Grad-school, relationships, and geography... can all three work?
August 2, 2009 9:55 AM   Subscribe

Grad-school, med school, residency match, geography...help?

[For the TL;DR shortcut to the most important question, skip to Paragraph 4]

So in the fall of '10, myself and ms. deuceshigh will by simultaneously applying for graduate school -- medical for me, and Ph.D. psychology for her. No problem so far, as we'll be coordinating our (numerous) applications, and be able to at least match cities for the subsequent 4 years. And if that doesn't work out, at least we'll know right away, before either of us starts.

The problem will be 4 years later, the binding Match for medical residency. For those who aren't familiar, basically the med student applies to all the residency programs they could see attending, and rank them. The schools do the same for all of their applicants, and then the lists are compared to give residency assignments, which are binding. There are provisions for *medical school* couples to be matched together, but obviously that isn't the case here. The only way to get out of your match is serious hardship (a dying parent, or the like), so for all intents and purposes, you go where you're matched. So, 4 years down the road, I will be heading to a residency that -- while not totally random -- involves a great deal less choice than we've had before. She will still be in her Ph.D. program, with 3 years remaining, and presumably won't be able to move.

So I guess this is a multi-parted question. Is there anything about the Match that I'm not taking into account? Is it feasible to seed the top of my list with all the schools in the same city as her Ph.D. program, with any chance of ending up at any of them? [yes, I guess that can't really be answered without knowing my exact future situation, but maybe in general terms]. Would I be hurting my career to go to a lesser-ranked residency, in order to stay in a particular geographical area?

On the other hand, has anyone taken a 3-year break during a Ph.D. program, or is that a terrible idea? In her opinion, that would be the preferable choice over delaying the residency, so she'd like to hear peoples' experiences with taking time off. Did you have trouble returning? Is it easily doable at some schools, and a literal impossibility at others? Does it entirely depend on the department and advisor? Do many people have kids during that time, and if so, is it realistic to expect to return and finish the program?

We've had the long-distance-relationship talks, but for the purposes of this question, assume the option is not on the table.
posted by DeucesHigh to Education (12 answers total)
 
Yes, what you describe is what people do. If it's a major city, there will be options. If you want a competitive compensation/lifestyle specialty you'll have less choice, but in the major categories you will have several hospitals of varying levels of reputation nearby. You rank only/mostly those (assuming that you are competitive for them). To help insure that they look at you, you can do away rotations during your clinical years or try to do a summer (MS1/MS2) research project at one. That's easiest at your own school. You can also take this as motivation to study hard for step 1. You don't know which school yet, but at some places it's not uncommon to match where you studied. For people who have families or a house it's attractive, and you can schmooze extensively with the right people and tailor your application for them.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 10:43 AM on August 2, 2009


Assuming she doesn't have an MA already, that MIGHT be about the time she is done with coursework, give or take a year. If you can swing it financially (I.e. She doesn't need a TAship to pay tuition and fees) she could bail and move to where you are while doing her quals and dissertation.
I wouldn't be up front about this plan though, as the program might be counting on her to TA.

IMHO doing this (I.e. Not TAing or RAing) is a big financial mistake. I'd prefer living apart for that time. You'll both be crazy busy, so what's the difference?
posted by k8t at 10:45 AM on August 2, 2009


Some of this will depend on where Ms. DeucesHigh ends up doing her Ph.D. program. If it's a big city with several universities / residency programs, you've got a much better chance of matching locally than if you've only got one option. In such a case, it's quite feasible to only rank local programs if you're a sufficiently desirable candidate.

The most important thing you can do to make sure you match where you want is to be a stellar med student. Stand out in your program, network with mentors in the specialty you wish to pursue, volunteer with low-income clinics in your desired specialty, apply for travel grants to national meetings, publish if you can. Try to figure out your specialty fairly early: it gives you more time to do the above, and a demonstrated long-standing interest in the field will brighten a program director's eyes. And be nice to people. Even more than an academic superstar, a residency program director is looking for someone who is mature, responsible, and a team player; in other words, someone who's going to be easy to manage for the next four years. Given that you're not willing to take your show on the road, your dean's letter and letters of reference need to be positively lyrical.

And if you can possibly help it, don't do the long-distance relationship thing. It's a killer.
posted by timeo danaos at 10:47 AM on August 2, 2009


I don't know what sorts of PhD programs your wife is applying to, but 7 years for the degree sounds highly unusual. Most average around five - 3-4 years for coursework and qualifications, and another 1-2 focused on the thesis. So, maybe look more closely at what her options are in that department? Also, at k8t mentioned, it may be possible for her to finish her degree remotely after the first four years. I know several people who have done the majority of their dissertation work away from their home school. This is especially possible if she can obtain grant money to support the research and writing process.

I can also say that, in my experience, almost no one who leaves a PhD program ends up completing it, and certainly not after a break as long as three years. Especially if kids are involved. It's not impossible to do, just unlikely.
posted by miagaille at 11:14 AM on August 2, 2009


Depending on how far advanced she is by year 4, and how much she needs to be at her home institution, she may be able to continue her program remotely as k8t mentions.

