Early-Career Psychology

As more early-career psychologists take jobs in nontraditional areas, they're discovering that learning these organizations' cultures is just as important as demonstrating your psychological know-how.

Suddenly, you may have to view all of your work in terms of the bottom line, for example, or figure out how to navigate multidisciplinary turf wars. Preparing for such challenges can help you succeed in the culture you've landed in, early-career experts say, while retaining the strengths of your training.

"The culture of an organization is a lot like the personality of an individual: It provides shared meaning, communicates expectations and establishes behavioral guidelines," says Geoffrey Marczyk, JD, PhD, associate professor of graduate clinical psychology at Widener University, who trains psychology students to work in settings like business and law. "Learning how to function within those boundaries will help you be more effective, have less job stress and move up the ladder of your organization."

Although the types of cultures psychologists join are as varied as the job market itself, some common strategies can help you navigate any of them, early-career experts say. These include taking time to learn your organization's culture; walking the line between diplomacy and assertiveness; and sharing the pluses of your training in the language of the culture you're in.

Setting the stage

One of the most important steps you can take as a new employee is to survey the landscape before trying to initiate change, says early-career psychologist Rosanna Ventrone, PsyD, manager of executive assessment at BeamPines, a national human resources consulting firm and a 2005 graduate of Widener's joint PsyD/MBA program.

"Sometimes people jump in and start trying to prove their worth before they really have the relationships to substantiate it," she says.

Resist that temptation. Instead, "Lay low for the first few months and spend time getting to know your colleagues," Ventrone advises. "Once you have a support system in place, you'll have a safety net that will allow you to take risks and try new things."

Another early key to success: having an open attitude toward learning the "languages" of your setting, notes Tracy McPherson, PhD, a substance abuse research scientist at George Washington University Medical Center who earned her degree in applied social psychology from the university in 2003.

In her first job as a research consultant to The ISA Group in Alexandria, Va.-a company that researches and designs technology-based health-promotion programs for workplaces-McPherson knew she'd need to learn some technology and business lingo to do her job effectively.

"I asked a lot of questions," she says.

In addition, McPherson volunteered extra time to help out at higher-level meetings in areas she wanted to learn more about and eventually work in. She got to see how company leaders communicated with technical subcontractors who helped develop the company's CD-ROM and Web-based programs. That in turn helped her learn how to communicate with those groups, she says.

Becoming fluent

Once early-career psychologists learn about the culture itself, they face two general challenges. One is figuring out how to function effectively in that culture; the other is explaining how their psychology training is of value to the organization.

Both areas involve good communication skills-fortunately, something in which psychologists already excel, Ventrone says.

"We're already well-trained in assessment, listening actively to what's going on, building rapport and being thoughtful and planful in how we interact with people," she says. "We just need to apply these skills to our organizations."

When it comes to educating your colleagues about your culture, it's important to translate your work in language they can understand, early-career experts emphasize.

"What got my colleagues to see the value that psychologists bring to the table," says Ventrone, "was coming up with the business correlates of what I do." For instance, she explains how a psychological assessment can minimize the risk that a potential employee would be a poor fit and leave the organization early, thus saving the company money down the road.

"Talking about the DSM doesn't mean anything to my clients and colleagues-in fact, it can sometimes scare the heck out of them," she says.

Meanwhile, Joseph Rhinewine, PhD, who landed his first job as a psychologist at an adolescent residential treatment facility in Corvallis, Ore., says he had to curb his graduate school tendencies to say whatever was on his mind and to write in a detailed academic style.

"Psychologists have a tendency to be extremely verbal, and that's not always desirable or functional in a competitive workplace," he notes. During his research-oriented postdoc, for instance, he learned to simplify his communications with his boss, who was more focused on research productivity than on lengthy discussions about theory and method. In his current job, he has cut his report lengths in half: "People are more likely to read them now," he says.

It's also important when sharing your agenda to balance assertiveness and diplomacy, early-career experts say. Rhinewine admits he has a tendency to be too outspoken, for instance, while McPherson says she has occasionally squelched good ideas because she felt a bit intimidated by others' seniority or aggressiveness.

"You're not going to get it right all the time," Rhinewine says, "but you can keep adjusting. Hopefully you develop a functional vacillation between integrity and political savvy, or between diplomacy and assertiveness. It's like being a tightrope walker-you find a way to use that tension to keep you on the wire."

The results

In the best of both worlds, you will combine your growing cultural expertise and your ability to share psychological ideas in ways that benefit you and the organization, says David DeMatteo, JD, PhD, a research scientist at the University of Pennsylvania's Treatment Research Institute.

"Once you learn your organization's culture and goals," he says, "try to make it known how your skill set can fill a void or bring something extra to the table."

This kind of thinking can help you create a niche as well, DeMatteo emphasizes.

"If your organization is looking for a certain methodology to answer a question and you're better trained in it than others," he says, "you can speak up and say, 'This might be a good way to answer that question.'

"If you do that enough," DeMatteo adds, "people will start to rely on you for that."


Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.