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When Anne T. Molloy, PsyD, was laid off from General Electric in 1999, she didn't panic. Instead, she used the opportunity to overhaul her plans for her life.

That's when she set her sights on a new career goal: to be a rehabilitation psychologist.

These days, she's a postdoctoral fellow in rehabilitation psychology at the Hunter Holmes McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Richmond, Va. And thanks to her two decades in the business world, she's also a big believer in looking toward the future and making decisions with long-term goals in mind.

"Your plan doesn't have to be set in stone," says Molloy. "But it gives you an outline and helps you organize how you need to network and where you need to go."

Molloy credits a series of career plans for helping her get to where she is today. In graduate school, she gained practicum experience in rehabilitation psychology that helped her decide to go for an internship within the VA. Then she crafted a plan for her internship at the Boston VA Medical Center and then another for her two-year postdoc.

Her current plan includes such goals as getting licensed in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., teaching a class in rehabilitation psychology, and networking within APA's Div. 22 (Rehabilitation) and the state psychological associations in Virginia and Maryland.

Now she's debating between two potential five-year plans: to go for a second postdoc in neuropsychology to round out her skills or start looking for a job within the VA system. Her ultimate goal is to run a program for veterans with disabilities and their families at the VA.

Ideally, every psychology graduate student should have a career plan, say experts. And you should begin working on it before applying to grad schools, says Jeffrey A. Knight, PhD, a clinical neuropsychologist at the National Center for PTSD-VA Boston Healthcare System and Boston University School of Medicine. That's because the decisions you make about graduate school — whether to enter a research or practice-focused program, for instance, and what professor to work with — already begin to shape your future career choices. Similarly, students' internships and postdocs will affect their future job options.

"When you go on a trip, you would never just pack up the car, turn it on and start driving," says Knight. "You take a road map, and you have a destination in mind."

Creating and using a career plan can be especially tough when you're immersed in the day-to-day rigors of grad school, he adds. "Graduate training is like a conveyer belt that's moving you forward," says Knight. "You can get micro-focused on the training milestone immediately ahead and stop focusing on your overall career goals."

Wherever you are in your psychology training, it's not too late to start thinking about your long-term goals and how to get there, experts say. Here are four recommendations to get you started:

  1. Work backwards. "Your plan should be based not on where you are today, but where you want to be in five to 10 years," says Robert D. Morgan, PhD, co-editor of "Life After Graduate School in Psychology: Insider's Advice from New Psychologists" (Psychology Press, 2004) and a psychology professor at Texas Tech University. "Then you can put in the steps you need to get there."

    Morgan practices what he preaches: He has what he calls "career business plans" for his practice and his research. Each plan contains as much detail as Morgan can muster. His personal research plan, for example, includes grants he wants to get, papers he needs to write to support those grant proposals and conferences he needs to attend to meet colleagues who could serve as consultants on those future grants. For a graduate student intent on running a child psychology clinic one day, a plan might include coursework, practica and an internship focused on child psychology.

    Include dates in your plan to keep yourself honest, Morgan says. "If you don't have a deadline, things aren't going to get done," Morgan says. His plans include both big-picture deadlines and biweekly to-do lists. Begin your plan by noting key deadlines, such as when you need to apply for internships, defend your dissertation and take your qualifying exams, and then work backwards, he recommends.

  2. Include personal as well as professional goals. In addition to thinking about where you want to end up professionally, says Morgan, do some dreaming about your personal life. "What kind of lifestyle do you want to have?" he says. "That's going to dictate what kind of salary you need to make. What do you need to do to make that kind of salary?" Be as specific as possible, he says. Think about where you want to live, how much you want to travel and how many hours a week you want to work.

    Family issues can become very important, adds Knight. If you have a partner, he points out, you need to consider each other's needs and desires when deciding where to go for internships and postdocs. If your family will include children, add them to your plan. Women starting out in academia need to balance the timelines and requirements for achieving tenure with the realities of the biological clock, says Knight. Having children may also affect your priorities when it comes to location, he says. "You might want a job near your extended family so your children grow up with their grandparents, and you have help with child care," he says. "These very practical issues can affect your career."

  3. Use your plan to evaluate opportunities. In graduate school and beyond, the number of decisions can be overwhelming. A career plan can help you sift through opportunities as they arise, says Morgan. "If you have a career business plan, you can more easily identify whether something is actually going to help you." Revisit your plan once a year to make sure you're on track, Morgan recommends.

    What if you don't know what you want to do? Add exploring different options to your plan — within reason. While exploring is a natural part of graduate training, says Knight, you don't want to spend more time in the trainee role than you have to. And while you still have some flexibility in your postdoctoral training, he says, entry-level employers generally assume you're pretty committed to your choice of career. "We've had child psychology interns complete their training year and then switch their emphasis to adult psychology for their postdocs," he says. "That's a lot of predoctoral training to discover that maybe you should have investigated the possibility of training in adult psychology before internship."

    Volunteer work can also expose you to different possibilities, says Molloy. So can talking to psychologists who already have a career like the one you're considering. "Members of state associations and psychologists at APA's Annual Convention welcome talking to grad students," she says. "Ask them how they did it and what steps they took."

  4. Write in pencil. Make a plan, but don't be rigid about it, says Carolyn A. Licht, PhD, co-editor of "Your Career in Psychology: Putting Your Graduate Degree to Work" (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009) and a staff licensed psychologist at Columbia University Medical Center's Harlem Hospital. "You have to be willing to erase everything and rewrite your plan," says Licht, who was a professional ballet dancer in her first career.

    Viewing your career plan as a work in progress lets you take advantage of unexpected opportunities, Licht says. "If you're really strict about only following the path you've set, you may end up closing a lot of doors that may have been really fascinating opportunities for you," she says. "Sometimes you have to be willing to go off the plan and explore a new path."


Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.