Jonathan Muther , PhD
Vice President of Medical Services, Licensed Psychologist, Salud Family Health Centers
Senior Clinical Instructor, University of Colorado, Department of Family Medicine
As an Early Career Psychologist (ECP), supervising practicum students, interns, and postdocs has provided me the opportunity to reflect on the differences between the expectations I had prior to graduation and the realities of post-graduation life. How do you face the anxieties of completing a postdoc while being unsure of the steps for finding a job that will make you happy and, hopefully, make a salary that allows you to pay off student loans? How can you find a role that matches the value you have to offer, that balances work satisfaction, life satisfaction, and some financial comfort? Now, nearing the end of my time as an ECP, these recommendations are based on both what I wish I had been told, and what I am glad mentors and colleagues passed along to me.
Don’t sell yourself short
A training experience in health psychology, and particularly in Integrated Primary Care, is rare. The skills one possesses following such experiences are highly sought after, making you – even as an ECP – far more competitive than you think. The world of healthcare is changing dramatically and at a fast pace. ECPs can play a strong role in determining what our health service system can, and should look like.
I often hear from trainees that they think they need more experience, especially clinical experience, in order to obtain a leadership role. This perspective only limits one’s potential. Beyond clinical experience, seek opportunities in evaluation of healthcare systems, population management, alternative payment methods to make the business case for psychology in healthcare settings. As a psychologist, you are already trained in analysis of systems, i.e., incorporating data from multiple sources to create a meaningful output. While this takes place with the individuals you care for, it can also be applied to a broader context of healthcare transformation.
Seek opportunities with program development and evaluation
You do not have to be the Manager or Associate Director of the [X, Y, or Z] program for the rest of your life, but doing it for a couple of years will set you up for your next role. Training and the provision of supervision is likely a great opportunity for program development for ECPs. This is especially the case for those that received specific coursework in the provision of supervision, which was often not the case for our predecessors.
Advocate for Psychology
It might seem that as an ECP you have a limited voice, or that you need more time and experience in order to have a say in the direction of the field. I would caution that such reticence not only limits your options as an individual, but perpetuates continued undervaluing of our field within the healthcare system. Seek parity with other doctoral level professionals (i.e., physicians) and take advantage of every opportunity to advocate for the field of psychology. This happens at the clinic-level every day, by demonstrating to patients and our medical counterparts that psychologists can impact all types of health outcomes, not just mental health outcomes.
Advocacy can also happen on an administrative-level (e.g., making the case to the CEO for more behavioral health clinicians) and systems-level (e.g., making the case to the state Medicaid agency that paying for a behavioral health clinician in primary care can save the system money). Not only is an ECP qualified to make such strides in promoting our work, the future of our field hinges on ECPs capacity to set forth a direction that benefits us, the colleagues with whom we collaborate, and most importantly, those that we care for every day.
Finally, it is important to network and seek mentorship and guidance from more senior leaders in the field. I have benefitted greatly from the guidance and support of others, many of whom inspired the comments I have shared. As an ECP, remember to express gratitude to those who have helped you and seek opportunities to push the next generation forward.