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Things I wish I'd learned in grad school

by Tori DeAngelis

Monitor on Psychology, Volume 36, No. 1 January 2005 

You're a newly minted psychologist, and it's time to spread your wings and fly. But while grad school prepared you to implement your academic know-how, it didn't necessarily prime you for such real-life details as negotiating your first salary or dealing with office politics. Fear not: In this article, early-career experts who have traversed this territory offer tips — general and specific — to help you gain financial and professional independence across practice, academic, research and corporate career areas. Heeding them could help you soar in your first job — or even change it, if it ends up not suiting you.

Navigating Your finances

One of the biggest hurdles early-career psychologists face is becoming and remaining solvent.

"We leave graduate school pretty idealistic--we want to save the world and be charitable civil servants," says Corey J. Habben, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and co-editor of a new book, "Life After Graduate School in Psychology: Insiders' Advice from New Psychologists" (Psychology Press, 2004). "But we need to learn early on how to generate revenue, how to market ourselves, how to create a network — all of the things that we psychologists just don't like to do." To prepare yourself for the financial aspects of your career, Habben and others advise you to negotiate the following:

Your salary. If you are considering a position where a salary is your main means of income, discuss its terms once you have determined that it is indeed negotiable (at unionized institutions, for example, positions often are not), early-career experts advise.

This is especially important in academia, where starting salaries vary dramatically and what you negotiate at the beginning determines the size of your paycheck later on, says Karen Gasper, PhD, who earned her doctorate in 1999 and is up for tenure at Penn State University. Because such jobs are scarce, however, be diplomatic in your dealings, she advises: One of her colleagues, for example, essentially tells potential employers, "Thank you for your offer of X — but Y is closer to my ideal salary." Pick colleagues' brains on other good ways to communicate your wishes, she advises.

Equipment. Negotiate on computers and lab supplies, as well as on job parameters such as the size of your course load, Gasper says. E-mail is a good vehicle for this, allowing you time to research your requirements compared with the terms offered and then to communicate them using specific monetary amounts and documentation. Just as importantly, e-mail provides a written record should there be any question what the institution has agreed on, she notes.

Contracts. Likewise, read contracts carefully, and challenge items you disagree with, early-career experts advise. In the practice arena, for example, insurance and managed-care contracts often contain such pitfalls as unacceptably low reimbursement rates and gag rules that free companies from responsibility for patient outcomes (see "Avoiding contractual pitfalls"). Similarly, some academic settings — in particular, medical schools — urge psychologists to sign "non-compete" agreements that restrict them from seeing clients "on the side" in private practice, notes Brandon Briery, PhD, assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of Miami's Mailman Center for Child Development and a member of APA's Ad Hoc Early Career Committee. Be clear about your points of disagreement and about what you want instead, he advises, and move on if you don't like the final terms.

Also in the financial arena, early-career experts advise psychologists to:

Hire a professional. A good accountant can help you navigate taxes, prepare for potential audits of a private practice or business, and plan and manage your finances — new ground for many early-career people, says Habben, a 1998 graduate whose first job was at a group practice before he landed his job at Walter Reed. An accountant helped him transition smoothly from being a student who filled out simple 1040EZ tax forms during TV commercials to a professional with complex business needs. "It was probably the best money I ever spent," he says.

Learn business skills. If you are running your own business or private practice, learn to craft a business plan, whether by hiring a business coach, reading, attending classes or all of the above, experts advise.

As a practitioner, one way to receive hands-on business training and mentoring is to join a group practice, adds Christine Farber, PhD, who earned her doctorate in 2000 and is now on staff at the Traumatic Stress Institute in South Windsor, Conn. The center — which provides treatment for child and adult trauma survivors, trauma training and forensic work — offers an excellent business model by emphasizing practice diversity and staff development, she notes.

Navigating the workplace

Like finances, workplace politics also represent a "reality sandwich" for some early-career psychologists. Because your success depends in part on the personal skills you tap on the job, experts suggest that you:

Heed "The Donald." Young entrepreneurs on Donald Trump's TV show "The Apprentice" offer a useful perspective for psychologists just starting out. Those who avoid hearing "You're fired!" work well with others and steer clear of catty conflicts. "We're supposed to be the experts in human behavior and group dynamics," notes Habben, "and sometimes psychologists get right in the middle of these petty fights."

