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10.09.2016
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Expat Life

Grad School Overseas Part I

Who says study abroad can only happen during undergrad? Or that you can't pursue your professional ambitions AND live in another…

post by miss.melissa.parks@gmail.com

Who says study abroad can only happen during undergrad? Or that you can’t pursue your professional ambitions AND live in another country? Especially when grad school overseas may offer a debt-free option for getting your master’s or PhD…

8 minute read

While I certainly do get a lot of people contacting me through my blog enquiring about therapy, I would say that even more of my readers reach out to me with questions such as:

  1. How did you get work permission in Spain?
  2. How did you get licensed as a therapist in Spain? 
  3. How did you wind up pursuing grad school overseas? 

The first two questions deserve a blog post of their own, but the short answers are 1) get a lawyer and 2) start researching the homologación process.

This series of blog posts however, is devoted to question number three. How did a girl with her B.A. in psychology from a small private university in Seattle, Washington, USA wind up pursuing her master´s degree and PhD in clinical psychology in Madrid, Spain? Why would I choose to go to grad school overseas with all of the great educational institutions in the U.S.? And of even more interest to most of you reading this: do I recommend that you do the same?

The reason for telling this story in a series of blog posts rather than one succinct ¨Five reasons why I chose grad school overseas,¨ is because I think it´s essential for me to tell the story with as many details as possible in order for readers to understand that this was not an easy decision, nor a straightforward career path. It´s only now, over a decade after my interest in psychology first began, that I can finally start to weave it into a story. After all, as Steve Jobs so eloquently summed it up:

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”

U.S. Grad School Here I Come!

Unlike many undergrads, I pretty much knew from my second quarter freshman year the degree that I wanted to pursue: psychology. Why wouldn´t I want to spend the next four years learning about a topic that could be informed by, and help me to interpret, my everyday human interactions? Never mind the fact that an actual career in psychology would mean an additional 2-7 years of schooling after undergrad. I loved school. Plus, my professors saw the passion and enthusiasm I had for the subject soon into my undergrad career and were quick to point out my potential as a future PhD student.

When everyone else was rolling their eyes and moaning in our ¨Intro to Stats¨ class, I would wake up early to pour over the formulas to ensure that I correctly understood the analyses we were carrying out. Was coffee consumption more frequent among college students than other sociodemographic groups? I not only wanted to know the answer, but I wanted to understand just exactly how these tests told that story. I was officially a nerd and I embraced it whole heartedly!

My plans to pursue a PhD became further cemented when, at the start of junior year, I found my niche while volunteering as a research assistant in a study exploring yoga in the treatment of eating disorders at Seattle Children´s Hospital. I now knew what I wanted to do with my life:

I wanted to pursue a career in psychology.

I wanted to pursue my PhD in Clinical Psychology.

And I wanted to be a Clinical Psychologist in the field of eating disorders.

In my 19-year-old mind, I basically had it all figured out. Now, all I needed was to focus on beefing up my resume to make myself a competitive candidate for grad school. Easy enough, right?

The thing is, it did seem easy to me at the time because I had a plan and I thought all I needed to do to ensure success was execute said plan.

So, that´s just what I did.  I got straight A´s throughout undergrad, continued volunteering as a research assistant, started volunteering at the National Eating Disorder´s Helpline in order to learn more about my field of interest and connected with faculty members who could offer career guidance and serve as letter of recommendation writers in the future. Knowing I wanted real world clinical experience before attending grad school, I spent the two years following graduation working as a pediatric mental health specialist on an inpatient psychiatric unit and continued to volunteer as a research assistant.

I then proceeded to apply to PhD programs in clinical psychology, was accepted and lived happily ever after in dissertation bliss, right?

Life takes an unexpected (Spanish) twist

No, of course that´s not what happened. And not only because dissertation and bliss cannot possibly exist in the same sentence. But because life takes many more twists and turns than my naive 19-year-old career-obsessed self was aware of.  And one very important twist happened mid-junior year, shortly after stumbling upon my niche, which threw my entire professional plan on its head:

I went to Europe. 

