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Two days a week, doctoral student Geneva Reynaga does clinical rotations. Two other days, she works at a real-estate job to help pay her tuition bills. One day she spends in class. During the weekends, she works on her dissertation and squeezes in time to do coursework and tasks for her other job as a teaching assistant in her doctoral program. And the rest of the time? She's sleeping.

Reynaga thought she knew what to expect when she entered a clinical psychology doctoral program at Pepperdine University. After all, she had already survived a master's program in psychology, and how much more difficult could it be? Plenty more, she quickly found out.

"Not only was the schoolwork more involved, but there was so much more emotionally to deal with," Reynaga says, citing her various clinical and job responsibilities. But even though it's been a tough road, Reynaga will finish her four-year program next year on schedule. That would never have been possible, she says, if she hadn't learned to master time-management skills.

Without them, many students are unable to finish their programs on time, getting caught somewhere between coursework, comps, internship, practicum and the dissertation.

In fact, the data show that many students take longer than they might first anticipate to complete their doctoral degrees. In 2000, students receiving a PhD in psychology were enrolled at the graduate level for a median of 7.4 years, according to "Doctorate Recipients from United States Universities: Summary Report 2000" from the National Opinion Research Center. The report also revealed that 54 percent of psychology doctoral students who began their full-time study in 1993 earned their doctorates by the end of the 1999­2000 year. However, 20 percent of psychology doctoral students left their programs before earning a doctorate.

Why the delay? Some students are hampered by a lifelong habit of procrastination, a tendency toward perfectionism, conflicts with advisers, lack of communication with dissertation committees or, in many cases, failure to finish their dissertations.

"What's tricky about graduate school is that there is no one breathing down your neck," says David Sleeth-Keppler, a doctoral student in social psychology at the University of Maryland. "No one goes up to you in the seventh year and says 'How about you finish up?' There's not a lot of pressure to finish. If you can't motivate yourself, you are going to have a hard time."

So unless someone pressures a student to finish up or else, the seventh year might turn into the eighth, ninth or 10th-until there's a risk of becoming a lifer in the doctoral maze.

"It's all too easy to push aside unstructured tasks, such as the dissertation, in favor of more immediate tasks, like a lecture that day or some coursework for a seminar that needs to be finished," says Kenneth Fuld, PhD, professor and chair of the University of New Hampshire's psychology department. "Those who manage time well for those unstructured tasks do well."


As Fuld notes, there is hope. Rest assured, he and other former students say, degree procrastination is nothing self-motivation, time management and proper planning can't help curb. gradPSYCH interviewed numerous students, recent graduates and faculty members and culled their best advice. Here's their advice on how to reach the finish line:

  • Set priorities and goals. Figure out what you want from your education, and how you are going to get it. Be able to say "no" if tasks don't coincide with what you want to do and where you want to be, experts say.

APAGS Chair Christopher W. Loftis, a doctoral student at the University of Florida, admits this has been a struggle for him at times. "There are so many things you want to try, and it's hard to stay balanced to explore opportunities and still get out in a reasonable time," he says. Loftis tries to set daily, monthly and yearly goals.

Maryland's David Sleeth-Keppler likes to think of his doctoral work as a nine-to-five job. "Get up in the morning and decide what you are going to do for that day," Sleeth-Keppler says. "In eight hours, you can get a lot done. But you can't fool yourself into thinking that you're busy grading papers, checking e-mail and talking to some people in the hallway. If I do that on a daily basis, I will get nothing done by the end of semester."

  • Pick a timeline and stick to it. Alicia Izquierdo, a neuropsychology doctoral student at George Washington University, entered her program setting personal due dates-such as when she wanted to propose and defend her dissertation. "I was lucky enough to have mentors who would support me on that timeline," she says.

Karen Wilson, EdD, who operates an Internet and telephone-based coaching business, suggests one track: Use the first year in a program as an introduction to the different areas of psychology and what you could study. During the second year, narrow your interest area and gain clarity on dissertation topics. In your third year, fine tune the dissertation topic and determine internship sites to target.

Christopher Phillips, a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin­Madison, says that having a course plan from the beginning has helped him get through his counseling program faster. "Map out exactly what classes you'll be taking during exactly which semesters," Phillips recommends. "This will allow you to see which classes only occur during certain times. During summer you can cram in a few extra classes to shave off some time."

  • Know what you're getting into. Prevent the possibility of wasted time by consulting your university's graduate handbook, which should list procedures for your program. For instance, graduate schools might require certain prior notice of oral examinations. If students forget that, they might face additional paperwork or have to petition, which can cause delays.

"It's important for students to take charge of their destinies and not rely on a faculty mentor to help them through these procedures," New Hampshire's Kenneth Fuld says. "Sometimes faculty members are not familiar with the procedures themselves."

  • Choose a manageable dissertation topic (see Turn ABD into a done degree). Put the topic to the "what if" test to gauge if it's too daunting, suggests Rachna Jain, PsyD, author of "Get it Done! A Coach's Guide to Dissertation Success" (Moonswept Press, 2002). Ask, for example, "What if I study this-where would I find information?" Jain estimates that 85 percent of dissertations can be done in a year or two (however, those that require a more complex design or a longitudinal study take longer).

  • Establish a network within the program. To build professional bonds, understand how the faculty organization works, get to know your adviser right off and talk with students and postdoctorates who have been around for awhile. That's what Loftis of APAGS credits for helping him through his clinical and health psychology program at University of Florida.

Some universities give students a formalized hand with networking. For example, the University of New Hampshire's psychology program follows a cohort model, where graduate students reach degree requirements and milestones together.

The cohort builds strong collegial relationships that continue through the five years of the program, says department chair Fuld. "There is a sort of synergistic effect by keeping them together," Fuld explains. "They engage through collaborative learning."

  • Be assertive and set boundaries when needed. Some students complain that faculty slow them down by relying on them to advance their own research. Be able to negotiate with your adviser or committee members to ensure you remain on your timeline for finishing the program, Fuld says.

Successful students tend to be assertive and independent, he says, adding that they regularly schedule and keep appointments with faculty about their dissertation research. Unassertive students put the dissertation in a faculty mailbox or e-mail it as an attachment, allowing weeks to drift by. More assertive students will follow up frequently, Fuld explains, leaving messages that they are looking forward to receiving feedback.

"Successful students do their research, anticipate questions and don't wait for faculty to ask those questions," Fuld says.

  • Relax and have the right attitude. Take time for yourself, advises Rose Marie Ward, PhD, who graduated in 2002. For instance, while Ward was a student, she and her husband were both going through comps at the same time but made a rule to never study after 10 p.m. They also made plans to go to the movies, out to dinner or take an evening walk. "We always had something to look forward to that kept us sane," she says.

Also, remind yourself to stay positive-that you're there to learn, says author Rachna Jain. Don't be discouraged by self-doubt about finishing or negative feedback from faculty, she says, but instead stay motivated and believe that it's possible to get through.

Certainly Pepperdine University's Geneva Reynaga says she now believes it's possible.

"I've learned to manage my time and be more on top of things in my doctoral program, and I think those are skills that are imperative to psychologists," Reynaga says. "Even though it's been difficult, I enjoy what I do, so that helps me to get through."