Early-Career Psychology

Matthew Davis, PhD, often hears complaints from friends who are early career psychologists about mountains of insurance paperwork and trouble finding clients in today's recession. But Davis, who earned his PhD in counseling psychology last year, has dodged those problems by crossing psychology's traditional boundaries.

Like a growing number of psychologists, Davis took an interdisciplinary approach to his education and training, and that has made his skills even more marketable than those of his peers. Since 1998, he has worked at the Utah Criminal Justice Center, where as a research analyst he studies juvenile justice programs in Utah and offers recommendations to improve outcomes for children and save taxpayer dollars.

"Every year there is more and more opportunity to influence the criminal justice system," Davis says. "I only know three other psychologists in Utah who do applied research in the criminal justice field. That's really surprising to me because I think psychologists are the best trained to do this work because we have both research and clinical skills."

Davis has battled some stereotypes while working with lawyers, judges and probation officers who sometimes view psychology as just touchy-feely therapy that coddles juvenile offenders. "It's almost like they think psychologists will be soft on crime," he says. But Davis has shown skeptics how research-based approaches to juvenile crime can help reduce recidivism, including the use of home-based programs with caseworkers for many offenders rather than detention in costly juvenile facilities.

Many early career psychologists have gotten the message that some of their more established colleagues have not: Interdisciplinary work is the wave of the future, offering new opportunities in diverse fields, including medical settings, economics, public policy and education.

"Being a psychologist in interdisciplinary practice is still novel, and psychologists are not automatically thought of as key players on some interdisciplinary teams," says Oksana Yakushko, PhD, a licensed psychologist and faculty member at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, Calif., who chairs APA's Committee on Early Career Psychology. "We have been very active to encourage a greater understanding of interdisciplinary research."

It's a move that makes great sense as all health-care fields increasingly recognize the connections between mind and body health, Yakushko and others say. As a result, there are more opportunities for psychologists on interdisciplinary teams in hospitals and outpatient clinics.

Medical settings

Sarah Morsbach Honaker, PhD, is another early career psychologist who has benefited from an interdisciplinary approach. She is the only psychologist on staff at the University of Louisville's Pediatric Sleep Medicine Center—which is both a challenge and an advantage, she says.

"You have a lot of credibility and opportunities as an early career psychologist that you wouldn't necessarily have if you are one of many psychologists," she says. "That can be very rewarding, but it also carries a lot of responsibility."

Honaker, who received her PhD in clinical-community psychology in 2007 from the University of South Carolina, carved out a specialty in sleep disorders, which makes her a valued member of a team including physicians, nurses and sleep technologists. She faced a steep learning curve working in a medical setting. "I'm definitely expected to know a lot about the medical aspects of sleep apnea, nocturnal seizures and other sleep disorders," she says. "Part of my role is to tease out the behavioral and physiological components and make appropriate referrals."

She's benefited from seeking help from other psychologists to troubleshoot cases and address ethical concerns, working closely with a peer supervision group of local psychologists formed through the Kentucky Psychological Association. "When you're on an island, one risk is you can become entrenched in practicing a certain way," she says. "It's harder to get feedback that what you are doing is appropriate unless you seek peer consultation and read the research."

Working in a medical school also has presented new avenues for research, Honaker says. She is collaborating with a pathologist to study the relationship between sleep disorders and secondhand smoke. "I wouldn't be measuring nicotine samples in urine on my own," she says.

Like Honaker, Michelle Braun, PhD, works in a medical setting, as a clinical neuropsychologist at the Wheaton Franciscan-All Saints Hospital in Racine, Wis. There, she partners with neurologists, geriatricians, neurosurgeons and psychiatrists to diagnose and treat patients with cognitive impairments, including dementia, traumatic brain injury and stroke.

Braun says she loves medicine and psychology so she wanted to bridge those worlds. "In the medical setting, you feel like you can really make a difference immediately because you have a patient in front of you who needs an answer, and the diagnosis and treatment changes based on your recommendation," she says.

Braun has confronted frustrating stereotypes held by some physicians who believe psychology is soft on science and focused solely on therapy. "There is this perception that we don't have the strong scientific background that is a foundation of our training," she says.

She offers three pieces of advice for early career psychologists who want to work in a multidisciplinary medical field: First, you'll have more job security if you prove you are a necessary part of an interdisciplinary team by adapting reports and work schedules to fit the demands of a medical setting. Second, network with other psychologists in the same field to discuss similar issues, such as billing and salary negotiations. And third, obtain board certification in a specialty, if possible, so you will be viewed on par with other medical professionals, says Braun, who is board certified in clinical neuropsychology.

Working in the community

Early career psychologists are also embracing community mental health as a rewarding interdisciplinary profession. Allison Ponce, PhD, has found herself on the streets of New Haven, Conn., helping homeless people as part of her job as associate director of the Community Services Network of Greater New Haven. Ponce works with psychologists, social workers, nurses, psychiatrists and employment specialists to help clients with therapy, housing, employment and social skills.

"We work together to create solutions for the clients," she says. "One of the beauties of working in an interdisciplinary field is that no one person is expected to hold all the knowledge. I've taken the approach of not needing to be an expert in every area but knowing who I need to talk with and consult with."

Ponce also serves as an assistant professor in psychiatry at Yale University, where she researches community-based mental health services and supervises psychology interns and postdoctoral fellows at the Connecticut Mental Health Center.

Anne Klee, PhD, also works in community mental health as the training director for a postdoctoral program in psychosocial rehabilitation at the VA Connecticut Healthcare System. The fellowship offers interdisciplinary training in clinical services and research for students in psychology, psychiatry, nursing and social work. Klee supervises the fellows at a community care center serving veterans with severe mental illness and often co-occurring substance abuse disorders. Many of the veterans are homeless or unemployed, and some suffer post-traumatic stress disorder from recent deployments in Iraq or Afghanistan. 

"Each team member comes with different skills and experiences based on their professional training," Klee says. "On a multidisciplinary team, you can get a richer sense of your clients because there are so many perspectives on how to help them. It's a great training ground. It's also the real world, and this is where the jobs are."

Breaking into public policy

Psychologists aren't usually associated with public policy, but Jennifer Lerner, PhD, is connecting the two fields through her research at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, where she is a professor of public policy. She also co-founded the Harvard Decision Science Laboratory with two economists to study how emotions and other factors affect decisions by consumers.

"The research being done at the intersection of fields has always appealed to me. I find it to be especially fascinating at the intersection of psychology, economics and public policy," Lerner says. "One way to have more influence on public policy is to be able to speak the language of policy and translate it. The key is to work with economists who recognize that psychology has so many contributions to make."

Lerner, who earned her PhD in psychology from the University of California–Berkeley in 1998, also teaches Harvard students in an interdisciplinary doctoral program in decision science. She advises early career psychologists interested in interdisciplinary work to find postdoctoral programs in those fields to get a feel for the work. But she warns that psychologists need a clear focus for their work. Even though she collaborates with economists, Lerner publishes most of her research in psychology journals. "You need to decide where your research is going to make its mark, and it's impossible to make a really significant mark if you're publishing in multiple fields," she says.

But the most important advice for choosing a career path is simple. "Ultimately, you just have to go where your passion is," Lerner says.


Brendan L. Smith is a writer in Washington, D.C.