So You’re Tackling The Essays

Internship sites talk about wanting someone whose personality will mesh with the culture of the site, someone whose personal interests and personality are as compatible as their professional interests. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to find a logical way to list your clinical style or your hobbies on the CV. Enter the essay section of the APPI: an opportunity to sell your personality, interests, and unique style (in four concise blocks of 500 words or less).

I recommend starting work on your essays early, just after you finalize your site list. As with your CV, you have the option to upload multiple versions of your essays to send to different types of sites. Please do not take this to mean that you need to write individualised essays for every site. It means that, if you apply to forensic hospitals and VAs, you could tweak your essays to highlight your personal interest in each of these types of sites. Also, as with your CV, make sure that you have others review your essays for content. Unlike with your CV, though, I recommend choosing two or three readers at most, otherwise you risk receiving conflicting feedback that will cause you undue panic rather than actually improving your writing.

As usual, this post is written based on my individual experience applying for internship. You might read this and decide to do the exact opposite of what I did, and it might work out great for you. Also, when I was writing my essays, I found this resource to be invaluable in organizing my thoughts and figuring out how to get started.

So what exactly is expected from you in these essays?

  1. The Autobiographical Essay. This essay can be incredibly intimidating to write, since the prompt is “Tell me something about yourself.” Sites are equally vague about what they are looking for from the essays, and it has been suggested that this is because DCTs don’t actually know what they want from you. If you are applying to more than one type of site, I highly recommend writing more than one version of the autobiographical essay. I approached this essay as an opportunity to identify myself to sites as a real person who has been shaped by my history into who I am. I opened with a story from my childhood, followed up with an experience I had in college, and then tied these events together as a description of what led me to the field and to my current clinical interests. My biggest challenge with this essay was narrowing down what I wanted to talk about. It’s tempting to try to cram every piece of information about yourself, but there is simply not enough space. You have to decide what is it about you that you want to present to sites, what information is vital to who you are as an applicant that is not available on other parts of the application.
  2. Theoretical Orientation. In my first draft of the second essay, I emphasized my knowledge of my chosen orientations and tried to discuss general approaches to conceptualization and treatment, working in as much jargon as I could so that sites would see how smart I am. Then I threw that draft in the garbage and started over. Good clinicians don’t recite textbooks; they put their knowledge into action. Instead, I chose two clients that I felt demonstrated my preferred orientations and discussed my approach to their conceptualization and treatment. Two is a good number because it shows more range in your clinical skills than you could provide with just one example. Three is possible but more challenging because of the word limit. I opened with a brief, two sentence description of my preferred orientations and jumped into my case examples. I also tried to convey a willingness to be flexible with my therapeutic approaches based on each individual. The 500 word limit does prove to be a challenge. Remember, everyone is held to the same limit, and sites can only expect so much information in this essay, which is why many sites also request a work sample as a supplemental application material. Again, if you are applying to more than one type of site, I suggest making different versions of this essay with examples from the demographic with which you would be working.
  3. Diversity Experience. This essay was hands-down the most frustrating for me to write. Why is the diversity component of my clinical work sectioned off into its own little corner? I ended up taking the multicultural components out of my second essay for the sake of space, and I felt like I was writing off some very important issues in my case conceptualizations because I could include those components in this essay. Personally I think it would be better to combine essays 2 and 3 into one longer essay that would allow applicants to discuss diversity issues as a component of their theoretical orientations, but no one asked me. For my diversity essay, I wanted to focus both on my interactions with clients from different backgrounds and on how my own background and culture impacts the therapeutic relationship. I ended up using three case examples because I had so much trouble choosing only two instances that I felt encompassed the scope of what this essay was asking for, but this of course made it even more difficult to stay at the 500 word limit. In the end I broke each case example down into a description of how the client’s background factored into the therapeutic process, and how my background influenced the relationship. And after days of editing, I finally was able to cut down my essay to exactly 500 words.
  4. Research Interests. The biggest research project you do as a graduate student is your dissertation, so I started this essay with a description of my project and where I was at in the process. You can also bring up your timeline for completion to show the site that you will not be ABD for years after internship. I also talked about some other research projects I have worked on throughout my graduate career and mentioned areas in which I would be interested expanding on these interests in the future. This essay really varies in importance based on the internships you are applying for, so know your sites. If a site requires 10 hours per week of research, highlight how your research experience and future interests are in keeping with those of the site. This is probably because I did not apply to many research-heavy sites, but this essay was probably the least stressful for me to write.

