University of Nebraska Interview

We recognized the University of Nebraska for offering one of the 35 Best ABA Graduate Programs (Master’s and Doctorate), adding them to our list of top recommendations for students in the area.

We were excited to hear from Nicole M. Rodriguez, Ph.D., BCBA-D, a faculty member at University of Nebraska who took the time to answer a few questions about how the school works to create a great student experience that helps prepare graduates for a career in applied behavior analysis.

University of Nebraska Programs:

  • ABA Ph.D. Program

For a number of these questions Dr. Rodriquez tapped her colleague Dr. Retzlaff to expand on some points. As a former student of the UNMC ABA doctorate program, Dr. Retzlaff was in a unique position to offer some additional insights.

Professor/Faculty Name: 
     Nicole M. Rodriguez, Ph.D., BCBA-D

Tell us about the types of students you see come through your program. Are you seeing more non-traditional students and career changers coming from other fields?

Nicole:  Applicants tend to be students that have just completed their master’s degree and are looking to get further education. Most students who enter our program plan to go into academia or obtain a position as a clinical director. We occasionally get students who have been practicing ABA for a while and are now returning to school, or students with experience in a related field, such as speech or school psychology. However, because the Ph.D. program requires that students are BCBA eligible, their most recent experience tends to be behavior analytic.

What areas of practice are you seeing graduates going into? Do they tend to find jobs in the local school districts or more often join private practices?

Nicole:  We have a good record of our graduates obtaining the types of jobs that they were looking for post-graduation, whether that be as an assistant professor at a research or teaching university or a director of a clinic.

We have a breadth of practicum experiences at MMI, including but not limited to our early intervention, severe behavior, virtual care, and pediatric feeding programs. We tend to see graduates practice and continue to do research in the areas that they specialized in during their time in the Ph.D. program.

Here’s a list of some of the places folks have ended up after graduating and the kind of positions they hold:

  • The Behavior Center – Program Director
  • The May Institute – Postdoctoral Fellow and Lead Behavior Analyst
  • Utah State University – Assistant Professor
  • University of Saint Joseph – Assistant Professor
  • Oregon Health and Science University – Pediatric Resident
  • Drake University – Assistant Professor
  • University of Iowa – Postdoctoral Fellow
  • University of Nebraska Medical Center – Assistant Professor, Postdoctoral Fellow, Assistant Professor Director
  • University of North Carolina, Wilmington – Postdoctoral Fellow
  • STE Consultants – Director of Telehealth
  • University of Florida, Gainesville – Postdoctoral Fellow
  • University of Houston, Clearlake – Autism Program Manager, Adjunct Professor
  • Glenwood-APEX Regional Program – Program and Research Coordinator
  • University of Missouri – Assistant Teaching Professor
  • Association Agir Et Vivre L’Autisme – Behavior Consultant
  • Brock University – Assistant Professor
  • Upstate Medical University – Postdoctoral Research Fellow
  • Florida Autism Center – Chief Clinical Officer
  • Southeast Missouri State Medical Center – Director
  • Kennedy Krieger Institute – Senior Behavior Analyst, Postdoctoral Fellow
  • California State University-Northridge – Assistant Professor
  • Briar Cliff University – Assistant Professor
  • University of Alaska, Anchorage – Assistant Professor
  • EQHealth Solutions – Second Level Utilization Reviewer
  • Saint Louis University – Assistant Professor
  • Fyzical Therapy and Balance Centers of Iowa – Owner
  • Pier Center for Autism – Clinical Director
  • Global Behavior Solutions – Owner
  • Centre for Autism Services – Clinical Supervisor
  • Elijah School – Associate Executive Director
  • Ball State University, Hong Kong – Instructor
  • Private Practice, International Organization (Hong Kong, Kuwait and Vietnam) – Private Behavioral Consultant and Supervisor
  • Learning Strategies – Director of Clinical Assessments
  • West Virginia University – Assistant Professor

What are some of the things you love most about the ABA program at your university – the kind of things you’d like future students to know about as they consider their options?

Nicole:  Students get tons of experience integrating research and their clinical work, lots of ongoing contact and mentorship from their advisors, and the coursework is rigorous (and tends to be highly rated by students). It is clear that our faculty really care about the success of our students and are passionate about the work that they do.

Here’s some highlights from the ABAI reaccreditation material we put together recently that sums it up nicely:

The department’s philosophy of education is that students learn best by doing, combined with appropriate preparation and ongoing mentoring, supervision, and feedback. The training program follows the scientist-practitioner model in that we provide students with intensive didactic instruction in combination with hands-on experience in clinical research and the delivery of empirically supported clinical services. We encourage students to discuss their clinical and research experiences in their didactic courses to facilitate cross pollination. In addition, students participate in peer-review meetings multiple times per week in which students and staff present data from clinical and research cases, and students, staff members, and faculty discuss these data. Few, if any, other programs integrate academic training, research, and clinical service in such an integrated and cohesive manner.

