I have always appreciated having a plan. Much to the chagrin of my partner, I am known to wake up in the morning and immediately start talking about what the plans are for the day ahead or what we would like to make for dinner that night. In my defense, I come from a long line of planners. For example, I recall the daily morning ritual of my mother writing out her to-do lists. It was common for her to start prepping our Halloween costumes in August, and begin her Christmas shopping and baking in September. As a child, I experienced this as always having something to look forward to, always knowing what was coming next, and always having something new to work toward.
As one can imagine, this appreciation for planning and predictability suited me well throughout my educational career. As a student, there was always the next exam, the next grade level, and the next degree to work toward as I navigated the various challenges of my education; the path was clear. This was especially true in graduate school. From obtaining practicum placements and hours, to preparing for comprehensive exams, negotiating the steps of the dissertation process, and applying for doctoral internships, it was clear what the next step was, even if it felt daunting at times. The evaluative nature of being a graduate student also provided me with ongoing updates about my progress; I regularly received feedback about whether I was on the right track and if I needed to make any midcourse adjustments. In my role as a student, there was familiarity and comfort in knowing where I was going and how I was doing, by having the path ahead of me clearly outlined by the expectations and obligations of my graduate program and professional field, and from the regular input received at each step along the way.
Like many graduate students, however, I began noticing that over time the seemingly never-ending task of working toward becoming a psychologist started to take its toll. At times it was hard to even imagine ever being anything but a graduate student. I was often asked by family members and friends, particularly after milestones such as passing my comprehensive exams or defending my dissertation, “So, does this mean you are done yet?” Even after obtaining my degree, there was still a post-doctoral fellowship, preparing for the EPPP, completing the state jurisprudence exam, and, oh yes, finding a job. As I neared the end of my graduate school career, I became excited for what I naively imagined to be extra time and freedom to pursue professional goals on my own terms. Like the big fish in the little pond, I felt ready to go off on my own and begin the next stage of my life.
Almost instantly upon becoming an early career psychologist (ECP), like the good student I had been all of those years, I hit the ground running. I had envisioned my ECP identity as one in which I could have, and do, it all in both my professional and personal life—a real-life Superwoman, PsyD! In addition to obtaining a full-time job with a two-hour daily commute, I started to make plans for how I would build a part-time private practice on the side, further develop my professional niche, look for teaching opportunities, and find a way to pay off my student loans. I was also excited to have more time and attention to devote to my personal life, no longer having graduate school work or licensure preparation taking up my weekends and evening time. Did I mention that all this was less than six months after becoming licensed? Suddenly, I found myself voraciously saying “yes” to most commitments and professional opportunities that came my way. While I had prided myself on my ability to balance and maintain decent self-care in graduate school, self-care was quickly tossed aside and I struggled with saying “no” now as an ECP.
In graduate school, we spend our time working toward the finish line of becoming a psychologist, a feat that occasionally seems impossible. And when the finish line is finally crossed, it seems understandable that some ECPs, including myself, are left wondering, “So… now what?” Like a two-act play, I had broken down my life into two parts: Act One—the graduate school phase, and Act Two—everything else that would come after. My post-graduate school professional identity became filled with all of the goals and dreams I created and held on to while I pushed through the countless obstacles and challenges. Navigating one’s professional and personal identity as an ECP is a common challenge (Green & Hawley, 2009). Left to my own devices, without the structure and direction of graduate school, I had created an ECP identity for myself in which I envisioned accomplishing all of my professional plans at the very start of my career. Needless to say, I quickly realized I had not only taken on more than I could reasonably handle, but I was rapidly on my way to developing some serious professional burnout.
In my work with college students, I often find myself encouraging them, particularly incoming freshman, to practice patience and self-compassion towards the challenge of adjusting to a new environment and phase of life. I now see how I neglected to consider that for myself, as I transitioned from graduate student to ECP. One of the many benefits of our field is the opportunity to take on a variety of different roles and positions. What I have come to learn, however, is that I do not need to try out or pursue all of these roles and positions right now—and some of these may never be a good fit for me. My professional career is a lifelong journey that requires, in addition to planning, patience, flexibility, and openness to embracing that which is unexpected and unplanned. This was a hard lesson for someone like me who, thus far, had thrived on being a planner. What has allowed me to let go of the strict plans I set for myself, at this stage of my career, was rewriting my definition of my ECP identity to better reflect my values, self-care, and the reality of the graduate-student-to-ECP transition.
As we leave behind our graduate school identities and enter into the next (but not final!) Act as ECPs, we are left to our own devices to write our own scripts, define our own standards of success, and review our own progress. It is up to us to decide what our next steps are, and we will hopefully free ourselves of the pressure to do it all or accomplish everything within a certain period of time. As I begin to loosen the reigns and allow this journey to unfold ahead of me, I have also come to see how openness to new and unexpected possibilities can allow for other opportunities to present themselves that I may never have considered before. Embracing the unpredictable parts of this journey can help to better prepare us for the ever-evolving nature of our field, and allow us to make the most of what this great career path has to offer. This can be liberating or overwhelming—or, for some (like me, for example), perhaps a little of both. Regardless of how each of us entering this new phase of our professional lives envisions our ECP identity, it is important to recognize this as one of many Acts of a career-long story. At this point, I may not know the exact plan for how my story will unfold, and this is something I am beginning to embrace.