Cover Story

Not all postdoctoral positions are created alike, as either strictly clinical or research experiences. And not all scholars belong in a traditional setting, like a hospital or a lab. Meet four psychologists who found a wealth of postdoc knowledge and experience on roads less traveled.

Interdisciplinary work in Belize
Dr. Eileen Anderson-Fye is studying influences on the way adolescent girls in Belize think about domestic violence. 

After graduating from an interdisciplinary doctoral program in developmental psychology and psychological anthropology at Harvard University, Eileen Anderson-Fye, EdD, sought a postdoctoral fellowship that would complement her diverse education.

She located it at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Center for Culture, Brain and Development where, with the center's unique combination of neuroscience, psychology and anthropology, she extended her doctoral research into the influence of changing environmental factors on the psychological development of adolescent girls in Belize, a Central American country on the Caribbean Sea.

Her research focused on adolescent girls who had grown up in communities with high levels of domestic abuse against women. She studied their psychological reactions as they were exposed to new global and local ideas on gender equality through increased access to mass media.

Anderson-Fye's doctoral studies turned her on to the effects of rapid cultural change through globalization. In Belize, Anderson-Fye worked in a rapidly developing part of the country, San Pedro, that has become an ecotourism hot spot. She says she found the parents and community elders there very interested in her work because they were worried about what the cultural changes were doing to their children.

"As in most post-colonial nations, there had been a considerable amount of domestic violence, and a lot of the kids I was working with had experienced some sort of gender-based maltreatment" like domestic abuse, job discrimination and sexual assault, she says. "But through television, the Internet and tourism, they were being exposed to gender equity and human rights ideas they hadn't realized were normative in other parts of the world." There were dramatic - and often traumatic - changes in the way these teenage girls thought about what had happened to them. They began to feel moral outrage at having been abused, which in some cases resulted in post-traumatic stress symptoms, she adds.

The yearlong postdoctoral appointment was awarded to Anderson-Fye through an application process, and she was advised by UCLA professors M. Belinda Tucker, PhD, and Keith Kerman, PhD. Anderson-Fye is now a research fellow at the UCLA Center for Culture and Health.

The research in Belize forced Anderson-Fye to rely on her interdisciplinary training, she says, and she found her knowledge of anthropology pushing her to ask more and different questions about psychology and neurobiology, and vice versa.

"This postdoc, and my research experience in general, have taught me how to ask questions across disciplines and I find that to be a very exciting way to do new science," Anderson-Fye says.

Research after a PsyD program
Dr. Mark Sander chose a postdoc with a research component that he says helps with his current clinical work with children.

After finishing his PsyD at the Minnesota School of Professional Psychology in 2000, psychologist Mark Sander looked for a postdoctoral opportunity that would include considerable research experience - not typical for PsyDs - and to prepare himself for a career in school-based clinical work.

"A lot of the people I talked to when I was looking at the possibility of doing some research said that door was shut, or at least pretty hard to get it open if you've got a PsyD," Sander says. "But I found it depends on how you go about it."

So he set out looking for a clinical experience that would allow him some room to do research, and he found most program administrators were willing to discuss options, particularly in programs that valued innovation and enthusiasm.

Eventually, Sander took a two-year postdoctoral fellowship in the division of adolescent psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine that allowed him to do counseling four days a week and research on the fifth day - a rare opportunity for a psychologist with a PsyD, he says.

Sander researched best-practice principles for mental health programs in schools and worked on evaluations of school-based initiatives at the Center for School Based Mental Health Assistance in Baltimore, one of two national centers with that focus. He worked with leaders in the field to write grant applications and publish four journal articles - all while amassing the necessary clinical experience for licensure.

Although Sander opted for a practice career - he's a clinical child psychologist at the Pilot City Mental Health Center near Minneapolis - he says his research experience adds value to his work.

"Doing research on outcomes and best practices gave me a broader picture and gave me the tools to now talk about research and literature in meetings I'm in. And it's put me in a position to be seen as a person policy-makers want to call in to talk about program development and program assessment," Sander says. "My research knowledge has broadened my career."

Intensive niche training
Dr. Kenneth Ruggiero's medical university-based postdoc allows for close collaboration with specialists in victimization treatment and research.

Psychologist Kenneth Ruggiero, PhD, says the best advice he got on where to do his postdoc was to go for a position that built upon his prior experience focusing on assessment and treatment of victims of violent crime, as it would open the door to opportunities that would allow him to have a meaningful impact in his field.

He found that position at the National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center at the Medical University of South Carolina, where for two years, starting in 2001, he used both research and clinical strategies to investigate the psychosocial impact of traumatic events, such as terrorism and family violence. He treated adults and children who'd experienced emotional and behavioral problems related to violent victimizations. He also researched assessment and treatment methods that were most effective, with a personal research emphasis on risk and protective factors associated with emotional and behavioral reactions to traumatic events - the topic of his doctoral dissertation at West Virginia University.

The postdocs at the center work with 10 faculty members, all specializing in victimization treatment and research, which Ruggiero says allows for efficient collaboration. Ruggiero says it was also key that his research setting be a medical university, instead of an academic institution, because that gave him access to a large pool of clients to learn from, to study, and to deliver effective interventions. Now a faculty member at the center, Ruggiero intends to continue his research efforts to examine the efficacy and effectiveness of promising interventions for victimized children and adolescents.

Enlisting postdoctorates
For Dr. Julie Jacobs, a postdoc search turned into a full-time job as a military psychologist working with airmen.

Most people who take psychology postdocs in the military start their service during an internship or even earlier, says psychologist Julie Jacobs, PsyD. But she took a different path; she chose a military career after finishing her clinical psychology degree.

While postdoc hunting, Jacobs dropped by to talk with an Air Force recruiter in West Virginia after finishing her doctoral work at the Georgia School of Professional Psychology, and was surprised to find an open invitation to apply for a position as a psychologist. She had considered military work ever since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when she felt compelled to contribute to the U.S. fight against terrorism.

But though Jacobs says she took the Air Force postdoctoral post for those mainly patriotic reasons, it was later that she realized "what a fantastic opportunity it was for me as an unlicensed and brand-new psychologist."

She took a permanent position at Charleston Air Force Base in Charleston, S.C., as a military psychologist, where she worked under the supervision of a longtime military psychologist - Lt. Col. Frank Budd, PhD - while acquiring the practice hours needed to be licensed. That her position wasn't officially a postdoc, but rather an opportunity to work while accumulating the practice hours needed for licensure, led Jacobs to take on a large amount of responsibility early in her career, she says.

"The whole thing is sort of unusual," Jacobs says. "My level of independence and responsibility was very high, very fast, but that felt okay from the start because everything was supervised by my flight commander."

Jacobs spends time working with active-duty airmen at the base's Life Skills Support Center. Commanders send airmen to Jacobs for evaluations for performance concerns, such as persistent tardiness, and mental health concerns, such as suicide attempts. Such patients may require individual therapy or life-skills training over just a few sessions or longer term.

She also does psychological evaluations and treatment at the behavioral health facility, where she can treat anyone, including family members and civilian staff who live on the base.

In addition, Jacobs is often called on to conduct military fitness evaluations. Jacobs says she's been relieved to find that seeing a therapist in a military setting is generally not seen as a weakness and mostly treated like any other health issue.

The overall positive experience in the Air Force has led Jacobs to plan to stay in the service in the near future, an easy transition considering her military appointment as a psychologist has continued since she got her license earlier this year.