There is no one way to approach the essays, and they easily become overwhelming due to the vague instructions. Try not to over-think the details of what you write and be open about who you are as a clinician and as a human being.

Next week’s topic is cover letters. Enjoy the weekend, and remember to take care of yourself!

So You’ve Decided To Write A Dissertation, Part 3

If you are just discovering my blog now, I highly recommending part 1 and part 2 of this series before continuing.

Unlike the first two posts in this series, this post will include a large amount of information I acquired second-hand. Because I chose to write a training manual rather than conducting an empirical study, I cannot speak to my own experience about the intricacies of a dissertation involving data collection. During my first year, though, I did do an empirical study for class, and so I will draw my wisdom from that experience. I do highly recommend finding someone in your program who did an empirical study for their dissertation to provide insights into your project. In fact, I would suggest finding someone in your program who has completed a similar dissertation regardless of your project so that you can be sure to meet your program’s specific requirements as closely as possible.

The most important component I have found of a project involving data collection is to make sure that you have permission to move forward. This is not the time for asking forgiveness rather than permission. There is a rumor in my program of a woman who began her study prior to receiving her official Human Subjects Committee approval, and she ended up not being allowed to complete her project. No dissertation = no degree, and they still expect you to pay back your loans even if you don’t finish.

The second most important part of any dissertation is communication with your adviser. You can follow every procedure to the letter, but if your chair feels that it is not the project that he or she signed up for, they can tell you to make changes. Significant changes. Even if it is your nineteenth draft and all you want to do is graduate. Discuss with your chair in excruciating detail what you plan to do and how you plan to do it, and make sure that they are in agreement. That is what the prospectus is usually for – it is basically a contract where you outline what you will do and your chair agrees to work on it with you. Unfortunately, though, often times chairs agree to a prospectus with contingencies, and if you do not get those contingencies spelled out you might be in for a hassle later on.

As a side bar to this, also make sure that your chair and other committee members are people who will have the same goals in mind for your project. This did not happen to me, but I have heard horror stories from other programs of faculty butting heads on certain details, with each refusing to pass the student without things being done his or her own particular way. When my chair agreed to work on my project, I blatantly asked her who she would be alright with as second and third readers, and then I chose the rest of my committee from that list.

Anyway, if your project involves human subjects of any kind, or archived data from a past experiment using human subjects, you will need approval from your institution’s Institutional Review Board (IRB). The IRB basically gets to decide whether or not what you are doing is ethical, from the wording on your consent forms to the actual procedures used in your study. For my study, a classmate and I were using archival data that had been collected by the university in previous years. Our IRB had an issue that, when the initial data collection had taken place, participants did not give consent for their information to be used in our study (because neither of us was attending graduate school at that time, and neither of us had any idea that we would want to do this study in the future). We were fortunate that the researchers of the initial study had the foresight to predict that someone else might benefit from their data and had clearly spelled out in their consent forms that the University had the right to re-use the data for future research while protecting the anonymity and confidentiality of the information.

Basically, be prepared for the IRB to ask you to revise your proposal. Their job is to be scrupulous, so even if you send them a flawless proposal, it is their job to find something wrong with it, even if that something seems insignificant to you. This also means that you need to be prepared to submit early. At my university, the IRB meets once per month, and so if they send you revisions and ask you to re-submit, you have to wait another month for the changes to be approved before you can even begin.

When constructing your timeline, also keep in mind the availability of the subjects you want to use. At my university, there is a tendency for graduate students to collect dissertation data during the spring semester, and statistically fewer students volunteer than in the fall. As such, every spring we end up with projects that lack sufficient volunteers. If you know this about your university, make a plan to collect data in the fall, or to be open to spreading it out over two semesters.

