Degree In Sight

Crossing the finish line

It's been a typical day in your clinical internship. You've spent the morning working with abused children, and a parent yelled at you. You used your lunch break to read a colleague's proposed journal article and spilled Thai peanut sauce on your pants. After an afternoon typing up clinical notes, you scoot into a 5 p.m. department meeting that runs long. Luckily, you have only a few hours of paperwork left to complete before you go home, collapse on your sofa and watch "Glee."

Or you could work on your dissertation.

For many psychology students, writing dissertations on nights and weekends during their internship year is a tough reality. But there are significant benefits for getting it done early:

  1. It will make you more desirable during internship interviews.

    It's no secret that the competition for psychology internships has grown more intense, with 23 percent of students not matching in 2010. Carrington Rice Wendell, a neuropsychology intern at Duke University Medical Center, says interviewers responded well to the news of having her dissertation defense date nailed down.

    "It was just a relief to go to the internship interviews without feeling like I needed to explain myself," she says.

    If you need extra dissertation-writing time, consider delaying your internship year. That's what C. Meghan McMurtry, PhD, did. After discussing it with her advisers, she took an extra year to write her dissertation on adult reassurance during children's painful medical procedures. It gave her more time to run participants, analyze her data and defend her dissertation before leaving for her internship. It also allowed her to mentor a younger student, sit in on a conference planning committee and apply for — and win — the 2009 Student Research Award from the Society of Pediatric Psychology. Clearly, the decision paid off.

    "I made the right choice," says McMurtry, now a clinical psychology professor at the University of Guelph. "The interviewers seemed very happy that I could focus on the internship, and I was very happy to match at Brown."

    Internship training directors prefer students who have finished their dissertation, because it shows they are persistent self-starters who can get things done, says Micki Friedlander, PhD, counseling psychology doctoral training director at the University of Albany.

    "Finishing early goes a long way toward being matched," she says. "People want to see that you can move through a project to completion."

  2. It often makes financial sense.

    Some doctoral programs require tuition payments until graduation, regardless of whether you are done with the dissertation or on internship. But for Wendell, finishing her dissertation before internship meant she did not have to pay dissertation credits to University of Maryland Baltimore County. Depending on the program, that's a potential savings of hundreds of dollars.

    Also, if you don't finish your dissertation during internship year, you risk having to pay for several semesters of tuition following it, says Kathleen M. Schiaffino, PhD, chair of the Fordham University psychology department. Universities are less likely to fund students who come back after their internships, she says, and you may find it hard to reconnect with your dissertation after a yearlong break. "Refocusing after the internship can become very stressful," she says.

    Plus, some states, such as New York and New Jersey, may only count internship hours toward licensure if students have finished their dissertations first, depending on how licensure boards interpret their own rules, says Robert McGrath, PhD, a psychology professor at Fairleigh Dickenson University. In these states, students who enter their internships with dissertation in hand can quickly get licensed to practice after graduation. If that's not you, be sure to contact your licensure board in advance to see if your hours will count.

    "Finishing can potentially save you many, many months of that postdoc year," McGrath says.

  3. It allows you to explore new research opportunities.

    Letting your dissertation go will allow you to become more involved in studies that are going on at your internship site — projects that may even lead to publications, Wendell says.

    Last year, her work on the link between cardiovascular disease and cognitive decline was published in the journal Stroke, and she also had the time to facilitate a session at the 2010 American Psychosomatic Meeting.

    "There's a natural tendency to want to make the dissertation awe-inspiring," Wendell says. "But treat it like a project. It does not need to be the crowning research of your career."

  4. You can focus on applying for postdoc positions.

    Believe it or not, just a few months into your internship year, you will have to churn out postdoc applications, says Wendell. These applications — a necessary part of getting enough clinical hours for licensure in many states, and often a good way to fill out your résumé — can be incredibly involved. You don't want to split your writing mojo between them and dissertations, she says. You'll need to research positions and reach out to potential faculty advisers, all of which take time.

    Canadian students also face the challenge of finding the money to fund their positions. "For many postdocs in Canada, it's not just sending a cover letter and your résumé," McMurtry says. "It's like writing a grant, and it's a tremendous amount of work."

  5. You will be near your support system.

    It's normal for students to hit a snag in their dissertation, be it data analysis or writing a conclusion. You can't count on your internship site having a large library or lab equipment, and, barring new advancements in cloning, you also won't have your dissertation adviser.

    It's easier to tackle a problem if you are on campus, Friedlander says, whether that means using the university's computing facilities, bouncing ideas off professors and peers, or just being around fellow students who are immersed in their own research.

    "There are unforeseen circumstances that can come up during the research process," Friedlander says. "For example, obtaining participants may be a challenge. You may need to reconsider your recruitment strategy."

    Being on campus also allows you to get help in person — a professor who's hard to reach by e-mail may be easy to track down during office hours.

  6. You will be a nicer, happier person.

    Like many students, McMurtry had to move away from her significant other and friends for her internship year. It wasn't easy to face her biggest professional challenges to date without that social support nearby. But, at least her dissertation wasn't weighing on her at the same time, she says.

    "If you're away from your network of loved ones and friends, there are added stressors," she says.

    Having her dissertation all tied up also gave Wendell peace of mind.

    "The clinical internship can be an exhausting experience," Wendell says. "I wanted to give myself that mental break."


Elizabeth Leis-Newman is a writer in Baltimore.