Early-Career Psychology

No matter how many years you spend in school, the real lessons begin when you enter the field: That's been the clear take-away from four psychologists the Monitor began following in our January issue. Here's what's new since then.

Rachel Casas, PhD, 32

Rachel Casas, PhD (credit: Michal Czerwonka)When Casas began her tenure-track position at California Lutheran University last fall, she felt uneasy lecturing students who were close to her age, if not older. But her confidence is building. "I am surprising myself by how long I can be up there lecturing," she says. "I realized I am the expert."

Casas was also surprised to discover how much she enjoyed teaching a course in cognitive and affective aspects of behavior, even though her background is in cultural neuropsychology. She wove in aspects of her own expertise by challenging students to put everything in a cultural perspective, such as how people in disparate parts of the world perceive visual stimuli differently. In some cultures, for example, people focus on an object, while in others, they pay more attention to the background. "All textbooks are silent on [that issue], but we [explore] it in my class using a whole lot of empirical articles," says Casas.

Casas's relationship with a faculty mentor in the political science department has proved fruitful, too: This summer, the two are collaborating with another colleague in the chemistry department to determine how pesticide exposure affects cognitive skills, such as memory. They are also measuring how much those affected know about the risks of exposure.

When her students return in the fall, Casas plans to make some changes to her syllabi based on student feedback. She will lecture more and post discussion questions online before class, rather than spend most of class time facilitating discussions.

"It was too unstructured before," she says. "Now I know what works and what doesn't."

One other thing that didn't work was her hour-and-a-half commute from Long Beach, Calif., to Ventura. Now she lives just a 12-minute drive from her job. "I love it," she says.

Andrew Heckman, PhD, 30

Andrew Heckman, PhD (credit: Matt Miller)Since Heckman began his role as a staff psychologist at Boys Town in Omaha, Neb., in October, the pace of his work and life has accelerated. He sees about 25 clients — including children, adolescents and families — each week in the outpatient behavioral center. That's double his initial load.

"I've learned as much in the past seven months as in my whole grad school career," such as how to tailor treatments to patients of different ages and how to set work-life boundaries, he says.

Heckman's relationship with the facility's seven interns has also changed. At first, he participated in their didactic trainings and informally mentored them. Now, he's running some trainings and directly supervising one intern. Heckman even wrote his first letter of recommendation for an intern — a "surreal" moment, he says.

Heckman's personal life is also at a peak: He married his wife, Stacey, a 911 dispatcher-turned-tattoo artist, in May.

Heckman says that at first he took on too much at his job — signing up for community advocacy groups, conference presentations and new committees on top of a full caseload. But he doesn't question his decision to take this job. He's seen "vast improvements" in patients of all ages — from 4-year-olds with bedwetting problems to 19-year-olds working to control their anger.

"The positive impact I've made confirms the choice to come to Boys Town," he says.

Kimberly Smith, PsyD, 33

Kimberly Smith, PsyD (credit: Michal Czerwonka)Smith entered the field of psychology because she hates being bored. Now, as a postdoctoral fellow at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, she is getting what she wished for.

Smith spends about 30 percent of her time on research. This July, she is beginning to recruit participants for her study investigating HIV-medication adherence among underserved populations through a grant to Johns Hopkins University. "I'm excited because what that will do is pave the way to get independent federal funding," says Smith, who had little experience with research before beginning her fellowship. "I'm learning that research puts you out there and gives you the name."

That name helped her get a side job as a consultant to pharmaceutical trial companies, guiding them through tools that measure medication-related psychological changes and interpreting their studies' results.

Most of Smith's time is spent doing clinical work with a team of physicians. She is the only psychologist and only woman. At first, she had to win her colleagues' respect by adding her expertise to patient cases and reminding them that she is a doctor, too.

"The next thing I knew, they wanted to go to lunch with me," says Smith, who is married and has two kids in grade school. "It's a personal mission of mine to always uphold psychology."

Smith is also gaining clout among the three advanced practicum students she mentors. She used to get nervous when two or three would come into her office with a question, she admits. "Now, I'm OK with saying, ‘I don't know, let's find out together.'"

Erlanger Turner, PhD, 32

Erlanger Turner, PhD (credit: Stephanie Gross)Each week, Turner, a licensed clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University's Virginia Treatment Center for Children, sees about 15 adolescents and children with behavior problems, including attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorder.

The work is rewarding, he says, but his dealings with insurance companies have been more burdensome than expected. If his services aren't covered by a potential patient's insurance, for example, "it makes a difference not only for us — it's unfortunate for someone's family," he says. "I'm … trying to learn how to manage care and how that affects being able to work with patients."

Turner's time with adolescents, many of whom have suicide ideation, has inspired him to conduct research on personality traits associated with suicide risk. "It's a good opportunity for us to understand the population a little more … [and] to be preventive," he says.

Turner, who is a member of the APA Committee on Early Career Psychologists, is also embracing his role as a leader. In January, he taught a seminar on program evaluation for pre-doctoral interns and a clinical child psychology course for undergraduates in VCU's psychology department. He also supervises several practicum students and interns, one of whom is helping him launch an anger management group therapy program.

"It's great when students present ideas or perspectives that are fresh on a topic," he says.

On top of it all, Turner is gaining experience in the hospital's inpatient unit — something he never expected to do when he was in graduate school.

"One thing I'm learning is there isn't a perfect position," he says. "[You] have to have some flexibility in what you do."