Are you looking to work with diverse populations, learn about new cultures or gain a broader perspective on psychological issues? Consider taking your psychology training overseas though a study abroad program, international fellowship or teaching position. You can also garner an international perspective by working with international study samples in the United States.
Such experiences allow students to obtain new perspectives in their research and clinical work that can enrich their thinking about psychological issues, says Merry Bullock, PhD, senior director of APA's Office of International Affairs. In fact, many subgroups of psychology lend themselves to working abroad, particularly psychologists who study development, social psychology and personality-fields where it's common to study cross-cultural differences, Bullock says.
"The experiences, challenges, tribulations and excitement of adjusting to a new culture can be a valuable experience for any student," adds Raymond D. Fowler, PhD, who helped strengthen APA's ties internationally while serving as APA's CEO from 1989 to 2002. "We can learn a lot from other countries' health systems as they can from us. And comfortably relating to people from other countries is a valuable skill," especially since the United States is growing in diversity.
To break into the international realm, experts offer the following tips to build an international professional network and look for global opportunities in research, teaching and clinical work.
PREPARING FOR INTERNATIONAL WORK
Students who tap into a network of psychologists who do international work can learn from other professionals' experiences and seek guidance on finding training and job opportunities, experts say.
Students can also use their network to learn the culture of the place they want to work.
"There isn't a class for this sort of thing," says international expert Richard Jenkins, PhD, a behavioral scientist in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention. "Part of successfully living in an international country is being able to go off on your own and to think about what you can offer to other people."
Jenkins recalls a psychologist who worked clinically in Southeast Asia, but didn't explore the cultural lifestyle, such as the clothing and conversation norms.
"People like that shouldn't be doing this-you won't be an asset and you won't learn as much," he says. "You have to have a greater tolerance for ambiguity and curiosity about the people and their ways of life. You have to be willing to tolerate the difficulty of navigating another language and being able to operate under different cultural rules."
Indeed, it's essential for psychologists and students alike to have a firm grasp of the culture and understand that they may have to expand their cultural views.
"The best training is to keep your eyes open and not make assumptions because something seems similar," Bullock says.
While certainly it helps to speak the language of the country, experts say, it's not a requirement. Often times, psychologists hire research assistants and translators who speak the native language to conduct and translate the interviews. But beware, words can get lost in translation.
DEVELOPING A NETWORK
To further prepare yourself for international work, Bullock recommends finding a contact abroad. To do that, scan international conference agendas online to find psychologists who are doing work that aligns with your interests or look for the Web sites of international universities and faculty members, she suggests. Look for mentors at home by locating who at your university does international work, as well as whom they collaborate with to expand your network.
"People are almost always flattered if you take an interest in their work," Jenkins adds. Before initiating contact, Jenkins recommends using the Internet and researching as much as you can about people's backgrounds, such as what they have published, so you can display a familiarity with their work when you contact them.
Students might consider joining an international organization to learn more about international psychology opportunities ("On the Web"). Many of these organizations offer funding for international research projects or travel. APA's Div. 52 (International) also offers resources on training opportunities abroad and a discussion list on international psychology issues.
You don't necessarily have to travel abroad to gain international experiences. Benjamin Bensadon, a first-year doctoral counseling psychology student at the University of Florida, attended monthly United Nations meetings of the nongovernmental organizations (NGO) on mental health and NGO on human rights while he lived in New York City. While an undergraduate student, Bensadon also studied abroad in England as an intern at a mental health clinic working with adolescent patients and then in Italy to study language and history. Because of his interest in cross-cultural research, his mentor in the New York State Psychological Association had given him the idea to get involved in the United Nations. At the United Nations meetings-which usually consist of informational talks from international mental health professionals and United Nations members-Bensadon learned about such mental health issues as humanitarian mental health relief efforts in Sri Lanka, and listened to Rwandan, Sudanese and Indian genocide survivors share their experiences.
The experience also allowed him to network with United Nations personnel and other psychologists doing international work.
"There is tons of exposure you can get on what's going on globally in mental health," says Bensadon, who plans to engage in cross-cultural research when he graduates.
