Early-Career Psychology

In the last of a three-part series, four early career psychologists reflect on what they've learned during their first year on the job — and where they expect to go from here.

Rachel Casas, PhD

Dr. Rachel Casas (credit: Michal Czerwonka)As year two kicks off, Casas is teaching an undergraduate class in abnormal psychology for the first time and a doctoral-level course in cognitive assessment for the second. She says she can't believe how much has changed since she began her position as an assistant professor at California Lutheran University one year ago.

"I've learned so much — and some of it just couldn't be taught in graduate school," she says.

For example, she's learned how to manage administrative tasks such as filling out paperwork every time she orders a new test instrument, and coordinating with the library to make sure it stocks the right textbooks for her students. More broadly, she's learned that there's a lot more to a faculty position than teaching, research and service: There are meetings, grading, mentorship and activities such as the university's annual all-faculty retreat. "Those are the kinds of things that are wonderful, but I just had no idea" they would take so much time, she says.

All told, Casas typically works 60 hours per week. During the school year, she spends about 70 percent of her time teaching, 15 percent on administrative tasks, and the rest on research and service, including an upcoming trip with undergraduates to repair homes in New Orleans. Over the summer, she focused exclusively on research. Together with two colleagues in the departments of chemistry and political science, Casas received her first grant in September to study the relationships among environmental exposures to pesticides, neurobehavioral outcomes and civic capacity in minority communities. She also stayed busy house-shopping with her fiancé, David, taking — and passing — the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology, and writing a dossier, a tedious necessity to stay on the tenure track. "Keep everything," from student thank-you notes to ticket stubs from school athletic events to programs from community lectures, she advises aspiring academics. "You have to report it all."

Casas suspects this year will be easier — as will the many to come as she works toward tenure. "I have everything in place and I feel more confident," she says. It will also be easier if she fulfills her goal to make self-care a priority by walking on the nearby beach and going to the gym more regularly. "I notice that when I do engage in self-care, I'm more efficient," she says.

Andrew Heckman, PhD

Michal Czerwonka (credit: Matt Miller)Last October, when Heckman began his position as a staff psychologist at Boys Town in Omaha, Neb., the notion that a client of any age with any condition could be referred to him was unsettling. Now, "it's less and less of something new that comes in the door," he says. "I feel more and more comfortable all of the time."

These days, he sees mostly adolescents and young adults with anxiety, depression or behavior problems. "I like that age group because I find it challenging," Heckman says.

His clinical work has also inspired him to start a research group to explore such topics as the effectiveness of different time-out procedures and the ways parenting behavior affects children's anxiety. He's also evaluating a program at Boys Town that teaches kids social skills through fitness-based activities. "A lot of kids get involved with sports, and there's this group that doesn't," he says. "[This program] is an athletic outlet for those that don't."

Heckman is also sharing his expertise outside of Boys Town. He recently traveled to Baltimore to deliver a talk on family-based therapy and has also presented closer to home, in Omaha, where he dispelled myths about children who set fires for an audience of therapists and school counselors. "It's one of those behaviors that really scares people," he says. "But it's [really] a problem-solving behavior, it's just bad problem-solving because they're bored or don't know how to regulate their emotions."

As he settles into his second year, Heckman is finding that professional life isn't as stressful as it's made out to be in graduate school. He just bought a house with his wife, Stacey, and doesn't anticipate leaving Boys Town or Omaha anytime soon. Once you pass your boards, get licensed and start working, "your work isn't your whole life anymore," he says.

Kimberly Smith, PsyD

Kimberly Smith, PsyD (credit: Michal Czerwonka)During her first year as a postdoctoral fellow at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, Smith was rarely in her comfort zone. The clinical neuropsychologist juggled a variety of duties, including seeing patients, conducting research on HIV-medication adherence, training pre-doctoral psychology interns and interpreting studies on Alzheimer's and schizophrenia for pharmaceutical companies. She also expanded her role by agreeing to co-lead a hospital-wide pain management program and accepting an appointment in the neurology department in addition to her previous appointment in psychiatry.

"It seemed impossible initially, but now it's not," says Smith, who now advises other young psychologists not to second-guess their competence as she did at first.

Smith's newfound comfort allows her to be more flexible as a trainer and teacher. For example, she's more open to letting her trainees and students set the agenda for what they want to learn. During her courses in the biological basis of behavior and functional neuroanatomy, for instance, she asks students to bring in case examples. "It's directly relevant to them, and that's satisfying," she says. Most of Smith's time is still spent doing clinical work — something she wouldn't change. "I'm a psychologist first," she says.

Smith's schedule is also more flexible: She goes into work later and leaves earlier than she used to so she can transport her two kids to and from school most days. "They love to see their mom pick them up," she says.

Smith's next goal is to pass the EPPP and get licensed. She listens to review CDs on her way to work and blocks out time on weekends to study. She also makes time for herself by treating herself to a spa visit once a month and "unplugging" on the weekends with her family.

When her second and final year as a fellow is up, Smith wants to continue the balance of clinical work and research. She'll have to pare back her other involvements, but in the meantime, she's enjoying the excitement. "I feel like sometimes I'm pulled in a million places, but in the end I'm so happy," she says. "This is exactly what I wanted to do."

Erlanger Turner, PhD

Erlanger Turner, PhD (credit: Stephanie Gross)Most weekdays, Turner, a licensed clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University's Virginia Treatment Center for Children, is at the gym by 6 a.m. "It gets my blood flowing," he says. "That — and coffee."

The rest of the day might include co-writing a book chapter on mental illness assessment in African-Americans, editing manuscripts as a member of the editorial board for Annals of Psychiatry and Mental Health or co-leading a cultural competency seminar for psychology interns, medical residents and social work trainees. But his favorite part of his day is the clinical work. "Even after a long busy day, it feels good when I finish a session," says Turner, who sees about 15 clients a week. "That's something I want to continue as my career goes forward."

He also wants to continue conducting research on personality risk factors for suicide and barriers to mental health services among minority populations. "There are conflicting results in terms of barriers to treatment seeking for ethnic minorities — is it the stigma or something else?" he asks. "I'd like to look at other cultural factors like community beliefs and religion."

Another way Turner hopes to continue to shape the public's opinion of mental health services is through his Psychology Today blog, The Race for Good Health, and other media appearances. "It's a great opportunity in terms of public education and changing attitudes of the general public in terms of mental health services," he says.

Though it might not seem so, over the past year Turner says he has gotten better at saying no. He turned down an opportunity to serve as an expert for a Nickelodeon program on childhood anxiety, for example, and recommended a colleague instead. "I decided that I needed not to jump into so many things," says Turner, who renewed his contract at VCU this summer. "One thing that's helped is rethinking how I can use this position in terms of solidifying career goals to be able to move forward."