On the Search for Meaning
Reflections on My Early Career Turning Point
Clinical Impact Statement: This articles provides information on professional development issues relevant to early career psychologists and those who train and support them.
This year’s Bulletin theme focuses on the notion of turning points in psychotherapy training, research, and practice. Turning points can be considered an alteration in direction or course, a response to a need for advancement or change. Such turning points are not only present and significant in the field at large, but also exist within our own professional journeys. These turning points can range from small changes to significant milestones and can occur throughout the professional career. Having recently experienced my own professional turning point, I thought I would take this opportunity to reflect and share on my experience.
My own recent turning point was a response to the professional development challenges I was experiencing over the last year. Having completed graduate school several years ago at this point (although sometimes it feels like just yesterday), I find myself approaching the middle stage of the early career lifespan. My first few years as an early career psychologist (ECP) were largely defined by settling into my role as a staff psychologist at a university counseling center and having more time to devote to my personal life. So used to the graduate school experience of having hurdle after hurdle to complete, it felt like the pace was finally slowing down. I was coasting and very much enjoying it.
Fast forward to this past year: I started to notice that this sense of coasting had turned into a void. At first, it was barely noticeable; I thought perhaps it was due to increased demands and stress at work, but even when the stress subsided, the void was still there and grew over time in size and shape. I found myself having less energy and enthusiasm. Knowing that I had worked so hard and for so long to reach this point of my career, it was difficult for me to initially accept these feelings. Sharing my experience with colleagues and in my own personal psychotherapy helped me to understand that this void represented feelings of both boredom and stagnation in my clinical work. Though I wear many hats in any given day as a university counseling psychologist (supervisor, therapist, case manager, administrator), working at a site that primarily practices short-term psychology, I felt frustrated by the limitations in what I could and could not achieve within a short-term model. I also felt restricted at times by the age and limited life experiences of the clients with whom I was working. Additionally, I noticed myself feeling clinically “stunted”: Although I was using the tools I had learned and trying to be as helpful as I could be for clients, at times it felt like I was reaching the limit of my professional skills thus far. I felt aware of how much more there was for me to learn and of a desire to advance my clinical skills. What surprised me most was not so much the idea that I was feeling this void, but rather that I was feeling it so early in my career. Wasn’t this something more common among mid-career psychologists? Apparently not.
Research suggests that my experience as an ECP may not have been as unique as I had imagined. ECPs report lower job satisfaction and greater intent to leave their current job position than more seasoned psychologists (Dorociak, Rupert, & Zahniser, 2017). Additionally, ECPs report more professional stress, including greater emotional exhaustion and less personal accomplishment, than more seasoned colleagues (Dorociak et al., 2017). The same research indicates that in contrast to late- and mid-career psychologists, ECPs also report relying less on professional self-care practices such as professional support, engaging in professional development, work-life balance, cognitive awareness, and daily balance. Thus, not only are ECPs more at risk for symptoms of burnout, but we are also less likely to be engaging in the practices that can help us reduce our risk (Dorociak et al., 2017).
In my own experience, I believe I was missing a greater sense of meaningfulness in my professional work. While for me this desire for meaning-making was predominately reflected in my clinical work, this is not the case for everyone. For example, some ECPs may feel a void in not being able to participate in training or supervisory roles. Those who work predominately in clinical work may desire to return to opportunities for research or teaching and vice versa. Others may experience a desire to give back, to the profession or to the community at large. Such experiences, like my own, can provide exciting opportunities for turning points, if one is willing to seek them out.
Below are just a few of the many professional development opportunities ECPs may consider when facing their own sense of a professional void:
Many ECPs, especially once licensed, no longer have access to ongoing supervision or consultation compared to their time in graduate school. While some work environments may offer formal or informal peer consultation groups, for many ECPs the experience of increased isolation can be a significant shift (Green & Hawley, 2009). No longer still in training but not yet a seasoned professional, I also find that as an ECP it can sometimes feel intimidating or even anxiety-provoking to seek consultation. I have wondered, “Is this something I am already supposed to know?” Opportunities for consultation can include joining a pre-established peer consultation group at your work or in your community, seeking out a psychologist who offers paid consultation hours, or more informal consultations with colleagues. Several colleagues of mine have started an online peer consultation group with former classmates now located across the country. If appropriate, you can also consider taking the lead in advocating for the establishment of peer consultation at your place of employment or establishing one in your community.
