PAU Alumna Yvette Rico’s Dissertation Studies Stress and Burnout in Psychology Doctoral Students

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Yvette Rico graduated from the PGSP-Stanford Psy.D. Consortium in 2019 and currently teaches at San Francisco State University. Her dissertation, “Stress and Burnout in Psychology Doctoral Students” was recently accepted for publication in "Psychology, Health & Medicine." 
 
We connected with Dr. Rico to learn more about her study and the stressors that impact psychology doctoral students.
 
What interested you in studying stress and burnout amongst doctoral students?
 
Initially, I was interested in studying positive psychology but I think my own experiences with stress and burnout while in graduate school led me to want to see if it was a common experience within psychology graduate students. And if it was a common experience, I wanted to speak to it, by way of the research, so that students wouldn’t feel alone in experiencing stress and burnout. That’s the biggest reason I went into psychology: to support folks in feeling less alone in their experiences. 
 
Did your research reveal anything you took to heart personally?
 
Doing my literature review was affirming and validating of that experience, because I read papers about licensed psychologists experiencing burnout and stress. One part I took to heart, from my own research, was that psychology graduate students were seeking therapy at similar rates as folks from the general population, which I wrote about in a paper published on Dr. Cortney Beasley’s website. (She is a PGSP-Stanford PsyD graduate as well.)
 
I found that about one quarter of psychology graduate students reported being in therapy and about one third of people from the general population said they were in therapy. I think that speaks to the fact that psychology graduate students are human and need support as much as folks who aren’t in the field.  I wanted to highlight the percentage of students in therapy to help normalize that - especially because I found, in one study, that if students know that their peers are in therapy, they are more likely to seek out therapy themselves (Farber, 1999). On that note, I was in therapy throughout grad school; I hope that this is helpful to other students.  
 
Your research revealed that doctoral psychology students don't generally experience more stress than the general population, but that third- and fourth-year students experience elevated levels of stress. What would you attribute the increase in stress to?
 
It was not formally investigated in my research but I have pondered it and have a few thoughts on it.  From personal experiences and previous literature, Dr. Bunge and I postulated that it might be due to dissertations ramping up at that time and internship applications (Nelson et al., 2001).  
 
As stated in my dissertation: 
 
“Nelson et al., (2001) found that clinical psychology graduate students reported dissertation work as being among the three highest stressors and that internship expectations and the internship application process were also common stressors.  Dissertation may be a source of stress for students for several reasons that tend to be out of the students control: subject participation, results from the study, evaluation, and IRB approval.” 
 
Were you surprised there wasn't a bigger difference between psychology doctoral students (PDS) and the general population?
 
In a way, yes: it stood in contrast to some of the literature I had reviewed, which looked at stress levels in PDS and in the general population. But the studies had not collected data on both populations at the same time and used different measures. 
 
And in another way, no: it also makes sense to me that there wouldn’t be that much of a difference. 
 
Do you think psychology students might have additional coping mechanisms, due to their area of study, to deal with stress or are they at risk just like many other students or populations?
 
I wouldn’t want to create pressure for psychology students to need to be able to cope more effectively or on their own because they learn about coping skills and therapy in school.  
 
The ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) metaphor of the two mountains comes to mind here: that patients/folks coming to therapy are on their own mountains, as are the psychologists. I think that psychology students and psychologists are all humans going through their own journeys (and on their own mountains) and that sometimes, like all humans, they’ll struggle and need support at some point.  
 
If your research had a "next step," what would it be? For example, is further research warranted or are there support systems universities should build for doctoral students?
 
I’m going to quote directly from my dissertation here: 
 
“Given the importance of situational factors in the development of burnout (Maslach, et al., 2001), future studies could assess specific situational factors within graduate school, within practicums and within internship that could be contributing to burnout.  Moreover, future research could study the presence or lack of structures within psychology graduate school programs that provide support for students experiencing stress, anxiety, depression or burnout, especially since these experiences are not divergent with being a psychologist (Pope & Tabachnick, 1994).  Research on what students would find supportive while in graduate school could be informative since 44% of students in one study reported dissatisfaction with the lack of importance placed on self-care by their programs’ faculty (Rummell, 2015).”
  
Future research could also look at the socioeconomic status of both students and individuals in the general population (and see if that and how that affects levels of stress and burnout). And to quote my dissertation again: “studies could look at how cultural identity and racial background contribute to both experiencing stress and to present utilization of therapy.”
 
“Future research could also study psychology graduate students’ professional identity.  In one study, 26.3% of students reported that they did not seek psychological help due to a belief that they should use their own skills to solve their problems (Farber, 1999).  It could be interesting to study whether psychology graduate students have higher expectations of themselves to figure out their stress or mental health struggles on their own, given their training and/or their professional identity.  Future studies could research how psychology graduates seem themselves, within their professional identity, when they are struggling with mental health issues.” 
 
In addition, although individual traits are related to burnout, situational factors have been found to play a larger role in the development of burnout (Maslach, et al.,2001). Future research could look at the broader systems and contexts to see what is causing stress and burnout.  
 
In terms of support for students, I also think that universities should offer students therapy either for free or at a low cost. Previous studies have found that cost is a common barrier to receiving mental health services in both the general population and in psychology graduate students (Dearing, 2005; El-Ghoroury et al., 2012; Holzman, Searight & Hughes, 1996; Stefl & Prosperi, 1985).  Providing affordable options for students is imperative.  In my literature review I found that the highest stressors were academic coursework, work related to dissertation, finances, the internship application process, time management, and work with clients (Nelson et al., 2001).  
 
Psy.D. students have endorsed cost as an obstacle to coping at a significantly higher level in comparison to other doctoral-level students (El-Ghoroury et al., 2012). Subsequently, I would advocate for programs to support their students by providing opportunities for scholarships within the school, extensive support during the dissertation process, support during internship and emotional support in students’ work with their clients. Students of color also have reported discrimination as a stressor, (El-Ghoroury et al., 2012).  I would hope that universities could also be mindful in creating sources of support for students of color at their institutions. 
 
What was your personal support system at PAU like? 
 
My support system at PAU was comprised of a few close friends within PAU and my friends and family outside of PAU. My biggest sources of support in terms of staff/faculty were Ana Castrillo and Dr. Eduardo Bunge. From day one, Ana made me feel supported. Dr. Eduardo Bunge was my chair for my dissertation and was key in being the Latino mentor I needed while in grad school.  Dissertation was stressful but he was very giving of his time and his positivity, which propelled me to keep going when I was feeling burned out and stressed. Having these two individuals in my life was key. 
 
Moreover, having a class that was specifically centered on dissertations was helpful - that helped me stay accountable and know what steps to take. Supervisors like Dr. Revilla were also pivotal in terms of  gaining clinical experience, having room to process my own reactions to my work with patients and learning how to hold space in therapy. 
 
I also want to acknowledge that graduating, completing my dissertation, going to internship, writing my paper, and being a lecturer - all of that is really a testament to the support I have had, and continue to have. Felix Kury planted seeds of Liberation Psychology and opened the door for me to teach at SFSU. 
 
My family paved the way for me to study at the doctoral level. My brothers are a source of light. My friends help me stay centered and grounded. My best friend’s parents loaned me money so that I could buy a car to get to and from school. Dr. Eliot Lopez was a huge support during internship and continues to be a source of mentorship and humor. I could go on. 
 
I’m really grateful and want to throw some love their way for loving on me before, during, and after grad school. Like I mentioned before, we all need people to lean on, and I’m grateful to have them. I strive to give them as much love as they give me.
 
 
 
 
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