An Interview with Richard Valencia

"The optimal level of education needed in the field of educational psychology is at least a masters degree, but even then, there isn’t a lot of opportunity to work in educational psychology without a higher degree."

Richard R. Valencia is a professor of educational psychology and Mexican American Studies at The University of Texas at Austin.

Richard R. Valencia has a PhD in Early Childhood Education, a Master of Arts in Educational Psychology and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, all from the University of California Santa Barbara. He also holds an Associate of Arts in General Psychology from Santa Barbara Community College. For his recently published book, Dismantling Contemporary Deficit Thinking: Educational Thought and Practice (2010), Dr. Valencia won the 2011 American Educational Research Association Outstanding Book Award and the 2011 American Educational Studies Association Critics Choice Book Award.

In your own words, what is educational psychology?

Educational psychology is a bridge between the field of psychology and the field of education. In my department at The University of Texas at Austin, we focus on the application of psychology to problems in education. I really see educational psychology as a confluence of these 2 areas.

What classes do you teach in educational psychology?

In the educational psychology department, I have taught or teach several courses that address race and culture within education, including Psychological Foundations of Education, the Individual in a Racialized Society, Tests and Measurement, Educational Assessment of Students of Color, Sociocultural Influences on Learning, Chicano Educational Struggles, and Mexican Americans in the Schooling Process.

How long have you been a professor of educational psychology?

I began my career as a professor in 1978 at the University of California Santa Cruz. From then until 1989, I taught in the education departments of University of California Santa Cruz and Stanford University. I have been a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at The University of Texas at Austin since 1989.

I have been a professor for a long time, but my first goal was to be a middle school teacher. I did quite a few classroom observations and realized that I was more interested in research and perhaps counseling than I was in teaching.

If a student said to you, “I am interested in studying educational psychology,” what would your response be?

If a student expressed their interest in studying educational psychology, I would tell them to go for it. It is a diverse and dynamic field, and in our department at The University of Texas at Austin, we do work in a lot of specialized areas.

In your opinion, what are the biggest hurdles or difficulties that students entering an educational psychology program have?

I think the biggest hurdles that students face when they enter an educational psychology program are the ideas that it will be easy and that there is a set path to earning a masters degree or a PhD. Students in these programs need to work very hard, mind their deadlines, and keep up on the most recent educational psychology literature. Students must also be open minded to do well in an educational psychology program.

What personality traits do you think would help someone succeed as an educational psychologist and what traits would hinder success?

The personality traits that will help students succeed in educational psychology are the abilities to work hard, focus on details, meet deadlines, and synthesize information. These are essential strengths to have at the graduate level.

What courses in educational psychology are most important for a student to take?

In terms of preparation for focusing in educational psychology, I think students should take as many general psychology classes as possible. Having degrees in psychology and taking the classes required to earn those degrees have really helped me with my work as an educational psychologist.

There are other classes that are important to educational psychology students. It helps if students have a good background in statistics because a lot of the information students are going to read uses a lot of high-level inferential statistics. Classes in personality theory, foundations of learning theory, and the changing demography of the U.S. are essential to studying educational psychology.

Outside of educational psychology, what courses would you recommend to a student?

Outside of educational psychology, I would recommend students take classes in cultural anthropology. More and more students are doing ethnographic work within educational psychology, and I think a background in anthropology is good for that.

What skills can students expect to gain while studying educational psychology?

Students can expect to gain a variety of skills while studying educational psychology, including the ability to comprehend statistics and synthesize vast quantities of information. Another important skill I hope students gain from studying educational psychology is empathy.

Can you give a few study tips that would help a educational psychology student succeed?

The biggest tip I can give to any student is to prepare for class and for their assignments. Professors spend a lot of time preparing for their classes, writing notes, and forming anticipatory questions. It annoys teachers when students haven’t done the readings or don’t complete their assignments on time.

I would also suggest that if a student is interested in a field one of their professors teaches in, they should speak to their professors about their goals and career aspirations. I think they will find it very useful.

For a student who is not interested in an academic career, what is the optimal level of education needed for a job in the field of educational psychology?

The optimal level of education needed in the field of educational psychology is at least a masters degree, but even then, there isn’t a lot opportunity to work in educational psychology without a higher degree. Students with bachelors degrees might be able to assist a professor’s research project, but it wouldn’t be more than typing and computer work.

What is the job outlook for students with degrees in educational psychology?

Students who have a masters degree in educational psychology can try to find work at a community college, but it would be difficult to find a lot of openings with this economy. Teaching at a community college can have a very heavy teaching load, so it is a lot of work.

In order to enhance a student’s job prospects after graduation, they should make sure they start researching jobs and publishing early. Looking at the job market early gives students time to learn about where the openings are and what universities are looking for. Publishing makes students much more attractive job candidates.

A student who earns a PhD in educational psychology and wants to work at the university level can expect to make between $55,000 and $60,000 when they begin their career. They can gradually move up and ultimately earn between $80,000 and $100,000.

How can undergraduate students prepare themselves if they are interested in studying educational psychology at the graduate level?

The best way undergraduate students can prepare themselves to study educational psychology at the graduate level is to have a solid foundation in psychology. It isn’t a prerequisite that they major in psychology, but it is very beneficial. I would also suggest students take statistics because it is heavily used in educational psychology.

What advice do you have for students who are interested in studying educational psychology?

My advice for students who are interested in studying educational psychology is to go for it. The field is growing, and the literature on educational psychology is exploding right now. At The University of Texas at Austin, we don’t offer a bachelors degree in educational psychology, so students would need to enter graduate school to earn a degree in the field. As undergraduate students, however, they can take some of our courses, which can be a nice introduction into the field of study.