From UG to PhD
Michael Fensken is one of the few undergraduates in SUNY Brockport history to enter directly into a clinical psychology doctoral program.
Michael Fensken ’20 knew from a young age that he wanted to be a clinical psychologist. His mother is a licensed clinical social worker who has worked as a therapist since he was a child. After seeing how happy his mother was after making a difference in her clients’ lives, Fensken knew he wanted to do the same.
“My mother always says ‘therapists are born, not made.’ And something about that really resonated with me growing up,” Fensken said. “Having your biggest role model doing what you want to do for a living is a huge influence and motivator to achieve your goals.”
Fensken grew up in Syracuse, NY, and applied to Syracuse University, but he felt disconnected to the campus, pushing him to visit other colleges. It wasn’t until he visited SUNY Brockport that he knew he found his new home.
“The affordability and quality education of Brockport played a role in my decision, but ultimately it was the friendliness of the campus that sold me,” Fensken said. “I’m glad it did, because the amount of opportunities I have received and the passionate professors at Brockport are the reason I got accepted into the PhD program.”
Students need to conduct independent research to even be considered for most doctoral programs in clinical psychology. Most undergraduates don’t have that chance, but Fensken knew he needed to get into student research as early as possible to increase his odds.
“In order to conduct independent research as an undergraduate, a student needs to be highly intentional in their seizing and creating of opportunities,” said Professor of Psychology Lori-Ann Forzano. “A strong PhD candidate needs to be the whole package, and Mike demonstrates that our students can compete among students from ivy-league universities.”
Fensken received his first taste of research as a sophomore, working as a research assistant for Forzano who was studying self-control and impulsivity on college campuses. He continued his work as a research assistant for Associate Professor of Psychology Marcie Desrochers and Assistant Professor of Psychology Jeffery Snarr throughout college. Finally, Forzano offered him the opportunity to conduct his first independent research his senior year. Fensken's research studied the link between anxiety and impulsivity, and he took the lead on the project by receiving a grant and training his own research assistants.
“Working with Mike on his independent research is like working with an advanced graduate student or colleague,” Forzano said. “He is not only dependable and trustworthy, but he knows how to work independently, yet collaboratively in the lab."
Fensken also had assistance with his independent research from Michiko Sorama, a visiting professor from Kyoto Notre Dame in Japan. Sorama provided further instruction on data sets and statistics, but mainly focused on the research working across cultures. Although Sorama moved back home, she and Fensken are still working together on adapting the research so that the study can also be conducted in Japan.
Fensken explored PhD programs at six different universities. He finally settled on the University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV) after meeting with Distinguished Professor and Chair of UNLV’s Department of Psychology Christopher Kearney, who grew up in upstate New York.
“Attending a college in upstate New York helped me create a connection with Dr. Kearney that I think made me stand out among the other students,” Fensken said. “I knew I had to go to UNLV because I felt the same connection that I did to Brockport.”
Fensken will spend the next five to six years studying at UNLV. The PhD program’s curriculum focuses on three different areas of study: classes, research, and clinical work. He will spend most of his time at the on-campus clinic ran by Kearney and the local school district working with adolescents who suffer from anxiety, something Fensken is passionate about.
“I am so grateful for the Department of Psychology at Brockport and the entire faculty,” Fensken said. “Without the opportunities they gave me, I wouldn’t be who I am today.”