"Spreading out what I do keeps things interesting"
by Mark Greer, Monitor Staff
Monitor on Psychology, Volume 36, No. 2 February 2005
Early-career psychologists (ECPs), perhaps more than established psychologists, must face and learn to navigate professional practice's changing landscape in the coming years. Marketplace factors as varied as the need to develop a strong referral base, the chance to develop administrative experience and the desire to diversify skill sets have compelled many ECPs to carve out careers beyond providing traditional mental health services, some ECPs say.
Often, they use their skills to simultaneously take on many different psychology roles, such as working in private practice, hospitals and schools. Here, five ECPs in different practice settings share how they are finding professional success.
A mix of jobs for all skills
Clinical psychologist Robin Miyamoto, PsyD, will tell you her official job title is primary-care psychologist at Honolulu's Waimanalo Health Center. She works there with physicians to help patients who face chronic illnesses, and she supervises psychology interns serving the native Hawaiian population.
But that's just half of her double life. Miyamoto also works two days a week in private practice with patients who have cancer, renal disease or diabetes. She counsels them to help them handle the emotional issues related to their illnesses.
A 2000 graduate of the American School of Professional Psychology, now Argosy University/Honolulu, Miyamoto intended to pursue a career in child and family psychology. But she jumped at a fellowship through the Tripler Army Medical Center that let her work at Waimanalo, in part because "the ability to be in a practice with physicians rather than other psychologists is a good way to develop a referral base," she says.
She stayed with Waimanalo and now works there two days a week while building a private practice. Miyamoto says she enjoys her mix of jobs because she uses different skills for each.
"I like the balance between my two roles because my private practice allows independent work and Waimanalo lets me do more supervision and administrative work with primary-care physicians to develop programs for patients," she says.
Miyamoto also looks for new opportunities, such as research on quality of life for patients with chronic diseases. She consults with physicians at Hawaii's St. Francis Medical Center who study quality of life in hemodialysis patients and is helping them develop a method to assess quality of life in chronic-disease populations.
If it's Tuesday, this must be the hospital
The 2000 University of Massachusetts Amherst graduate supervises psychology interns and treats children for four 10-hour days each week at Primary Children's Medical Center in Salt Lake City.
Poulsen spends the other weekday in private practice, performing court-ordered psychological evaluations of juvenile offenders. Yet he finds another four hours each week to supervise psychology graduate students interning with a local school district.
"I like this mix," he says. "It helps me be involved in the schools and know what clinical services are available in juvenile courts. In the long run, spreading out what I do keeps things interesting."
Though Poulsen prefers the variety, he didn't envision it when he was a student.
"My original plan was to enter academia," he says. "But during my internship [in 1997 at Primary Children's], I realized how much I liked clinical work. And of course, the realities of needing a job came into play."
Primary Children's Medical Center offered Poulsen flexibility in providing a variety of clinical and supervisory services during a four-day workweek. Poulsen says the extra money was not a motivation to expand into private practice, but it is a benefit. More important, he says, is his work environment.
"I enjoy working as part of a team with other professionals, and I wouldn't get to do that in private practice alone," he says. "It suits my temperament to work for a big agency but it's nice to do these other things, too."
Private practice in private schools
But today, Christensen can't see himself doing anything else.
As the psychologist for four Akron-area private primary and secondary schools, Christensen provides students with an array of psychological services. He designs individualized plans to help students who might struggle socially or academically, he counsels students and he tests students for issues like attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.
"The thing I like best about this job is setting up intervention programs and motivating students," he says.
Christensen spent seven years completing his dissertation before graduating from the University of Akron in 2001. He worked with the Akron schools while completing his dissertation and, he says, "I discovered that not only did the job pay the bills but that I had a knack for it."
He continues to work with schools to develop needed programs. For example, Christensen is collaborating with Akron Children's Hospital and local school officials to help develop a more comprehensive risk-assessment intervention program for one of the schools at which he works.
"Most of all, I enjoy having that direct contact with [students]," he says.
Lots of flexibility, but little sleep
Forensic psychologist James Loving, PsyD, entered graduate school at Widener University's Institute for Graduate Clinical Psychology committed to a career providing therapy. It turns out that, today, he doesn't do a bit of it.
But he seems to do everything else. Loving conducts court-ordered assessments of juvenile offenders and families in abuse and neglect cases at a group practice in Hamilton, N.J., and in a solo practice in Philadelphia. Child protective service agencies ask Loving to assess the emotional state of children in abusive homes, for example. He then works with the agencies to determine the best way to help children, such as through referrals to specialized treatment programs or placements in appropriate residential facilities.
One day each week, Loving also supervises postdoctoral clinicians performing assessments at a child and family assessment clinic affiliated with Rowan University. On top of that, he teaches assessment courses as an adjunct faculty member at LaSalle University.
"I pretty much don't sleep now," he says. "But I like the flexibility I have, and the variety of things I do and of people I see."
The 1998 graduate's interests shifted to assessment in graduate school, which led to an internship at Assessment and Treatment Alternatives, a Philadelphia agency specializing in juvenile assessment.
Loving stayed there after graduation and spent five years doing the same kind of court-ordered forensic assessments he does now. He moved to his current jobs a year ago, when he found his prior contacts with judges, attorneys and other nonpsychologists had helped build a base of potential referrals.
"The job built visibility for my name and work, so when I made contact with people they were aware of me," he says.
Loving says he's glad he left to juggle so many jobs. "Having contact with so many students, supervisees and clients forces me to stay on top of the practice and keep up-to-date on the research literature," he says. "It challenges me so I don't stagnate. In 10 years, I think my hand will still be in several different pots."
Out of the blue and into a great job
Pamela Planthara, PsyD, says joining the U.S. Air Force remains the best decision she ever made.
Now a project administrator at the Jacoby Medical Center in New York City, Planthara, who recently completed her four-year stint in the Air Force, finds the psychological training and skills she learned there have paid big dividends as an early-career psychologist.
She initially joined the service in part because of finances. The Air Force offered the Nova Southeastern University graduate more than $40,000 for her residency program more than twice what other sites could pay her, she says.
But it provided Planthara much more than money. In the service, she counseled families at the Pentagon Family Assistance Center after 9/11 and then worked with the Pentagon's Critical Incidence Stress Management team the following month to prevent post-traumatic stress disorder among Pentagon employees. She also started a behavioral health program in primary care at her Air Force base. She was also chief of outpatient mental health and chairperson of a community outreach team.
"I got hit with responsibility very early on in my career," she says. "I joined the Air Force at 26. By 27, I was already doing things I thought I would be doing later on in my career. It was possible because of the great mentorship the Air Force provides, which is a component that I know many young psychologists are missing."
Along the way, she picked up valuable administrative skills and joined a postdoctoral master's class in psycho-pharmacology.
"I wasn't joining just to be a clinician but to be an officer with administrative responsibilities," she explains. "When I looked long term, I saw psychologists taking on more administrative positions, and I thought those skills would help me in my career."
She was right. When Planthara left the Air Force in September, her resume netted her many job opportunities. At Jacoby, she now leads an Assertive Community Treatment Team of psychiatrists, nurses and social workers that treats people with chronic mental illness.
Planthara says she never would have gotten the job without her Air Force experience.
"I love this work as many of my colleagues do, but many are disenchanted because of the money situation early on," she says. "But luckily, that wasn't an issue for me because of the military, and I was able to enjoy the different experiences of my career. And I think that's what young psychologists should be able to do."