by Kamar Tazi (2021-2022 Chair-Elect)
Minqi (Will) Pan, M.A., M.S. is a rising fourth-year clinical psychology Ph.D. student at the University of North Texas. His research focuses on response styles, psychometric properties and empirical correlates of forensic assessments, and statistical modeling.
Can you share a bit about your background and what made you want to pursue a degree in clinical forensic psychology?
For my background, I was born and raised in Shanghai, China. I went to college there and studied economics and real estate which was a really unique degree combining economics and all aspects of the real estate industry. After graduating with my bachelors, I worked for a company that sends Chinese students to America for education. I became really interested in the American educational system in general through this job. Around this time, Yale published one undergraduate music appreciation course with free materials. I decided to make Chinese subtitles for the videos so that Chinese people could learn, and I worked with a nonprofit group to do this and get the materials out there for everyone. From there, it occurred to me that I could send myself to the U.S. and pursue education there. I was always really interested in human interactions and was between psychology, sociology, and social work for my degree. I ended up picking psychology because it was the most theory driven and systematic field out of those.
I moved to Texas in 2012 and started a master’s program in clinical/counseling psychology at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, TX. My program prepared me very well for clinical work because of our rigorous training in the theories underlying clinical psychology, counseling, and the practical training I got primarily in psychotherapy. I then got licensed at the master’s level and worked for four and a half years in the only maximum-security hospital in Texas. There, I saw patients who could not be cared for elsewhere and was involved in very high-profile forensic cases. In my role I saw some of the most extreme forms of psychopathology and worked with many treatment-refractory individuals. I developed a strong interest in forensic psychology because I saw how important this line of work was. For example, watching how the outcomes of competency evaluations influence patients’ lives made me see how significant psychology is to the legal system. My passion for the field, strong interest in research and statistical measurement, and desire for more advanced work pushed me to doctoral training. My immigration status was also a major factor in my decision because, at the master’s level, being retained on a work visa is difficult and there are a lot of barriers to finding work as a psychologist without more advanced training. At the doctoral level, things get easier.
What has your experience been like as an international student navigating graduate school in the U.S.?
Navigating my master’s degree was more difficult because everything was new, and the language barrier was still there despite having had years of English training. Psychology is a writing and reading heavy discipline with a lot of specialized terms that don’t necessarily translate easily or directly to Chinese, so this is still somewhat of a challenge for me. I really had to think in a different language when I started my program. Of course, as I got more exposure things became easier. Another challenge I faced was the self-driven nature of graduate school. I think this is hard for all students, international and domestic, but especially for international students because when you add other challenges like a language barrier it can be hard to stay motivated. There is also a huge culture shock; the terms my cohort members used, their idioms, the way they spoke was all new for me and I found myself asking them to explain often. At the time I felt unsure about asking but they were always happy to clarify so that feeling went away. So, in a lot of ways communication was the first and maybe most difficult barrier I faced but as I continued learning I felt more confident both professionally and academically despite how much of an adjustment I had to make in a very short amount of time. Now, there is definitely still a culture shock to being at the PhD level which is very different from the master’s level. Fortunately, I found that my university (University of North Texas) was more culturally diverse, so I was less self-aware of the fact that I was an international student.
Another huge thing is the restrictions. For example, international students can’t work more than a certain number of hours without authorization, so getting a side job during graduate school was never an option. This would be especially hard for anyone in an unfunded program. On top of this, I can’t take out federal financial aid (which is where most financial aid comes from). There are even some practicum sites, like VAs, that are not an option for externship or internship because of their federal funding. I learned quickly that things have to be carefully planned since there are so many more considerations international students have to make.
How does your background and identities influence your research and clinical work?
My research interests really developed along the way to understanding my professional identity, but the discrepancy between the acknowledgement and focus on scientific accomplishments in psychology between China and the U.S. motivated me to learn the best I can while I’m here. I also noticed that people conceptualize problems in research differently depending on their background. For example, what theories are used to understand a phenomenon/behavior, how these may be studied, and what problems are prioritized for research differ between China and the U.S. Having a different cultural upbringing gave me a new perspective to bring to the table here. On the other hand, having exposure to people’s perspectives here helped me reevaluate the things I learned in the past. This has been an important stage in my development as a scientist.
For clinical work, I have found that working with other international students is a really rewarding experience because I really understand and resonate with their experiences and struggles. In a broader sense, if I work with someone with concerns related to immigration or cultural identity I feel that I can quickly understand and empathize with them. This has helped me considerably in my clinical work. At the beginning of my training, I was unsure of my language abilities as a clinician, particularly when doing psychotherapy, and this added to my insecurity, but this is less of a concern for me now. I found that people do understand what I’m saying and if they don’t they’ll just ask. I had similar concerns about whether I would have limited culture-specific knowledge that was important to my clients or relevant to their clinical presentations. When you have quality training, focus, and immersion in the clinical issues at hand, all these concerns and insecurities will be sorted out. Actually, all therapy and clinical work requires cultural knowledge so in many cases my background is an asset, and all students, international and domestic, have the same task essentially; we all work to approach culture with humility and openness and do our best to limit the influence of biases and preconceived notions. There’s a learning curve for everyone.
What resources do you think would be helpful if made available by universities?
The most important resource for international students is information. There are so many rules and restrictions we have to abide by and sometimes our departments don’t know all of these. Communication between programs and other essential offices (like the office for international students) becomes essential, and I found that students often have to be the messenger between them. Understanding the opportunities available also becomes important. There are some scholarships and grants that may be especially for us, and others that we may not be eligible for and all that information is really important. I also think having resources for students who may be struggling with language skills would help a lot, particularly in the social sciences and other fields with technical language.
What do you wish you knew before starting graduate school, and what advice would you give to other international students?
About the Editor:
The American Psychology-Law Society (Division 41 of the American Psychology Association) Student Committee is composed of elected student leaders representing the interests of our student members.