Carrie Carmody

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Trying on different identities and discovering one’s place in the world is part of the rite of passage for modern day teens. Friends are instrumental in this process and today’s virtual social networks provide a potentially unlimited environment for exploration. But, does interaction with Facebook friends function in the same way?

This is a question that UCI psychology and social behaviordoctoral student Carrie Carmody sought to answer in her recently defended dissertation, “You have a friend request; The role of virtual social networks in identity exploration.”  What Carrie found was that most adolescents use Facebook for impression management rather than for identity exploration.

“There is a great deal of belief among practitioners and researchers that teens explore identity in their virtual networks,” Carrie notes.  Her research shows that only a few teens use their virtual friendships in this way and that most have established real world networks that they are merely transferring to a virtual context. “There appears to be a significant difference in the developmental impact of real world environments that we are not yet seeing in ‘virtual networks like Facebook,” she added.  

Putting Things in Context

Context is something Carrie understands well.  After 20 years of business management experience in several Fortune 500 companies, she went back to school in fall 2003 at Boise State University. “Transitioning from a role of corporate management to that of student has been frustrating at times.” Carrie says. “People tend to view a person within a specific context and make assumptions about experience and abilities based on that context. I continually try to challenge people’s assumptions about stereotypes.”

Carrie completed her Bachelors of Science in Psychology and was encouraged by several faculty members to continue her education. She enrolled in graduate school at UCI with an eye to becoming a professor. Her experiences as the twice-elected Associated Graduate Students (AGS) President highlighted her administrative and leadership skills and honed an interest in program and infrastructure development.

As an advocate for graduate students, Carrie, was instrumental in establishing the Graduate Resource Center, an innovative service designed to support graduate student professional, career, and personal development through a wide range of workshops and events.  She also played an important role in the development of a campus-wide New New Graduate Student Orientation designed to help new students navigate their graduate career at UC Irvine.

“Helping administrators and faculty learn to view graduate students as adults with lives, and not just students has been very rewarding,” she says of her time as the AGS President. “I learned more in working with university administration in two years than I ever imagined possible.  The dynamics of a university campus are fascinating and the required collaborations across disparate understandings provide a myriad of opportunities to ponder.”

Carrie entered graduate school with an interest in studying why people do what they do. A side project in 2008 looking at the new Facebook application and the wide variety of opinions and fears people displayed about it sparked an interest that has shaped her research. “I didn’t come here to study Facebook, but I have an interest in adolescent development, it’s the key to understanding belief systems, and I see a connection between teens’ development and the Internet that I didn’t plan. Technology is changing quickly, but we don’t know how it’s changing us. There’s a need for research in this area.”

Her research has been published in a variety of journals including Computer Technology and Application which addresses the pitfalls of embracing new technologies before their impact is fully understood. “Technology is shaping and changing our world. We as scientists of human behavior must stay abreast of new technologies and study their impact on human development and interaction.”

Technology and social media in particular have played an important role in Carrie’s time at UCI. Diagnosed with breast cancer in her 5th year of study, she stayed current on campus activities and continued to conduct her research in large part due to Facebook. “Unable to really come to campus, I still felt very connected to my friends and colleagues because I could still follow their daily lives.”  Research shows that virtual networks can be very important when no other avenue of contact is possible. “It helped to know I had a network and wasn’t fighting alone,” Carrie notes.  

Finding Mentors in All the Right Places

If you ask Carrie who has been most instrumental in helping her to achieve her academic goals, she credits two individuals. “The first is my advisor Professor Salvatore Maddi.  He allowed me the autonomy I needed, while providing content support and encouragement that made for an interactive and collaborative working arrangement.” Carrie stresses that the fit between the advisor and the graduate student is critical. And finding this mentor is one of the most important and gratifying components in the journey to a doctoral degree. In addition to Professor Maddi, she credits Dean Frances Leslie with keeping her grounded and focused. “Dean Leslie has been a terrific sounding board for ideas and frustrations I have faced along the way. I have found that having the right faculty that one can turn to, without judgment, is a key aspect to getting through to the PhD.”

Next Steps

Having successfully defended her doctoral dissertation, Carrie’s immediate next step will be to take a few days off and unwind, spend time with her children and begin planning for the next chapter.  “It is easy to become lost in one’s research. My children have been a great press in forcing me to disengage and switch gears to other activities.” 

She has been offered a position as the Evaluation Manger with The Olin Group, a prestigious firm here in Orange County that provides strategic support at many levels of nonprofit operations. In her new role, she will develop program evaluation tools designed to enhance a non-profit organizations’ ability to evaluate program impact and efficiencies.
“UCI has provided me an education well beyond my wildest expectations,” she says. “My research has allowed me to travel and present to international audiences, work with organizations and groups that are shaping 21st century marketing, and provided a journey of self-discovery. We may have to decide our place in the world in adolescence, but I am living proof we are not chained to that place.”

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