How influential is your dissertation or degree emphasis on your career employment?
I am about to start a doctoral program in clinical psychology. Everyone is telling me that an emphasis and dissertation focus on military veterans, can lead to a better practicum and internship placement with the VA, which apparently is on the higher earning spectrum in terms of clinical psychology careers. Can someone still get employed in this position if they put their dissertation and degree emphasis on a different topic?
I have a master's degree in mechanical engineering, and I specialized in mechanical design theory - the study of the processes engineers use to refine a new design. I had no expectation that I would spring straight from college as a consultant teaching experienced engineers how to design things, but the MS degree did show that I could add knowledge in a new area and that I could complete a research project in a timely fashion and speak intelligently about it. The degree helped, but the specifics were not important in my case.
I currently work with a large team of people with a variety of degrees - mostly BS/MS engineers, but also Ph.D's and a wide variety of disciplines, including software, chemistry, materials, and more. What is interesting, is that I have no idea about the educational background of most of these people, unless I am interviewing them for a promotion and see their resume! The skills that someone demonstrates at work very quickly become more important than their education.
Interviewers specifically hiring in veteran-related jobs will certainly value a candidate with academic experience with veterans, but there are many other attributes that I personally consider more important in an interview. The ability to solve problems, personal reliability, curiosity, clear communication (including listening) skills, and self-awareness are all more important than specific scientific domain knowledge. Why? Because I can easily teach new science to anyone with a background in science, but teaching communication skills or curiosity is much more difficult.
I would suggest pursuing research that you personally find interesting. It is also better if the research is fundamentally valuable to the scientific community, regardless of the particular topic. If you are not personally interested in your research, this will result in lower engagement and lower quality work. So find something that pulls you in and then enjoy it and do a great job. Quality work will be valuable to any hiring manager, particularly if it is combined with the other skills I listed above.
I will say that if you are interested in obtaining an internship position in a VA, they DO value when individuals have practicum experience with VA populations, so try to get one of the VA practicum placements if that is an option! That said, it is definitely not necessary to do a VA practicum in order to later obtain a VA internship or VA research/clinical position.
There also are other potential topics that might be relevant to a military population (as well as other populations) and might be of more interest to you (and may be easier to research than trying to get access to military of veterans for a subject pool) such as trauma and substance abuse, to name only two. If you are just starting your graduate career, you have time to decide your dissertation topic. Keep in mind that the best dissertation is a completed dissertation. Also, you will spend tons of time on your dissertation, so make sure it is something you are excited about that will hold your interest.
For academics, you are probably going to pitch your biggest research project to get a job, and it will probably be your dissertation. It will matter more in academics than in the real world.