Degree In Sight

Depending on their perspective, today's psychology students can choose from either a wealth or a confusion of training models, from "extreme science" programs based mainly on lab work to practice-intense ones that see fewer quantitative moments.

A fortunate number of students pick programs that are just right for them, providing the academic and career opportunities they had hoped for. Not surprisingly, applicants who research a variety of sites stand a better chance of entering a suitable program than those who accept the first offer that comes along, experts say.

But school, like life, does not always proceed according to plan. Some programs with strong academic credentials, for example, fail to adequately prepare students for the job market, some students report. Others claim they provide equal training in science and practice, but in reality, favor one over the other. And even excellent programs can be a poor fit: Maybe your program doesn't match your temperament, you're working with an absentee mentor or you're neglecting opportunities that are right under your nose.

The sooner you address such concerns, the better your chances of maximizing your program's potential and eventually landing the job you want, says Stu Tentoni, PhD, counseling director at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Norris Student Health Center.

"More than ever, today's job market requires students to think about what they want to do with their degree," says Tentoni, who received the 2002 Raymond D. Fowler Award for helping psychology students plan for life after grad school. Below are strategies to help you find a better fit within your program and to discover the range of applications for your degree, no matter what your training model.


STRATEGY 1:

BROADEN YOUR SCOPE

Although it's vital to become grounded in your program's philosophy and model, consider electives and career options that are outside its normal radar, says Susan Zlotlow, PhD, director of APA's Office of Program Consultation and Accreditation.

"Where a program lies in its balance between science and practice has implications for your skill sets and opportunities," she says, "but it doesn't mean that just because you went to a certain kind of program you can never do X."

One area that's ripe for psychologists' presence-and where students can consider taking electives or even a second degree-is mental health administration. In that capacity, psychologists hold authority over budgetary matters, staffing patterns and clinical service offerings, putting them in an excellent position to promote quality care, Tentoni notes.

Other promising arenas he suggests to consider taking specialized coursework in include public health, forensics, grant writing, public policy and, of course, business.

 

STRATEGY 2:

NETWORK AND FIND THE RIGHT MENTOR

Networking and seeking good mentors are especially important if your program isn't what it is purported to be, says Kevin Chapman, who recently finished his coursework at a science-practitioner program in Kentucky. Early in his doctoral training, he discovered that his program primarily encouraged students to pursue academic careers.

Chapman, who is on internship at a consortium in Jefferson County, Ky., adds that although he received a lot of clinical experience during his master's training; others in his doctoral program who want to become practitioners were not so lucky.

His advice? "Network with former students who are out practicing," he says. This strategy can provide contacts in case you need more hours at a practicum site, for example, or allies who can link you with other psychologists in the community. Psychology organizations such as APAGS, your state psychological association and APA are also important connection vehicles, he notes.

If you're a research-oriented student, don't be afraid to change mentors or research areas if yours isn't working out, adds Beth Meyerowitz, PhD, a psychology professor in the University of Southern California's clinical-science training program.

"A student might have thought they wanted to do research on X, but it turns out they really find Y more interesting and they want to change labs," she says. "That's perfectly acceptable, perfectly reasonable-it happens in our program regularly." (See "Sticky situations," January 2005 gradPSYCH, for more on solving mentorship problems.)


STRATEGY 3:

SEEK SPECIAL OPPORTUNITIES.

Scout out hidden training gems within your own program. Students in the research-intensive cognitive science and cognitive neuroscience areas of Carnegie Mellon University's psychology department, for instance, can tap on-campus programs to apply their training in practical ways, though they're not pushed to do so, notes psychology professor Roberta Klatzky, PhD.

One such opportunity is in the school's new Program in Interdisciplinary Educational Research (PIER), where psychology students and those in other relevant disciplines such as human-computer interactions and statistics perform cutting-edge work aimed at improving the quality of the nation's education.

Likewise, at Antioch New England's practitioner-scholar program, students might not immediately know about the school's Center for Research on Psychological Practice, says Roger L. Peterson, PhD, who chairs Antioch's psychology department. Yet for those interested in program-evaluation research, the center offers a chance to learn this research method, and many Antioch students have landed good jobs via that route, he says.

 

STRATEGY 4:

KEEP AN OPEN MIND

Consider that you won't always know what you like until you try it-a mindset faculty of all models strongly encourage. Psychology students are continually surprised by how much they grok with a dreaded subject area, notes Bernhard E. Blom, PhD, director of internship training at the Chicago Veterans Administration.

One intern, he recalls, was dead set against testing because he had never been trained in it.

"I told him, 'You really need to do this to round out your education,'" Blom remembers. Reluctantly, the student took a rotation in the area. The results startled even Blom, who has been training interns for 30 years.

"He decided he liked testing so much that he might want to become a neuropsychologist-something that had never entered his mind," Blom says. The student did a postdoc in neuropsych testing, "and lo and behold, he is now a practicing neuropsychologist."

Indeed, students should look at their graduate school years as a time to grow and discover as professional scholars, says Paul Nelson, PhD, of APA's Education Directorate. Regardless of their bent, graduate programs offer students the chance to learn how to be critical thinkers and good learners-skills that you'll be able to use no matter how the market for psychologists changes.

 

STRATEGY 5:

IF ALL ELSE FAILS-TRANSFER

About 3 percent of psychology doctoral candidates leave their programs each year for personal or programmatic reasons, and about 20 percent take some time off before completing their doctorate, notes University of Scranton psychology professor John C. Norcross, PhD, co-author of "The Insider's Guide to Graduate Programs in Clinical and Counseling Psychology" (2004, Guilford).

If the situation seems impossible to fix, at least consider staying at your current site or taking a leave of absence while applying elsewhere-a strategy similar to that of keeping your current job while applying for others-versus quitting, Norcross notes.

"Your opinions may change while you're applying elsewhere," says Norcross, "or you may be unsuccessful at getting into the other place." On the new site end, research potential programs thoroughly, especially for areas you mismatched on the first time, Norcross advises. On interviews, avoid casting dispersions on your old program, saying simply that it didn't meet your needs, Norcross says.


Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.

"Where a program lies in its balance between science and practice has implications for your skill sets and opportunities," she says, "but it doesn't mean that just because you went to a certain kind of program you can never do X."

Susan Zlotlow
APA Office of Program Consultation and Accreditation