After she completed her doctorate in counseling psychology at Ohio State University, Meera Rastogi, PhD, chose to pursue her first love—teaching—and accepted a position as a full-time professor at a small college in Madison, Wis. She enjoyed the work but missed the client interactions she'd had as a graduate student. She also knew that no matter how well she taught, she still lacked knowledge on one topic her students truly cared about.
"I was teaching students who wanted to be clinicians, so I really thought it would be best if I had gone through the [licensure] process myself," recalls Rastogi, now a psychology professor at the University of Cincinnati, Clermont College.
Given her teaching duties, however, she couldn't commit to a full-time postdoc to earn hours toward licensure. So she found a psychologist at another university's counseling center who agreed to oversee her one day a week at no charge until she completed her hours for licensure. After six months under his supervision, the counseling center so valued her services, it found funds to provide her with a small stipend.
Rastogi is one of a number of graduates who are creating their own postdocs to meet their individual training needs. Today's formal postdoctoral programs—such as those that are accredited by APA or that belong to the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers (APPIC)—provide graduates with advanced training, mentoring and supervision. Yet only about 125 formalized postdoc programs belong to APPIC, and about 48 postdoctoral programs are accredited by APA. That's well below the number needed to meet the demands of clinical, counseling and school psychology students who need supervised hours for licensure or research-focused students who need additional technical expertise and publications before they can apply for competitive faculty positions.
Students who want to work with highly specialized populations or study less prevalent disorders are also driven to create their own postdocs, says Kristy Dalrymple, PhD, a research professor at Brown University's medical school and a staff psychologist at Rhode Island Hospital. Add to that geographical restrictions and family constraints, and it's not surprising that many new graduates cobble together their own postdoctoral residencies with community mental health clinics, private practices or research assistantships.
While more postdoctoral programs are seeking APA accreditation or APPIC recognition—making them more likely to assure quality training toward licensure—many of the postdoc experiences offered can meet those goals, says Catherine Grus, PhD, APA's associate executive director for professional education and training. When looking to develop a postdoc that meets your professional interests, lifestyle requirements or both, you must do a lot of vetting to assure your ultimate licensing and career goals are met, she says. Here are a few tips to help you:
Step 1:Learn the Requirements
If you're a psychology student looking to accrue hours toward licensure, familiarize yourself with your state's licensing rules by visiting the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards' Web site, says Roberta Nutt, PhD, director of professional affairs at ASPPB. She also suggests that students look specifically at requirements such as the total number of hours required, the number of hours of supervision required per week, what credentials might be required of supervisors—such as licensure status, years of licensure, supervision training—and whether a supervision contract is required by the licensure board.
Both clinical and research-focused students should also read the guidelines other organizations use to assess postdocs, which may help you develop your own standards for what you'd like your position to include. Read APA's postdoc accreditation guidelines, and APPIC's.
Then, make your own list of requirements, drawing from these resources. For example, as a prerequisite for APA accreditation, postdoctoral programs must require residents to complete their training in 12 months for a full-time program or 24 months for a part-time program. Programs also must provide resources or opportunities to enhance the quality of its training and supervision staff through continued professional development. Graduates may want to consider incorporating these two standards into their search.
Students should also contact their state psychological association for information and advice on the best ways to ensure they're meeting their state's requirements for the field, Rastogi says.
"State associations are so underutilized by students, but they can be a wealth of knowledge, especially as they're going through the licensure process," she notes.
Step 2: Let People Know What You're Looking for
Many postdoctoral positions are not advertised or listed, but faculty may have the funds for one or know of postdoc opportunities in other labs or clinical settings, says University of California, Los Angeles graduate program coordinator Dena Chertoff. Therefore, Dalrymple says, reaching out to clinicians at association meetings and faculty doing research you're interested in are some of the best ways to find a potential postdoc.
Technology can help, too: Write a pithy paragraph about your dream postdoc and post it to early career message boards, your state and local association listserv, even your Facebook and LinkedIn profiles. Make sure your adviser, faculty and classmates know your goals as well, says Dalrymple. For practicing psychologists, internship directors are a particularly good resource, she adds. "The faculty at your current internship—particularly if it's in a geographic area you want to stay in—often have the best information in terms of the community and what opportunities are out there," Dalrymple says.
Step 3: Sweeten the Deal
You can probably create a postdoc anywhere you want if you bring your own funding, Chertoff says. "Very few people will turn down a free postdoc," she says. You'll also have more independence, she notes, but will still benefit from collaboration with more experienced faculty and researchers. Or, if the site sounds too good to pass up, offer to take a part-time volunteer position, as Rastogi did. The move shows you're truly committed to the learning experience, and it may lead to a stipend if funding opens up down the road.
Step 4: Seek Advice
Ask others who have created a postdoc whether you have missed anything, Rastogi says. You can use former classmates as resources or find potential mentors through your state association's Listserv or one of APA's. They can provide guidance and support, and bring up points you may not have thought about in your quest to find a position, such as whether the program offers training seminars, whether you'll get one-on-one time with fMRI machines, or whether you'll be given interesting clients who will help you grow as a therapist, Grus says. "You want to be sure the experience will really aid you in meeting your long-term professional goals," she says.
Step 5: Be Persistent
Rastogi called several private practitioners and community mental health centers—many who wanted to charge her upward of $100 a week to supervise her—before she found a counseling center that needed help. Researchers, too, shouldn't get discouraged if they haven't lined anything up by spring, Dalrymple says. While winter seems to be the typical season for securing a postdoc, new grants are funded year-round.
Step 6: Stay Organized
Once you've developed that dream postdoc, make sure you stay proactive to ensure it's everything you designed it to be, says Saliha Afridi, PsyD, a recent graduate of the Arizona School of Professional Psychology, who successfully created a postdoc position that would allow her to move to Dubai when her husband was offered a job there. Return to your checklist of goals once a month to evaluate how well the program is meeting your needs, and work with your supervisor to adjust if it's falling short. For future practicing psychologists, Afridi recommends getting clinical positions approved by your state board before you start working, if possible. Set up a phone call with a board staff member to go over the details of your position, or put the information in a letter or e-mail and request written approval of the plan.
"You wouldn't want to take chances collecting hours and then not have them count," she says.