In academia, lie low in your early years, adds Tara L. Kuther, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Western Connecticut State University and co-editor with Habben and Robert D. Morgan, PhD, of "Life After Graduate School."

"When you begin a tenure-track or other academic position, you don't know the full history of the institution, the department or relations among faculty," she comments. "Don't take sides, gossip or listen to gossip. The issues are often more complex than they first appear and you may create the illusion of taking sides and thereby alienate faculty and lose support."

Work around superstars. In academia, new psychologists often seek to work with "superstar" mentors--well-known researchers who are so busy they may have little time for you, says Briery, who earned his doctorate in 2000 and secured an American Cancer Society grant that funds his faculty position at Mailman researching pediatric cancer survivors. While these professionals are usually well-intentioned and earned their positions rightfully, accept that they won't be around much, he advises, and adjust your training needs accordingly.

Briery recommends developing a support group of peers and asking advice from other more junior, and often more available, faculty. And while he wouldn't suggest staying in such a position forever, the experience is not all bad: "You do get baptized by fire," he notes. "The experience you gain--whether in light of or in spite of such mentorship--can be highly valuable as you progress in your career."

Navigating your growth

One of the most important challenges after grad school is to keep growing once you're out — to fan the flame that brought you into the field in the first place, early-career experts say. To this end, they advise you to:

Join early and often. Get involved in professional activities outside of your institution, including APA governance, state psychological associations, local psychological associations, APA divisions and professional organizations that represent your interests. Many of these entities have committees devoted specifically to early-career psychologists, and your involvement will expand your horizons exponentially.

Christopher Chapman, PhD, who received his doctorate in 1999 and took a job at Microsoft after completing a postdoc in medical research, says his involvement in two professional groups — the Wi-Fi Alliance, the main standards body for wireless networking, and the Society for Philosophy in the Contemporary World — let him easily take on leadership roles he might not have been able to otherwise.

For the philosophy society, for instance, he reviews conference papers, and for the wireless alliance, he contributes a human-factors perspective the organization had previously neglected. Such involvement "is an easy way to build skills and a résumé, meet people and be involved," he says.

Miguel Gallardo, PsyD, a member of APA's early-career committee and a psychologist at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) Counseling Center, began to network with the Los Angeles County Psychological Association (LACPA), the California Psychological Association and APA when he was still a student, partly as a challenge to himself.

"Everyone was telling me the field of psychology is not what it used to be" — that it is divided and divisive — "and I thought, 'If that's the case, I need to do something now to make sure I create opportunities for myself and others down the road.'"

That decision has led to many positive outcomes, the 2001 graduate says. For one, his involvement has spurred an interest in helping students make a smoother transition to becoming professionals, and he's gained some renown as a result. It also has helped his career: Gallardo received a coveted internship at the University of California, Los Angeles, when the training director happened to spot him receiving an award from the LACPA. And when he applied for the job at UCI at the urging of his mentor, "I brought a lot of experience my competitors didn't have," he says.

Diversify. One of the best growth strategies — both personal and financial — is to diversify your work or practice, says Farber of the Traumatic Stress Institute. For example, the center has allowed her to develop a latent interest in administrative work, and she now oversees several of its programs. Other center colleagues do niche work in forensics and trauma training, she notes.

Learning a new area requires initiative and unpaid training time, she says, but the rewards are worth it. "Diversifying can bode well for you down the road," she says, "especially if the area is something you're really interested in."

Consider your next job. As much as you may love your current job, be looking for the next one, early-career experts emphasize. Briery, for example, is seeking a job that will let him explore the therapeutic potential of summer camps for children with medical conditions, an interest his current job does not fully accommodate. Likewise, experts say, don't be afraid to change: Chapman, for instance, knew that academia was too narrowly focused for him, and he has not regretted the leap to researching user behavior for Microsoft.

Remember your calling. Finally, remember the idealism that brought you into the field in the first place — in particular, the elements of the profession that most excite you, says Gallardo.

"Stick to those things no matter what," he says, "and create opportunities for yourself that are consistent with those values. If you do that," he notes, "you'll be fine."

Date created: 2005