A primary goal of the program is to train students to integrate scientific knowledge with clinical research and practice as an interconnected and organized entity rather than multiple distinct activities. As such, we emphasize empirical, data-based approaches to the study of behavior and the practice of applied behavior analysis. We expect students not only to follow current standards of practice based on the extant research literature, but also to strive to continually refine clinical procedures and generate new knowledge through integrated clinical research. Effective clinical services should be informed by prior research and should also kindle future socially relevant research. Thus, the goal of the training program is to produce scientist practitioners who skillfully provide the most advanced, empirically supported behavior-analysis services currently available and who engender the continual refinement of behavioral assessments and interventions for a variety of human problems through systematic clinical research.

Former student and current faculty member Dr. Retzlaff responded with this statement:

Nicole:  I love how integrated research, coursework, and clinical work are in our program. Students have so many opportunities to get involved in different research projects or clinical experiences and these all tie back nicely to the courses they are taking. I also really appreciate the wide range of opportunities for our students. For example, students can attend group supervisions for other departments, participate in reading groups/journal clubs, or participate in mock grant reviews.

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What do you feel are the most pressing issues in ABA today, and how does the program at your school prepare graduates to address these issues?

Dr. Retzlaff responded to this question by identifying the following as the most pressing issues:

Dissemination of ABA services, increasing public awareness and understanding of evidence-based practice, producing socially meaningful outcomes, and issues surrounding coverage/access to services.

These themes are integrated into all areas of our programs (research, clinical experiences, courses). Students are encouraged to collaborate with other ABA-based programs but also non-ABA providers, including SLPs, OTs and PTs. Telehealth programs and school-based services are also increasing within our programs. Students are encouraged to attend conferences, and even get the funding they need to cover travel expenses. Students are also given opportunities to provide various forms of community trainings and outreach, including general ASD training for direct service staff in group homes, and challenging behavior trainings for local schools and ABA providers.

Can students begin the PhD in ABA program without their BCBA? If so, what is the grace period for getting it?

Nicole:  Students are often wrapping up their master’s degree when they apply for our program. They do not need to start the program with their BCBA, but it is expected that they sit for the exam as soon as possible. Doing so allows them to quickly grow into a supervisory role during their time in the Ph.D. program, which allows them to hone their case management and supervisory skills.

Students are expected to take the BCBA exam as soon as they meet the requirements, but would typically have about 6 months to obtain the BCBA certification after the beginning the program.

Does the MS in ABA program help students find supervised fieldwork hours so they can meet BACB requirements for certification?

Nicole: Students are responsible for securing their own fieldwork placements for the Supervised Independent Fieldwork requirement for examination eligibility. Faculty in the program are happy to provide advice to students and offer to facilitate introductions between students (particularly those that may be in Virginia) and our network of ABA practitioner partners who may be willing to host fieldwork students. We do not, however, arrange for fieldwork placements or provide the required supervision.

The UNMC has close ties with the Munroe-Meyer Institute (MMI). Do ABA students get access to the MMI Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders for practicum purposes?

Nicole:  The ABA Ph.D. program is formally listed under The UNMC Medical Sciences Interdepartmental Area (MSIA] Graduate Program. However, all coursework is taught by faculty at MMI and students complete their practicum at MMI or affiliated sites.

I would say the core practicum sites are Early Intervention (including Autism Care for Toddlers [ACT] Clinic), Severe Behavior, Pediatric Feeding, and Virtual Care. However, there are also other options if the faculty overseeing those programs are interested in taking a student.

Please feel free to add anything else you would like potential students to know about your program and that would be good for them to consider before choosing a program.

When it comes to covering the cost of tuition, we only accept students into the Ph.D. program who we can support fully. This means:

  • An NIH-level stipend (currently $24,500 annually during Years 1 and 2 and $28,500 during internship year)
  • A full tuition waiver for up to 31 semester hours per year
  • Coverage of all student fees (e.g., the institute pays each student’s health insurance fee, which is approximately $3,000)

For an out –of-state student, this represents about a $50,000 a year financial-support package. In addition, we provide financial support to attend at least one national conference per year, including the cost of conference registration, flights, ground transportation, a meal per diem, and accommodations.

Also, it’s worth mentioning that to better meet the demands of the Omaha autism community, we will be moving into a new building in 2020/2021. This will open up at least a handful of new faculty positions.

In response to this opportunity to share something else that prospective students should know, Dr. Retzlaff wrote:

I think students should know that one of the best things about UNMC’s program is that, although you will have one chair/assigned mentor, at UNMC you have the opportunity to work with and learn from a wide range of behavior analysts with various specialties and backgrounds. All the faculty are open to meeting with students to discuss interests, career options, research projects, or clinical cases. Developing a mentorship network is incredibly valuable to students as they move forward in their careers and UNMC is a great place to do this.

I also really like that our program requires that your dissertation be submitted to a peer-reviewed journal for consideration of publication prior to graduation. I believe this sets a valuable contingency for both the student and mentor and encourages productivity and follow-through on one of the hardest aspects of conducting and disseminating research.

Check out our full interview series here to see what other professors and faculty are saying about their ABA programs.

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