And remember: Relax, and take deep breaths. Your dissertation is a marathon, not a sprint. Good luck! You would not be here if you weren’t smart enough to handle this.

So You’ve Decided To Write A Dissertation, Part 2

You have chosen your topic. You have acquired a chair. You have attempted – with probably a varying amount of success – to turn off that competitive voice that constantly measures up your topic against that of everyone you talk to. Now comes the difficult part – actually writing the thing. Like I said in the last post, it is unbelievably daunting to start a task that you know you will not finish in this sitting, or this school year even. Here I share my insights into what helped me stay motivated and get those words on paper (or on screen, to be technically correct).

I did 90% of the work for my dissertation while living 2000 miles away from the love of my life, so instead of being upset, I chose to channel those feelings into my proposal. It was much easier said than done. The first step was to create a schedule for myself. Now, generally I am very good at meeting deadlines, but with a dissertation, there are few set deadlines that you have to keep unless you and your chair come up with something, and even then those dates tend to be fluid. For me, it was easier to set aside times to work rather than simply saying “I will write X number of pages by Y date.” I knew I could easily get discouraged if I accidentally picked a time frame that ended up being impossible to stick to, and as any over-achieving doctoral candidate will tell you, this is sadly easy to do. Since I had adequate time before my school’s deadlines (all I needed was to successfully propose by September 15th of whatever year I wanted to apply for internship, and this was the start of my second year), I had the option to work this way. Find what works best for you, and just remember to be flexible with yourself if you suddenly realize you’ve given yourself a 100-page deadline in the middle of finals.

My personal proposal schedule consisted of dedicating 10 hours every other Saturday to researching/writing my manuscript. I tend to work well getting into a zone and accomplishing a lot in one sitting, so this worked well for me. If I broke my work time down into one or two hour increments, I would spend most of my time reminding myself where I left off, which would only serve to frustrate me.

My dissertation ritual would start on Friday afternoon. I would make sure that my apartment contained adequate food – both substantial and guilty pleasure junk foods – to last me through the marathon of Saturday. (I subscribe to the theory that will power is like a muscle in that it can only handle so much “weight” at a time, and so while I am using my will power to continue writing rather than checking my email and social networking sites, I do not ask it to monitor what goes into my mouth. If your will power can multitask, then you are more talented than I am.) Then it’s an early bed time, which is not atypical for me on the weekends, as I was born at approximately age 50.

Saturday morning I would get an early start, eat a large breakfast, and consume a 5 hour energy. Part two of my ritual was complete. Next, I created my work space. Everything I could possibly need for the day was within reach – laptop charged and plugged in, highlighters, pens, notebooks, stacks of articles, chips. Time to motivate with one to three views of this video: 40 Inspirational Speeches In 2 Minutes was a gift from my friend Adam one day when I was having trouble bringing myself to finish a paper, and it has never steered me wrong. I would probably lead an army into battle after watching this video if someone handed me a sword and yelled.

Time to create an upbeat atmosphere to perpetuate the hyped-up, motivated vibe created by the video. I put on my favorite Pandora dance station, which usually led to a 10 to 30 minute dance party, followed by an intense writing montage. The rest of the day consisted of alternating power-writing sessions and brief dance parties. Hey, you have to know what works for you, and this system kept me pumped!

Some weeks, no matter how hard I tried, my apartment became one giant distraction, so I moved the operation over to Panera or Starbucks (minus the dance parties – unfortunately I am not at a point in my self-actualization where I can “dance like no one is watching” unless no one is, in fact, watching), and that seemed to get me back on track. The point is, you need to find a system or ritual that works for you, and be flexible if your needs change. And I highly recommend that video, whether you are writing a dissertation, taking a test, or about to take a long drive. No matter what is going on with your life, 40 Inspirational Speeches will definitely get you pumped.

So You’ve Decided To Write A Dissertation, Part 1

Last week I promised to launch a series on surviving the dissertation process. Over the next few weeks I will share the story of my dissertation: what worked for me, what did not, and how I got through the process in one piece. I would love feedback from others who have been through the process if they feel comfortable sharing what benefited them.

