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Summer: The very word conjures thoughts of beaches, hammocks, picnics. And that's OK, says Tara L. Kuther, PhD, author of Surviving Graduate School in Psychology (APA, 2008).

"During the semester, you're juggling so many balls. You're going to classes, doing research, maybe doing an internship," she says. "It's important to step back and take time off."

While you may have to spend most of the summer teaching, doing research or just working to pay for school, you can probably eke out at least a little free time. But just because you're relaxing a little doesn't mean you can't learn something, make valuable connections or get caught up. Consider these options:

  • Make connections abroad. Planning a trip? Don't miss the chance to connect with international peers who can broaden your thinking and become future collaborators. If you're headed to Europe, for example, shoot an e-mail to the European Federation of Psychology Students' Associations and ask if they can hook you up with simpatico students who might be up for discussing their work over coffee or even giving you a tour of the lab they work in. The International Union of Psychological Science maintains a list of international student associations in countries as far-flung as Finland, Colombia and Estonia. You can also try the APAGS listserv for international students.

    If you want to meet established researchers or clinicians, register for one of the many international psychology meetings. "That's a great way to find someone who has common interests," says Merry Bullock, PhD, APA's senior director for international affairs. "And you'll learn about directions that are maybe a little different than they are in the United States." You might even be able to get paid to go, especially if you're giving a presentation or poster session. Ask your department whether funding is available. Or apply for an APA travel grant, which pays all or part of registration fees for conferences held outside the United States and Canada.

  • Volunteer. Summer is the perfect time to try new ideas or activities, says Kuther, because you don't have to make a semester-long commitment to anything. Experiment, she urges. If you're in clinical psychology, for instance, you might try working with a new type of client, such as individuals with intellectual disabilities or patients at an HIV clinic. "Something as simple as volunteering for a few hours every couple of weeks might help you decide whether you want to work with that population later in your career," Kuther says. You could also try new settings: Day care centers, YMCAs, community health centers, even a lab in your own department might welcome a little extra help over the summer. Many communities have websites that list social service organizations in the area; you can also search for state agencies and nonprofits. "Given the economy, organizations are really open to volunteers," Kuther adds.  

  • Hone your research skills. Summer can be an opportunity to get intensive training in specific skills. For example, advanced graduate students and psychology professors can learn such skills as nonlinear analysis, exploratory data mining and research methods with diverse racial and ethnic groups at APA's Advanced Training Institutes. For rising college seniors, APA's Summer Science Fellowships place students in Washington, D.C.-area labs for six weeks of first-hand experience. "The students are assigned to specific faculty members, who involve them in their research," explains Virginia E. Holt, assistant executive director of APA's Science Directorate. The students, who live in apartment-style housing at a local university, also attend special sessions each week devoted to research topics.

    There are plenty of other options, covering just about any topic and location. Consider Stanford's Summer Institute in Political Psychology, the National Sexuality Resource Center Summer Institute or Pace University's summer internships. Or if you're a research-oriented student, check out the APA Science Student Council list of summer short courses on advanced statistics and research methods. Many international psychology organizations also sponsor summer programs. Depending on the program, you might spend your days attending lectures, participating in small discussion groups or receiving specialized training while you spend nights in dorms or off-campus housing.  

    While it's too late to apply to some programs this year, it's never too early to start planning for next summer.

  • Write. Planning to spend your summer getting a jumpstart on your thesis, dissertation or a journal article? It doesn't have to be drudgery, says Alison Miller, PhD, author of Finish Your Dissertation Once and for All! (APA, 2008). Make it fun by setting concrete goals and racing yourself to see how much you can get done. Miller and her dissertation coaching clients swear by an online kitchen timer that encourages users to determine a task to be accomplished, set the timer for 25 minutes and then take a short break when it rings. "You could commit to doing five tomatoes of writing a day four days a week," says Miller, explaining that the site keeps track of how many "tomatoes" you earn.  

    Enlisting friends and classmates is another fun way to make sure you  meet goals, adds Miller. Get together in a coffee shop or library and agree to write for an hour, for instance. Or use Google Docs to share your work plan with your writing buddies. "You can leave encouraging notes for each other that way," says Miller.

No matter how you expect to spend the summer, she adds, be sure to make a plan. "Create a vision for what you want to have happen over the summer, both in terms of productivity and fun," she says, explaining that students often think all the free time over the summer will automatically translate into increased productivity. "Next thing you know, it's the Fourth of July, then it's Aug. 1 and then the semester's starting again."

Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.