Liem is Founder of Nationally Prestigious PhD Program in Clinical Psychology
September 03, 2012
Leslie Limon and Jim Mortenson
What kinds of parent-child relationships help teenagers make a successful transition into adulthood? How do relationships evolve between emerging adults (no longer really adolescents but not yet mature adults) and their parents or other adults, or their peers? And how do environmental, parental, and individual factors affect the adjustment of young adults at risk, such as high school dropouts or those who suffered childhood sexual abuse?
Questions such as these have driven the research of Joan Liem, professor of psychology, as well as dean of graduate studies and intercollegiate programs from 2008 to 2011, until her recent retirement. In seeking answers together with her colleagues and graduate students, she identified personal, interpersonal, and environmental factors that elevate risk as well as those that promote resilience with respect to young adults’ adjustment. Her findings have strong implications for age-related policies and programs. “Because young people ‘age out’ of the educational system at 18,” she says, “programs to help them succeed in school after they turn 18 just don’t exist. Our work suggests strongly that that’s a misguided policy. The idea that young adults can manage on their own without the help of older adults is just nonsense.”
Liem’s approach to scholarship integrates research, teaching, and mentoring. Some of her publications, for example, serve as teaching materials for students at UMass Boston and elsewhere. Her approach also parallels the model of ideal parenting she has both studied and used: provide guidance and structure, yet foster autonomy and sound independent decision-making. She has encouraged her students first to be active learners, then to craft research questions using her major focus areas as a framework. Eventually, they have become collaborators, as evidenced by her long list of co-authored publications bearing their names alongside hers.
As a mentor, Liem learned the value of reaching out to the whole student. But even as she acknowledges the personal and career-related issues going on in her students’ lives, she still insists they meet high standards in their work. “When I submitted my master’s thesis and PhD dissertation to other reviewers, they always asked, ‘Joan signed off on this, right?’” laughs Jesse Tauriac, who earned his PhD in clinical psychology in 2009. “The implication was that if Joan was satisfied, they almost didn’t even have to read it.”
Give-and-take, a cornerstone of her mentoring approach, enabled Liem to learn as much from her students as they did from her. Tauriac recalls meetings when he and his peers were reviewing existing theories on the stage of life called emerging adulthood: “During one discussion, Joan asked, ‘Is there anything these theorists are missing? Are they expressing anything that you can’t relate to?’” says Tauriac, who is African American. “Joan encouraged us to relate concepts and theories to our own lives and stressed the importance of considering racial or ethnic experiences outside mainstream norms. It felt incredibly empowering to know my perspective mattered.” At the same time, her students were strengthening their critical thinking skills by reviewing the literature through the lens of social justice.
“I feel like the experiences my students have brought into my research team have expanded and changed the questions I have studied in important ways,” says Liem. Her research findings also benefited. For example, when Liem and her students interviewed high-school dropouts about their family and peer relationships, the fact that her students closely identified with their issues sharpened their ability to interpret what the young people they were interviewing were trying to communicate.
Liem, who earned a PhD in clinical psychology from Boston University, was attracted to clinical psychology because of its strong scientist practitioner model. “I think research is at its best when the questions pursued grow out of clinical practice,” she says. “I also think clinical practice is at its best when guided by empirical research.” She came to UMass Boston as an assistant professor of psychology in 1974 and pursued her research with a passion, fueled by her experiences as a clinician and as a teacher. She would go on to develop, implement, and direct the PhD Program in Clinical Psychology; and hold several administrative posts culminating in her 2008 appointment as dean of graduate studies.
Once she became dean, out of necessity Liem’s research focus shifted to the studies of her graduate students, often mentoring them as they worked on their doctoral dissertations. One of her final two graduate students, Kara Lustig, is set to receive her PhD in June. She springboarded off Liem’s research on emerging adults to study how women’s sexual attitudes and behavior are affected by being treated as sexual objects. While this was a relatively new area of scholarship for Liem, her response, says Lustig, was to “throw herself into the topic completely; Joan gets really excited about learning new things.”
For Liem, the payoff comes when students with self-doubt master a challenge and come into their own. She recalls a past doctoral student whose perfectionism was impeding progress on the dissertation—due to a lack of enthusiasm for the topic, she eventually learned. Everything changed once she let the student take ownership for designing the study. “The dissertation defense was brilliant,” she says. “This was an amazingly creative individual who just needed more room. It was a real learning experience for both of us.”
Seeing former students apply their education to their professional work is also rewarding. Tauriac, set to join the faculty of Lasell College this fall, is drawing on his graduate research with Liem on the effects of parental and peer support on academic persistence among African American students. He will be integrating into some of his courses issues related to stigmatization experienced by students of color in academic settings. He plans to create a future course specifically on this topic, using it to design interventions and educate the college community to help shape institutional policy.
It is to the credit of the PhD Program in Clinical Psychology that graduates like Tauriac create strong bridges between scholarship and practice. This highly selective program admits eight to ten students yearly from as many as 350 applicants. As Liem’s most lasting legacy to the university, the PhD program bears the imprint of decades of her intellectual energy and passion. The program and the research conducted by many of its faculty are a living enactment of former Vice President of Academic Affairs Ernest Lynton’s concept of the “scholarship of engagement.”
Liem has also placed her stamp on the university in other ways by contributing to a host of strategic planning initiatives, including the 15-year strategic plan that UMass Boston unveiled last year. In her role as dean, she also drew on her own experience in developing the clinical PhD program to mentor faculty in other departments as they designed and implemented their own doctoral programs. Liem is now special assistant to Provost Winston Langley, a role in which she will undoubtedly continue to make her mark, exemplifying the Confucian advice she has often given to her graduating students: “Wheresoever you go, go with all your heart.”