Career Center

For many practicing psychologists-to-be, finding a postdoc is daunting: You need the supervised hours to get licensed, but there are a limited number of slots.

Such realities lead many graduates to cobble together their own postdoctoral residencies with private practices, community mental health agencies and other sites that don't offer formal training opportunities. While these opportunities can offer solid training experiences, potential postdocs should treat taking such a position as a business transaction by making sure their needs are met, experts say.

"What expectations the site has for you and what expectations you have for the site are important things to address before signing on the dotted line," says Jeff Baker, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch and board member of the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Programs (APPIC).

Indeed, a yearlong postdoc that doesn't include the hours, supervision and experience that you need to get licensed leaves you back at square one, says Baker.

So how can you get what you need? Put it in writing, say Baker and other experts. In fact, a postdoctoral supervision contract—sometimes a formal legal document but often a written agreement between the supervisor and postdoc—can help elucidate both parties' responsibilities, says Arizona State University psychologist Julie Savage, PhD, chair of APPIC's Postdoctoral Membership Committee.

"Laying out expectations clearly in writing, even if it's not a legal contract, goes a long way toward preventing any misunderstandings and gives recourse if [students] feel that it's not being lived up to," she explains.

For example, 2002 graduate Andrew Blatt, PsyD, logged his postdoctoral hours at two different private practices in the Atlanta area. One of his sites had a fairly established postdoc program with a supplemental contract, but the other didn't. While Blatt had to sign papers with the state board to verify that his supervisors would be providing his postdoc hours, that paperwork didn't spell out his pay, working hours or how much supervision he would receive. So he and his supervisor, William L. Buchanan, PhD, downloaded a template to create their own supervision agreement. They had a lawyer friend look it over, made some changes and then signed on the dotted line.

For ideas on the language to use, experts suggest reviewing the contracts of other postdocs who have them. Other good resources include the postdoc guidelines on the APPIC and APA accreditation Web sites.

Contract Basics

What should your contract cover? First and foremost, be sure to include all provisions of your state's licensure laws, says Baker. If you forget to build in a state requirement—such as Massachusetts's requirement that half of a postdoc's supervision be from a licensed psychologist each year—you may end up logging a year or more of experience without qualifying for licensure.

"The majority of sites are very altruistic and want to help you out, but they don't always know what they have to do," explains Andy Hogg, PhD, board president of the Arizona Psychology Training Consortium, which offers postdocs training. "The more it states in detail what everybody has to do, the more likely that the resident is going to get what they need to get licensed."

Another particularly touchy issue is compensation. In Arizona—and in about half of U.S. states—it's illegal for supervisors to charge postdocs for supervision, rent or office services; many state psychology boards see these situations as a conflict of interest. However, while such laws can make working out your postdoc contract more difficult, it's still doable, say experts.

Take the postdoc experience of clinical psychologist Ilyssa Swartout, PsyD, now a private practitioner. Through her Arizona Psychology Training Consortium postdoc, she logged supervised hours at a women's prison and with private practitioner John Stapert, PhD, also the consortium's training director. The women's prison contracted with her previous internship site—the Arizona-based Treatment Assessment Screening Center—and the center paid Stapert for the services she provided. In turn, Stapert paid Swartout a fixed monthly stipend.

However, in Georgia, where postdocs can directly pay their supervisors, Blatt says the norm is for postdocs to pay their supervisors 50 to 60 percent of their fees—or to keep all of their fees but pay supervisors for their supervision time and rent for the office space. The percentage arrangement allows postdocs to pay their supervisors only when they are also bringing in money, while the rental arrangement—which Blatt says could easily cost $1,000 a month—allows them to take home all of their fees.

The Nitty Gritty

A sound postdoc agreement should also:

Name Your Supervisor and That Person's Qualifications

The contract should clearly state who will supervise you and how they meet the state's requirements to do so. Some states require supervisors to be licensed for a minimum number of years; California requires every supervisor to take a supervision course.

Specify Your Hours

State where you will work and the start and end dates. List the amount of time—per week and over the span of the postdoc—you expect to spend on different tasks, such as in face-to-face contact with clients, research, intake interviewing, assessments and administration. Agree on who sets your hours and if and when you will be on call.

Discuss Supervision

List the minimum number of hours each week you expect your supervisor to provide in-person supervision.

Identify Your Client Hours

If in private practice, determine how you will develop a client base to meet the hours you've agree upon. If you're required to have 30 patient contacts a week, for example, does that mean 30 shows or 30 scheduled appointments?

"Make the contract as specific as you can while leaving flexibility for other training opportunities," says Blatt. For example, instead of requesting group therapy with substance-abusing men, you might outline the number of hours you expect to conduct group therapy as well as other psychological services that you list. Be specific enough to get the experience you want, but not so specific that you couldn't also fit in other opportunities.

List Your Goals

Determine what you expect to learn and outline the steps and timeline you need to achieve those goals.

"Too often postdocs, in particular, are directionless because they are often viewed as employees rather than as trainees," says Hogg. "The more structure there is, the more likely it is the resident will achieve something very specific toward the training they need for their career specialty."

Describe the Evaluation Process

Delineate how and when your supervisor will formally evaluate you and vice versa. What criteria will be used in those evaluations? At the Arizona Psychology Training Consortium, residents are formally evaluated twice a year and also evaluate their supervisors. While the ability to formally evaluate a supervisor isn't widespread, consider building such feedback into your agreement so that together you can adjust your postdoc if necessary.

Delineate Your Supervisor's Responsibilities

The supervisor should agree to be responsible for your work for the entire postdoc and to keep records on you and your clients for about 15 years, experts advise. If you want to get licensed in a second state 10 years down the line, you may need the records to prove your experience. (Another option is to bank your credentials: See "What you need to know to get licensed," January 2004 gradPSYCH).

Agree on Compensation

Include how much you'll be paid as well as who will pay you and how often. Also outline any benefits, such as paid vacation time, family and medical leave and health insurance. Note any eligibility limitations, such as exclusions of pre-existing medical conditions or pregnancy within the first few months of the job. Blatt advises asking for a pay increase clause if your marketability increases, by for example, earning a provisional license.

Outline Your Costs

Are you expected to pay office rent, telephone charges or other business expenses? Remember that paying your supervisor is illegal in some states.

Include a Grievance Process

What recourse will you have if you are unhappy about your supervision or training? Include under what condition either party could terminate the agreement.

Have an Amendment Clause

Note that your contract can be changed at the agreement of both parties. The provision allows you to adapt to changing interests or circumstances.

And a last piece of advice from Blatt: Once the deal is done, make sure you have an accurate, signed copy on file so that you and your supervisor are on the same page.

"Too often postdocs, in particular, are directionless....The more structure there is, the more likely it is the resident will achieve something very specific toward the training they need for their career specialty."

Andy Hogg
Arizona Psychology Training Consortium