Undergraduate Research

Ish Houle ’23

OUR Featured Researcher: Ish Houle ’23

Ish Houle
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones '97

Ish Houle (they/them) is majoring in psychology. They conduct research under the mentorships of Assistant Professor of Psychology Christine Wu and Professor of Psychology and Environmental Studies Cindy Frantz. Their project is titled “‘I go to a crazy competitive HS and I hate it’: A Reflexive Thematic Analysis of High School Competitive Suffering Using Reddit.”

Please describe your project:

“Competitive Suffering” is a colloquial term for a phenomena where, especially in the context of an academic setting, one student shares how they are suffering and another one-ups their suffering. Though heavily talked about informally on social media, in blogs, and in co-peer conversation, competitive suffering has not been defined or studied in a psychological setting. With this nuanced topic and gap in research, the goal of this thesis was to operationalize competitive suffering. To get a broad spectrum of participants, this research collected data through the Reddit forum “r/highschool” and used a reflexive thematic analysis approach to analyze the text of 32 posts.

A brief summary (the elevator speech) of your research project:

Competitive culture is a huge aspect of the academic setting, and one particular aspect of it is a phenomenon that has been colloquially deemed “competitive suffering.” This can take the shape of one student sharing that they pulled all nighters, skipped meals, have overwhelming numbers of classes or extracurriculars, and many other forms of discussing their suffering, only for the other to not offer sympathy or advice but to try and one-up it is harmful to both parties, and leads to the warping of expectations for students. There is an absence of research on this and because there is no definition formed through research there are no concrete solutions, so I am taking the first exploratory step to understanding this phenomenon.

Why is your research important?

High schoolers today are struggling and that struggling is complex, but one reason why many high school students are struggling is due to competitive culture. If this culture is understood, then we are able to work towards changing it. This could include working towards a greater understanding of detrimental competition culture by school counselors and teachers for students, communication to students that mistakes are recoverable, and opting for compassion, not competition, between high school students. 

What does the process of doing your research look like?

Reflexive thematic analysis is a form of qualitative research that involves coding textual data with brief descriptions of sections that are relevant to the research question, and collecting those codes into themes. It also greatly emphasizes the subjectivity of the researcher – so data analysis is an interesting process that involves a lot of thinking, writing, self-reflecting, and discussing with my advisor. 

What knowledge has your research contributed to your field?

Through coding my data, these themes emerged: Quantifiable Reason for Struggle, Helplessness, Attribution, and Motivation for Posting. Implications for these involve recognizing that many high schoolers are struggling due to quantifiable expectations and commitments (including their grades, extracurriculars, talk of college, and hours of sleep), are unsure what to do with that struggle and feel helpless, that with that struggle they are trying to find something to blame, and that with that struggle they have found themself posting on r/highschool (to get camaraderie, advice, or to rant).

In what ways have you showcased your research thus far?

Nothing yet! My Honors defense is scheduled for April 17, 2023. 

How did you get involved in research? What drove you to seek out research experiences in college?

I knew I wanted to do an honors thesis if I could in my first year, because one of the most exciting things in learning to me is trying to become an expert in one topic. Being able to commit a year and a half to one topic was a really exciting opportunity for me, and has been such an informing and fascinating experience. 

What is your favorite aspect of the research process?

I really enjoy this form of qualitative research. It is exciting to me to read a large body of text and look for patterns, and it has been exciting to form a thematic model for my topic based on this investigation of Reddit posts.

How has working with your mentor impacted the development of your research project? How has it impacted you as a researcher?

It has been such an influential experience working with my mentors. Being able to conduct independent research with a mentor who is able to share advice on everything from structuring data collection methods to a design for a thematic model is such an exciting thing to do, especially in undergraduate research. 

What advice would you give to a younger student wanting to get involved in research in your field? 

Research in Psychology is so exciting! Whether you wish to answer a question quantitatively or qualitatively or with a mix of both, the complex field of Psychology allows for you to investigate a question in so many different ways. And, as I’ve learned in my experience, research can be conducted on something that you experience in your day to day life. Always be looking for something that interests you, and if you find something, ask an advisor how you could pursue researching it!