Early-Career Psychology

The road from trainee to seasoned psychologist is often paved with eye-opening revelations. Early career psychologists in practice quickly learn about the mounds of paperwork they need to fill out to ensure their services are covered by insurance. Those in research positions may find themselves wishing they had taken better notes in statistics class. Newly minted academics may be surprised by the time it takes to prepare a new syllabus.

To put faces on the challenges and triumphs faced by early career psychologists in their first jobs, the Monitor is following four recent doctoral graduates throughout the year as they navigate entry into the field of psychology. Meet them here.

Rachel Casas, PhD, 31

Rachel Casas, PhD, 31 (credit: Michal Czerwonka)Rachel Casas's graduate training in cultural neuropsychology at the University of Iowa and joint postdoctoral training at the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Southern California prepared her for a career as a clinical researcher at university hospitals and large academic institutions. But in October, she began her first job doing something quite different: as an assistant professor on the tenure track at California Lutheran University, where her primary responsibilities include training and mentoring doctoral students in the PsyD program, teaching courses such as research seminar and cognitive assessment, and developing a neuropsychology curriculum for the program.

"I can do all those things that I want: teaching, mentoring, community work without [the pressure of] having to constantly worry and chase grants," says Casas, who is the first person in her family to go to college. "My research is determined by what my students and I would like to do, not by what the funding announcements offer."

Though she is happy in her new position, she admits it's also very stressful. She is learning how to develop syllabi, prepare for classes and adjust to teaching students who are her age or older. "There's so much prep involved with making sure I am able to teach my classes well," she says.

Casas says the transition has been eased by the fact that she was hired at the same time as another assistant professor who has overlapping interests. She is also thankful to work in a collegial environment, to live less than two hours from her family and to have summers off — though she doubts she'll stop working. "I'm addicted to my students and committed to them," she says.

Andrew Heckman, PhD, 30

Andrew Heckman, PhD, 30 (credit: Matt Miller)Toward the end of his yearlong internship at Boys Town, a residential youth facility in Omaha, Neb., Andrew Heckman already had an offer for a postdoctoral fellowship with the Child and Family Therapy Clinic at the Kennedy Krieger Institute. But he didn't let his post-internship plans distract him from giving his all during his last few months of work. His commitment to the organization is among the reasons why, Heckman presumes, he got an offer to return to the Boys Town Behavioral Health Clinic when his fellowship ended in 2012.

"One thing that's been good for me is not burning bridges," says Heckman, who earned his PhD in school psychology from Indiana University in 2010. "Working well while still working here is likely what got me the offer to come back … and this is the only place I want to be."

As a staff psychologist in the outpatient clinic, Heckman helps children, adolescents and families in the Omaha area manage a wide range of emotional, behavioral and academic problems in order to prevent the need for residential services. Though he's in familiar territory, he still has a lot to get used to, including the transition from the residential program to the outpatient clinic and changes to the area's resources and school systems.

"It's strange for me to transition from the role of being a trainee to being a psychologist, or the trainer," he says.

When he's in training sessions with the clinical psychology interns, for example, it's easy to forget he's not one of them anymore. And, when he's coaching clients on parenting techniques, he has to maintain confidence in his expertise, despite the fact that he's not a parent himself. "Sometimes I feel like I'm still in school and I'm not. Now I'm … the one who's supposed to have the answers."

Kimberly Smith, PsyD, 33

Kimberly Smith, PsyD, 33 (credit: Michal Czerwonka)Kimberly Smith earned her PsyD from Pepperdine University in 2012 after feeling unchallenged in a career doing program evaluation for community organizations. Today, as a clinical psychologist specializing in neuropsychology, she has just accepted a postdoctoral fellowship at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, where she is supervising students and running a research project on Spanish speakers who have HIV-associated neurocognitive disorders.

"Right now I'm at a huge learning curve — I'm learning to be a clinical researcher," says Smith, who is also a wife and mother of two. "It's fascinating!"

She interned at a California state mental hospital, where her work with severely mentally ill patients made her an attractive postdoc candidate. "It opened up a whole new world of severe mental illness and [I was surprised by] how easily I was able to work with that population," she says. The response from postdoctoral program directors was, "If you can work with that population, you can work with anyone," she says.

To make the transition from clinician to clinical researcher more manageable, Smith says she is reading "voraciously," brushing up on statistics and embracing her role as a leader. "In my mind, it's weird that people call me ‘Dr. Smith,' [but you have to] embrace the fact that you're a professional," she says.

Smith hopes eventually to work at an academic medical center or hospital where she can see clients in a training environment. She can also see herself in private practice. "Be flexible about your options and what you're willing to do," she says. "If you're too rigid, you close yourself off."

Erlanger Turner, PhD, 32

Erlanger Turner, PhD, 32 (credit: Stephanie Gross)In the summer of 2011, Erlanger Turner, PhD, entered the job market with a PhD in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University, a license to practice and experience as a postdoctoral fellow at the Kennedy Krieger Institute. Still, his job search was "very difficult," he says.

He applied to at least 15 places. After almost a year of searching, in September, he accepted a position as an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University's Virginia Treatment Center for Children. "I accepted this position because it allowed for both clinical work and research," says Turner, who earned his doctorate in 2009 and serves as the early career psychologist representative on APA's Membership Board. During his graduate school and internship years, he focused on work with children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and other disruptive behavior disorders.

"In addition to getting broad experience, you have to have some sort of niche you can call your specialty and you love so you can market yourself," he says. "[Work with] young kids is a needed area, and I was able to market myself."

At VCU, Turner provides psychotherapy to children and adolescents and is conducting research on how attitudes and stigma influence minority children's use of mental health services. His first challenge, however, is tackling the paperwork that will allow his services to be covered by insurance. "The administrative part is definitely new," he says. "It takes a lot of work."

Throughout the transition, Turner says he was lucky to have financial and emotional support from his family, connections to other early career psychologists and support from the National Register of Health Service Providers in Psychology, which helped him transfer his license across states. "If you don't know that you want to live in a certain area for the rest of your life, you have to be prepared for that transition," he says. "You don't think about that as a graduate student."