Degree In Sight

A keyboard and a mouse

Like many time-strapped graduate students, Michelle Madore can't individually call or e-mail the dozens of good friends she left back home in Los Angeles when she moved to attend graduate school at the University of Cincinnati. But, in five minutes through her MySpace.com blog, Madore can detail her daily grind to 63 friends.

"It's like a diary where I can talk to my friends back home without having to talk to each person all the time...What more can you ask for from media?" says Madore, a second-year clinical and neuropsychology student.

But she's careful to use the privacy protections MySpace.com offers. Only a select group of friends can view her postings and much of her personal information. Madore posts almost no personal information on her Facebook.com account, a university-centered online network. However, she points out, not all of her peers take these precautions. Madore says she's read blogs by other psychology graduate students that include detailed complaints about clients, for instance.

"That's inappropriate. That client could easily figure it out and say 'Hey, that's me,'" she says.

Indeed, many psychologists agree that the popularity of personal Web sites, blogging and social networking sites such as MySpace.com has sparked the need for dialogue about responsible online behavior for psychologists-in-training and seasoned psychologists. For one, students and interns who see clients can potentially jeopardize their professional rapport if clients gain access to their personal details, experts say. And, as news stories abound about employers--including academic faculty-search committees and postdoc hirers--using online content to screen job applicants, career experts agree that every graduate student and early-career professional should be careful about the personal or professional information they share online.

"Putting something on the Internet is no different than leaving it on a table at a coffee shop at the mall," says Stephen Behnke, JD, PhD, director of APA's Ethics Office. "Anyone can stop by and take a look."


OPPORTUNITIES LOST

Though mainstream media stories about blog-related job loss have centered on the corporate world and higher education, psychology isn't without its own cases of Internet-related trouble. Recent grad Jessica Jenkins, PhD, a private practitioner in a group practice in Rochester Hills, Mich., says an applicant to her former internship site blew his chance at the position once the training director and interns saw his Web site, which he had listed on his application. "Anything you wanted to know about him as a person was provided," recalls Jenkins. "He had his life story on there."

While nothing he had posted was illegal or particularly offensive, "It was clear he wasn't a good fit" for the site, adds Jenkins. "It was very personal and just too much for a professional setting."

A training director described a similar situation at a session on ethical dilemmas at APA's 2006 Annual Convention in New Orleans: An intern candidate had e-mailed the training director a post-interview thank-you note that featured a link to her personal Web site in the signature. The training director visited the site and found personal details about, and provocative photographs of, the candidate that prompted her to drop the young woman as a serious contender.

Susan Terry, director of career services at the University of Washington, says debate on whether employers should tap online information about job candidates is a hot topic among university career services professionals. The stance among many, she says, is that employers shouldn't consider a person's online profile because a candidate's personal life and information doesn't reflect how he or she will perform on the job.

Still, many point out, curious employers are likely to look if the information is right in front of them. That's why American University psychology graduate student Lisa Haisfeld is studying for her master's thesis to what extent negative personal details gleaned from the Internet affect the personnel selection process.

"What's so interesting is that there is a lot of information that people are openly disclosing--future plans for children, their race, religion, drug and sexual behavior--on these sites that [touch on questions] employers can't normally ask you," says Haisfeld, a social and personality psychology student who plans to pursue her doctorate.

To help University of Washington students avoid such job-search snafus, Terry says she and her staff prompt them to carefully examine their online content (see sidebar for tips on safe blogging) before they enter the job market.

"We aren't going to say 'Don't have an account'" on MySpace, says Terry. "But we are saying, 'Think about what you are putting up there."


GROWING CONCERN

As psychology students become increasingly media savvy, many within the psychology training community say science-and practice-oriented students alike might need guidance about appropriate online activity, either in courses or through workshops or specific policies.

