Academic jobs used to be relatively easy to come by, and once upon a time, psychologists could launch a private practice, collect a handful of clients and soon become profitable. Today, academic and private-sector employers are making fewer long-term commitments, and the number of contingent workers, such as adjunct professors, continues to grow, says Mark Savickas, PhD, a psychology professor at Northeastern Ohio University who studies career adaptability. Meanwhile, many new private practitioners are finding that they can't rely on therapy sessions alone to keep their practices afloat.
To succeed in today's economy, psychologists must seek new skills and find new ways to use their expertise. They must also be able to adapt to new environments, say Savickas and other career experts. "It's a brand new world."
That sets up a tough problem for graduate students: How do you prepare today for the psychology careers of tomorrow? Recent graduate Rob Wennerberg, PsyD, has hedged his bets by gaining skills in a broad array of areas. While some of his peers have specialized, Wennerberg has worked with a variety of different people — children, firefighters, veterans and families. In addition to conducting therapy, he has experience teaching and conducting forensic assessments. "What I have done is diversify my portfolio," he says. "Specialization is a great gift, but in an economy that is struggling ... flexibility really is key."
That's a wise move, as a postgraduate degree is no longer a guarantee of employment, says Rudy Fenwick, PhD, a sociologist at the University of Akron in Ohio who studies the changing occupational structure in the United States. That said, advanced training is more valuable than ever. "The more skills you have, the better off you're going to be," he says.
The economy may be struggling, but the outlook for psychology graduates is far from grim, since they can apply their skills to a variety of jobs, says Fenwick. "You can have careers in academics, in clinical settings, in the business world and in the public sector," he says.
In 2009, unemployment among new psychologists was about six percent — higher than the two percent unemployment in 2007, but lower than the 2009 national unemployment rate of nine percent, according to the most recent APA doctorate employment survey.
Behind these numbers, however, are many psychologists who piece together several jobs rather than being employed full time at a single institution. For example, Heather Banis, PhD, a full-time professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles, logs six hours a month as a school psychologist and also consults one day a week for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Patching together a living with several jobs isn't always easy, she says. "When budgets get cut in institutions that aren't 100 percent focused on mental health, one of the first things to go is mental health," she says. As a school psychologist, "I've gone from being on site half time to being on a consulting retainer." Banis's flexibility has helped her continue providing crucial mental health services, even in tight job markets.
Banis attributes her success, in part, to the fact that she has maintained her focus on children and families even as she cultivated a diverse skill set. "Even though the job descriptions and titles have changed tremendously, the key focus of my work has stayed very much the same," she says. That focus has helped her resume seem more cohesive.
Having a variety of skills will be crucial for future private practitioners as well, allowing them to weather market shifts, says Steven Walfish, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Atlanta and a partner at The Practice Institute.
Walfish, for example, provides traditional psychotherapy, substance abuse evaluations and psychological evaluations for people who are preparing for weight-loss surgery. However, one major insurance company has stopped covering weight-loss surgery. "So those 50 evaluations that I do a year will be gone," Walfish says. "If all I did was pre-surgical evaluations before weight-loss surgery, I would be in trouble."
Building a diverse skill set begins in graduate school. Students can develop competency in a variety of areas, for example, by developing assessment as well as therapy skills, and working with adults and children in a variety of settings, says Nadine Kaslow, PhD, who directs the psychology postdoctoral fellowship at Emory University. Even then, there are no guarantees. "The reality is we don't exactly know what the new model will look like. We don't know what health-care reform will bring," she says.
But whatever the future, your education will continue long after you obtain your psychology degree, Savickas says. As the market changes, you'll need to acquire new skills through internships, workshops, continuing-education classes and fellowships.
A case in point: The number of psychology graduates seeking postdoctoral training has grown steadily over the past two decades, with the most recent numbers showing that nearly half of psychology graduates now complete a postdoc. Even some established psychologists seek advanced training. John Fabian, PsyD, a clinical and forensic psychologist in Cleveland, began a postdoc in neuropsychology a decade after getting his license. Since completing his postdoc, he's expanded his consulting practice to include cases in which criminal defendants have both brain injuries and behavioral problems.
"There are really not very many experts that can do both," he says.
The extra training not only made Fabian more marketable, it also enabled him to provide a valuable public service. His neuropsychology training allows him to better assess whether defendants' criminal activities could have been influenced by previous brain injuries. And those evaluations help juries and judges decide whether criminals are competent to stand trial.
Fabian has never regretted putting his practice on hold to get more experience. "Everything I've done has enhanced my career. I've never been wrong when choosing education," he says.
In addition to seeking diverse training, it's also important to think broadly about how to apply your skills to fill new niches. Walfish, for example, happened to read a journal article on the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder among car accident survivors. The article helped him see an untapped market opportunity. He read up on the topic, attended a personal injury evaluation workshop and obtained a copy of the assessment materials from the study. Then he began conducting his own evaluations, seeking out consultations when needed. "If one has a broad skill set and an entrepreneurial mindset, there will always be opportunities for private practice," he says.
Recent psychology grad Wennerberg already has that entrepreneurial mindset. He and a friend are launching a private practice that offers forensic evaluations and couples therapy. Wennerberg sometimes longs for the job security that psychologists had in the old days, but the nostalgia never lasts long. "I like having some diverse options and not thinking that I'm just going to get stuck doing one thing for the rest of my life," he says.
Cassandra Willyard is a writer in New York City.
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