stop in psychology?" Individuals at each subsequent level — qualifying exams, dissertations, internships, licensing boards — may simply be passing students who probably shouldn't be going into the field and hoping that they'll be stopped at the next level, he said. "It's this idea of passing the buck," he said.

Of course, Mattu also encountered professors and supervisors who were models of ethical behavior.

Mattu points to one professor in particular, who helped calm Mattu down when he discovered that prospective students were Googling him and coming across his personal blog of "random ramblings." The professor admitted he didn't know much about social media. But instead of telling Mattu to take down his blog and Facebook page to avoid excessive self-disclosure, the professor saw the experience as an opportunity to collaborate on figuring things out together — a welcome contrast to the unidirectional mentorship that predominates in academia, Mattu said.

— Rebecca A. Clay

APA's 2013 Education Leadership Conference