Jill Swirsky earned her undergraduate degree in Psychology/Gender Studies from Drew University in 2010 and her PhD in Developmental Psychology from Temple University in 2014. Her research interests range from adolescent peer relationships (aggression/victimization, social status, social media) to contemporary feminism (how women make decisions about whether to change their name after marriage). Research is fun, but Jill’s true passion is teaching and mentoring undergraduates, which she does as an adjunct instructor at several colleges and universities. When not frantically prepping lectures, Jill enjoys scrap-booking, reading YA fantasy novels, seeing Broadway shows with her mom, and hanging out with her husband (Mike) and two cats (Newt and Copper).
BENEFITS OF DREW
I first became interested in Drew because I wanted a small liberal arts school that was far enough from where I grew up to gain some independence, but not so far that I couldn’t come home on the occasional weekend (although my parents will tell you I rarely came home!). Once I came to visit I absolutely fell in love with the campus and the town of Madison and knew Drew was the place for me. I knew early on that I wanted to major in Psychology, but along the way realized that I was also fascinated by gender development, so I added a Gender Studies major as well. These majors perfectly fit my research interests of studying adolescent social relationships – particularly the role of gender in peer aggression.
Not surprisingly, given those interests, Dr. Jill Cermele was my go-to person for all things research. I was so lucky to have her as the supervisor for my honor’s thesis, which was a qualitative assessment of non-physical aggression among adolescent girls. Her Gender and Resistance to Violence seminar was also my favorite course I took at Drew, and I still tell my students about it! Although Jill was my research mentor, there were many other amazing faculty members I was lucky enough to work with, including Dr. Ann Saltzman, Dr. Jessica Lakin, Dr. Patrick Dolan, Dr. Wendy Kolmar, and Dr. Deb Liebowitz. In fact, one of the things I loved the most about Drew was that the departments were so small and personal – I really had an opportunity to get to know my professors and form lasting relationships.
I was very active in Drew’s student life, including serving as the President of both the Psychology Club and the Women’s Concerns Club, and was also a member of the service fraternity, Alpha Phi Omega. Drew is really where I became the person I am today, and some of my favorite memories involve the people I met there – many of whom are my closest friends today.
PH.D IN PSYCHOLOGY AND DISSERTATION ON SOCIAL MEDIA ENGAGEMENT
When did you decide you wanted to pursue a PhD in psychology and can you discuss the inspiration of your dissertation: Social Media Engagement among Early Adolescence Motivational and Adjustment Correlates?
I’m not sure the exact moment I decided that I wanted to pursue my PhD, but from the moment the idea took hold in my mind I refused to let it go. Getting into graduate school was challenging for me – it took me a few tries to get accepted. At the time it was devastating, but looking back I am grateful for the years between undergraduate and graduate schools as they allowed me to learn much more about the field and myself and ultimately enter graduate school prepared to succeed.
I was accepted to Temple University’s Developmental Psychology PhD program in 2014 to study under an advisor who studies peer relationships, bullying, and victimization. I was always interested in adolescent relationships and my earlier graduate work reflects that. But as my dissertation loomed closer, we started to realize that a conversation about peer relationships simply must include acknowledging the power of social media. And so, although neither of us had much experience with social media (either personally or professionally!) the focus of my dissertation shifted towards understanding the role of social media engagement in adolescent adjustment. I started to realize that a great deal of literature on social media focuses on the time/frequency that adolescents are spending on social media… but far less considers what adolescents actually spend that time doing. This question became the center of my dissertation, which identified four specific social media behaviors and explored their role in adjustment outcomes. Ultimately, I found that different behaviors were associated with different adjustment outcomes – suggesting the importance of taking a more nuanced approach to “adolescent social media use.”
After hearing about my research, people often ask me if social media is “good” or “bad.” As with anything, the answer is “both.” We tend to focus on the negative aspects of social media, and often fail to consider the possible benefits – things like peer connections, creativity, exploration, identity development. Overall, the best route is likely a combination of good parental monitoring, boundary setting, and open dialogue with adolescents about both the risks and benefits of social media.
What are the highlights of your work as a psychology professor?
I really enjoy helping students find their path. I like to say I have a strong “pay it forward” mentality and that there were a lot of faculty and older students who helped me find my way on my journey. Now I see it as my duty to do the same for others, with the added benefit that I really enjoy it! In fact, one of my favorite courses that I teach is “Careers in Psychology” which is a professional development course aimed at helping students identify and hone their path through the field of psychology. I’ve also recently become very interested in the scholarship of teaching and learning – there is a whole science dedicated to best practices in education which I have really enjoyed learning more about and integrating into my classroom.
What do you feel is the key to your success as a professor?
My greatest strengths as an educator lay in my approachability and accessibility, I work very hard from day one to establish a strong rapport with my students. One of the strategies that works very well is to humanize myself – I show pictures of my cats, use memes to explain concepts, and never pass up the opportunity to make a pop culture reference (you’d be amazed how many psychology concepts pop up in Disney, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings!). That said, it’s important to create strong boundaries and I discourage my students from viewing me as a friend or therapist. But by showing them that I genuinely care about their unique experiences I create an environment where students feel comfortable – which is the first step to fostering learning.
ADVICE FOR STUDENTS
What advice would you give students who are starting out?
1) Talk to as many people and get as many perspectives as possible. Recognize that a person’s opinion is just that and you can take or leave whatever you want. The more people you talk to from a broad range of backgrounds, the better you will be able to sort out the big picture.
2) Keep an open mind. Don’t lock yourself into one field or one timeline – allow yourself the freedom to explore many different avenues. Sometimes you don’t know what you enjoy until you try it, and conversely, sometimes you think you enjoy something only to find that you don’t. Knowing what you don’t want to do is equally as valuable as knowing what you do what to do.
3) It’s ok to be uncertain. It’s OK to feel overwhelmed. And it’s OK to change course. Many times. In fact, I recommend it! I like to joke that by the time I got into Temple I was on Life Plan Q. Be persistent, keep your eye on the end goal, and don’t let anything stand in your way.
What career other than your own would you like to pursue?
I’d love to own a bed and breakfast. I also love to scrapbook and have an Etsy shop!
If you could travel anywhere in the world tomorrow where it would be?
I’ve always been very interested in European history – particularly Tudor-era England. I’d love to go to England and see all of the historic places where Henry VIII and Elizabeth I lived. and Highclere Castle because… Downton Abbey!
Any fun facts you would like to share?
I have several pen pals who live all over the world. It’s so nice to disconnect from e-mail and receive a handwritten letter. They take more time (both to write and to receive), but there’s something about the delayed gratification that makes it feel even more worthwhile. I also have two cats named Newton and Copernicus (Newt and Copper), and play the harp!