Cover Story

Graduate school fears

Grad school and its aftermath are like a marathon: No sooner have you turned one corner than another long stretch awaits you.

Some parts of the course are more formidable than others, and hence may create more anxiety. These include finishing your dissertation, paying off debt, landing a job, making enough money, getting licensed and finding work-life balance.

The start of the school year is a perfect time to face these common fears, come up with a plan to quell them and in the process, stay firmly on track. Here, experts provide some encouraging statistics, as well as some shortcuts to addressing each concern.

Fear #1: Will I finish my dissertation?

Facts: It's a daunting proposition, to turn out an original manuscript approved by discerning critics. Take heart in the fact that about 80 percent of grad students who finish their coursework do end up completing their dissertations, according to a meta-analysis in the book "In Pursuit of the PhD" (Princeton University Press, 1992). However, the average time to earning a psychology doctorate is 5.4 years — a bit longer than you'd expect — so strategies to avoid all-but-dissertation purgatory are key, says University of Scranton psychology professor John Norcross, PhD.

How to get it done:

  • Create a schedule. Meet with your dissertation chair and map out deadlines for each stage of your research. Be sure to account for snags that may arise, such as unexpected problems with data analysis, technology and participant recruitment. "From Day 1, my chair and I were on the same page," says Sarah Dobson, PsyD, who successfully defended her dissertation at Argosy University in December and graduated in February. "Sharing a timeline and realistically sticking to it is really important."

  • Finish it before your internship. Most interns find that busy schedules leave little time for writing in the evenings. Working far away from your home program can complicate matters because you can't meet face to face with your adviser, a critical piece of keeping the process on track. Getting as much as possible done beforehand can minimize some of those hazards, says Taryn Myers, PhD, who finished her internship at the Medical College of Georgia and the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center and graduated from Kent State University in August. On her adviser's advice, she stopped her job at the end of a spring semester so she could work on her dissertation before going on internship. "Carving out uninterrupted time to work on it can be really helpful," she says.

  • Find support. Meeting regularly with other dissertation-writing students can guide you toward completion, adds Myers. She and her fellow interns held weekly dinner meetings to relax, vent about the stresses of the internship and encourage one another to finish their dissertations. The support worked: Myers defended her dissertation in March.

Fear #2: Are there jobs, and will I find one?

Facts: Today's sputtering job market appears to be taking its toll on new graduates, at least in their perceptions, according to preliminary data from the APA Center for Workforce Studies. Twice the number of psychologists who graduated in 2009 saw the job market as bleak or poor than those who graduated previously. That said, the reality is rosier than those attitudes reflect, other data from the survey show. Ninety percent of 2009 graduates held jobs or were completing a full-time postdoctoral fellowship. Eighty percent of those working were working a single job, 20 percent had more than one job, and 10 percent were employed part time. Other hopeful statistics: Nearly three-quarters of those employed said their primary position was their first choice, and 68 percent said they were satisfied or very satisfied with their jobs on most counts.

How to secure a good job:

  • Network. Rubbing elbows with colleagues is vital: Thirty-nine percent of new 2009 graduates reported informal channels as their most successful job-search strategy, according to preliminary APA data. Not surprisingly, electronic means of finding jobs are on the rise, while more traditional means are waning: Sixteen percent of students noted using electronic resources as their most successful job-search strategy, while only about 6 percent cited print ads. Be sure to join the listservs in your specialty area and for your state psychological association, urges Josephine S. Minardo, PsyD, chair of APA's Committee on Early Career Psychologists. She also suggests visiting Lists, which provides a comprehensive list of psychology listservs. "These groups tend to be extremely welcoming to early career psychologists, so they represent a great opportunity to start networking at this stage of your career," she says.

  • Be professional. Think of yourself as an expert rather than a student, Minardo adds. That means donning professional garb and creating a business card. "You'd be surprised at how few people have one at this stage of their career," she says.

  • Keep at it. Persistence is key, says Myers, who hunted for four months before landing her dream job at a small liberal arts college in Virginia. To stay on track, she called her adviser when she started to feel discouraged and asked colleagues for feedback on her application materials.

