Degree In Sight
Unlike most other research, you'll be anxious to complete your dissertation relatively quickly, says neuropsychologist Bradley Axelrod, PhD, who gave a presentation on completing a dissertation at the APA Annual Convention in August. You'll want to keep that in mind as you choose your participant pool, he suggests. Some advice he and others offer:
* Consider the availability of the population you want to study. You might find a particular rare disorder fascinating, says Axelrod, but you could be out of luck unless there happens to be a medical unit nearby with 50 of those patients available. Axelrod speaks from experience. For his master's thesis, he looked at patients who had suffered left-hemisphere strokes but did not have language impairment. Even though he needed only 20 participants, it took him two years to collect the data. The experience taught him a lesson. For his dissertation research, he chose to look at executive function in normally aging adults--a much easier population to find.
"Studying a low-frequency population might be a career, but often it's not a dissertation," he says.
* Consult faculty. Faculty members are an underappreciated resource, says Mark Leach, PhD, a counseling psychology professor and the training director at the University of Southern Mississippi. They often have connections that students don't realize. For example, a student he recently advised wanted to study sexually abused women but was concerned that she wouldn't be able to find enough participants at the local community mental health center.
"When she told me about this, I realized that I know a woman who runs a crisis and short-term counseling center for abused women near the university, and I put them in touch," he says.
Don't dismiss a topic before you know what's possible, he says: "At least run it by the faculty before you throw out the idea."
* Consider tapping existing data. Using already-collected data means that you won't have to recruit participants, which can save time and expense, says Axelrod. But there are drawbacks. Archival data is by definition inflexible--you can't go back and collect more information if you suddenly decide another variable is key. Be certain that you have a good rationale to present to your committee about how the data is relevant to your study, Axelrod advises.
"If it's for convenience only, that's probably not a strong enough reason," he says. For more information about using archival data, see the article "New uses for old data" in the September 2004 gradPSYCH.
Once you've got your research plan, it's time to get approval from your school's institutional review board (IRB) or Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), an important step students sometimes overlook.
The IRB protects the participants in your study from exploitation and ensures that your work is ethical, explains Axelrod. The IACUC does the same for animal subjects.
"It's not an afterthought, it's a primary procedure," he says.
He and other psychologists offer a few IRB tips:
* It's all in the details. Pay attention to the details of the IRB process--like what forms are due when and what precise information is required, says Leach.
"I've found that students often overlook details, because they mistakenly don't see [the IRB] as a critical part of the study," he says. If you get the details right the first time, then you won't need to resubmit any forms--and your research can start on time.
* Know your time frame. Many IRBs meet only once per month or even every couple of months, says Leach. So submit your paperwork well in advance of when you'd like to start collecting data.
"I've had students who say 'I'll write up the IRB form and I want to start data collection next week,'" he says. "Usually, that's not going to happen." Also, he says, keep in mind that some IRBs may not meet as often during the summer months.
* Explain your research rationale in layperson's terms. Not all members of the IRB or IACUC will be psychologists, and none may be experts in your subject area, says University of Wisconsin psychology professor Charles Snowdon, PhD. So write in a way everyone can understand.
Researchers who work with nonhuman subjects should be particularly careful to explain their reasoning and methods, adds Snowdon, who works with nonhuman primates.
"It's very important to be clear on why an animal model is useful rather than doing something else, like a computer model," he says.
* Be ready to reapply. Federal guidelines require that IRB approval last only one year--so if your project will last longer, you'll need to reapply in plenty of time to continue your research seamlessly. Also, if you change any aspect of your study, you'll need to file an amendment with the IRB before you can continue your research, says Snowdon.
"If you're doing an [animal] learning study with 10 sessions, then you'd better stick to ten sessions," he says. "If you decide you need 15, you'll need to file an amendment. So try to write the protocol to accommodate all that you can anticipate in advance."
* Find a contact person. Waiting for IRB approval can be a frustrating experience, as it can take anywhere from several weeks to several months, says Ryan Martin, PhD, a recent graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi. Finding a contact person who can give you a sense of where your application is in the process can go a long way toward easing your mind, he suggests.