Develop Mentoring Opportunities
Consider seeking out formal or informal mentoring opportunities. Mentors can provide guidance and support for ECPs on such topics as career decisions, networking, student debt and finance issues, balance and self-care, and leadership (Green & Hawley, 2009). Other ECPs may not be searching for a mentor, but looking for ways to become one. Recently I met with a friend who has transitioned into private practice, and she shared that she missed being involved in training, which had been a significant part of her previous job. As a result, she volunteered to become a mentor to a graduate student through a mentoring program organized by her local state psychological association. For ECPs who may not have opportunities in their places of employment for involvement in training or advising, consider serving as a mentor to those just starting their professional journeys, including undergraduate and graduate students.
Pursue Advanced Training
The early career phase of one’s professional development can be a great time to begin thinking about advanced training or working towards developing a particular clinical niche. For those who work for institutions or organizations, consider inquiring if your place of employment offers funding to support such professional development opportunities. For those not ready to commit to advanced training in a particular area, consider seeking out CE opportunities in areas of potential interest to help you decide.
Expand Your Role(s)
One of the aspects of being a psychologist that I was most drawn to is the notion that psychologists can wear many hats and are not limited to just one type of work. Consider exploring additional roles that may be available to you as a mental health professional. This can be anything from starting a private practice to teaching a course, providing supervision, increasing your engagement in research, or becoming more involved in professional organizations—the list is endless. It also does not have to be a significant commitment, and instead can involve a series of one-time opportunities such as offering a seminar to a local community group or graduate training program.
Set Goals for Yourself
My first day of employment my boss asked me, “So, what is your five-year plan?” I realized at that moment that I had given so much thought and energy to getting to the point of having this job that I had not seriously thought much beyond it. Establishing short- and long-term professional goals for yourself, drafting a plan for the next five, 10, even 15 years, may sound daunting at first. However, this can not only provide you with an opportunity to reflect on your professional values, needs, and aspirations, but also help you get started in determining a path to get there.
My own turning point came in the form of three main changes I made in my professional life. The first was taking the leap and establishing a part-time private practice. Always a dream of mine, this provided me with increased autonomy, greater clinical diversity, an opportunity to return to longer-term psychotherapy, and allowed me to engage in new professional activities such as marketing and finance. Secondly, I contacted a former supervisor and sought out regular consultation to help me expand my clinical repertoire and gain additional support regarding my professional development issues. And finally, I chose to become more engaged in professional organizations, including Division 29. More than I even anticipated, it has been a great experience connecting with other professionals, has afforded me many opportunities for informal mentoring, and has felt extremely rewarding in being able to give back to the profession.
It feels important to clarify that none of these changes happened overnight. Nor am I suggesting one needs to engage in all of the items on the list above in order to address professional development challenges. Turning points can come in all shapes and sizes. More than ever before I am aware that my own recent turning point is likely one of several I will encounter during the course of my career. I have become more open to seeing the early career phase as a time of great exploration, openness, and flexibility as I continue to mold my ever-changing professional identity.
Cite This Article
Carter, L. A. (2018). On the search for meaning: Reflections on my early career turning point. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 53(1), 12-15.
Dorociak, K. E., Rupert, P. A., & Zahniser, E. (2017). Work life, well-being, and self-care across the professional lifespan of psychologists. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 48(6), 429-437. http://dx/doi.org/10,1037/pro0000160
Green, A. G., & Hawley, G. C. (2009). Early career psychologists: Understanding, engaging, and mentoring tomorrow’s leaders. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 40(2), 206-212. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0012504