Feature

Starting your psychology career is one of the most exciting-and stressful-times of your life. It's also a period when many early-career psychologists take on new personal responsibilities, such as marrying, starting families and caring for aging parents.

Pulling this off is a lot like spinning plates, and the field's expectations don't make it any easier, says Carol Williams-Nickelson, PsyD, associate executive director of the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students (APAGS), herself working at APA and raising a family.

"There's still a pretty strong undercurrent, especially for women, that career needs to come first if you want to advance," she says.

Other factors make this scenario even more complex, other early-career experts say. For some women, it's the ticking biological clock; for many men, it's changing roles in relation to family and work.

Capt. Jason Prinster, PhD, whose internship led into his current job heading the mental health clinic at the Nellis Air Force Base in North Las Vegas, reflects this attitude.

"Three years from now, my wife could be the one making more money, and I could be the one taking the kids to work and working part time," Prinster says. "I don't think my dad ever had that thought 30 years ago."

Yet to some extent, workplaces still stigmatize men who openly say they value family as much as work, which puts such men in a bind, Williams-Nickelson adds.

Given these complexities, it helps to get advice from people on the front lines. Early-career experts recommend that you:

  • Communicate. It's Psych 101, but it's true: Good communication greases the wheels of family sanity, other early-career experts say. A case in point is Jay Robertson-Howell, PsyD, a psychologist at Seattle University's counseling and psychological services center who is raising two young children with his partner, veterinarian Travis Robertson-Howell, DVM. He and Travis make sure to talk about each other's needs, but also the needs of the family and their professional concerns, Robertson-Howell says. As time pressures mount, it's easier to avoid hard topics: "We constantly have to remind ourselves to keep at it," he says.

  • Negotiate. A central tenet of good communication is agreeing on the particulars of duties and schedules, other early-career psychologists say. While couples arrange these basics in different ways, it's important for both people to discuss and agree on the arrangements and be willing to tweak them as necessary, Prinster says.

For instance, Prinster and his wife, Colleen, had many discussions before deciding to split their duties along fairly traditional gender lines, with Colleen staying home with their two children and Prinster bringing home the paycheck. "We talked a lot about our respective roles and made peace with that, at least while the kids are young," Prinster says. "That's really helped. I don't feel guilty working all day, because I know we've already talked about what she expects and what I expect."

  • Schedule time for your family and yourself. Make sure to ink in family time as an explicit part of your schedules, adds Kristi Sands Van Sickle, PsyD, who is starting her career as an assistant professor at the Florida Institute of Technology and is raising a young daughter with her husband, retired business executive Paul Van Sickle.

"We carve out family time so that even if I'm really busy, we have one day on the weekend when we're all together," says Van Sickle. The two also plan regular visits with Paul's two children from a previous marriage, who live about an hour away. "It's important to put in extra effort to make sure they feel included," she says.

Schedule time for yourself, too, for exercise, hobbies or just to regroup, advises Robertson-Howell. "Sometimes we get going so fast in this society that we forget about that."

  • Trim the excess. Just as important as good communication is a strategy many of our parents advised us to use: Boil things down to the basics, Prinster says. He and Colleen went from being a couple that pursued many individual interests before they had children, to a team that pursued their family's interests, he says.

"I work to make money to support my family, and I spend time with my wife and kids," Prinster says. "Beyond that, only the things that are really, really important get the resources." That applies to money, too: Colleen works at their children's cooperative preschool in exchange for reduced tuition, and they cut out cable TV-a sensible move, because "we don't have time for TV!" Prinster says.

  • Pick a job that makes sense. Some early-career psychologists consciously choose jobs that may lack outward razzle-dazzle but offer reasonable hours, decent pay and good boundaries. To spend more time with his partner, David, and their young twins, Seth Williams, PsyD, left a job that expected him to be on "24/7, 365" to one with more reasonable hours and expectations.

"If the kids are sick, I can leave any time if there's nothing life-or-death hanging on it," says Williams, associate director of clinical training at the online graduate school Capella University. He got lucky with his supervisor, too: She has a family and "walks the talk" of work-family balance, he notes.

  • Get more creative. While there's nothing wrong with traditional job trajectories, other early-career experts say it's worth thinking outside the typical career box to accommodate family needs.

Although her graduate program emphasized academic careers, Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD, chose to write books and have a small clinical practice instead. The combination allowed her to work and meet the needs of her four children.

"It gave me flexibility," Kennedy-Moore explains. "If a kid was sick one day, I could handle that and just work harder the next day." It also proved a smart career move: Her books have been published by major publishing houses, and she's garnered many therapy clients and speaking engagements as a result.

  • Find support. Relying on trusted others is vital, whether it's fellow moms or dads to vent with, or relatives or babysitters who can give you breaks, Van Sickle says.

But your most important support may be your spouse,so nurture that relationship, she recommends. "Paul is my anxiety barometer," she says. "He's better at reading when I'm feeling anxious and overwhelmed than I am."

  • Put family first. You only have one chance to raise your children, says Williams-Nickelson, who has two young daughters with her husband, psychologist and attorney David Nickelson, PsyD, JD. An avid careerist before she had children, she was overwhelmed by the strength of her feelings toward her girls and now knows they will be her top priority for a long time.

"I feel like I've given a lot to my career and to the profession, and now it's time to give to my kids," she says.

Williams-Nickelson adds that she now understands what mentors advised her in the years before she had children.

"You can have it all," they told her. "Just not all at once."


Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.