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Home » Discover Rackham » Student Spotlight: Patricia Chen

“I’ve always been interested in psychology. Since I was young I had self-help and pop psychology books all over my house.” From Singapore, Patricia came to U-M for her undergraduate degree and continued for graduate school. She says, “My decision to come here was to pursue this passion of mine. U-M is a powerhouse in psychology and the social psychology program is one of the top in the U.S. Grad school has been a dream for me. I always wanted to further my education in psychology because I knew from an early age that I wanted to do this. I still remember standing in front of East Hall and I just couldn’t believe I was here. Now and then when I introspect, it makes me so appreciative to be able to walk the halls of this department.”

“Just being around the faculty changes the way you think about things. They have incredibly unique and insightful ways of thinking about the world. Each faculty member is very different. I have always said that you learn as much from spending half an hour talking with a professor as you would in half a semester’s worth of class.

“I’ve been thrilled with the ability to collaborate across departments. I’m working with professors in statistics, physics, education, business, chemistry, and of course, psychology. They respect me, support my ideas, and give me the autonomy to do the work I am passionate about. My department and advisors have also supported my reaching out to people who I think are relevant to what I’m passionate about. That’s something I’m really grateful for.”

Patricia studies what motivates people at a broad level. She explains, “I’m very interested in questions like: why are some people passionate about their work and others are not – and how do we achieve this elusive experience? Why do some people take actions to change bad circumstances whereas others accept and go along with them? What makes people competitive? I’m interested in a range of motivational issues.”

She describes, “I want to gain an understanding of how people’s beliefs motivate them. A core tenant of social psychology is that people are motivated by the way they interpret the world. There are these fundamental assumptions people have that they are not conscious about that change their priorities, choices, and actions. My research focuses on how these beliefs, or “mindsets,” motivate people. I answer my questions through this perspective.”

Patricia specifically looks at motivation for work: “At least in America, there are two fundamental mindsets about how passion for work should be achieved. First is that you find your fit, something you’re really interested in, then you’ll be naturally happy and successful. The second is about developing competency in what you do and interest and passion naturally follow. Based on these, people have different priorities on what they do. If you look for fit you prioritize enjoyment of your work from the outset, but people who believe in developing competency have a more long-term view and are happy to subordinate immediate enjoyment for things like pay.”

“My overall goals in psychology are to help people better understand themselves, to understand others around them, and help them get better at something they want to improve, to achieve their goals. In psychology, there are two different camps: descriptive work which considers the world as it is and describes why people do what they do; and prescriptive work which focuses on how we can get people to do things better. I have a prescriptive goal but I think all researchers should start with a descriptive foundation. My research here has primarily been descriptive, but I want to understand how to translate descriptive to prescriptive research as I embark on my postdoc. I don’t think we should jump into interventions before we understand situations thoroughly and why things are the way they currently are.” Patricia will begin a postdoc position at Stanford next year once she completes her doctorate.

As a competitive gymnast in Singapore, Patricia came to campus looking for a physical outlet that was less risky and equally enjoyable, so she tried out for a few dance teams. She recalls, “I’ve been a competitive ballroom dancer on the U-M team for many years. The highlight for me was going to the U.S. Nationals with my partner.” She stays active by taking breaks for walks in the Arb as well. “I love to walk in the arb. The arb and botanical gardens are my wonderful escape. I’m really grateful we have that. Every so often I go there for a break to take my mind off things.”

As a student who has been an undergraduate and graduate student here, Patricia has a unique perspective on what it means to be a U-M student. “Graduate school was very different from undergrad. I came in thinking that it would be an extension of college, but it was not at all. Overnight, my undergraduate GSIs became my peers. Suddenly I was walking around on campus self-conscious because anyone could be my student. I personally really like teaching, it is one of the reasons I study motivation. I like to help students understand why things happen. I love to see when they’ve gotten to the stage when they understand something, when they come in so excited to be in class and they recognize psychological principles in their everyday lives. Seeing my students experience that kind of excitement is really fulfilling.”

“Next, I hope to be what my advisors are to me now. I hope to be that someday.”