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A Week-in-the-Life of Psychology Graduate Students at USU

Life as a graduate student varies depending on your university, department, program or specialization, semester, and even advisor. At the Utah State University Psychology Department, we offer seven graduate specializations and three different types of degrees. Our on-campus graduate program has more graduate students than any other department at USU. We have nearly 40 full-time faculty and more a hundred graduate students.

You may be wondering what life as a psychology graduate student at Utah State truly looks like. Do students take classes? How do they conduct research? What about students receiving hands-on training? And how do assistantships work?

Below you will find an in-depth look at a schedules for students across specializations and in different degree types. First, let’s look at how things are categorized in these schedules:

  • Classes – Students in every specialization are required to complete a specific number of credits as determined by their specialization. Students in some specializations are awarded tuition awards that covers this number of credits, other students (depending on specialization or degree type) may not receive a tuition award and must pay for each credit like a traditional student. Typically, students earlier in their specializations can expect to have more class time and less time for the other categories listed below. As the student progresses through their specialization and time passes the roles transition to less class time and more time in other categories.
  • Research – As a graduate student, each individual is required to complete a master’s thesis and a doctoral dissertation. Students may also choose or be required to work on additional research projects with peers, faculty, advisors, and even other programs and departments. For this reason and many others, the number of research hours varies semester to semester and from person to person.
  • Assistantship – The Psychology Department offers students in every on-campus graduate specialization a twenty-hour assistantship. Students may provide preferences for placements, but placements are not guaranteed. There are a variety of assistantship opportunities including instructor positions, teaching assistant positions, clinical assistantships, and research assistantships.
  • Studying – This is a generic category related to all of the traditional pieces to being a student, reading before class, completing homework, writing papers, and of course studying for exams.
  • Practicum – Students in specializations with clinical practice are required to complete hands-on hours known as practicum. There are a variety of practicum settings available to students, which are assigned by their specific specializations. For purposes of this review only, practicum includes the time preparing for and completing practicum hours as well as the time spent meeting with a supervisor for review.

Rafaela Fontes is a PhD student in the Behavior Analysis specialization. She starts most days by working from home beginning around 7:30 a.m. until she comes to campus at 9:00 a.m. She has two classes this semester and uses her “down time” to study and prepare for classes and meetings. Rafaela attends a two-hour lab meeting each week with her advisor and peers. Additionally every Friday, Rafaela meets with all of the behavior analysis students and faculty for seminar. This provides them time to discuss a paper (which they reviewed prior to coming each week) related to the research topic of the semester. As a student in the Behavior Analysis specialization it is important Rafaela consistently spends time in the animal laboratories for her research. She currently works three-hours per day, each day, on research. Her current project focuses on punishment models. Additionally, Rafaela spends twenty hours each week on her assistantship. Like other students, Rafaela’s assistantship is split between two online courses, ten-hours per week per course. Rafaela spends time on campus every day, and usually heads home around 6:00 p.m., but during peak times or important deadlines may stay later into the evening or work from home. For self-care she tries to get to the gym once or twice a week and enjoys spending time with her significant other.

"Grad school can be really stressful and overwhelming sometimes, but it is definitely a life-chaning experience. When you are passionate about what you do, all the work and hours of dedication are worth it." - Rafaela Fontes

Christine Hartmann is a PhD student in the Brain and Cognition specialization. She is currently collecting data for a second-year project researching math anxiety. Her goal is to have 70 participants for this study, and because each participant’s session takes approximately an hour, a large portion of her week is dedicated to coordinating the project with the help of six undergraduate students. Christine’s opportunity to help with research when she was an undergraduate lead to her pursuit of a PhD, and she now supports current undergraduates in their education. Christine in interested in pursuing a career in academia and teaches undergraduate Psychology Research Methods. She enjoys teaching and the engagement that comes from students and their questions. Along with teaching comes scheduled time for office hours, curriculum preparation, and grading. Thankfully, Christine is supported by a graduate student teaching assistant with whom she meets weekly. Christine also attends her own courses, meets with her laboratory and mentor, and studies. She alternates study time between her lab office, the library, and comfortable places outside with Wi-Fi. Christine has two approaches to her self-care. She enjoys knitting and watching television before bed to give her mind a break. She also prioritizes healthy physical and mental habits, including packing breakfast and lunch for school each day and attending appointments with her therapist as needed.

