Early-Career Psychology

Your first job out of grad school could be called the Bambi phase: Your professional legs are likely still pretty wobbly.

For the next job, you're on steadier ground: You know more about yourself, your career potential and your job desires. That's a good thing, because in many ways your second job holds more import than the first, notes early-career psychologist Christopher Chapman, PhD, who is working in his coveted second job as a user researcher at Microsoft.

"There are costs involved with the second job that aren't there with the first," Chapman notes. These include internal costs--such as remaining in a career tizzy rather than settling on a path you can build on--and external ones--such as appearing to potential employers as a troubled job-hopper rather than a mature, decisive professional.

To help you ace this transition, early-career experts offer a number of tips, including networking to your best advantage, finding a place that suits you and using your psych training in the job hunt. They say these strategies can help you to avoid unnecessary missteps and become the career Godzilla you are meant to be.

Think long-term. You're probably leaving your current job for a good reason. Before you've checked out mentally, though, remember to make the most of your time there, early-career experts advise. Thinking about how your current situation can benefit the next will help you make the most of both situations, they say.

Lindsey Cohen, PhD, an assistant psychology professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta, has always had a drive to study and help sick children, especially those experiencing pain. Morgantown, W.Va., home to his previous job at West Virginia University, lacked large populations of children with chronic illnesses. He therefore focused on studying immunization pain, which is experienced by all children, and conducted single-subject design studies with chronically ill youngsters. This approach, he says, allowed him an easy transition to working with larger groups of children with chronic illnesses in Atlanta.

Likewise, David Boynton, PhD, an assistant psychology professor at St. Michael's College, first taught at Western Connecticut State University, a commuter college that placed more emphasis on teaching than on independent research. Knowing he wanted to seek his second job at a small liberal arts school that might expect applicants to demonstrate research experience, Boynton figured he'd better log in some publishing time.

"I've seen some of my colleagues trying to move to different colleges," he says, "and they can't necessarily demonstrate that they're competitive in that regard."

Get out there. You've heard it before, but it can't be said enough: Networking can help you find and land jobs, experts say. APA, state associations, local scientific and professional societies--use any or all that are relevant. APA's NewPsych listserv posts a multitude of job listings (visit the Early Career listserv Web site to sign up); likewise, APA divisions and other specialized organizations often host job listservs too.

Jennifer Nardozzi, PsyD, says networking helped her snag her initial job as director of admissions at The Renfrew Center, a multisite facility for treating eating disorders.

"It started with someone I knew who had me talk to his mother, and his mother was connected to some other people," she recalls. "About five contacts later, I found out about the job and the right people to talk to." She has since moved on to become assistant clinical director and team leader there.

Nardozzi recommends a particular kind of networking for those thinking of moving into a different area for Job No. 2: informational interviews. Talking with experts in an area of interest can give you pain-free interview experience, new insights on your career options and even job leads.

"It's like planting a seed," she says. "You may not get a job with that person, but they might have three contacts for you."

Also, research supports the notion that experts are flattered to be asked for counsel--so don't be shy, Chapman adds.

"The fact that we're psychologists should make us less afraid to ask for career input," he says. "We know that people like to be asked advice, and it's rewarding to them."

Seek a good fit. While you rightfully may not have been too picky about your first job--often the outgrowth of an internship or postdoc--it's good to be choosy on your second, early-career experts say. This is the time to seek a job that's compatible not only with your professional but your personal leanings--a Gestalt that "feels right," Boynton says.

While he liked his first job at Western Connecticut State, it didn't match his ideal of a small, liberal arts college in a scenic setting.

"I'm not a big city guy," explains Boynton, who grew up in Maine. "There's a big difference between the hustle and bustle of Connecticut and a sleepy Vermont town."

Boynton also knew that he wanted to teach full-time students and that he wanted a school that emphasized teaching. St. Michael's fits all of those bills.

Now four years into the job and two years away from tenure, he knows he made the right choice. "It was pretty obvious to me that this was the kind of place I ought to be," he says.

Pick a place where you can grow. Part of finding a good fit is finding a place that encourages growth, Nardozzi adds.

When she interviewed at Renfrew, one reason for her positive vibes was the staff's emphasis on professional growth.

"I've had so many opportunities within this system," including the chance to use administrative, supervisory and clinical skills, she says. Nardozzi also likes the fact that the Renfrew team is interdisciplinary, which allows her an expanded perspective on the center's clients.

Self-assess. If you need some help on the direction of your next job, self-assess your personality traits and your job strengths, weaknesses and desires, notes clinical psychologist Nicole Lipkin, PsyD, a peer reviewer at the mental health insurance company United Behavioral Health, who also is starting her own private practice.

The technique can help you focus both personally and professionally, as it did for her. After being laid off from her first job at an agency that treats sex offenders, she hastily took a job at an executive search and consulting agency. She quickly discovered the second job wasn't for her; worse, it didn't cover her bills.

When she started her next round of job searching, Lipkin was more prepared.

"I did some soul-searching and came up with lists of what I wanted in a full-time job and why I should be valued as an employee," she says. Her goals included making more money and doing work that wasn't emotionally draining so she could devote time to seeing clients. She also acknowledged her strong desire to be her own boss, which supplied stamina to build her practice.

Now at Job No. 3 and creating a viable client load, she feels she's on the right track. "That exercise helped me to negotiate, to say, 'No, I'm not going to undercut myself,'" Lipkin says.

While her path can be stressful, "I've never been happier with a decision or more confident," she notes. "Sometimes we just settle for jobs because we don't think we're worth it. That is so untrue. We have so much to offer."