Sam Buemi PhD in Psychology

Lots of self-help books advocate looking within.

Believe in yourself. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Attitude breeds success.

All of those things can propel you forward, says Sam Buemi*, who earned his PhD at Capella University and now teaches sociology and psychology at a technical college in central Wisconsin. But in the long run, Buemi believes your success is more likely to hinge on your surroundings—in particular, the people around you.

His research on the transformative power of social environments led Buemi to publish a book on the topic: The Power of Us—10 Secrets of Success. “One of the principles I write about is that success comes not simply from working hard (although that is important) but from surrounding yourself with people that increase your chances of success,” Buemi says. “Interacting with top-notch instructors was certainly a part of the framework that helped me succeed at Capella.”

Reinforcing Social Networks

“We tend to overrate the power of hard work,” Buemi says. Yes, persistence and focus are important. But our interactions and connections with family, friends, coworkers, and mentors are much better predictors of our success. Strong support systems reinforce our best habits at work, school, home, and elsewhere—so it takes less energy to stay disciplined and on task.

Given the focus on social connections, it’s not surprising to learn that Buemi holds a master’s in sociology (his undergrad is in education.) The master’s degree helped him make the leap from teaching high school to teaching at the college level. But in 2011, Buemi decided he needed a PhD to progress further in his career.

He selected Capella’s PhD in Psychology program in part because it didn’t require him to drive back and forth to a bricks-and-mortar campus. “I’ve been in both online and on campus environments—as a student and as an instructor,” he says. “Capella was as challenging—if not more so—than any academic environment I’ve experienced.”

Stay the Course

Buemi benefited from the flexibility Capella offered. He completed his PhD in five years, having three kids and moving several times while working on the degree. He says the social environment at Capella helped keep him on task. He particularly liked residency, an intense setting where program participants come together for a few days to meet with each other and Capella instructors.

“I’ve endured lots of challenges, including a bike trip that went halfway across the country,” Buemi says. “But I don’t think there was anything harder than a three-day residency.”

Residency taught him how to take feedback and apply it to his dissertation. The sessions helped him define his dissertation topic and put it in a big-picture frame. Buemi also liked that faculty urged him to start thinking about his PhD topic from day one of his program. When it came time to start writing, he was able to complete the dissertation in just nine months.

“The moment you arrive at Capella, start your dissertation,” Buemi advises. “You will tweak it, change it, bend it, and at times you’ll break it—but keep the topic and continue to improve on it.”

Too many students change topics midway, losing precious time, Buemi says. He advises staying the course. “You don’t want to spend your entire life trying to get a terminal degree. Be practical.”

In the end, though, your environment is more likely a predictor of your success than any particular action you take. That’s a lesson included in Buemi’s book, and an idea that his experience at Capella reinforced. “The support system at Capella integrated well into my needs as a student,” he says. “My advisor, mentor, and the live online learning sessions made a big difference with my learning. Without that support system, I do not think I would have been able to finish as soon as I did.”

Learn more about Capella’s PhD in Psychology program.

*Actual Capella learner who agreed to appear in promotional materials for Capella.