Early Career Professionals Corner: Defining Your Strengths and Areas for Growth as an ECP

Stephanie Hooker, PhD, MPH
Stephanie Hooker, PhD, MPH

By Stephanie Hooker, PhD, MPH

As a psychology trainee, I was always working toward the next step. Whether it be finishing my thesis, studying for comprehensive exams, applying to internship, or writing my dissertation, the direction of my career was clearly laid out for me. As soon as I received my PhD, that path became much less clear. Suddenly, I did not have anyone telling me what I had to do next in order to reach my career goals.

Interest in facilitating progression along the pipeline from doctoral education to first employment has grown. Recently, Kaslow and colleagues (Kaslow, Bangasser, Grus, McCutcheon, & Fowler, 2018) identified barriers to trainees progressing along this pipeline and made recommendations for how to ensure smooth transitions. Two main action steps can be done by trainees: engaging in self-reflection and creating an individual development plan.


One of the physicians with whom I work asks all children and teenagers one simple question in every visit: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” She writes this information in their charts and follows-up on this next time she sees them. I admit, I was a little taken aback when she asked me this question in our first meeting together. In my head, I thought, “What do you mean? I’m an adult, and I have a PhD in psychology… of course I want to be a psychologist!” Reflecting back on this meeting, I now know that really what she was asking is, “What do you want to do in your career, and how can we help you get there?”

The answer to this question requires significant self-reflection. What are the activities in my work that bring me joy, or more importantly, help me create a sense of meaning or purpose? What types of jobs could I see myself doing for some time? The great thing about choosing a career in psychology is that we are trained to do so many different jobs. We can see individual patients or groups, conduct research, teach psychology students or other health professionals, mentor or supervise trainees, create and evaluate programs, develop public policy, or work in administrative and supervisory roles. Moreover, the settings can vary from individual private practice to universities to hospitals to government and beyond. With the plethora of opportunities, finding one’s niche can be challenging. Although the road we take to our ultimate positions may be winding, having an idea of what we think we want to do can help us identify skills and competencies that are needed of someone in that job.

There are several ways to identify what skills and competencies we might need in the future. One way is to gather job listings of positions that sound like they may be interesting. Look at the required and desired qualifications of someone who would be a good fit for that job. Another way is to reach out to psychologists who have the job you might want; ask them what type of person would be a good fit for their job, or what they see as skills or strengths of someone who could excel in that position. If possible, consider shadowing them for a day to get an idea of what the job is like. Ask if they know other psychologists with jobs that may be of interest and connect with those psychologists to create a network. Creating a list of skills needed for jobs of interest can help one identify strengths, what skills one already possesses, and areas for growth.

Identifying one’s strengths and areas for growth can be a challenging process. Self-reflection again is key. What do I think I do well, or what has come easily to me? What do I find challenging? Asking oneself these questions is a good place to start. Sometimes it is helpful to break down skills into different content areas, such as research, clinical practice, teaching, mentoring/supervising, program development, administration, interpersonal skills, and writing or scholarly work. The next step may include reviewing formal evaluations you have received in the past; this could be yearly evaluations from your doctoral program or quarterly evaluations from research or clinical supervisors. Luckily, in graduate school, there are often several built-in mechanisms to receive feedback. Identify themes of strengths and areas for growth from these formal evaluations. Finally, and perhaps most uncomfortably, solicit feedback from supervisors, mentors, and colleagues. What are things they think you do well? What are areas they would like to see improvement or change?

Individual Development Plans

Individual Development Plans (IDPs) are structured plans to take the information gathered in the self-reflection process (strengths and areas for growth matched with interests and career goals) and formalize a plan for reaching career goals. Recently, APA has created a site for those interested in conducting IDPs.

After identifying strengths and desired careers, comparing and contrasting your skills with what is needed to be successful is essential. These areas for growth become the backbone of the IDP. At this stage, set goals to grow in those areas. Perhaps you can attend a workshop or training, identify a mentor, or take on a project that challenges the skills needed to be successful. Be specific about what you can do to work on each skill and when you would like to achieve that goal. Use all the resources available to you. For example, APA members may take advantage of PsycIQ, the new personal career and development online hub.

Finally, implement the plan with specific timelines and periodic reviews of your goals and progress. Engage a mentor or colleague to keep you accountable to those goals. It is also reasonable to expect that those goals may change over time. Revise the plan as necessary in order to reach your goals.

Being in the early career stage is an exciting time. This stage offers greater autonomy, which can lead one down exciting paths, but can also make the choices of what to do and where to go feel overwhelming. Formally engaging in a process of self-reflection and goal-setting, perhaps with an IDP, can make the transition from doctoral education to employment much smoother.



Kaslow, N. J., Bangasser, D. A., Grus, C. L., McCutcheon, S. R., & Fowler, G. A. (2018). Facilitating pipeline progress from doctoral degree to first job. American Psychologist, 73, 47-62. doi: 10.1037/amp0000120