Married Couple Graduates Together (Extended Interview)

By Cathi Biller

Tabitha and Scott Emsley are college sweethearts who both graduated in June from Spalding’s School of Professional Psychology Doctoral program.  The couple, who have been married for four years, recently spoke with Spalding’s Cathi Biller, Manager of Alumni Relations, about sharing their journey together through the highly competitive program process and the stress of pursuing professional studies at the same university simultaneously.  The couple has recently accepted staff psychologist positions post-graduation, Scott in the Outpatient Mental Health Clinic of Hefner VA Medical Center in Salisbury, N.C. and Tabitha at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C. This is an extended version of the interview, which appeared in the summer 2013 issue of Spalding Quarterly.

Cathi Biller: Based on your shared interest, how did you both become involved in this level of a psychology program?

Tabitha Emsley: Scott and I are both very passionate about psychology. We went through undergrad together and had both decided that we wanted to attend a clinical psychology doctorate program as we finished our bachelor’s degrees. We both applied to several doctorate programs but we both connected well with the staff and the other graduate students that we met while interviewing at Spalding. Eventually we made the decision together that we would both go to Spalding.

CB: What led you each to find your areas of interest, the VA for Scott and college counseling for Tabitha?

Scott Emsley: During my first practicum at Spalding, I really left my fate in the hands of the faculty. They placed me on the Acute Psychiatric Unit at the VA Medical Center in Louisville. I had a number of experiences there that helped me to decide that I want to work with veterans long-term. I have specific interests in working with veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder or substance use disorders.

Tabitha: As a student in Spalding’s Psy.D. program I had the opportunity to do practicum placements in a variety of different clinical settings. I was able work at a neighboring university for a year as a practicum student. Through this experience I found that I loved working with students. I also enjoyed the diverse experience that I got in this setting.

CB: How were your internship experiences?  Were you ever worried about having to live apart in order to achieve your professional and educational goals?

Scott: When applying to the clinical internship, Tabitha and I applied through what is known as the couples match. Tabitha and I had 48 different combinations in the couples match, and only one of them (our top choice), would have allowed us to live together during the internship year. We matched at our top choice. So, yes, we were very worried about having to live apart during our internship year, but it all worked out for the best. The next chapter will be a little more challenging because our jobs are too far apart for us to live together. But in the near future we hope to find jobs closer together.

CB: Did being married to a fellow psychology professional help you to lean on each other when you experienced difficult moments?

Tabitha: I think it is safe to say that Scott and I have learned to lean on each other both personally and professionally throughout our journey. In many ways, going through the program together was a major advantage for me because I was able to rely on Scott when I was stressed, frustrated and exhausted. I was also able to share my achievements with someone who could truly understand.  We were able to study together and challenge each other at a deeper level. Personally, our relationship only grew through the process because we learned that we could survive anything together.

CB: Scott, your dissertation focuses on debt (The Impact of Clinical Psychologists’ Educational Debt on Choice of Career Path and Quality of Life), what influences lead to this being parlayed into a research study?

Scott: I have a personal and scientific interest in money and debt. As I was considering dissertation topics, it occurred to me that I should study something I’m passionate about. After talking with my dissertation chair, Dr. Steve Katsikas, I decided to research something that was very relevant to most of the Psy.D. students at Spalding. My dissertation research revealed some very profound results, and I hope to publish detailed results of my research within the next year. But, in short, educational debt has a significant impact on certain aspects of career selection and quality of life, and I believe that it is our responsibility as psychologists to be aware of this impact.

CB: Tabitha, your dissertation is on the subject of counseling (Using Group Motivational Interviewing Techniques to Encourage Client Progression Through the Stages of Change), what led you to this research study? 

Tabitha: My dissertation topic was developed as a result of one of my practicum placements. I was working at Communicare in Elizabethtown, Ky. where I was leading a group to help improve client’s motivation for treatment. My dissertation examined the effectiveness of this group and the effectiveness of some of the mechanisms of change in this group. I chose this topic because I wanted to do a study on something that would directly relate to clinical practice.

CB: What was the doctoral program application process like as a couple participating together simultaneously?

Scott: We were engaged when we applied to doctoral programs, and we purposefully applied as individuals, completely independent of one another. It wasn’t until our orientation week at Spalding that the faculty learned that we were a couple. Tabitha’s change in last name upon admission really gave it away.

CB: How have your Spalding connections influenced your experiences?

Scott: I had made a number of connections with peers, faculty, and professionals in the Louisville community. One of my proudest moments was one day when talking with Dr. Steve Katsikas, he said: “I don’t worry about you, Scott; you don’t sit still for very long.” I think that pretty much sums it up.

Tabitha:  I have made so many connections with fellow classmates and with the amazing faculty in Spalding’s Psy.D. program. These connections are lifelong professional connections with many trusted mentors. I know that if I have a question or need to consult with someone I can always contact a fellow classmate or mentor. Beyond the professional network I have also made so many friends that I have been able to laugh and cry with. Many of these connections will continue to be a big part of my life.

CB: What is one thing that you have taken away from your Spalding University education?

Scott: The next milestone, goal or achievement is almost always better than the last.

Tabitha: I have learned to always advocate for the right thing even when it isn’t the most popular choice.