Matters to a Degree

As with many psychologists, my reasons for choosing this career are personal and close to my heart. At age 4, my younger brother, Omar, was diagnosed with autism. Growing up, I was frequently embarrassed by my brother's behavior. I remember not telling my friends about Omar and preferring to go to their homes rather than invite them to mine because of Omar's bizarre behavior. At the same time, I was fascinated by how his special education teachers so patiently worked with him and other challenging students.  
  
That fascination led me to major in psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, where I worked with a leading researcher and learned how to use applied behavior analysis to teach children language, social skills and self-help skills. I completed two research projects on autism and developmental disabilities, and I taught fellow undergraduates how to work with children with autism. In four short years, I began to resemble the people I most admired—my brother's teachers.  
  
To continue down this path, I went to psychology graduate school, but the road grew bumpy. I had significant challenges working with my adviser and developing a manageable research project. I became frustrated and began to question if all this stress was worth it. But when I thought of my brother—my inspiration—I remembered my goal: to become an advocate and provider for children with autism and their families.  
  
All of us encounter frustrations while running the gantlet we call graduate school. Here's some advice I used that might help you cope:

  • Reflect on your goals. Why do you want to be a psychologist? Write down the reasons. You can pull out this list whenever you're feeling distracted or down. Better yet, you can reflect on these reasons when you need a jolt of energy to finish writing your dissertation proposal or to complete a psychological assessment for your practicum.

  • Remind yourself of your inspiration. Place subtle cues of your inspiration around your office. For example, I kept photos of my brother on my bookcases at home, and I now have autism awareness ribbons around my office.

  • Link your work to your interests. When you're studying a topic that is close to your heart, it's easier to spend hours working on it. So try to relate your research or clinical experience to your reasons for becoming a psychologist—even if the link isn't exactly direct. For example, I worked at a Head Start program that did not include children with autism, but the program taught me about typical child development and gave me ideas about ways to include learning opportunities for high-functioning children with autism.

  • Remember that graduation is the goal. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you'll find that you can't directly study what you're most interested in, perhaps due to a lack of training opportunities in your area or difficulties with your adviser. Just remember that once you have your psychology doctorate, the sky's the limit. And while you may have to divert your path for a while to complete your education, you can always return to your original interests when you graduate. As a professor of mine once told me, "The best dissertation is the done dissertation!" I chose not to focus on autism for my dissertation, but after I graduated I was able to return to autism in my postdoctoral position, and I used those skills as a pediatric psychologist diagnosing autism spectrum disorders in Spanish-speaking children at my first full-time clinical position. 

So what's your inspiration? Keep that in mind and remind yourself regularly as you progress on your journey to becoming a psychologist.