Early-Career Psychology

Meeting an experienced mentor was no easy task for Sarah Morsbach Honaker, PhD, when she began her career five years ago. As the only behavioral health specialist in pediatric sleep medicine at the University of Louisville, Honaker couldn't find a senior faculty member or another early career psychologist who shared her distinct professional interests and concerns.

"There was nobody within my institution I could go to for help with clinical cases or research ideas," she says. "It became necessary to go outside the [university] system."

So, Honaker applied to APA's Div. 54 (Society of Pediatric Psychology) mentorship program and requested that she be matched with Lisa Meltzer, PhD, a pediatric sleep specialist at National Jewish Health Care in Denver. "[Meltzer] was incredible," Honaker says. Her mentor offered opportunities to speak at professional meetings and meet other psychologists in the same field. "She has given me important guidance about salary, career development and things as simple as how to organize references," Honaker adds.

Having a good mentor is a critical part of successfully navigating the transition from graduate student to early career psychologist, says Ays¸e Çiftçi, PhD, associate professor of counseling psychology at Purdue University's department of educational studies. "A mentor can show you how to problem-solve as a professional, and how to balance all the things you've learned in graduate school," notes Çiftçi, who also chairs APA's Committee on Early Career Psychologists.

Although APA is a natural resource for opportunities to meet new mentors, it is, admittedly, "huge and it can be intimidating," says Çiftçi. That's why she and others recommend tapping into one of APA's scores of divisions, as Honaker did, to meet potential mentors. Çiftçi has met mentors by being active in two — Div. 17 (Society of Counseling Psychology) and Div. 52 (International). "I've gotten very different types of mentoring from each," she adds.

Since travel to APA events isn't always possible for early career psychologists, Honaker also suggests getting involved with smaller state or local psychological associations. The New York State Psychological Association launched its own Early Career Psychologists Division in 2008, the first state association to do so. The New Mexico Psychological Association has an early career psychologists mentoring program, as does the Contra Costa Psychology Association in California.

However, meeting mentors doesn't happen only through formal mentoring programs. Konjit Page, PhD, who completed her doctoral degree in 2012, has sought out mentors on her own by networking. While in graduate school at the University of North Dakota, Page worked in a rural advanced practicum placement.

"I was the only black student within my cohort," she says. "Some of the clients had never worked with a black psychologist." So Page contacted Jessica Henderson Daniel, PhD, director of training in psychology at Boston Children's Hospital, who actively mentors young black psychologists. "I emailed her and asked if we could just touch base," she says. Daniel responded, and offered helpful advice.

Early career psychologists with physical or mental disabilities encounter attitudinal and physical barriers both in work and in daily life, says Anju Khubchandani, director of APA's Office on Disability Issues in Psychology. "And there aren't many psychologists with disabilities, so the pool of potential mentors to help address and navigate those barriers is small," she notes.

To help overcome that disadvantage, Khubchandani's office offers a disability mentoring program that works to match early career psychologists with disabilities with mentors who have a similar disability. "Finding a mentor who can address those specific areas is critical," Khubchandani notes. Recently, the program matched a mentor and mentee with the same learning disability to help the young psychologist successfully disclose her disability and renegotiate her caseload.

It takes a village

Çiftçi advises young psychologists to attract multiple mentors who can play diverse roles. "A senior mentor can help support your career, but having peer mentors gives you some space to exchange ideas and share experiences," she says. In academic settings, she notes, a department head often can suggest senior faculty to approach for mentoring.

Page, now an adjunct professor at Alliant University's California School of Professional Psychology, maintains contact with several peers from graduate training as mentors. All are in adjunct teaching positions, so they share tips on how to improve their syllabi and discuss the pros and cons of clinical, research, and academic positions. "It's another ear to bounce things off of," she says.

Having mentors at the workplace and in other settings also is important, says Honaker. "They offer different perspectives," she says. An outside mentor is important, Çiftçi adds, if a situation such as stress or a power imbalance becomes troublesome at work.

Ultimately, Honaker says, early career psychologists should ask mentors for their help. "Often, people are more accommodating than you might expect," she says. "It can be hard to put yourself out there, but it's the only way to realize the potential benefits of that relationship."

Rebecca Voelker is a journalist in Chicago.