20 Jun 2017

Psychology Offers Many Options When It’s Time to Take a Different Direction

Psychology Offers Many Options When It’s Time to Take a Different Direction
Patricia Arredondo, EdD, had been working as an assistant professor for three years at Boston University when she realized she had to re-route her career plans. Even though she had a strong track record of publications and was leading a three-year federally funded grant, a professor told her she was not going to get tenure.

The news rattled her confidence, but also fueled her motivation to seek out alternatives. So, she attended career planning workshops and evaluated her interests and skills. At a guided meditation at one of the workshops, Arredondo imagined what she wanted to be doing in 10 years, and envisioned a job that would allow more creativity and interaction with the public.

That reflection led her to launch Empowerment Workshops Inc., a consulting business focused on helping companies create and implement a diversity strategy in the workplace, often working to increase the presence of women and ethnic minorities. "Each time it was like working with a new client in therapy because every organization had a different narrative to tell, and the variety gave me an opportunity to be creative and adaptable," she says.

Arredondo later returned to academia when she was ready for another transition, and eventually moved into administrative roles at several universities. Her latest position was president of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, Chicago campus.

Arredondo's story is just one example of a psychologist who for one reason or another decided to make a career change.

"We all experience some type of work transition whether we choose it or not," says Patrick Rottinghaus, PhD, an associate professor of counseling psychology at the University of Missouri in Columbia. "The occupational landscape is different now than in the past. Most people shift careers multiple times."

Some are forced to make changes involuntarily when there are layoffs, an organization closes or senior workers are asked to retire, says Nadya Fouad, PhD, chair of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. Some make subtle changes by, for example, moving from one practice specialty area to another. Others retire and take on psychology-related volunteer work. Others voluntarily opt to revamp their careers when they start feeling restless or want to gain new expertise.

"Most people who choose to make a change voluntarily have been thinking about it for a long time," says Sue Motulsky, EdD, associate professor of counseling and psychology at Lesley University in Massachusetts. "They may start noticing signs of burnout, such as loss of interest in what they're doing, mistakes and lack of judgment or increased impatience."

Whatever the reasons may be for contemplating a new direction, the prospect of making a career shift can be daunting. Here's some advice from experts in vocational psychology and psychologists who have successfully navigated a transition.

See a career counselor

The process of career transition is not easy, and it is especially difficult to do in isolation, says Motulsky, who maintains a private practice in career counseling in addition to her work as a professor. "This is almost impossible to do by yourself, and a counselor will help you start the journey of exploring your options."

A counselor can provide self-assessment inventories that will tease out vocational interests, skills, values and life roles, which all come into play when making a career change, explains Rottinghaus. Motulsky also encourages psychologists to consider seeing a career counselor who has a doctorate because he or she will understand what is involved in earning this degree and how that investment of time and money can influence career decisions.

Listening to your frustration can be good

Sherry Benton, PhDSherry Benton, PhD, felt overwhelmed by the demands of directing a university counseling center, but her frustration took her in a different direction.

"I really liked doing therapy and working with students, but I found it intolerable that we didn't have the capacity to treat everyone who needed help," says Benton, who directed the Counseling & Wellness Center at the University of Florida. "If we made students wait a month for an appointment, that could have a significant impact on their well-being."

She searched for models to increase access and capacity, and discovered a tool in Australia that used brief phone contact with a therapist and online educational modules to teach cognitive behavioral strategies. She created her own version of the program, which included interactive online education and a dashboard that enabled therapists to track a patient's progress. For example, therapists could see details of patient entries in the interactive exercises and how patients were rating their behavioral health at different points in time. She tried the new model at the wellness center, and it was so successful that she started a business to market the product.

Benton hired four employees, and TAO (Therapist Assisted Online) officially launched in July 2015. TAO offers online tools for client education, interaction, accountability and progress assessment. For example, the modules include animation and real actors portraying situations that clients can relate to as well as interactive exercises.

"It's really scary and completely worth it," Benton says. "It's satisfying to pursue your dream and make it happen, but it's not easy. I would describe it as a mix of elation and terror."

