Cover Story

University of Iowa student Tracy Moran faces the usual academic pressures created by working toward a doctorate in clinical psychology: finishing her dissertation in maternal mental health, teaching introductory psychology to undergraduates and seeing patients at the psychology department's clinic.

But she's got someone else in her life to take care of: her 4-year-old son Farouk. As a single mom, Moran says that keeping up with her program demands working hard on a tight schedule, flexible faculty and fellow students willing to help out from time to time with babysitting.

Asked how their programs helped them beat the crunch of juggling the obligations of coursework, teaching, research and family, students interviewed for this gradPSYCH article say specific efforts, initiatives and seminars run by their departments and schools help, but cited faculty attitude as a big factor in how hard, or how easy, it was to strike a balance among those different needs.

Roberta Nutt, PhD, director of the doctoral counseling psychology program at Texas Woman's University, believes that the "mean has shifted" in terms of the flexibility psychology programs extend to students.

"As our students have gotten older, their lives have gotten more complex, and we have to take that into account," says Nutt, former chair of APA's Advisory Committee on Colleague Assistance and past president of APA Div. 17 (Society of Counseling Psychology).

That flexibility varies greatly by program, but Nutt says things like yearlong leaves of absence for new parents and half-time internships help meet the demands of students dealing with family issues.

Nutt sees the change in her own classroom. These days, students with a sick child can sit near the door with their cell phones turned on, ready to slip into the hallway to take a call from home.

"We do students a disservice if we don't teach them how to put boundaries around work, and how to leave room for recreation and families," she says.

Moreover, the issue of encouraging balance in graduate school is tied to the larger question of how the field can encourage psychologists to take care of themselves in every setting, says Nutt. If students learn those skills in graduate school, they may have an easier time when facing the challenges and stresses of practicing psychology as professionals, she says.

"We need to shift the culture in psychology, in terms of how we look at people having balanced lives," Nutt notes.

A case in flexibility

At Iowa, Moran uses her program's flexibility to pursue a doctorate and raise a son.

She receives a $1,000 annual grant from the school to help pay for day care for her son, an amount that covers about two months worth of fees every year.

During the week, she's up at 7 a.m., shuttling her son to day care by 9 a.m. After working a full day, they're home by about 5:30 p.m. She devotes the next few hours to her son before his bedtime, followed by a few hours before midnight for work on her dissertation research. Now in her sixth year and finishing her dissertation, she estimates that having her son added about a year to the process of earning her doctorate.

Moran credits her faculty adviser, Michael O'Hara, PhD, with giving her the flexibility needed to raise a child and still meet her responsibilities of teaching and research.

"As a mom, all sorts of things come up, and if he's sick, I've never had a problem going home to take care of him,'' she says. Moran says that flexibility extends to her son's doctor's appointments and even parent-teacher conferences at his day care.

Flexibility is also the key for fifth-year University of Wisconsin-Madison social psychology student Chris Hulleman.

He and his wife Teresa, a stay-at-home mom, have five children, three of whom were born since Hulleman entered graduate school.

The department faculty's supportive attitudes have helped him balance the demands of teaching, research and family. For example, when his second-youngest son was born in February 2004, Hulleman's supervisor let him take the first week off and keep his schedule to a minimum during the second week.

"They've been very flexible, and easy to work with," he says.

Even with that flexibility, there's been stretches when Hulleman was submerged in his research, unable to see his family.

The first year was the hardest, as what he thought he knew about time management was overwhelmed by 60-hour weeks filled with courses, teaching and research.

"The first study I ever ran, I remember being in the research lab making copies at 2:30 in the morning, thinking 'Is this where I want to be?'" he says.

Indeed, many students face moments when the task seems unsurmountable. But there are strategies they can adapt (see page 38), and some departments are stepping up to the plate to help them manage. For example, Vanderbilt University students always have access to counseling should they run into personal problems, says Andrew Tomarken, PhD, an associate psychology professor who took over as department chair in June. Students can also see physicians with student health services using health insurance available through the university.

As a professor, Tomarken says he's always emphasized an "open door" policy with his students, encouraging them to talk to him about school problems before they develop into something big.

But for all of the stresses encountered by students, almost all of them thrive in the intense environment, making friends and blossoming into well-trained professionals, says Tomarken.

"I think that for our students, for as hard as they work, I know they have fun. They have full lives," he says.

At the University of Missouri-Columbia, fifth-year psychology graduate student Madeline Meier says the faculty focuses on keeping students on track toward completing their degrees while helping them balance their personal and professional lives. Every semester, graduate students meet as a group with the department chair, talking about issues such as study time for comprehensive exams, career issues and work/life balance. The department also supported her decision to take a week-and-a-half break when she married her husband Matt last September.

"It's, 'what can we do, where do you need help?'" she says. "They encourage students to stay in graduate school as long as it takes to get the best education, while also encouraging students to become independent researchers and start a career of their own. They don't want to let you stay here for 15 years."

Indeed, while even the most supportive faculty members want to be flexible by offering occasional breaks to students such as time extensions on assignments, programs have a fixed curriculum and requirements that students need to complete on time, says Roger L. Peterson, PhD, a professor and chair of the department of clinical psychology at Antioch University New England.

"This is hard stuff to do," he says.

Setting clear expectations 

However, programs can take steps to be sure that students know what's expected of them, notes Iowa psychology professor Lee Anna Clark, PhD. Ten years ago, an undercurrent of dissatisfaction bubbled among the graduate students, says Clark, who started serving a second term as clinical training director in August.

Part of the problem was that students didn't have an organized way to understand all of the research expectations in place for them, Clark says.

