Matters to a Degree

When I was in graduate school, I served on my department's admissions committee as a student representative, an opportunity that allowed me to meet students from around the country, organize a fun dinner to recruit students for my program and help shape the next class of doctoral students. While reviewing applications, I noticed that many students said they were interested in psychology because they wanted to help people. That made me wonder, does that desire persist throughout graduate school?

For me, it has. When I graduated, I still wanted to serve my community, so I accepted a position in the pediatrics department at MetroHealth Medical Center, a public hospital in Cleveland that serves many low-income people. The job was an excellent match for my skills and interests as a bilingual child-clinical psychologist with expertise in autism, behavior disorders and parent training. I was excited to work primarily with a poor, inner-city and diverse population of patients, and I stayed there for more than six years before coming to APA.

Reflecting on my time in the public sector, I loved every minute of it. There was something special about working in a public hospital that treated people without regard for their ability to pay. My colleagues and I shared a strong sense of commitment, excitement and energy. That's why, I think, when people left MetroHealth to work at different hospitals, they often returned. Personally, I think it was the shared values and commitment to working with an underserved population that brought them back.

Working in the public sector is a great way to fill that altruistic need that so many psychology graduate students share. But public sector jobs, which are funded by government sources, usually don't top students' job wish lists. That's a mistake, since the public sector has tremendous opportunities for psychologists, including those in public hospitals, community health centers, prisons, VA hospitals and the military. Research-oriented graduate students may find openings at such sites and can also seek positions at publicly funded research centers, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Students who want to shape public policy might appreciate advocacy opportunities such as APA's Congressional Fellowship Program or the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Science and Technology Fellowship Program.

Besides helping people, there are many other benefits of public service:

  • Generous benefits. Public sector positions often have reasonably competitive salaries but very good benefits. You may receive separate vacation and sick days, paid federal holidays, good health insurance and the opportunity to participate in government pension and retirement plans.

  • Loan repayment. Some positions will help you repay your student loans. If you work in certain public sector jobs for 10 years, and keep up your loan payments during that time, your loans are forgiven. (More information.) At NIH, employees can apply for an intramural loan repayment.

Health professionals in underserved communities may find loan repayment through the National Health Service Corps (as I did), which will pay up to $50,000 of your student loan for two years of service in a qualified health professional shortage area. For more information on these programs, visit http://www.ilrsp.nih.gov/ and http://nhsc.hrsa.gov/loanrepayment.

  • Personal fulfillment. It's very satisfying when your work and career allow you to meet your personal life mission. I felt rewarded every day working at MetroHealth knowing that I was contributing to the lives of inner-city children and helping improve their community one small step at a time.

For more information about jobs in public service, check out the APA PsycCareers Web site and USA Jobs, which lists federal positions.

By Dr. Nabil Hassan El-Ghoroury
Associate Executive Director, APAGS