The question about how much to self- disclose in graduate school, internship, and early career job interviews gets thrown around a lot in student columns. Realistically though, for the majority of interviewees, this issue doesn’t present too much of a concern. You hope the interviewer won’t ask anything too weird about your experiences in therapy and you get to the task of telling him or her the fascinating story of how you came to be interested in the field, and how it’s informed your work to date. This, of course, is how we sell ourselves in an interview, as well as in application materials like statements of purpose.
How we came to be interested in our sub-specialty is also a question we get asked a lot outside of the interview setting, especially when we work with clinically challenging populations. Tell people you work with folks with certain tough-to-manage disorders and it usually garners the question, “why would you voluntarily choose to do that?!” Of course, the fact a disorder is tough to treat is part of the reason many people are drawn to their specialty. There are many too who decide to work with a specific population for very personal reasons. Maybe a family member has been afflicted, or possibly the person him- or herself. This doesn’t present a great many professional challenges if one is afflicted with an interesting, non-stigmatized disorder—for instance, synesthesia. I remember hearing one graduate student dub his research in this area “mesearch,” as he himself experiences this curious neurological phenomenon.
But what about those whose affliction carries a lot of baggage, such as addictive disorders? I was forced to consider this point recently as I interviewed a potential undergraduate research assistant for my advisor’s lab. He quite matter-of-factly disclosed his recovery status as being his primary motivator for applying to work in an addictions research laboratory, and his decision to ultimately pursue a doctorate in clinical psychology. While I quite appreciated his refreshing honesty, I wondered how he would fare sharing this information with other interviewers.
I thought too of how seldom I hear about people working in addiction psychology who are themselves in recovery. This is in stark contrast to the many master’s level counselors whom I regularly interact with in the addictions field, who are quite openly in recovery, and frequently talk about their substance use histories with their employers and clients. In fact, many counselors in drug and alcohol rehabilitation facilities are alumni of their places of work. For addiction psychologists, however, discussion of such matters is not part of our professional culture. Of course, this may simply be because there just aren’t as many psychologists in recovery, possibly attributable to the considerable challenges associated with pursuing a career in psychology. The necessity of completing a long doctoral degree program means it is unfortunately not a practical option for many people who get sober, and decide to work in addictions.
Yet in spite of these obstacles, there are still many people who have gotten sober and successfully navigated the treacherous waters of a doctorate in psychology. I asked some such individuals about the sort of challenges they faced during graduate school, and later on in professional life, as well as how they have handled these challenges. Those I spoke with who have chosen not to disclose their recovery status cited having to routinely lie about their initial interest in the field as one of the greatest nuisances of non-disclosure. For established psychologists, this comes up over and over again in the form of the ubiquitous question, “Why addiction psychology?” Some reported using a canned story that’s as close to the truth as possible without giving away too much personal information. This may be well and good for polite conversation, but what about in graduate school and internship application processes? One usually has to tell one's story in a statement of purpose, and then tell it again in an in-person interview. The advice here seems to be the same. If you don’t want to disclose your addiction history, have the most honest story you can have without giving away too much, and stick to it. Of course, there is always the option to simply disclose. However, most did not favor this tactic, citing the risk of discrimination, as well as the potential for getting drawn into an inappropriate or uncomfortable conversation that may draw the focus of an interview away from the applicant’s qualifications and research. Worse yet, there is the chance one may find oneself defending one's current psychological stability in spite of what could be years of stable recovery. There was, additionally, a third path proffered, which is the tactic of partial disclosure. For example, a statement like “I have personal experience with addictive disorders, but would prefer not to discuss this issue further” can be effective. Although such statements are no doubt fine in some situations, they don’t make for a great opening line for a statement of purpose!
Though no doubt most psychologists would be unlikely to judge someone harshly for having suffered from an addictive disorder at some point in their life, there is always the risk for discrimination. For instance, if a faculty member is given the choice between two graduate students who are equal on all measures, except one has a
history of alcohol dependence, he or she may very well be inclined to err on the side of caution and go with the person without a history of substance dependence. Graduate students are a huge investment, which may explain a faculty member’s desire to play it safe. For this reason, the advice from established addiction psychologists was largely to not disclose, unless it is absolutely necessary, especially during the graduate school application process.
While interviewees recognized certain inherent challenges in studying or treating a problem so close to home, none had any regrets about their chosen path, insisting that they are better psychologists for their personal experiences. The take-home message seemed to be, it’s not always easy, but people with personal experience with addictions bring a lot to the table, and should be strongly encouraged to pursue careers in addiction psychology.
As always, as your current student representatives, we are very interested in any suggestions you may have about making SoAP more useful and better able to meet student needs. In particular, if you are interested in becoming more involved with SoAP or one of its committees as a student, we would love to hear from you. Please contact us: Ashley Hampton at firstname.lastname@example.org or David Eddie at email@example.com