Early-Career Psychology

As eager as new psychology graduates are to get their careers rolling, many have a host of questions. How do they negotiate their academic contracts? Where might they launch an independent practice for optimal success? How can they become active in psychology associations?

"When we leave school there are a lot of unknowns, and sometimes we may erroneously feel we should know how to do everything," says Gary Hawley, PsyD, of APA's Committee on Early-Career Psychologists.

The good news is that more senior psychologists are often delighted to help their early-career colleagues gracefully navigate the transition from school to career while at the same time reaping their own benefits.

"It's always a two-way street," says Hawley's mentor, David Hill, PhD, a practitioner since 1970. "From my mentees, I learn the latest techniques and procedures, and of course I get the benefit of the energy and enthusiasm that young psychologists have."

Established practitioner Jeffrey Barnett, PsyD, of Arnold, Md., has also reaped benefits from reaching out to new psychologists: They got him up to speed on a new billing software program and taught him how Web sites and podcasts could help him reach more clients.

"We can get complacent if we've been doing things the same way for 20 years," Barnett says. "The world out there is still moving forward whether we're keeping up with it or not."

Benefits all around

Many early-career psychologists are particularly hungry for tips on licensure requirements, ways to diversify their practices, marketing and business finances--topics usually not covered in graduate school.

For example, Hill advises new psychologists to consider consulting with local law enforcement or business owners to create job security and avoid burnout. Experienced psychologists can also help new colleagues break into the sometimes-confusing world of APA governance and leadership on the local, state and national levels, adds Hawley, who credits several established psychologists with his successful run as last year's president of the Kansas Psychological Association. Through Hawley's work with the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students, he got to know a former president of the state association. Over lunch, Hawley shared his ideas for the future of the association, and his mentor advised him about how to make those ideas reality by running for president.

Other early-career psychologists say they most treasure the life wisdom of their more established colleagues. Selia Servín-Guerrero López, PsyD, for example, was struggling to finish her doctorate as her father battled cancer. Her mentor, Monte Bobele, PhD, told her, "Selia, you know, the university will be here forever, but your father won't. Do whatever it takes to be with your father," recalls Servín-Guerrero López. "That was the greatest gift he could have given me."

Hooking up

How can early-career psychologists find a mentor?

"Take inventory about what you want for yourself and look at what's already in place for you," advises Servín-Guerrero López.

Then it's as simple as asking. A good place to approach experienced psychologists is at conferences and workshops. Experts suggest that the relaxed environment of social hours and division hospitality suites presents a prime opportunity to connect, explore mutual interests and exchange contact information. And don't be put off by a potential mentor's status.

"Many experienced people who would seem intimidating and senior and famous love doing mentoring, but they may not know who wants to be mentored," says Barnett. "It never hurts to ask."

For new psychologists who can't travel, a mentor might be just a phone call or e-mail away. Local universities and peer-supervision groups are another good resource, adds Hawley. Also consider joining APA's Early Career listserv®, which boasts 1,500 members, including seasoned psychologists, who form an online support network and information exchange.

Experienced psychologists can initiate contact with an early-career psychologist by simply asking, "How's your career going?" or "What are you doing professionally?" says Barnett.

"I always make it a point when I am at a meeting and see a psychologist I haven't met to introduce myself," Hill says. "It seems like nine times out of 10 you are going to have something in common or some issue you will have a follow-up conversation on and sometimes it leads to a longer relationship."

It may take a few tries to forge solid, mutually satisfactory connections, says Kenneth Liberatore, PhD, who graduated in 2007.

"If you seek someone out and a relationship doesn't happen, don't let that discourage you from getting back on the horse and trying with somebody else," he says.

And if things aren't working, neither party should hesitate to end the relationship, adds Shamin Ladhani, PsyD, chair of the Committee on Early-Career Psychologists.

"If you've been connected with someone and it doesn't seem like it's a good fit, it's okay to let it go," she says. "Just thank that person for what they've done."

Good communication and professional and personal respect are key to successful mentoring relationships, adds Steve Walfish, PhD, an Atlanta private practitioner.

Walfish and others believe it's crucial that early-career psychologists show their appreciation to their mentors in some way. He once received a food gift basket from a mentee, and he sent a Starbucks gift card to a psychologist who offered advice on an ethics question. Other ways of showing appreciation include sending thank-you notes, making contributions to the American Psychological Foundation in a mentor's honor or offering to help with some aspect of their practice, such as installing new computer equipment.

A final point to keep in mind?

"It's not like the established psychologist is a great sage who is going to impart all this wisdom to the ECP," says Hill. "It's more like two colleagues getting to know each other and sharing experiences with each other. It's a natural extension of the work we do as therapists."

Further Reading

For more early-career resources, visit Early Career Psychologists.

  • American Psychological Association Practice Directorate (1996). APA practitioner's toolbox series. Washington, DC.

  • Orlinsky, D. & Ronnestad, M. (2005) How psychotherapists develop: A study of therapeutic work and professional growth. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

  • Pope, K. & Vasquez, M. (2005). How to survive and thrive as a therapist: Information, ideas, and resources for psychologists in practice. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

  • Walfish, S. & Barnett, J. (in press) Guidebook for financial success in mental health practice. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.