Degree In Sight

A year and a half into her graduate program, Florida Institute of Technology community health professor Kristi Sands Van Sickle, PsyD, and her husband, Paul, decided they wanted to start a family. When they encountered fertility problems early on, Van Sickle realized some time away might be just what she needed.

"We figured the schedule and the stress of graduate school probably wasn't helping the process, so after a lot of soul searching, I decided to take a leave of absence," Van Sickle recalls.

Ten months after she left, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl, and just about a year after that, she went back to complete her doctoral degree.

Van Sickle is not alone. About 9 percent of psychology doctoral students put their graduate studies on hold at some point during their program, according to data from the PhD Completion Project, a six-year Council of Graduate Students initiative that collects data on doctorate completion rates.

Those who do decide to take a break—to earn money, gain more experience in the field, start a family or just recharge their batteries—face numerous dilemmas, including the potential to lose touch with their cohorts and fears that they won't return. But for some students, taking time off can allow them to accomplish other life goals or even appreciate school more.

"I kept thinking, if I had stuck with this, I would be done by now," Van Sickle recalls. "But on the other hand I had a beautiful baby girl to show for it."

Alternative routes

For Cindy Buchanan, PhD, taking a year and a half off after completing her coursework at the University of Kansas turned out to be a win for both her personal and professional life. Buchanan's husband, a major in the Air Force, was transferred to a base in New Jersey in 2006, and Buchanan moved with him. Their new home near Philadelphia allowed Buchanan to find a practicum in pediatric psychology, gain clinical hours and complete her dissertation—moves she says pumped up her resume and ultimately helped her secure a postdoctoral fellowship at Children's Hospital in Philadelphia. During her time off, Buchanan also took a job as a research assistant, which helped her pay for internship applications and interview travel.

"Making that move really opened a lot of doors for me," she recalls.

That's also true for Tim Herzog, who spent two years traveling around the world and coaching college sailing between completing his undergraduate degree and pursuing a master's in counseling and sport psychology at Boston University. The time allowed him to gain a better sense of self and solidified his interest in the field, he says. In addition, between completing his master's and starting a doctorate in clinical psychology at Loyola College, Herzog spent a year working as the head coach of the Boston College sailing team, which boosted his sport psychology credentials.

"Each time I was doing something other than academic study, it gave me a chance to gain some perspective and discern that psychology was the right route for me," Herzog says.

Detour downsides

But for some students, taking time off does not always lead them in the direction they'd like. Scott West, JD, had just completed his master's in counseling psychology at the University of Kansas and was beginning doctoral work at the school when he decided to take a break to earn some extra money to pay for his education. Then with a mortgage, four kids and a new wife, West came to the conclusion that returning to school just wasn't in the cards.

"What was hopefully just going to be a temporary let-me-figure-out-what-I'm-going-to-do-with-my-life-and-I-hope-to-get-back-soon thing ultimately ended with me realizing that I just couldn't financially afford to do it," West says.

West now works as a corporate attorney for a Fortune 100 company, where his employer is paying for him to complete an MBA—a path that has allowed him to meld his interests in psychology and business. He still wishes he could have gone on to become a full-fledged psychologist, he says.

"I've always said that if I win the lottery, I'll go back and finish," he says.

Herzog plans to finish his doctorate when time allows. He's currently on another hiatus to focus on building up a counseling practice in Montana—which is where he began his internship and met his wife, Jennifer—and to spend time with his newborn son.

"Given how much time, effort and money I've sunk into my doctoral training, I would not dream of not completing it," Herzog notes. "This current break has allowed me to solidify even further how I envision my practice."

Even students who end up returning after time off acknowledge the move had downsides, including the loss of a social support network that they'd built up with fellow classmates. Both Buchanan and Van Sickle lament that they were not able to graduate with the rest of their cohort.

Keeping in touch with faculty and friends still on campus during the time away can ease that loss, they say. Buchanan says she also used her time off to network with psychologists and students along the East Coast. She joined state psychological associations in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York and attended as many association functions as possible. Doing so helped Buchanan stay in the academic mindset and make new professional connections, she says.

For Herzog, the experiences he's had outside academia have enriched his life, he says.

"A lot of people try and live their lives by a schedule, and while the anxiety of having deadlines can be a good motivator, it's important to be careful not to get on a track that doesn't fit for you," Herzog says. "Taking time off and doing some exploration—both of the world and of yourself—can do you a lot of good and ensure you're on a path that you're ultimately going to be happy with."

By Amy Novotney
gradPSYCH Staff