Degree In Sight

Theresa Boswell was in the end of her second year of grad school at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee when she began having problems related to her pregnancy.  
"Maysen was an 11-and-a-half pound baby, so it was like I was carrying twins," Boswell recalls. "It was really stressful for my body, and I was tired a lot of the time." 
She went to her adviser, Nadya Fouad, PhD, who not only empathized but helped Boswell craft a plan that included taking a semester off.  
"She helped me make a smooth transition," says Boswell, who's now working on her dissertation.  
Like Boswell, most grad students will at some point need to talk with their supervisors, advisers or research mentors about difficult personal matters, whether it's a life change like pregnancy, sick parents or divorce, or a more complex problem, such as substance abuse or mental illness. In most cases, supervisors will be helpful and supportive—supervisory relationships are meant to be collaborative relationships built on trust. But having these conversations isn't always easy, says APA Ethics Director Stephen Behnke, PhD, JD. That's because while supervisors are your allies, they're also your evaluators, responsible for ensuring that you become a competent clinician, researcher or academic. Also, some supervisors are less than perfect. They may be struggling with their own personal problems, or they may not be the shoulder you want to cry on. At worst, they might divulge information they shouldn't.  
What's more, different programs have different philosophies when it comes to disclosing. Clinical programs tend to emphasize the importance of disclosure, while research-oriented programs don't.  
How can you determine when to disclose? Experts recommend you:   

  • Categorize your problem. If you're having a relatively common, neutral problem, such as feeling overwhelmed with coursework, talk to your adviser right away, Behnke advises. But if you're facing a difficult personal issue—a divorce or a personal impairment, for example—first assess the relationship you have with your adviser. Do you feel comfortable sharing sensitive information with him or her? If so, you may want to discuss it. If not, consider talking it through with someone else first. Remember, though, if you're in a clinical program, weigh whether your problem is affecting your work. "If a student is so compromised they can't see clients safely, that's an issue," says Fouad. 

  • Seek outside help. If you decide to talk to someone else first, choose a faculty member, friend or family member you respect and trust to help you figure out if and how you want to disclose your problem. Other outside resources can help, too. Many universities have an ombudsperson who can act as a sounding board, educate you about the school's policies and procedures and help you make an informed decision on how to proceed, says Behnke. (He recommends asking the ombudsperson if he or she is willing to keep the conversation confidential, because he or she is not necessarily required to do so.) Also, if you have a mental illness or physical disability, organizations including the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill or student groups can provide resources, education and support, including on how to disclose. If you are pregnant, adopting a child or have family-care issues, a document developed by the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers provides legal guidance (go to (DOC)). 

  • Don't stall. Once you've decided to share your issue, tell the appropriate person as soon as possible, advises Antioch University New England practicum director Lorraine Mangione, PhD. She recalls one graduate student who revealed late in a semester that he was struggling with serious depression and was falling behind on his assignments and writing his clinic notes. Because he talked with her then, Mangione was able to help him structure his coursework to meet his deadlines, and she supervised his clinical work more closely to make sure he wasn't overwhelmed.

  • Craft your message. How you communicate can be as important as when, Mangione adds. In general, strike a balance between withholding and sharing too much: While your supervisor desires an open and trusting relationship with you, supervision isn't therapy. Show responsibility, too, Behnke advises. Depending on your issue, "if you go in showing you've educated yourself, that you know what your options are and what your rights and responsibilities are, that's to your advantage and the school's advantage."  
    With such loaded topics as substance abuse or mental illness, a calm, matter-of-fact demeanor can go a long way, adds Jeremiah (not his real name), a graduate of a university in the Northeast. He disclosed to supervisors and faculty that he had a history of substance abuse and a related criminal record, an issue that arose when a practicum site asked if they could do a background check. After talking with his supervisor on how to handle these situations, he now ends interviews by saying, "There's something else I need to tell you about" and then briefly and straightforwardly notes his background.  

  • Know your rights. APA's Ethics Code states that you're not required to disclose personal information, except when it's preventing you from competently carrying out your coursework or clinical work, or there's a question of safety involved. In fact, some training programs have moved away from requiring students to share personal information that doesn't affect their work, say experts. Fourth-year Antioch University New England student Rachel Urbano faced a situation where a supervisor prodded her into sharing personal material that wasn't relevant to her work—and she's sorry she did. "I felt kind of duped." she says. "As supervisees, sometimes we don't realize we have the right to ask why they want to know something before we disclose." If you do feel pressed and aren't sure how to handle it, consider going to your training director or ombudsperson to talk it out, experts say.

  • Show insight. Thoughtfully and rationally sharing a problem with your supervisor, adviser or mentor demonstrates self-reflection—a skill that will serve you well as a future therapist, says Mangione. That holds for research-oriented students, too, who are just as likely as their clinical counterparts to encounter personal problems they'll need to talk about effectively.  
    Take an insightful, responsible and curious attitude toward the issue, Mangione suggests.  
    "My hope is that by learning to talk with supervisors about these difficult issues," she says, "students will learn to talk to clients about these things as well."

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.

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