What does it take for a grad student to get a study into a top-tier publication? For many students, the answer lies in side projects: While you’re working on round three of your dissertation proposal, you can also analyze your adviser’s already-collected dataset and come up with career-launching conclusions or pioneer a new project of your own.

That tactic worked for Teri Marino Carper, PhD, who just earned her clinical psychology degree from the University of Central Florida. For her master’s thesis, Carper was running statistics on people’s perceptions of unpleasant interracial interactions when she got the urge to do research on obsessive-compulsive behavior and anxiety.

With her mentor’s blessing, she conducted a new survey of students to determine the predictors of thought-action fusion: a person’s tendency to assume that having certain negative thoughts is as bad as acting on those thoughts and implies that he or she is “immoral.” Thought-action fusion has been linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders and other anxiety-related problems.

Using a structural equation model, Carper found that religiosity, ethnic identity and responsibility were especially tied to thought-action fusion. Her paper was accepted by the top-tier journal Behaviour Research and Therapy, with Carper as first author.

Her extracurricular work was worth it, says Carper. That publication helped her land an internship at the Boston Consortium in Clinical Psychology, which led to her current postdoctoral position at the VA Boston Healthcare System.

Of course, side projects aren’t encouraged in every program. Some faculty members prefer students to stay focused on traditional lab work and their dissertations. But if your adviser backs your outside interests — and you’re tracking well in your program — “a side project is a huge do,” says Carper.

These ventures can often dovetail with — or even morph into — your primary research interest, though sometimes they’ll take you in wildly new directions. Either way, they can be a chance to build your curriculum vitae and your appeal to future employers, and to learn new skills along the way.

Projects into dissertations

A case in point is Lindsay Scharfstein, whose side project hatched her dissertation. As a University of Central Florida clinical psychology doctoral student, Scharfstein had focused her master’s thesis on the social skills and vocal characteristics of children with social phobia or Asperger’s syndrome. For her side project, she drew on randomized-trial data from her adviser’s lab comparing the effectiveness of the antidepressant fluoxetine with that of social skills training. Scharfstein found that social skills training was more effective than the antidepressant because it led to better conversational skills, improved motor functioning and more appropriate body posture and facial orientation. Scharfstein presented her findings at a national conference, and the research has inspired her dissertation topic: pinpointing deficits that anxiety treatment can help.

Clinical psychology student Aaron Heller had a similar side-project-to-dissertation experience. A graduate student at the University of Wisconsin’s Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience, Heller was analyzing neuroimaging data on antidepressant effects from a large study led by his adviser when he saw something he found captivating: Depressed people show a lack of sustained activity in brain areas associated with reward and positive emotions. He and his co-researchers wrote up the finding, leading Heller to land a first-author paper in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Heller admits that the extra work has eliminated his ability to “balance it all and still have a life,” he says. But he relishes the payoff: “Doing other research can have the unintended consequence of changing the course of your own research — and finding something you really want to do.”

Stand-alone findings

A side project doesn’t have to lead to your dissertation, though. For some students, such as Katy Lacefield, a fourth-year UCF clinical psychology student, it’s a departure from their main strand of research that helps them expand their expertise and marketability.

Lacefield’s general focus is sexuality research. She conducted her master’s thesis on nonerotic cognitive distractions — the thoughts that divert people’s attention during sex — and has submitted two papers on the topic for publication. But she couldn’t resist saying yes when a fellow student asked her for help with a study on an entirely different subject: compulsive Internet use among college students. The student had already collected the data, and Lacefield helped run the statistics.

The findings revealed that impulsivity and stress appeared to predict surfing the Web for sexual content, while hopelessness and boredom appeared to predict “killing time” on nonsexual content. Lacefield and company submitted the paper for publication. After one revision, it was published in November in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, with Lacefield as the second author.

That side project, she says, enriched her CV by adding to the number of first- and second-author publications she has. “I’ve got to get my CV looking good for when I apply for internships,” she says.

Carper can attest to the value of a publication-rich curriculum vitae. Her published side project led her to focus her dissertation on examining interventions for thought-action fusion. That resulted in yet another first-author paper, published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry. She says the process was grisly at times. The first paper required several revisions and resubmissions, and the second was ultimately rejected by the first journal she tried, after she had completed a round of revisions.

But, she says, the benefits are clear.

“When I sat down for my predoc internships and postdoc interviews, having those publications really helped,” says Carper. “They were impressed at how I’d carved out my own research path.”

Bridget Murray Law is a writer in Silver Spring, Md.

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