In response, Clark designed a seminar titled Introduction to Clinical Research, a yearlong, noncredit course held in weekly 90-minute sessions to familiarize students with everything they need to know about completing graduate research. Before Clark offered the course, many students relied on older students to get a handle on all the different aspects of required work, which sometimes led to misunderstandings about what faculty expected, she says.

"You come to the class, you know you're getting a straight answer, and it gets rid of the extraneous worries so you can focus on coursework," Clark says.

A recurring seminar topic is the psychology program's required first-year research project, presented during the middle of a student's second year. First-year students also get a chance to sit in and ask questions during sessions held for second-year students in which they practice presenting their projects, Clark says. Through that process, second-year students get feedback needed to improve their presentations and first-year students learn what makes a project successful.

"It gives them a concrete sense of progress, and what's a good presentation, and what's a bad presentation," Clark says.

At Indiana University's psychology department, a full-time staff person helps keep research students on track. The program has about 100 students pursuing doctorates in the fields of biology; behavior and neuroscience; social psychology; developmental psychology; cognitive psychology and clinical science. Dana Little's role as academic services coordinator is to help students meet their research requirements, by helping with such administrative chores as tracking academic progress and filing required paperwork.

Part of Little's job starts before classes begin, when she gathers the new grad students as a group and walks through the department's research project expectations for the next five years. At Indiana, two big hurdles grad students need to clear are the first- and second-year research projects, Little says.

"I'll talk about the scope of the projects, the timing, what we do and don't expect the projects to look like," she says.

While individual faculty advisers work with their students on the first- and second-year projects and advisory and research committees oversee students' research, Little monitors students' overall progress.

She also files the paperwork for the formation of each student's advisory committee, ensures each student has completed mandatory coursework and earned the requisite exam scores to qualify as a doctoral candidate.

"There's someone they can come to who can help them figure out what they can't," Little says.

At Missouri, Meier says students can present their research as part of workshops held every week by the department, during which fellow students and faculty members listen and ask questions. "That's been fabulous for me, because it's nice to have a lot of scholars examine a project," she says.

Meier says she's presented about six pieces of work to the sessions, ranging from her master's thesis to posters for conferences.

Just recently, Meier presented a rough draft of a research paper she planned to submit to the Journal of Abnormal Psychology this fall. Because the group helped her resolve some theoretical and statistical issues, Meier says she should have the paper done by the deadline.

Learning the ropes

Another part of Iowa's first-year course tells students about life outside the department, listing things to do for fun in Iowa City. And during the first week of classes, a panel of graduate students advises the incoming students about the best places for shopping and fun events in the community.

"It's to give them permission not to be a graduate student 24/7," Clark says.

At Iowa, second-year clinical psychology student Rebecca Brock agrees that little touches like that help students get their bearings at the beginning of the graduate school experience. She also appreciated that her program matched her with a mentor, an older student who could give advice on things like good places to live. They still try to have lunch at least once a semester.

"I think it helps immensely, it can be overwhelming to be in a new community. It's the really practical stuff that you take for granted," she says.

At Antioch University New England, faculty help students transition to graduate school and balance their many demands through a weekly gathering called "Professional Seminar." The students start each class with a quick update on how they're doing, talking about challenges in their personal lives and difficult coursework.

Vincent says her professor conducts the session "almost like a therapist" would, by helping identify ways to tackle problems, and asking students for updates on progress made since previous week.

At Antioch, about two-thirds of the students commute to the school from the neighboring states of Vermont, Maine and Massachusetts for daylong class sessions on Monday and Tuesday. Many students keep working at the off-campus jobs they had before they came to Antioch, while still handling family responsibilities.

Besides taking classes two days a week and follow-up reading, second-year student Wendy Vincent is still working part-time at two other jobs and running a freelance design business. A former newspaper publishing executive, Vincent came to Antioch to start a new career in psychology.

Vincent says she feels guilty about the time away from her husband, their three long-haired dachshunds and two cats, feelings she's shared with her fellow students in the weekly gatherings.

"What's been helpful to me is to have other people listen. It's been great to feel safe enough to talk to some of my classmates about these struggles," she says.

She and her peers also come up with ideas about how to confront problems in the coming week. When they talked about dealing with the stress of school, for example, they discussed the need to eat better and stay fit.

Vincent says she and her classmates also discussed the need to keep connections strong with partners at home and friends, by taking a few minutes here and there for a telephone call. Her group also got together for dinner every Monday, and socialized after classes on Tuesdays, she says.

"It was really the relationships that we had back at home and those we formed at school with our classmates that helped all of us through our first year," she says.

Adjusting a program

Sometimes helping students achieve balance in their lives demands changing the requirements of a program, and that can come from listening to student feedback. That's what happened at Vanderbilt University, says Tomarken.

Back when second-year clinical science students had a practicum requirement as part of an already busy year, he says a "bit of burnout set in" among those students, as they also juggled classes, research and teaching.

"You wind up in a situation where people are spread so thin they're struggling to do any one thing really well," Tomarken says.

Responding to that, the program moved the practicum to the less-hectic third year, and set up a pre-practicum during the second year. Even now, students sometimes look a little haggard at particularly busy times of a semester, but they don't look nearly as fatigued as they did before the changes were made, he says.

APA to release data on student self-care

APA’s Advisory Committee on Colleague Assistance surveyed students this summer on what psychology programs are doing to help students with work/life balance issues and self-care.

The committee posted a hyperlink to a four-page, 35-question survey on APAGS listservs this summer. Preliminary findings gathered from students who responded were presented and discussed at APA’s 2006 Annual Convention in August. Look for the results in the November issue of gradPSYCH.