Career Advice from Health Psychologists

Amanda Mia MarÍn-Chollom, MA, Mphil
Matthew Jasinski, MA
Student Council Diversity Committee

As graduate students, many of us often feel that we do not get enough exposure to the different health psychology career paths outside those of our immediate advisors, who are usually tenure-track psychology research professors. Yet, a doctorate in psychology with a health focus is a versatile degree that can lead to a variety of paths outside of those with the official title of “psychologist.” For example, the skills obtained by health psychology trainees apply to diverse fields such as behavioral health, nursing, physical therapy, epidemiology, and more. To educate ourselves about the different options, the best route is usually to communicate with our fellow health psychologists who have been successful outside psychology deparment and clinical practice settings. Therefore, we interviewed two health psychologists with non-traditional careers to learn about their career paths and solicit their advice for current doctoral students. Tené T. Lewis, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in the Department of Epidemiology in the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, and Dominick L. Frosch, Ph.D. is a fellow in the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation’s Patient Care Program.

Two key points of advice that emerged from interviewing these two individuals were:

1) Seek and explore opportunities outside of psychology while in graduate school in order to learn other ways to apply your knowledege. You can do this by completing internships, interviewing professionals, or volunteerting in a specific field of interest. As Dr. Lewis advised, “try and explore as many possibilities and expose yourselves to as many different areas as you can. Graduate training is the beginning of a journey that you can shape into what works best for you. There will be a number of paths to choose from, but choose the path that works best for you and recognize that there are really no right or wrong answers.” Additionally, Dr. Lewis advises students to take the path that will “make you the happiest, not the most successful.” She further states, “In my experience, when you are unhappy, you are less productive.” Further, Dominick Frosch reminded us that the “one key tool we all have is understanding human behavior,” which can be applied to numerous career paths.

2) Career paths are unpredictable and we should be open to this notion and the unexpected career opportunities that may come our way. Dr. Lewis pointed out that when we see successful researchers’ CVs we might think that “every single step was well-planned out and strategized,” but this is often not the case. Dr. Lewis’s initial research interests examined the relationship between early adversity and disease progression in HIV-infected African-American women. But because her true passion was in African-American women’s health, rather than HIV, she chose a postdoc that would allow her to explore those interests from another angle. At Rush University Medical School in Chicago, IL, she worked with a group of psychologists who had additional training in epidemiology (e.g., psychosocial epidemiology). This gave her exposure to the field of epidemiology and epidemiologic methods and because the group at Rush primarily focused on cardiovascular outcomes, she gained additional exposure to the field of cardiovascular health by attending seminars and obtaining field-specific training. Overall, Dr. Lewis’s postdoctoral training helped cement her career trajectory in a department of epidemiology. Her current research straddles the fields of psychology and epidemiology, focusing on how psychosocial factors contribute to black and white disparities in cardiovascular health at the population level, rather than the individual level that is more common in the field of psychology.

Dr. Frosch was also on board with the notion that career “paths are unpredictable” and that “tenure-track positions are rare.” Additionally, he noted that one key barrier within psychology is that “there is not a clear understanding about how to get in the world of other careers, such as academic medicine,” and that these careers “are not very well advertised.” Even though he had 20 published papers and obtained several grants as a principal investigator, as a doctoral candidate on the job market he was unable to obtain an interview for a tenure-track position in a psychology department due to lack of interest in his applied decision-making work. Looking back, he felt fortunate that he had also applied for a fellowship at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health and Society Scholar Program and became a member of the first cohort of scholars in 2003. During his fellowship he learned how to navigate the academic medicine job market, and when he decided to apply again for tenure-track positions at psychology departments, he also applied to academic medicine departments. Psychology departments again showed no interest in his research; however, he received five job offers in academic medicine and public health. He decided to join the UCLA Department of Medicine in 2005 because it was a good match for his applied research interests. After relocating for personal reasons, he worked at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation Research Institute. There he was able to continue his applied research until he was recruited to his current position at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to help build a new national program focused on improving the experience and outcomes of patient care. Through this experience he realized that his interests in shared decision-making research that would be applied to real-life situations may not fit well within a traditional psychology department. Frosch feels that the research conducted in psychology department settings rarely goes beyond the published manuscript to actually be implemented in the real world. For these reasons he found that non-academic psychology department settings were bettter aligned with his career goals to engage in more applied psychological research.


Editor’s note: For more real-life stories and information about non-traditional career paths in psychology, see the following articles:

APA Monitor (February 2001): The career path less traveled.

Association for Psychological Science Observer (April 2003): Psychologists in non-traditional academic departments: Crossing disciplines, languages, and borders.