Cover Story

Many of us have a troubling amount of student loan debt as a result of our doctoral-level educations in psychology. The first few years after graduation are typically the lowest paying years of your career, and since this is also when you receive those first terrifying letters from your lenders, this time has the potential to be fraught with anxiety. Now the good news: This situation is brief, your money-earning potential only increases with time and there are proactive steps you can take to feel empowered during this transition phase and beyond. As a recent graduate, I'd like to share with you some of the approaches that have helped me master my own student loan debt.

  • Educate yourself
    Take some time to reflect on the gaps in your knowledge regarding finances, business, debt management, etc., and develop an action plan for closing those gaps. I read books. I met with a financial adviser. I talked at length with advisers at Sallie Mae. Once I was armed with more knowledge, I could then take an informed approach.

  • Empower yourself
    Let your opinions be heard, and I'm not talking about complaining: Become an activist for constructive change. Call or write your professional organizations to ask what role you can take to help.

This is a fortuitous time to become politically active on this issue: The Higher Education Act of 1965 is up for reauthorization for the first time since its inception. If you use your voice, you can potentially play a part in how loans are administered by the government. Issues such as how high the interest rate can go, the right to change lenders and the right to re-consolidate are up for negotiation.

I wrote my congressmen, and even went to visit them to discuss this issue and push for my favorite bill, Rep. Rosa DeLauro's H.R. 2505. The final outcome depends on what your representatives hear from their constituents, so speak up!

You can find contact information for your representatives at www.senate.gov and www.house.gov. For more information on student loan legislation, check out www.generationdebt.org, a Web site founded by college graduates dissatisfied with the current laws, as well as the APA Government Relations Web site and APA Apags.

  • Take action
    Prepare for the transition to the working world by developing a practical long-term plan. After you land your first job, implement it. Identify how much you want to pay off per month and then figure out how to reach that goal. It might mean you have to find a better paying job or augment your current one with a second job.

I have a salaried position at a community mental health center and a small fee-for-service private practice—just eight clients per week—and my private practice pays for my student loan!

I work 48 hours per week, which is tiring, but feeling overwhelmed by anxiety about my student loans was a far more draining predicament. I anticipated the exhaustion of working two jobs, and chose to create a fee-for-service practice because there is very little paperwork. It took about two years to build it up, but it can be done.

I also paid off a portion of my student loan using a home equity payout, something my financial adviser suggested. (In case you've been wondering if you can even get a mortgage with crazy student loan debt, the answer is yes!). If you have a mortgage, you should definitely investigate your options. If you currently rent, consider buying. You'll have more choices for paying off your debt using these resources.

  • Seek support
    Know who to rely on for support during the more anxiety-provoking times. While many may not understand or be able to provide solace, your colleagues who are also in debt will know your situation better than anyone else. Not only can you gain support, but you can learn from peers who have a proactive approach, a positive attitude or unique ideas.

There are creative steps you can take to pay off your debt and feel more empowered in the process. The transition time between graduation and licensure is a great time to start: Use your anxiety as motivation to take action, and develop a plan for when you finally start raking in the bucks!

If you make smart choices, you will pay off those loans and still have a life. I'm doing it now, and so are many of my peers.


Kim Gregson, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and psychology training director at Alexandria Mental Health in Alexandria, VA. Her private practice is in Arlington, VA.