Be honest with yourself

Robert Youmans, PhD and familyRobert Youmans, PhD, started his career as an assistant professor specializing in applied cognition, but he slowly discovered that the world of academia what not what he had envisioned. Although he enjoyed teaching—first at California State University, Northridge, then at George Mason University in Virginia—it was difficult to find funding in his area of interest, design thinking and processes.

Living on a faculty salary was also trying, and he started consulting on the side to supplement his income. He founded Human Factors Design Consulting and worked with companies that needed his expertise in user experience research. The work was lucrative, and he enjoyed building new products. "It was an odd experience," he says. "On one hand, I had more work offers coming in from companies than I had time to accept, but at the same time I had trouble getting funding to study those areas within academia."

He made numerous contacts through his business, and they would often suggest that he apply for full-time positions at their companies, but he wasn't ready to leave academia. Finally, in 2013 he was open to a career change. He and his wife were expecting their first child, which elevated his sense of financial responsibility. In 2014, he accepted a position as a user-experience researcher in a product area called Streams, Photos and Sharing at Google.

"When I was younger I had these romantic notions of what it meant to be a professor, but the day-to-day of being a professor wasn't always what I had hoped it would be," Youmans says. He knew he would miss teaching, and was nervous about leaving his colleagues and job security, but he hasn't looked back. "Now I'm doing interesting and rigorous science research—and I earn many times what I earned in academia," he says.

Be open to change

Andrew Adler, EdD, had worked as a school psychologist in Nashville, Tennessee, for 28 years when he started considering retirement. He was surprised when a recruiter called to see if he was interested in a job as a mental health clinical director contracted to the Tennessee Department of Correction. He had experience working with students whose parents were incarcerated, and had previously consulted as a psychologist in the Tennessee prison system. So, recognizing he had the right background, he accepted the job in 2012.

"School psychology set me up well for working in a prison," Adler says. "Prisons, like schools, serve all of society and have people with a range of social problems and diagnoses. Inmates are ripe for remedial and rehabilitative support."

Like Adler, Joyce Jadwin, PsyD, started working in the prison system a few years ago. Unlike him, it was her first full-time job as a psychologist. She managed a program for female sex offenders in Ohio, but after a year in the role she realized the work was not a match with her interests.

"I wanted to use skills beyond being an individual provider," says Jadwin, who had worked as a college administrator before she earned her doctorate in psychology. "I was used to making independent decisions and influencing policy and procedure."

Jadwin applied for a role as assistant director of faculty development in the medical school at Ohio University, and got the job. "My psychology training allows me to bring a clinical perspective to my role, which gives me credibility with physicians because I understand what they are going through in the medical world."

Start now

Although it's natural to implement many of these strategies when a job transition is imminent, Rottinghaus urges psychologists to take time to nurture career development each year. He often uses Jane Goodman's "Dental Model," which advises people to conduct a career check-up annually, like a regular visit to the dentist. Taking time regularly to evaluate job satisfaction and reiterate long-term goals can reduce the chances of frustration later, he says.

"Strategically engage with mentors over time, even when times are good," Rottinghaus says. "Once you get out into the workforce, nurture those mentoring relationships so you can articulate your professional objectives. Mentors are there to provide support, and they may have connections if you need to transition into another role or setting."

Without such strategies and an overall plan to guide them, people are at risk of letting others define their career trajectories and reacting to events rather than defining their own future, he says. In fact, most people who make a career transition wish they had done it sooner, says Motulsky.

"If you let yourself explore different options that you are drawn to, you may discover something that will make life more satisfying and meaningful," she says. "I've seen many people go through the career process and find a job that makes them far happier, which is important because most people spend a lot of time at work."

Ready for a change?

  1. Talk to a career counselor to guide you through self-assessment.
  2. Listen to your frustrations since they can lead you to new paths.
  3. Do a gut check. Is this really what you want in your life?
  4. Don't wait. Most people who make a switch wish they had done it sooner.

By Heather Stringer


This article was originally published in the September 2016 Monitor on Psychology

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