“It takes time to get used to the busyness of graduate school, and every semester is different! There are so many opportunities and the more you do, the more you can learn about your area of interest, about yourself, and where you want your career to go.” – Christine Hartmann

Jennifer Barney is a student in the Combined Clinical/Counseling PhD specialization. Her research interests include Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and eating disorders. Jennifer studies under the mentorship of Dr. Michael Twohig in the USU ACT Research Lab and is completing a clinical assistantship at Avalon Hills Eating Disorder Specialists. She’s enrolled in three classes this semester; additionally, she completes practicum hours for course credit through the Behavioral Health Clinic in the Sorenson Center for Clinical Excellence. Each week, she meets with a supervisor from each of her clinical locations to review clients, ask questions, and receive feedback. During her clinical hours, she meets with clients or prepares for sessions and completes necessary documentation. Additionally, once per week she meets with her lab mates and faculty mentors to discuss projects and review articles. Lab meetings usually last 90 minutes and offer time for students to connect with each other and learn about ongoing projects. As Jennifer is a third-year student, she is developing a proposal for her dissertation and balances research with homework and self-care. She tries to do something active, such as rock climbing, two or three times per week and schedules regular “mini-meetings” for coffee or lunch with friends and peers in the department.

“Although it is sometimes stressful and always busy, I wouldn’t trade my experiences so far for anything.” – Jennifer Barney

Chandler Benney is a second-year student in the EdS School Psychology specialization in the Autism Neurodevelopmental (AND) Lab. She is enrolled in five courses this semester and splits a large portion of her time between classes and studying and working in her assistantship. Benney’s twenty-hour assistantship is split between two classes she spends twenty hours per week as a teaching assistant for two undergraduate Life Span Development courses for more than 200 students. As part of her assistantship duties, she grades assignments, holds exam reviews, and teaches one class per semester. Benney participates in two types of practicum education. She offers two social-emotional learning groups at the Edith Bowen Laboratory School on the Utah State campus. Additionally, every Thursday Benney drives from Logan to Weber County for a practicum with the Weber County School District. The last piece of her work load, is a weekly meeting with her advisor and lab mates. Most of the department faculty have a research laboratory space and students who meet together on a regular basis. Benney says she tries to get to campus each day around 8:00 a.m. and leave around 6:00 p.m. She also tries to reserve her weekends for self-care and enjoys camping in the summer as well as hiking and yoga.

“A day in the life of a school psychology student can be hectic, but it is all manageable and worth it! I love my career path and the experiences I am gaining through the EdS program at USU." - Chandler Benney

Kandice Benallie is a third-year student in the PhD School Psychologyspecialization. She is enrolled in two courses this semester. Benallie’s practicum load is greatly above average for a student in the specialization, but she is balancing it. She is currently working on three types of practicum for an average of 31 hours per week. Benallie works with her advisor Maryellen McClain Verdoes in the Autism Spectrum Disorder Clinic at USU for ten hours per week and with the Autism Support Services: Education, Research, and Training (ASSERT) program for an additional ten hours per week. Although Benallie has completed most of the work for her master’s thesis and her defense date is rapidly approaching, she says she averaged two to three hours of work on her thesis per week. Benallie has a twenty-hour assistantship which is split between ten hours of research assistantship for her advisor and ten hours working as a teaching assistant for a Behavioral Assessment Interventions course. She says this semester is busier than others, she balances getting things done every day with finding time for her partner and family. In her down time, she enjoys running, yoga, and watching television with friends.

“Although my schedule is busy, and I'm not proud of it, I am extremely grateful for all of the experiences I have been able to have.” – Kandice Benallie