Early-Career Psychology

As president of APA's Div. 46 (Media) and a private practitioner in Camp Hill, Pa., Pauline Wallin, PhD, has no regrets — and says no one else should, either.

That's a lesson she learned as an undergraduate when she was accepted by three highly rated psychology graduate programs. When she asked her adviser for guidance, he said with a smile, "Face it, Pauline: Whatever you decide you'll be sorry … but not for long."

That phrase has stuck with her throughout her career. "At major decision points, I've reminded myself that some options must be left behind, but that the regret won't last," Wallin says. "This has helped me focus on the specific options I did choose, and to be open to new opportunities along the way."

In search of other pearls of wisdom, the Monitor asked several seasoned psychologists to share the career lessons they've learned.

1. Find a research problem that keeps you up at night, says Elizabeth Kensinger, PhD, a cognitive psychologist at Boston College. "It has to be something that you can't get out of your head, and that you feel you can't wait to solve," she says. Her own research on the effects of emotion on memory "has kept me motivated through many late nights and a number of failed experiments."

2. Make an impact, says Washington, DC, independent practitioner Jean Carter, PhD. Rather than sitting back and waiting for other people to ask you to participate, figure out what you need to do to enrich your professional life and then ask faculty, supervisors, advisers and professional colleagues for guidance on ways to get there. You won't always get what you want, Carter says, but you'll be surprised by the positive response you'll get. Second, step up your own efforts, she says. "While others can open doors for you, it is up to you to make the best use of those opportunities," she says.

3. Learn from your elders, says Harvard University psychologist Jerome Kagan, PhD. With research grants more scarce and competition fiercer than when he was a new psychologist, he says early career psychologists need to find an experienced guide. "Find an older mentor who is respected and doing excellent research in an area that is of interest to the younger person and attach to that person."

4. Keep your options open, says Charlottesville, Va., independent practitioner Tom DeMaio, PhD. DeMaio says he will never forget this advice, which he got from an experienced colleague more than 30 years ago as he was preparing to open his clinical practice: "Take anything that comes through the door," his friend told him. People's problems have a common thread, he was told, and specializing too early doesn't allow a practitioner to build up a broad base of experience.

5. Separate your expenses, says APA Treasurer Bonnie Markham, PhD, PsyD. It's one of many important aspects of running a business that psychologists don't often learn in graduate school. In 1986, launching her clinical practice in New Jersey, Markham was advised by an experienced colleague to open a separate checking account for her practice, so that her business income and expenses didn't merge with her personal expenses. "At tax time, I was very glad I did," she says. "It would have been a nightmare to try to sort all that out after the fact." It's a lesson that's important for researchers in charge of tracking grant money spent as well.

6. Know that the grass is no greener on the other side, says Christine Chambers, PhD, a professor of pediatrics and psychology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. "As a graduate student, I dreamed about the days when I would have the luxury of being a faculty member, with no courses to take and no program requirements to meet," she says. "Now when I look back, I wonder what I was thinking." Little did she know how crazy a professor's schedule actually is. She now appreciates that each step of the career ladder has its pros and cons. "You have to find the right balance of strategies for dealing with the challenges while enjoying the many rewards, such as mentoring students and seeing your research program expand."

7. Create your own opportunities, says Jana Martin, PhD, CEO of the APA Insurance Trust and formerly an independent practitioner in Long Beach, Calif. "My father was a salesman and he taught me that making real connections with people — no matter what their profession or background — creates tremendous opportunities. If those connections are genuine and not self-serving, others will do what they can to help you, whether it's in supporting your efforts or helping you make other connections."

8. Be nice, says Maryam Kia-Keating, PhD, professor of clinical psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She learned that lesson from her mentor, Sara Sparrow, PhD, chief psychologist at the Yale Child Study Center. "Dr. Sparrow embodied the lesson that leadership and success don't have to come at the expense of kindness and generosity — and in fact can be enhanced by these characteristics."

9. Set an example by showing how psychology is relevant to daily life, says Philip G. Zimbardo, PhD, the retired Stanford psychologist and APA's 2002 president. As president, he encouraged APA to focus more on how psychological research has applications for everyday life. "Make psychology ever more vibrant by your example — or else become an accountant."

10. Aim big, says Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, PhD, who has researched how people acquire and use language. In other words, "prioritize your most exciting, most interesting project, rather than trying to get a lot of little studies out of the way first or amassing a lot of bitty publications," Pinker says. To help with this, he adds, invite your graduate students to take part in your big idea, rather than giving them side projects on other topics. "One big accomplishment is worth far more than lots of little ones," he says.

11. Don't take no for an answer, says Yale University's Kelly D. Brownell, PhD, who directs the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. "A key mentor in my life, Albert Stunkard, MD, at the University of Pennsylvania, told me that you'll be surprised what you can get just by asking," Brownell says. "He taught me that famous people can be approached and usually will help, that persuading people to be involved might begin with ‘no' but can become ‘yes' with polite persistence, and that thinking big leads to big things."

12. Remember you're always being evaluated, says Pamela Trotman Reid, PhD, president of Saint Joseph College. "When you are invited to [interview] for a potential position, every part of the visit will be discussed when they evaluate you," Trotman Reid says. "The reception, the informal chats, the breakfast, the lunch — it is all part of the interview. If you remember that, you will act accordingly."

13. Look beyond your research scope, says Stephen J. Suomi, PhD, chief of the Laboratory of Comparative Ethology at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The best professional advice he ever received came from his mentor, Harry Harlow, PhD, at the beginning of Suomi's second year of graduate school. Harlow told Suomi to consider how his findings with monkeys might relate to humans. "He suggested that I volunteer to participate in one of Ross Parke's child development research projects, Suomi says. "I duly followed Harlow's advice, and the rest is history." Suomi is now famous for his contributions to the understanding of how socialization affects the psychological development of non-human primates.

Amy Novotney is a writer in Chicago.