Q&A with Ellen Mandinach, Educational Psychologist
Q: What is your current position?
I am a Senior Research Scientist at WestEd in the Washington office.
Q: What is educational psychology?
It's a composite of many things. It deals with motivation, cognition, and development.
There are many, many aspects. It's a multi-faceted discipline. Someone who has a degree in educational psychology tends to practice in research rather than as a licensed psychologist in a school setting.
People who have PhDs in educational psychology are typically researchers or professors.
Q: How did you get started in the field?
It's sort an embarrassing story...when I was in college, I hated taking standardized tests.
Yet, I excelled academically in class and could not understand the disconnect.
Because psychological testing or educational testing generally falls into an educational psychology program, I sort of found a back-door into educational psychology.
My foundation was in measurement, but I consider myself an educational psychologist.
Q: What kind of preparation do you need for a career in educational psychology?
It depends on what you want to do with it. The work that I do requires a PhD.
For work in a psychology department in a school of education, a PhD is pretty much the standard.
In some cases, you can go for a terminal master's degree, and then pursue a PhD.
Q: What is an average day like for an educational psychologist?
Every day you're faced with different challenges.
Whether it's teaching, doing research, or speaking at a conference, every day can vary.
I may be working on a proposal, trying to meet a pressing deadline, conceptualizing a proposal, or working on budgetary issues.
I also might be working with stakeholders out in school districts, meeting teachers or members of state departments of education, or presenting at a conference.
Q: What qualities or skills do you need in this role?
One is multitasking. Everyone in the field needs to be able to have many balls in the air, juggle them, and make sure that they don't fall on the floor.
You need to be able to deal with a level of frustration and failure: failure to get a paper accepted in a journal or a proposal accepted for funding.
You also need to be flexible. If you're doing a research project and something happens in which the data collection is compromised or someone drops out at the last minute, you need to be resilient and flexible in dealing with it.
Q: What do you wish someone had told you about educational psychology?
I think the biggest thing is that no matter how good you think your paper or proposal is, there will be more failures than successes. The successes are wonderful. You feel vindicated that all your hard work has come to fruition. But, there will be many more rejections than acceptances no matter how good you are simply because of the funding situation in the country.
Don't internalize the failures. Learn from them and move forward.
Q: What are some of the research questions you ask in your work?
The research questions I'm asking currently have to do with data-driven decision making. In particular, if you train teachers to use data, does that impact what they do in the classroom, and, ultimately, does that impact the student performance?
We don't know the impact of helping teachers to acquire data literacy or data skills, so my work right now is really focused on what that impact is.
Q: How has educational psychology changed in the last few years?
I think that in the field, we're becoming more responsive to society in general, trying to not just be theory-based. If my research does not have an impact on its stakeholders, I personally feel that I have failed as an educational psychologist.
There is a growing trend to reach out to real practitioners and try and have more of an impact on the field.
Q: What do you see for the future of the field?
The push toward more evidence-based research and more rigorous research has been growing over the past several years and will continue to grow.
With that rigor, we must be responsive to the educational community, be realistic, and really understand the needs in education so that we can respond to those needs through our own research. If not, then the field really hasn't done its job.
Q: How is technology impacting educational psychology?
It is a major part of research in the area. Understanding the impact of educational technology is a primary research goal right now. Technology has transformed the way we conduct research.
You can use technology as a mode of collecting data.
Instead of going to a mainframe computer in order to run your statistical analyses, you can do it on your laptop computer. As technology is growing and evolving, it is impacting the field in tremendous ways.
Q: Any other advice for aspiring educational psychologists?
It is very competitive and very difficult. Understanding the job market is an essential step in moving into this field.
There are many challenges and also many opportunities.
The biggest opportunity is to see an impact on how children learn in this country and to help them be more successful.
Educational psychology is not right for everyone, but for those who are committed to understanding issues around motivation, cognition, learning, instruction and measurement, it's a fabulous career.