For the 2013/2014 school year, gradPSYCH will follow four students as they navigate the path from proposal to defense and beyond

Natalie T., Melissa G., Ross M. and Amy M.

Of all the hurdles to clear during your graduate career, the dissertation may be the most daunting. This year, gradPSYCH will follow four students — all at different stages of their dissertation journeys — as they navigate the path from proposal to defense and beyond.

In this first installment, we introduce our dissertation diarists, learn about their research and find out where they hope to be by next spring. Watch their video diaries in our digital edition, where they'll share their stories, dispense advice and admit their blunders in an effort to pave the way for those that follow.

Natalie T., 28, PhD candidate in developmental psychology

Step 1: The proposal and Step 2: Data collection

Natalie's six-year graduate career at the University of California, Davis has followed an unconventional path. It started with an interest in child witnesses and the law but took a turn during her fourth year when she switched fields and advisors. She now studies how attachment in preschoolers relates to prosocial behavior.

"I think it's not uncommon for students' interests to shift during graduate school," she says. "It's something we don't talk about enough — it happens and can be bounced back from."

In her new lab, she began collecting data as part of a large ongoing study. At the same time, she says, it took her a couple of years to get caught up on the research literature in the new field.

So this fall, she'll be completing data collection while writing and defending her proposal. "It's not ideal, but that's how it had to be," she says.

She'll spend the next year analyzing data and writing, and aims to finish the dissertation in the spring.

Ross M., 31, PhD candidate in clinical psychology

Step 2: Data collection

Daily smoking has been on the decline for years, but many people don't realize that the number of occasional, non-daily smokers is rising, Ross says. Those people who smoke, but not every day, are still at increased risk for heart disease, lung cancer and other health problems compared with nonsmokers.

Ross, a fifth-year student at Penn State University, is using fMRI to study the neuromechanisms associated with occasional smoking — particularly whether such smokers are more susceptible to the rewarding effects of nicotine. He's beginning data collection this fall, and hopes to finish over the winter, analyze the data this spring and defend by summer 2014. There's plenty of work to come, but Ross has already overcome some challenges, including working with software developers in Europe to develop a mobile app that his participants will use in the study.

"I feel like I got a degree in international relations dealing with that," he says.

Melissa G., 29, PsyD candidate in clinical psychology

Step 3: Data analysis

For her dissertation, Melissa, a student at the California School of Professional Psychology in San Francisco, is studying how black male teens express and experience empathy. Her research was spurred by her time working as a counselor with many of these teens at a high school in Oakland, Calif., where she began thinking about how traditional measures of empathy have often been tested on young white women.

"There's a big hole in empathy research in terms of taking into account cultural considerations," she says. "So we end up saying that young black males don't have empathy, and pathologizing them, which is problematic."

Melissa conducted structured interviews with black teens at the high school where she worked, asking them about how they experience empathy and identify with others. She has finished data collection and had hoped to finish data analysis over the summer but was delayed by a back injury. Now that she's feeling better, she's aiming to complete the analysis in the fall and defend by December.

"That may be a hopeful projection at this point, though," she says.

Amy M., 25, PsyD candidate in clinical psychology

Step 5: After the defense

Amy successfully defended her dissertation in May. The work — a manual for training college resident advisors to deal with sexual assault crises — has already been approved by her committee, pending final revisions. But Amy can't breathe a sigh of relief just yet. She'll be going through the internship match process this year, and her dissertation is sure to come up during the interviews, so she needs to make sure she's comfortable talking about her work with her interviewers. It will be particularly relevant at the college counseling centers where she's applying.

She also wants to publish it online, and at some point she hopes to implement it in a real college setting.

"I just need to find a university willing to be my guinea pig," she says.