In This Issue

Early career psychologist perspectives: How should students spend the summer?

ECPs recommended taking some time off to relax, reconnect with what is important and focus on personal interests, but they also emphasized finding a balance.

By Kellye S. Carver

Graduate students often find themselves with fewer classes or obligations during the summer term. However, just because summer may be less structured in graduate school doesn't mean it should be less meaningful or productive. It seems to be an ideal time for research, self-care, extra classes or even all of the above. Yet, having so many options can lead to confusion and frustration, as students end up feeling either overwhelmed or unproductive.

We talked to early career psychologists (ECPs) working in public service settings to ask their advice on using summertime wisely while still a student. The verdict? In general, ECPs recommended taking some time off to relax, reconnect with what is important and focus on personal interests, but they also emphasized finding a balance.

One point to remember is that graduate school won't last forever, although it may sometimes feel like it. “Take some time off and do something fun. Don't work the whole summer because soon you won't have summers!” says Amee Patel, PhD. Once students graduate and join the ranks of early career psychologists, they generally find themselves following typical work schedules, and those academic year breaks may be sorely missed. You may want to take advantage of it while you can.

Kristi Bratkovich, PhD, advises, “Use your summer to do things that you really enjoy and love. Take time off to connect with what matters in your life.” This may include relationships with loved ones or time invested in hobbies or activities you enjoy. Remember that rest and reconnection are critical for psychologists as human beings.

However, this may seem hard for students who consider their own needs a low priority or haven't focused on self-care in the past. After all, our summer to-do lists often run long with unfinished tasks from the school year or idealist projects that we hope to work on “someday.” Unfortunately, self-care is often at the bottom of that to-do list.

Instead, consider self-care an important practice for your future career. Anna Craycraft, PhD, explains, “Make summer a chance to bring self-care back into the balance. Since there typically is less structure, and that often reflects more accurately what being a full-fledged professional is actually like, use the summers to ‘practice' the appropriate way(s) to care for yourself and the adequate amount of time/energy that you, individually, need to feel most balanced in professional and personal pursuits.”

David Scarisbruck, PhD, labels it “burnout prevention.” He recalls, “I went back home and worked in the logging industry. Taking that time to do something completely different reminded me that I enjoy what I do and appreciate what I have in my career.” Going completely outside your normal scope of activities may be a refreshing break in the routine, and you never know where it might lead. It's also important to remember that even if you don't feel burned out now, it's much easier to prevent burnout than to overcome it later on.

Rob Braese, PhD, emphasizes not only taking time away from clients and academics, but also focusing on personal growth. He encourages students, “Use the time to break away from your professional life and foster interests that have nothing to do with psychology.” Beth Morris, PhD, agrees and advises students to explore outside interests and “round out” their identity during a less busy summer. “Do ‘real people' things and interact with people outside psychology, whether it is through traveling or book club or family or whatever.” Both Braese and Morris note that this can help you become a more well-rounded person in the long run.

Morris adds, “Sometimes we study psychology so well that we lose touch with the animal that we are studying. Going out and relating to all kinds of people is, in fact, preparing you to be a better psychologist.”

ECPs also insist it is important to find a balance between work and play. Patel advises, “Don't take the entire summer off. Try to structure the days you work like a normal work day. Set two or three reasonable goals with approximately six-week timelines or a greater number of shorter-term goals and timelines.”

And if one of your goals is to strengthen your resume? “Summer is a great time to explore your interests or develop further expertise in a defined area,” notes Jack Tsai, PhD. “Similar to students, many clinicians and academics have more free time during the summer. Many psychologists welcome students working with them during a summer term. I'd suggest students take the initiative to contact psychologists they are interested in working with.”

Craycraft suggests that students consider broadening their research net if possible. “If the summer is a chance to go slower on your thesis/dissertation, use that extra time to explore some area of research that is peripherally related to your declared research topic,” she says. “Doing this can revive your interest when you're starting to get burned out and, in my case, even led to a new path for my dissertation that I had not considered.”

In the end, ECPs encourage students to evaluate their priorities, which should include self-care, and schedule summer commitments accordingly. Patel advises, “The important thing is to work when you're working, have fun when you're having fun, and do a good bit of both!”