Dissertation: it is the project that never seems to end. It is the most daunting task of your program. It is the source of countless hours of research, writing, re-writing, head-banging-against-walls, cursing, and crying. Where do you even start on a project of this magnitude? It is unbelievably unsettling to start a project that will take one to three years to complete, if you are lucky.

At the end of my first year, my partner moved 2000 miles away. My job in the academic counseling and tutoring center ended for the summer, since there is no one to counsel or tutor when there are no undergraduate students on campus. I was fortunate to have entered graduate school with an idea of what I wanted to do, and so I spent the summer reading more than 100 articles about sexual violence on college campuses. Using templates I found online, I wrote my prospectus and began my literature review prior to the start of my dissertation seminar course. My adviser had already expressed an interest in my project, so she agreed to be my chair. My history with academic counseling provided me with a toolbox of time management skills, and I channeled my long-distance relationship frustration into productivity.

Later in this series I will talk about creating a work space that is conducive to productivity, keeping self-imposed deadlines, and staying motivated. For now, I will be discussing how I chose my dissertation and how I kept my sanity throughout the process.

My dissertation consisted of a literature review about the psychology of survivors of sexual violence, sexual violence on college campuses, and best practices for crisis intervention and response to first disclosure experiences and a manualized training for student employees of Residential Life on college campuses for how to respond to residents reporting sexual assault. I found that, although many such trainings exist, colleges prefer to use less effective manuals that are proven to be less effective in reducing rape myth acceptance and increasing crisis intervention skills, because these trainings tend to be more cost-effective to implement. My goal was to create a resource that I could make available for free that actually accomplished these goals.

Why a manual? I have always known that statistics are not my friend. There already exists a huge research base about survivors of sexual violence, and I knew that I wanted to create something that could be used directly to help survivors in their recovery. I felt that a manual would be the most effective way for me to do this. I also liked the idea of being able to make my own schedule. With data collection, you have to work around a dozen other calendars. You have to reserve the space, recruit the participants, gain Human Subjects approval, and (most likely) make time when the computer lab is open to perform statistical analyses. Yes, I spent countless hours writing my manual. No, I do not believe I took an easy way out by not having to collect data. But if you have to spend 1000 hours on a project, it does relieve stress slightly to know that those hours can occur whenever you want them to. Good luck finding participants who will work with you at 2 AM when you can’t sleep – my manual was always ready for me. It isn’t the right choice for everyone, but it was the right choice for me.

That brings me to my second point: taking care of yourself during this project. You have to remember that it is your dissertation and no one else’s. Each of your classmates is writing their own dissertation, and each project is unique and incomparable to any other project. Graduate school is competitive, so our default setting is to constantly compare everything we do to everything everyone else is doing. My school is 1300 miles away from my family, I have no children, and like I said, while I was writing the bulk of my proposal, my partner was living 2000 miles away, so it was easy to designate the weekends as “dissertation time,” and my proposal was completed by the start of my third year. Under different circumstances it would not have happened.

Also, because I chose to write a manual, my proposal encompassed about 90% of the work required for my final project. I had to compile a very detailed outline of what the manual would be, and so I defended my proposal in the same year that I proposed. Had I needed to collect data, my proposal would have taken less time, and my final dissertation would have taken much longer.

As difficult as it is, try to drown out your classmates’ dissertation work, since it is not relevant to your project. You end up wasting precious energy that could be used on your own dissertation worrying about what everyone else is doing, and to what end? Just like only you know what is right for you, only they know what is right for them. Maybe you are a parent, or maybe you are fortunate enough to be able to spend every weekend with your family. Maybe you are having trouble finding a project about which you feel passionate enough to invest the 1000 hours it takes to create a dissertation. It is better to start later than to spend all that time on a project that makes you miserable.

So you’ve decided to write a dissertation. What project speaks to you? What contribution to the field will be the culmination of your graduate work? Just remember, this journey is yours alone. Don’t let yourself be distracted by journeys unrelated to yours.