With your IRB approval in hand, you're ready to start signing up participants. That means it's time to decide whether you want to work alone or with research assistants, and to get down to the nitty-gritty of what your timeline and expenses will be. Here are some things to think about:
* Concurrent data collection. Teaming up with another student can greatly expand your participant pool, says Axelrod. A researcher working on, say, intelligence and another working on memory could sign up participants together and administer both memory and intelligence tests during the session, thus doubling the number of participants in their studies.
"There are a lot of benefits," says Axelrod, "but there are risks as well--which come into play if the person you're working with falls down on the job or gets ill." Be sure to give yourself a safety valve, he advises. "You can say, 'We'll collect data together, but if it doesn't work out by this date then we'll just go back to doing it on our own.'"
* Cost and expense. Think of creative ways to stretch your limited research dollars, says Axelrod. "You might want to use a test that the school doesn't own, and it might be only $10 per use--but who will pay for it?" he says. Look for small grants outside of mainstream funding sources, he suggests. A student who wants to study some aspect of arthritis, for example, might look to the National Arthritis Association for support. Also, he suggests, look for creative ways to compensate nonundergraduate participants for their time.
"When I did my dissertation research I found participants at senior centers," he says, "and I said that for every 10 people who signed up I'd donate $20 to the coffee fund. It was cheaper than paying everyone individually and they liked it more."
* Who will collect your data. Recently, says Leach, he's noticed that more clinical psychology students are collecting their dissertation data during their internship year, and thus relying on undergraduate or other research assistants to run the experiment. That strategy is perfectly legitimate, says Leach, but comes with pitfalls such as the stress of coordinating and being one step away from your data.
Martin agrees that relying on others to collect data has its downside: "I did it, and it worked out fine for me," he says, "my research assistants did an outstanding job. Still, I found it to be unnecessarily stressful trying to stay on top of it--I wish I had gotten my data collected before internship."
Indeed, experts advise students to at the minimum complete their dissertation proposal defense before internship. In fact, University of Kansas psychology professor Thomas Krieshok, PhD, and colleagues found in a 2000 study in Professional Psychology: Research and Practice (Vol. 31, No. 3, pages 327-331) that students who had conquered this hurdle before their internships progressed well in their research during their internship year, while many of those who hadn't completed it saw their research projects stall. Better yet, Krieshok says, is to complete the dissertation before internship.
"My advice is that anything that is out of your control is scary," he says, "so if you have the data in hand when you go on internship, you're in a much better place."
* Double the time you think it will take. The bottom line, Leach says, is that collecting data takes time.
"A lot of people assume that, especially if they use the undergraduate participant pool, they'll get it done in two weeks. It always takes longer."
Ace the proposal defense
The dissertation proposal defense is the first formal meeting of your dissertation committee. Usually, it happens after you've written your literature review and decided on your research design and methods. How can you survive and even thrive at the first public airing of your research plan?
* Find out what your chair and committee expect. Different programs have different expectations about how students should prepare for the proposal defense, says neuropsychologist Bradley Axelrod, PhD, of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Detroit. Some may expect elaborate, PowerPoint-enhanced presentations while others aim for a free-flowing conversation.
* Keep it simple. The committee members have already looked over your proposal and know the basic outline of your research,says Mark Leach, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Southern Mississippi. Because of that, he says, his department limits proposal defense presentations to ten minutes, and students just outline the bare essentials of their research. The rest of the hour or so is devoted to a question and answer session.
* Remember the committee is there to help. Sometimes students look at the proposal defense as an adversarial situation, says recent psychology graduate Ryan Martin, PhD: "It's like they say 'I have to go in and prove myself to this committee.'" Instead, he suggests, consider the proposal defense an opportunity to receive feedback from experts on how your project could be improved.
Leach agrees that being open to suggestion is key. "Sometimes by this point a student might be so wrapped up in the study, and singular in focus, that it's hard for them to realize that there might be a better way of doing something, or another analysis they could consider," he says. "The committee can bring that to their attention."