The biggest factor in all this will be her advisor and the attitude of the department as a whole. Maybe if she knows someone who she can collaborate with near where you end up getting residency, she can keep making progress on her dissertation. But that's a long shot. If she has major, difficult data collection still to do, or really needs the resources of her home lab (fMRI, eye trackers, etc.) that won't be an option. If her advisor says no, forget it. But I've heard of this kind of arrangement in the last years of grad school more than once. This all assumes she's going into research and not clinical psych.
posted by slow graffiti at 11:21 AM on August 2, 2009


OP: On the other hand, has anyone taken a 3-year break during a Ph.D. program, or is that a terrible idea? In her opinion, that would be the preferable choice over delaying the residency, so she'd like to hear peoples' experiences with taking time off. Did you have trouble returning? Is it easily doable at some schools, and a literal impossibility at others? Does it entirely depend on the department and advisor? Do many people have kids during that time, and if so, is it realistic to expect to return and finish the program?

Most people who do something like this don't end up returning at all. It isn't necessarily that the department/advisor won't let them (though this may be an issue), but that it becomes very very hard to imagine returning to academia. I wouldn't say it is a particularly good idea, and I wouldn't recommend being up front about this to potential advisors, unless she is an extremely strong applicant. In psych departments I am familiar with students are often funded to work on a specific project, and this funding is time limited, so this might put a big hole in the PI's plans. I have a lot more flexibility, but even so, knowing this plan would make me think twice about admitting just about any student. On the other hand I am aware of someone who has done this for similar reasons, and returned; this person seems to be doing well now, though only time will tell. So the 3-year break to be the trailing partner can work.

I also think you may be neglecting the most serious location issue. She will have very little, if any choice about where she goes for her postdoc(s) and subsequent academic positions.

k8t: If you can swing it financially (I.e. She doesn't need a TAship to pay tuition and fees) she could bail and move to where you are while doing her quals and dissertation.

I don't see how this is possible in psychology (though I'm not in psych, the experimentalist students in my program, which is a related field, would definitely not be able to do this) -- odds are she will need to be spending that time in the lab running subjects. People do finish remotely if they're more computationally oriented or they have run enough experiments to cobble something together, but this last case never seems to be ideal.
posted by advil at 11:24 AM on August 2, 2009


On post -- my comments are also assuming research, not clinical psych (which I know nothing about).
posted by advil at 11:26 AM on August 2, 2009


robot and timeo danaos: That's exactly the sort of thing I was curious about, regarding residency selection. It's good to know that it's at least theoretically possible to stay in one area, as long as it's a fairly medschool-rich city and I'm willing to be flexible.

k8t and miagaille: Doing her dissertation remotely after finishing her coursework had never even entered our minds, but it's an interesting idea (and heavily dependent on her exact program, I'm sure).

graffiti and advil: Yeah, she's actually going to do clinical psych, rather than research. I realize that we'll be dodging a bullet by not having to coordinate my placement with a geographically-scattered uphill slog through academia for psychology research (whew).

It's looking like careful selection of our starting location, me working my butt off at school, and careful ranking of residency programs will end up being a lot more viable than her taking any sort of break from her Ph.D., but we're definitely interested in any other opinions.
posted by DeucesHigh at 11:49 AM on August 2, 2009


A lot of clinical programs are highly research-oriented, it's not an either/or proposition, but I'm sure you and your partner know more about the specific programs to which she's applying than I do.

Clinical psych programs are incredibly competitive so it might be worth it to table this discussion until you actually know what programs are on the table for her.
posted by kathrineg at 12:17 PM on August 2, 2009


To a certain extent what speciality to want to go into. Derm, Ortho, ENT, Plastics -- prepare yourself to end up anywhere around the country and just be thankful you got in. Internal, Family, Peds are much easier for you to choose geographically (and to have multiple choices geographically). Again, like most people said: try big city with lots of options. Or places like the northeast, where there are lots and lots of psych programs, med schools, and residencies.
posted by ruwan at 3:55 PM on August 2, 2009


There's another thing that you need to keep in mind -- clinical psychology programs also have a "matched" internship year. It's done in a pretty similar way to your medical residency, in that you fill out a big application, do interviews, rank your top choices, schools rank students, and then a big computer spits out the matches. In many clinical programs, this happens after the 4th year of the program. In the best case, you can both rank programs in the same city/general geographic area. At worst it's one more kink for you two to deal with.
posted by taraza at 4:25 PM on August 2, 2009


I've never heard of anyone taking a three year break in graduate school. Would your department allow such a long leave-of-absence? That would be something to find out. Supposing that such a thing were possible, three years is a long gap and one would probably forget tons of information. It seems like it would be better for your significant other to do research at a psych lab (or work in some area related to what she wants to do) for three years and then apply for a PhD program.
posted by qmechanic at 4:50 PM on August 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


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