Feature

New psychologists may want to seek alternative jobs in the understaffed fields of community psychology or nonprofit advocacy work at a time when traditional positions are harder to find, suggests Henry Tomes, PhD, executive director of APA's Public Interest Directorate.

It's not a matter of being drafted for service, but an issue of economics.

"For people who are looking at being professors, sometimes those jobs are just not open anymore," says Tomes, "so they have to do something else. People offering services to patients are finding it's not as easy as it used to be, either. They must find other things."

Among those "other things" are treating children and the elderly in nonprofit clinics or advocating for legislative reform on the state and federal levels.

"We haven't even thought about all the possibilities because we didn't have to," Tomes says.

In the past, he observes, so many jobs have been available for private clinicians or for scientists researching at colleges that psychologists did not have to seek work elsewhere.

But now that those fields are crowding up, Tomes says scientific psychologists might want to shift into the nonprofit field.

The field is not overcrowded. APA's Task Force on Nonacademic Employment for Scientific Psychologists says that only 6.5 percent of all research-trained psychologists are in private nonprofit jobs now.

But even if there weren't a job crunch, Tomes says, "It's important for us to take our psychology into communities."

People like Pat Hawkins, Brian Smedley, Shari Miles and Rhoda Unger agree. They are already there.

Sadness at the clinic

Pat Hawkins, PhD, is a cheerful, assertive woman, who is deputy director of the Whitman-Walker Clinic in Washington, D.C., helping HIV and AIDS patients. She arrived at the clinic as a volunteer in 1983, just after AIDS exploded into a national epidemic.

Death was a constant visitor.

"I ran a support program and of that original group, I think every single one of the men is dead," Hawkins remembers.

Yet, she wouldn't do anything else but community work.

"Nothing gets you engaged as fast as getting involved," she says, "We often keep the academic world separate from the real world and we desperately need psychologists' skills in the real world."

Why nonprofit work?

"I knew I wanted to treat people clinically but I wanted a broader impact," she says. "In private clinical work, you might see 1,000 people in a whole lifetime. I wanted to do more than that."

She suggests that a would-be community psychologist might want to have other interests outside of psychology.

"I was a double major in psychology and sociology at the University of Michigan and took courses in juvenile delinquency," Hawkins says.

The defining moment

For Brian Smedley, PhD, the career turning point was his year as an APA Congressional Fellow.

"I knew I was going to do something in public policy after that year on Capitol Hill," says the softspoken man, now with the Institute of Medicine. "I got a chance to really see how the federal legislative process works, what kind of evidence people rely on to make decisions."

Smedley, who then spent three years working on legislative affairs for APA, argues that other psychologists could use some eye-opening themselves. He says that some who haven't had much experience dealing with legislators "assume policy-makers either have a fixed mindset or assume we can put our knowledge out there passively and it will be sucked in by Congress. That's not how it happens. We ought to be among those groups trying to shed light on issues."

At the institute, he is working on projects affecting minority groups. One example: "In a study on cancer research, we issued a report that concluded that disparities in cancer between ethnic groups are more likely related to a range of social, cultural and economic factors, including access to health care, than to genetic or biological factors." This kind of finding could lead to state or federal legislation, particularly research funding into why the disparities exist. No longer would all problems of minorities be dismissed as just genetic differences.

In preparing for a public policy career, Smedley believes that college should be a time for students to "learn about research; it's ultimately the foundation for a solid career. Then, after college, a few other opportunities will open up--internships on public policy at APA, for one. We really need to be thinking about creating a pipeline for psychologists working in the public policy field."

Dealing with people

Shari Miles, PhD, an energetic woman with an infectious laugh, is interim director of the African-American Women's Institute, based at Howard University, Originally, she thought of becoming a medical doctor, but a part-time job working as a peer counselor at a Boulder, Colo., multicultural center helped change her mind.

"I figured I might as well learn to deal with people," she recalls. "I had already taken physics and organic chemistry. But the hook was a congressional fellowship. I worked for Ron Dellums for a year when I was attending graduate school at Howard."

Now, at the institute, she is starting a longitudinal study of black women and higher education.

"We will be asking the women about what high school, undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate experience encouraged them to go into science," says Miles.

Her advice to students is to find "a number of people as mentors. I think it is hard to find one to meet all of you needs."

A social psychologist

Rhoda Unger, PhD, of Cambridge, Mass., who just finished her term as president of APA Div. 9 (Society for the Psychological STudy of Social Issues), views herself as a social psychologist and an activist. She received her doctorate from Harvard 33 years ago and has been teaching at Montclair State for most of the time since then. Now she in finishing up a book at Brandeis University where she is a resident scholar in women's studies.

"I was always an activist on race issues, Vietnam, women's issues. It was very, very clear I was not interested in the brains of rats," she says.

Her tip to public policy candidates: "You might consider getting a law degree as well as a PhD--and get into public policy early through internships and fellowships. Work in Washington or a state capital."

Says Tomes, "It is important for us to take our psychology into communities because there is so much we know that could be useful to people. But they don't know us and we don't know them."