Cover Story

Alix McLearen, PhD, has what she considers a dream career: She serves a highly diverse, underserved population and gets paid well to do it--$85,000 a year, to be exact.

McLearen is one of hundreds of psychologists who work for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, an organization eager for more mental health providers. She serves as chief of psychology services at the Federal Correctional Institution in Memphis, Tenn., which houses a total of 1,600 male inmates in both minimum- and medium-security facilities.

"It's very clinically challenging and extremely interesting work," McLearen says, noting that many inmates face a complex web of problems, including poverty, abuse, trauma and drug addiction in addition to mental health concerns. "You have to be at the top of your game to figure out what is really going on for these people and how to best help them."

Every day brings a new opportunity to help this often overlooked population. In a typical month, McLearen provides or oversees individual and group therapy, drug-treatment services, client assessments, crisis intervention and employee-assistance programs. She also supervises graduate students' practica and stays active with professional publications and research--most recently on the role traumatic brain injury plays in inmates' lives.

Working for the Federal Bureau of Prisons also offers great options for advancement, she says. Her career track is a prime example: McLearen first came to the agency for an internship at the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisons in 2002. A year later, she became a staff psychologist and today is chief of psychology services overseeing four other mental health providers.

McLearen always knew she wanted to work with prison inmates. To get the training she needed, she attended the University of Alabama's doctoral psychology program, which offered her solid grounding in clinical work as well as a concentration in psychology-law.

"I love what I do," says McLearen. "I am able to use my training ... in a way that makes a difference to society."

-S. Martin