Degree In Sight

Student clapping

For Stacy A. Ogbeide, every class assignment is a potential poster presentation.  
"When I review the syllabi, I ask, 'What project could I take out and present at a conference?'" says the clinical psychology student at the School of Professional Psychology at Forest Institute in Springfield, Mo. It's a tactic that has added lines to her curriculum vitae and gives her free admission to some professional meetings. In April, for example, she presented a poster on treating anorexia nervosa using family systems interventions at the Missouri Marriage and Family Therapy Conference—work she began doing in a family intervention course.  
Ogbeide has stumbled upon a technique that every time-strapped student should consider, says Tara L. Kuther, PhD, a psychology professor at Western Connecticut State University and author of "Surviving Graduate School in Psychology: A Pocket Mentor" (APA, 2008). Using coursework to further academic and research goals allows you to better manage your time, lower your stress and increase your breadth of knowledge, she says.  
"Every assignment you do for a course should serve two purposes," notes Kuther. "It should fulfill the requirements for the course, but it should also add something to your understanding about your area of interest."   
Mission: integration  
If you think creatively, every assignment can relate to your chosen interest area, says Steve Walfish, PhD, author of "Succeeding in Graduate School: The Career Guide for the Psychology Student" (Lawrence Erlbaum, 2001). All you need to do is look for the synergy, the connections between themes in your classes and your own goals and objectives.  
That's what Claremont Graduate University industrial/organizational psychology student Paul L. Edward did in his statistics class last year. Because he was already working on his dissertation on police chief personality types and leadership styles, in statistics class he practiced regressions using data from the Department of Justice rather than using sample data from the textbook. As a result, he sharpened his stats skills while also discovering that police chief salaries most strongly correlate with operating budgets as opposed to population size or crime rates.  
And when Edward was assigned to spend time with a local organization for his organizational behavior class, he followed the Upland, Calif., chief of police to better understand his daily routine and career obligations. 
"Sticking to my research, even if a class seems unrelated, has allowed me to learn more about my research area while keeping everything integrated," Edward says.  
How to do it  
Chances are, your professors are happy to help you find connections between their assignments and your research interests, says Walfish.  
"Have a collaborative discussion about how their interests can best be applied to the course and coursework," he recommends.  
For example, if you're a clinical student taking a course on learning, ask your professor if you can write a paper on learning impairments among a particular clinical population, such as people with depression, Walfish says. The key to molding assignments to your own interests is flexibility. If you have to ask a professor to completely change the assignment requirements, you're asking for too much. Instead, ask for advice about how you can work your interests into an assignment. This way, you satisfy the course requirements while further enhancing your own knowledge.  
The earlier in the semester you share your research interests, the better, Walfish adds, since professors can lead you to literature and other scholarly sources to help you.  
Even if you faithfully follow the above advice, you'll sometimes come across a professor who won't bend. Don't fret, says Kuther. Your assignment on animal behavior may, at first glance, seem to have nothing to do with your future career as an I/O psychologist, but you may find surprising connections between the two if you keep an open mind. "This approach helps you build a broader and more comprehensive knowledge base," she says, "which is especially important for anyone planning to join the ranks of academia." 
After all, the whole point of graduate school is to develop your own interests and find the research area you want to focus on. Bending course assignments to fit your interests is a step down the path of becoming an independent, self-directed scholar, says Edward. "I have to remember to stay focused on my own topic because there are just too many interesting things out there," he says. "If I studied them all, I don't think I'd ever graduate."