This year, gradPSYCH is following four students as they navigate the sometimes rocky path from dissertation proposal to defense. Below is a progress update on each student. To find out how they've faced down their biggest challenges so far, visit our digital edition to watch their video diaries.
Natalie T., 28, PhD candidate in developmental psychology at the University of California, Davis
Working on her dissertation proposal and her data collection.
Natalie's dissertation path is somewhat unusual: She has been simultaneously working on her proposal and collecting data, because she's basing her dissertation on a long-term study on children's emotional and social development that was already underway when she joined her lab.
Progress on both fronts has been steady, though slower than she'd like. She had to temporarily stop collecting data this fall when the study's state IRB approval expired. It was reapproved in November, so data collection is back on.
The pause was frustrating, Natalie says, but it had a silver lining: "It gave me a chance to process what we have right now." The preliminary data showed some interesting links between young preschool children's early problems with emotional regulation and their later physiological reactions to social situations. Natalie presented the preliminary data at a conference in November and got useful suggestions from other researchers on ways to improve the study.
"It's always good to get feedback early rather than later," she says.
Meanwhile, she's balancing her work with another major life event — she got married in December during her school's quarterly break. The timing worked well, she says, though it didn't allow for a long honeymoon. A week later, she and her husband, a history professor, were back in the classroom and lab.
Ross M., 31, PhD candidate in clinical psychology at Penn State University
In November, Ross hit an unexpected snag in his study on the neuromechanisms associated with occasional smoking — complications with the fMRI equipment he was using temporarily stopped his data collection.
"That caused some panic-inducing moments," he says. But he, his advisor and his committee members came up with a solution. Ross is still evaluating how the nondaily smokers respond to reward-related tasks. But instead of using fMRI to examine their neural activation directly, he's using a behavioral measure with established links to neural activation.
With the change, he's on track to finish his data collection by early spring and then begin analysis.
At the same time, Ross is in the thick of the internship application process, travelling to interviews and leaving some data collection in the hands of his four undergraduate research assistants.
"One of the things that led to me acting decisively when it came to the equipment failure is that I really wanted to collect a lot of my sample before those interviews started," he says. "Now that everything is in place, it's enabled me to be able to go on the interviews without worry."
Melissa G., 29, PsyD candidate in clinical psychology at the California School of Professional Psychology, San Francisco
Analyzing her data.
Like Ross, Melissa has also had to improvise in recent months.
She's using structured interviews to study how black teen males express and experience empathy. To increase the validity of her results, she chose to use a rigorous method of analysis called consensual qualitative research, which requires a team of researchers to review and agree on the meaning of the responses. But this consensus-driven approach requires more time than she has. Melissa had planned to finish the analysis in the fall, but when it became clear that that would be impossible, something had to give. "I really want to maintain the integrity of my study, but I also want to graduate this year," she says.
She decided to cut the number of participants in the dissertation portion of the study from 17 to eight. Her dissertation will now be an exploratory study of the first half of the data set, and while she writes it up she will continue to analyze the rest of the interviews, with an eye toward eventually publishing the full study.
"It really felt like a huge loss to me," she says. "But at this point time is of the essence."
Amy M., 25, PsyD candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Hartford
Putting her dissertation to work.
Amy finished and successfully defended her dissertation — a manual to train college resident advisors (RAs) to deal with sexual assault crises — last year. Now she wants to put the manual into practice in a real-world setting.
She's approached several residence life offices at local colleges in Connecticut, but so far hasn't found any takers. That may be because many schools devote only one RA training session to the issue, she says. But research shows that effective training takes longer. Her manual requires five weekly 90-minute sessions, a bigger time commitment than schools may be willing to make. "That's even on the shorter end of what's recommended [by researchers in the field], but I had to find a balance," she says.
Amy is also applying to internships this year at college counseling centers. She hopes that wherever she ends up will let her develop the manual into an outreach program.
Find out more about the biggest challenges our dissertation diarists have faced — and how they've overcome them. Watch their video diaries in gradPSYCH's digital edition.
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