Nadia Sorkhabi, a human development psychology doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley, who is finishing her dissertation, also is tapping international experiences in the United States by working with an Iranian study sample. She teamed with psychology professor Elliot Turiel, PhD, to conduct research about moral development among Muslims raised in Iran who now live in the United States.
Sorkhabi, who moved to the United States from Iran when she was 10, interviewed 64 Iranians about their views of their culture's parental, marital and gender equality issues. She has found that minority populations usually value when researchers take an interest in studying their culture since they are often misunderstood and stereotyped. Sorkhabi hopes for a career in academia following graduation, including possibly continuing her work with international study samples.
Other students might gain international experiences by taking classes abroad or even just a vacation. Jenkins, who has worked internationally and lived in Thailand for three years conducting HIV/AIDS research, says that a backpacking or overseas trip offers an opportunity to experience a culture and determine if international work is really for you.
Such exposure is important, Jenkins says, since psychology varies across the world, and students may find the range of subdisciplines offered more limited than in the United States. For example, in Asia, psychology is generally part of schools of education programs and often tends to be more focused on child development and pedagogy.
"For some, the curiosity and interest of going overseas and getting something you can't get elsewhere is exciting," Jenkins says. "Others may be disappointed because the scholarly interests or framework they have in mind are not readily available."
RESEARCH AND TEACHING OPPORTUNITIES
Any number of avenues exist for students who want to get involved in research and teaching abroad. One good way to first gain international experience is to join a collaborative team of researchers from other countries, Bullock says. Students can do this by finding faculty at their university who are doing international work and asking to join the research team.
Or, you might take your dissertation abroad. Clare Conry-Murray-a human development and education doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley, who will obtain her PhD this fall-spent seven months in Benin, West Africa, conducting her dissertation research on reasoning about women's rights.
"There hadn't been a lot of recent research in my area in Africa at all," Conry-Murray says. "Being in a different location made my dissertation unique….I feel a little more worldly myself now." Students might scout out international research and training opportunities, such as with the Fulbright program and the National Institutes of Health's Fogarty International Center (see "On the Web").
Also, students interested in teaching or a job as a guidance counselor might consider international schools abroad, which usually offer an American, British or United Nations curriculum, Jenkins suggests.
Other students might opt to assist in conducting workshops on mental health issues or assist in relief efforts overseas. For example, many psychologists get involved internationally helping refugees by linking with such organizations as the American Red Cross, Catholic Charities or the American Friends Service.
In particular, students might find abundant opportunities in Europe, where psychology's presence continues to grow, Fowler says-especially in jobs at public clinics, which tend to be more popular than independent practices there. Students may find European therapists use similar techniques, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy. However, psychological testing administered to assess clients on various mental health scales can differ, and psychodynamic and psychoanalytic approaches are fading in some European countries, Fowler notes. Students might find other cultures, such as Japan and China, more challenging to navigate clinically-especially for only a semester-because of language barriers and vast cultural differences, Fowler adds.
Despite the challenges, there are unlimited opportunities for psychologists to apply their training abroad, from holding workshops to writing books, says third-year clinical psychology doctoral student Shefali Tsabary of the Teachers College of Columbia University. Tsabary came to the United States from India for college when she was 21.
In March, she returned to India's southeast coast to train more than 60 doctors, nurses, teachers and relief workers to deliver mental health services for tsunami survivors in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. She has turned that eight-day workshop into a yearlong, government-supported project to train additional relief workers. Tsabary plans to make more trips to India this year to hold workshops.
"There is always work to be done, and it's important to put yourself out there to do something a little new, bolder and different," Tsabary says.
That strategy has paid off for her. Besides conducting workshops for tsunami relief, she has teamed with an Indian philanthropist to raise money to create an elderly home in India.
Besides the professional experience, working internationally offers intangible rewards like learning about the history, cultures and religions of an area and getting past stereotypes of a region and its people, Jenkins says.
"It's really invaluable," he adds. "It changes your perspectives in terms of recognizing limitations in our own culture as well as learning about yourself."