Cover Story

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When you step into the world with your psychology degree, you'll want to use it to your best advantage.

Two strategies can help. One is knowing current market, demographic and social trends, says Jessica Kohout, PhD, director of APA's Research Office and an expert on forces affecting the field. The other-less tangible but no less important-is creatively tapping those currents.

"Your career can go in many different directions," notes Steve Williams, PhD, who plied his clinical psychology doctorate into a lucrative job researching the association industry and advising association executives on running their organizations. "Don't pigeonhole yourself into a typical career direction," he advises. "And be open-minded about how you can apply the skills you acquire in psychology training to nontraditional settings."

A look at some key arenas for psychological employment will familiarize you with the general landscape. From there, use your imagination to blaze the right trail for you.

HEALTH

More than two-thirds of new psychologists in 1999 received their doctorates in health-service provider subfields, compared with 31 percent in research subfields. While ranks of practitioners are swelling, traditional independent practice is being affected by such forces as managed care and competition from other providers.

In light of these forces, many early-career psychologists are finding unique ways to apply their skills. For example, Lisa Osborn, PsyD, is drawing on her corporate experience to help APA's Practice Directorate educate the business community about the value of psychological services while also gradually building a part-time private practice.

Moreover, several expanding health-service arenas hold potential for new psychologists, says Cynthia Belar, PhD, APA's executive director for education. A big one is health psychology, Belar's own area of expertise. Because of expanded knowledge on behavior and health, psychology has successfully positioned itself as a health-service field, and opportunities to work in medical settings are growing, Belar says. Twenty percent of 2001 practice graduates, for example, took jobs in hospitals, while 13 percent found positions in managed-care organizations and another 23 percent in service settings such as substance abuse and rehabilitation clinics, APA data show.

In these settings, psychologists are helping to prevent and treat a variety of medical, surgical and mental health problems, as well as working on interdisciplinary teams of providers, Belar notes. For example, medical genetics needs practitioners to counsel people who have decided to undergo genetic testing and researchers to ascertain how people may be affected by receiving information on genetic risks. Likewise, reproductive medicine seeks practitioners apt at addressing the range of psychological issues posed by fertility technology, Belar says.

A related practice opportunity is working with couples who face psychological issues stemming from infertility, Osborn says. It's an example of the countless ways practitioners can help patients with connected physical and mental health needs.

Meanwhile, enormous opportunities exist for new graduates to serve populations who have great need but scanty service. These populations-the elderly, children and the rural and urban poor-are ironically among the fastest-growing segments of society, notes Ronald Breazeale, PhD, who directs Axiom Associates, a consortium in Knoxville, Tenn., that provides services to the rural and urban poor.

"If you're going where the money is, you don't go into these communities," says Breazeale. "If you go where the need is, you do." Breazeale, who has worked with underserved clients for more than 30 years, is quick to add that his practice is busy, and he makes a comfortable living.

Finally, practice-oriented students interested in research and program design can tap into current practice trends like outcomes measurement and new federal billing requirements, write APA's Kohout and City University of New York psychology professor Kathleen Barker, PhD, in "The Portable Mentor: Expert Guide to a Successful Career in Psychology" (Kluwer/Plenum, in press). Graduates can design or implement outcomes-research projects, for example, or design aids to help fellow psychologists navigate new billing regulations, they note.

HIGH TECH AND BUSINESS

Business and government represent growing employment areas for both scientists and practitioners: In 2001, 16 percent of those with degrees in research entered one of these sectors, as did 8 percent of their colleagues in health-service provider subfields.

Growth areas for psychologists include designing corporate Web sites; designing airplane cockpits and other machine-human interfaces; conducting research for pharmaceutical companies; and improving standardized tests.

Another area where psychologists' skills are needed is researching human factors aspects of high-tech medical devices, notes Belar. University of Florida psychologist Samuel Sears, PhD, for example, has made a successful career investigating psychological aspects of cardiac defibrillators and helping people adjust to them.

More traditional business venues also hold ample opportunities for graduates. A case in point is Williams, director of industry and market research at the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) in Washington, D.C.

Williams began thinking about entering management while still in graduate school, choosing courses and practicum experiences that were marketable in business settings, he says. Once in the work force, he built on the skills he learned in each setting, then applied them to the next job.

"The key is to break into the field by getting exposure that will set you apart from the pack," he notes. "That may include taking advantage of workshops or courses in business-related topics, or letting your supervisor know you're willing to take on additional responsibilities that can give you management experience."

If you're interested in entering business, Williams suggests taking the following actions:

  • Volunteer at an organization you'd like to work for: Any kind of work will do at first: The important thing is get a feel for the organization, Williams says. Eventually, you can ask to take on more responsibilities and offer up your psychology skills as applicable.

"You have to crawl before you walk," he notes, "But it will give you exposure, put you in a setting where you can network with others and, if you do a good job, possibly lead to a paid position."

  • Look ahead."When you take one job, think about acquiring the skills you'll need for the next one," Williams advises.

  • Take relevant courses, such as research methodology, statistics and management."Everyone's afraid of statistics, and knowing those skills will help you if you want to go into consulting, market research or competitive intelligence for an organization," Williams says.

AN IVORY TOWER VIEW

While prospects in academia have dimmed somewhat-a growing number of positions are part time or nontenured, and the economic recession has caused departmental budget cuts-there are also some encouraging signs. For example, community colleges may replace about 30 percent of their faculty in the next two years, according to estimates. Moreover, a large cohort of academics will retire in the next 10 to 15 years, they predict. And as a new generation of baby boomers grow up, there will be a greater need for educational psychologists at all levels, they say.

That said, here are some steps you can take to protect yourself if you take the academic route-a choice made by 58 percent of those with new doctorates in research and 7 percent in practice arenas in 2001, according to APA data.

  • Get the scoop. Learn about a prospective department's tenure practices by talking to faculty and students.

  • Become aware of trends that may affect hiring, such as recession, the emergence of new subfields and rates of faculty retirement. (See APA's Research Office Web site).

  • Get teaching experience before you apply. "Academic employers take for granted that you can teach," Barker says, "so get that experience while you're still in graduate school."

  • Do your salary homework, but be reasonable. The American Association of University Professors, for example, regularly publishes faculty salaries at the major institutions, which you can consult to make sure you're getting a fair deal.

  • Use your job to your advantage. If your first academic job is less than desirable, "Do the best job you can, author or co-author a solid piece, send out applications and get out of there so you can get on the tenure track," Barker says.

SOCIETAL MOMENTS

Finally, new opportunities are emerging for psychologists in distance education and online course design, and as a result of other sweeping-and in some cases, tragic-trends and events shaping our society. Sept. 11, 2001, and the threat of terrorism are obvious examples.

Possible employment avenues include intelligence work, forensics and clinical trauma work with survivors, Barker notes. Indeed, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, for example, saw a huge rise in the number of applications to master's and doctoral forensics programs following the terrorist attacks, she says.

Relatedly, international opportunities for psychologists are wide open, limited only by graduates' imagination and their ability to travel, says Kohout.


Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, NY