  • Consider a compromise. The poor economic climate might mean having to accept a job that may not be exactly what you were looking for, Dobson adds. After months of pounding the pavement in New York, she took a counseling position in a nursing home working with clients who are elderly and who have degenerative illnesses, a job that lacks benefits and pays fee-for-service rather than a salary. Having a positive attitude is central to accepting the situation. "I think I'll learn a lot from it," she says.

Fear #3: Will I be able to pay off my student loans?

Facts: Most psychology students struggle with debt. According to 2007 APA work force data, recent graduates in health service provider subfields had an average debt of $78,360, with 77 percent facing some debt. Graduate students with a research bent fared better, with an average debt of $46,743 and a little more than half carrying no debt at all. In general, PsyD graduates have larger debt loads than their PhD counterparts because these programs are generally housed in private institutions that have less access to traditional academic sources of support, such as assistantships and fellowships. In fact, some PsyD graduates hold as much as $120,000 in loans, the APA data show.

How to pay it off:

  • Consolidate. Choose a federal program, rather than a bank, to merge your loans. Not only does the government offer the lowest rates, but it won't sell your loan for a higher price, as banks can do, says Minardo. (The best site for these programs is Direct Loan Servicing.) Pick a plan with the lowest monthly payment, she advises — you can always pay more than the minimum, and you can change the payment plan later if you want to.

  • Work it off. Consider whittling down your loan through one of the many federal programs that will help you pay back your loan in exchange for serving underserved populations. The largest is the Health Resources and Services Administration's National Health Service Corps, which provides health care to underserved and rural populations. By agreeing to two years of service, licensed psychologists receive up to $50,000 in loan repayments, in addition to a salary. Psychologists also qualify for loan repayment by working 20 hours a week for four years as part of a new pilot program set up by the corps (PDF, 492KB).  What's more, the entire National Health Service Corps program received a large funding boost with the 2009 federal stimulus package, making it an attractive option for greater numbers of early career psychologists, says Nina G. Levitt, EdD, associate executive director of APA's Education Government Relations Office. Similar programs are available through the U.S. departments of Education, Veterans Affairs, Defense, and Health and Human Services, including the Indian Health Service, the Army Reserve and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Research-oriented loan repayment programs are available through the National Institutes of Health. 

Fear #4: Will I earn enough?

Facts: Based on 2007 figures but adjusting for inflation, the median full-time starting salary for new graduates was $64,778, with a range from $55,120 to $76,320, APA workforce data show. New psychologists in applied fields earned the most, with $84,800 as the median salary for those in business and industry. Assistant professors in university settings made a median salary of $59,890.

How to maximize your earnings:

  • Know your value. Before interviewing for a job, study the salary range for your job prospect in your region and negotiate accordingly. Visit the Center for Workforce Studies for an accurate read on that information, and go for the top of that range.

  • Sell yourself. Tell potential employers about extra skills that can enhance what you bring to a job, Minardo advises. These may include experience in program development or technical expertise, for example. Female psychologists should be especially careful not to sell themselves short — in 2007, their reported annual incomes were $4,000 lower than men's. Myers, for instance, was so thrilled by her job offer that she felt nervous about negotiating. But she kept her head on her shoulders, consulted with her adviser and studied salary ranges. The result: She secured a salary that was more than originally proposed, as well as research and moving expenses. You can bargain for other supplies and work-related perks as well, such as a printer and time off for conferences and professional activities, others note.

Fear #5: How hard is licensure, and how can I prepare?

Facts: Most students who graduate from APA-accredited programs and want to get licensed do, says Norcross. About 85 percent of students pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology on the first round each year. (See pass rates at individuals programs.)

How to get ready:

First, visit the website of the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards, which oversees licensure. It contains most of what you need to know, including a newly updated handbook that guides you through the process. (See the "Student information" section of the site.) Also, visit your state licensing board website. Familiarize yourself with its requirements, as criteria differ somewhat from state to state, Minardo notes.