Ray Crossman, PhD, chair of the Council of Chairs of Training Councils (CCTC)--an organization that promotes communication among doctoral, internship and postdoctoral training groups in psychology-says the issue of students' online communiqué arose at a recent CCTC meeting for the first time. "We agreed that this is a new area for our consideration," says Crossman, who is also president of the Adler School of Professional Psychology. "But we also agreed that how you communicate online is the same as any other public behavior," and reflects on the profession and your work, he stresses. Adler, he says, is now addressing online behavior in a professionalization seminar for students.

At least two other training programs have already crafted policies for their students' online prose. Psychology professor Elizabeth Klonoff, PhD, co-director of clinical training at the San Diego State University/University of California, San Diego Joint Doctoral Program and a member of the board of the Council of University Directors of Clinical Psychology (CUDCP), wrote a policy for her department when a recent discussion on students' online content on the CUDCP listserv reminded her of an incident in the department two years ago: A faculty member's mother "Googled" her son and found unflattering details about him on a graduate student's blog. The professor's fellow faculty encouraged the student to remove the details to protect her professional reputation, recalls Klonoff. "I didn't think to develop a policy then," says Klonoff. "But as I saw more examples on the listserv, I realized our incident wasn't just a random, isolated thing."

Her program's policy requires students who post content online to consider how the information or language would appear to potential clients and hiring personnel and emphasizes that students who identify themselves online as a clinical psychology graduate student must keep that information strictly professional and in line with APA's legal and ethical guidelines on privacy and confidentiality. That means students should avoid offering details about clients or what could appear to be professional advice, she says.

Fellow CUDCP member Michael Roberts, PhD, professor and director of the clinical child psychology program at the University of Kansas, developed a similar policy not in response to a particular incident, but as a way to head off trouble. "We didn't want to be punitive or to be seen as policing," he says. "This is more of an alert, educating students who have grown up with this technology and believe they have a certain amount of privacy they don't really have."


THINK AHEAD

Many students say they have tweaked their online content of late, either as a result of media reports of blog-related trouble or specific warnings from supervisors or faculty. University of Tulsa sixth-year clinical doctoral student Patricia Stem, for one, says a warning about MySpace accounts from her director of clinical training has prompted her to remove several photos she felt could be misconstrued. She's also considering privatizing her page, noting that it's better to act now than regret later.

Likewise, Joshua, a fourth-year psychology graduate student, says general buzz about Internet-related trouble in and out of psychology prompted him to supplement his MySpace privacy protections by restricting access to his account to family and friends outside his graduate program. That way, he says, he can talk about school ups and downs without worrying about the possibility that details could be misinterpreted by program peers or faculty.

He and Stem aren't the only ones playing it safe: According to a 2006 survey by Collegegrad.com, 47 percent of college grad job seekers who used social networking sites said they had changed or planned to change the content of their pages as a result of their job search.

To be sure, thinking about these issues early in your research or professional career is smart, say faculty and others; students aren't the only ones at risk personally or professionally. Behnke of APA's Ethics Office notes that within the last two years, his office has fielded more than a few calls related to professional psychologists' online content, including one client who discovered provocative online photos of his therapist that bothered him so much he stopped seeing her.

And although the issue of blogging is relatively new--MySpace launched in 2003 and blogging has blossomed since--guidance for psychology students and professionals on such behavior is already inherent in the Ethics Code, stresses Behnke. In no uncertain terms, the code details a psychologist's obligation to confidentiality and privacy. "We often think of confidentiality in terms of the client," says Behnke, "but it's also the case that it can be helpful to and protect the psychologist as well."

Yet these responsibilities don't require loyal blogging fans to avoid these sites altogether, he says. "Becoming a psychologist doesn't require you to give up your personal life," adds Behnke, "butit does mean you need to think about how your public activities affect your work."

So, if a client does bring up unexpected personal details he or she found online, report it to your supervisor, says Behnke. In addition, Roberts advises students who feel unsure about what qualifies as appropriate online content to consult a faculty member or supervisor.

"And if you are uncomfortable even asking about something in particular," says Roberts, "that means you probably shouldn't put it up."