Ok, I didn´t just go to Europe. I went on the trip of a lifetime to Europe. Along with thirty other students and two professors from my university, I spent ten weeks backpacking around Spain, France, Austria and Germany. We had our classes in world famous parks, cafes or hostel chill out rooms. Our homework included visits to the Prado and Louvre museums, attending the opera in Vienna and taking in the beauty and history of the Alahambra in Granada.

I spent an entire week drooling over handsome Andalusian men and wishing I was as chic as the women decked out in polka-dotted, ruffled flamenco dresses at Sevilla´s ¨Feria de Abril.¨ I celebrated May 1st (International Worker´s Day) drinking wine and eating cheese surrounded by Parisians picnicking in front of the Eiffel Tower. And I finished off the whole experience by spending a week in a tiny German town that featured us students in their local newspaper, falling asleep each night in a real life castle perched atop a hill.  

During this trip I almost entirely forgot about psychology or grad school (with the exception of a visit to the Freud museum in Vienna). I quickly became known as the ¨inexhaustible¨ one on the trip. All of the energy I´d poured into psychology now went to scouring guidebooks, spending countless hours in museums and recording each and every detail in my journal at the end of the day.

But how could I not have gotten sidetracked from my professional ambitions? I was in love! I was absolutely truly, madly, deeply, head-over-heels in love with travel and in particular, the first European city I´d stepped foot in: Madrid. 

You know how they say you never forget your first love? Well I think that your first travel love has a way of turning your world upside down in such a way that no human would ever be capable of. Within one week in Madrid, I, a girl who had ¨Pacific Northwest¨ practically tattooed on her heart, who came from a family of homebodies, knew that I had to come back. And not only that I had to come back, but that I had to live there.

Spain-sick

So, all the while when I was pursuing my original plan I outlined above, aimed at helping me get into grad school, I was also daydreaming about how to get back to Spain. I went to a therapist myself around this time who encouraged me to keep a daily emotion log. Once a day I would check in with myself about how I ranked on a scale from 1-10 on six different feelings, which I was free to choose. So in addition to the typical happy, sad, anxious, angry, and lonely, each day I recorded how strongly I was feeling Spain-sick.

And it became increasingly evident that I had to go back as soon as possible. Even if just for a couple of months. Perhaps that would finally rid me of this Spain-sick ailment that I was plagued with and help me focus solely on my grad school ambitions once again. All of this distraction couldn´t possibly be good for my grad school plans could it? Since going to Europe I had started studying Spanish and I was now obsessed with learning all of the Spanish translations for eating disorder related terminology, I jumped for joy when a Spanish speaking caller phoned during my shift at the helpline, and I became far too excited whenever we had a patient admitted to the psychiatric unit who required a Spanish translator to follow them around.

Looking back, it´s clear to me that I was using my newfound love for Spain and its language in a way that would actually broaden my career ambitions, but at that moment it seemed like nothing more than a threat to my grad school dreams. Thankfully, older, wiser individuals in my life could see the bigger picture and the benefits that additional experience abroad and learning a second language might have on my career.

One such person included my supervisor at the hospital who didn´t think twice before signing the form granting me a three month leave of absence to pursue an intensive Spanish course in Alicante and Madrid. I was going to do something that had previously seemed impossible: take a break from my post-college dream job to live abroad for three months with the guarantee that said dream job would be waiting for me when I returned. For the first time I began to wonder: maybe a career in psychology and living abroad weren´t mutually exclusive? 

Grad School Overseas Part 2…

You´ll have to stay tuned for the next edition of this blog to find out how that three month stay in Spain helped me find the professor who is my PhD supervisor today, how I wound up getting to go on that life-changing Euro trip for a second time and why I still chose to apply to grad school in the states (and what happened after that). Until then, one of my favorite quotes on pursuing your dreams:

“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” ~The Alchemist
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