Pay particular attention to the amount and type of supervisory internship and postdoc hours the board requires, advises Judy E. Hall, PhD, executive officer of the National Register of Health Service Providers in Psychology, a national credentialing organization. Because the issue of supervisory hours can be murky — anything other than internships or postdocs accredited by APA, the Canadian Psychological Association or the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers may be problematic for various reasons — e-mail your state board if you have any questions about whether the internship or postdoc you're considering fits their criteria. (APPIC's website lists all internships accredited by APA, CPA and APPIC.) For more information on avoiding problems with inadequate internships, read pages 11–14 of APPIC's newsletter.

For extra peace of mind, consider banking your credentials — internship, doctoral degree and postdoc experience — at the National Register or at ASPPB, Hall adds. To start this process, visit these organizations' websites to get a sense of what they do, their differences and their fees. The National Register, for instance, will review your credentials based on national credentialing standards, give you feedback on what you may be lacking and store your materials electronically so they can be easily sent to relevant sources, such as your licensing board or potential employers. (If you have other questions, contact Hall at (202) 783-7664 or via e-mail.)

Fear #6: Will I find work-life balance?

Facts: Many grad students aren't just facing academic and professional challenges, but "the full catastrophe" of family life, as Zorba the Greek colorfully put it. According to the National Science Foundation's 2008 Survey of Earned Doctorates, 44 percent of those who just received their doctorates reported being married. While data aren't available for the number of students with children, many other students and early career psychologists are parents. Some may also be caring for aging relatives.

How to achieve balance:

  • Budget your time. Master time-management skills, advises Wayne State University student Paul Deschamps, who attends his program full time, is engaged and is helping to raise his fiancee's 7-year-old daughter. Because he also works full time as a school counselor, Deschamps has learned to prioritize his most important activities, whether it's spending uninterrupted time with his fiancee or tackling the most important aspects of his schoolwork. He also keeps a structured schedule and capitalizes on small windows of time by working on a paper during his work lunch hour, for example. "I've learned to take advantage of every moment," says Deschamps, who confesses that he regularly uses a Bluetooth headset. Keeping his eyes on the prize — getting his degree, which he knows will eventually lead to a saner schedule — helps him keep his life in perspective, he adds.

  • Set boundaries. Learn to say no to requests that aren't essential to the task at hand, adds Fielding Graduate University grad student Julio Rosado, who works full time as a psychology technician at Fort Bliss, a U.S. Army base in El Paso, Texas.

    "When my work supervisors ask for volunteers for a project, I think, 'I won't be able to do my homework tonight if I do that,'" says Rosado, who also is married and has two baby girls. Similarly, if he's got a big paper due, he may have to postpone fun outings with his wife or friends. Compartmentalizing his life helps, he adds. "I try not to think about school while I'm at work, and vice versa."

  • Communicate. Talking regularly with your spouse or partner is vital to keeping the juggling act smooth, adds Yeshiva University student Sabrina Esbitt, who considers her husband, an information scientist, her best friend. "When I'm feeling overwhelmed with schoolwork or practica, we try to talk about it so I don't get super-stressed," she says. They also divvy up home responsibilities so neither gets resentful, she notes. Good communication means celebrating victories, too, says Rosado. He and his wife go out to dinner whenever he finishes a big academic hurdle like a major paper or the end of a semester — a reminder for both that the end is in sight. "It may seem silly, but it's really helped," he says.

  • Nurture yourself. Self-care may be the last thing on your mind when your to-do list flows onto a third page. But making regular time to exercise, get a massage or see friends will help you feel connected and balanced, says Esbitt, who goes on regular dates with her husband. "I've also gotten a lot more protective about my sleep," says Esbitt, who is learning to put away her school books some evenings and weekends.

Despite the challenges of adding a job and vibrant family life to an academic workload, students who have embarked on life's "full catastrophe" say they wouldn't trade it.

"My 3-month-old has been smiling at me a lot lately," says Rosado. "She reminds me that spending time with my family is more important than a lot of other things."

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

Related resource

For more information and advice on these topics, visit the APAGS resources page.