Clinical Impact Statement: Although psychologists can engage in a myriad of work activities (e.g., teaching, research, leadership), most of the existing self-care literature focuses specifically on strategies for psychotherapists. In this article I discuss six self-care strategies that I personally have found helpful in obtaining an appropriate work-life balance as a psychotherapy researcher.
In the research world, we often hear the mantra publish or perish. It serves as a reminder that careers and advancements depend on research productivity and contributions to the field. However, right around the time I accepted my first academic position, I stumbled upon a book cover that caught my eye. It was a series of short fictional stories titled Publish and Perish (Hynes, 1998). Based on the title alone, I knew I needed to purchase this book and give it a prominent spot on my office bookshelf. It would serve as a frequent reminder to me that even though my career might depend on my research productivity, my happiness and well-being would depend on my ability to develop an appropriate work-life balance. Although much has been written about self-care, burnout, and work-life balance for psychotherapists (Barnett, 2014; Norcross & VandenBos, 2018), less has been discussed about these topics for researchers. In this article I will share six strategies that have helped me practice self-care as a psychotherapy researcher thus far in my career.
Strategies for Practicing Self-care
First, when considering potential jobs, I have always focused on balance rather than prestige. I initially faced this issue when applying to various internship sites. I had interviewed at a well-known site and liked everything I saw while I was there; however, as I met with the current interns, they looked exhausted. They shared that they often worked 70 to 80 hours per week. In contrast, interns at other sites I interviewed at, including the one with which I was fortunate enough to match, reported that they only worked 40 to 50 hours per week and they were genuinely happy to be there. For me, the choice was easy. Even though the prestigious site may have offered a name and reputation, it wasn’t worth the sacrifice I would have to make. I continued with these same attitudes as I searched for my first faculty position. I directly asked about productivity expectations for tenure and only considered schools where I felt I could confidently meet the standards. Another example of this came when I was looking to leave my first academic position to move to a location closer to family. I had only applied to a select number of schools and after interviewing, I had received two job offers. One was a traditional nine-month position in a department with a clinical PhD program at a state university. They informed me that although they would give me years in rank, I would have to be hired at the Assistant Professor level, even though I had already received promotion and tenure at my current university. The second was in a PsyD program at a medical school. They offered me nearly twice the salary as the other offer I had. In addition, they informed me that I would be hired at the Associate Professor level. However, they wanted me to work a 12-month contract and to be in the office from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Although the extra money and title were tempting, I knew that they were not worth losing the flexibility and free summers I had with my family.
Second, I strive to only conduct research that I am passionate about. As an undergraduate student and early graduate student, I remember hearing many different words of advice about choosing a research area of interest. Some of these included “research a topic that will be easily funded” and “research something that kills people.” Yet, I stuck with an area that I truly cared about—psychotherapy research. Over the years I have been approached by students and colleagues who have asked me to collaborate with them on projects that are only distantly related to psychotherapy. Although these collaborations could have been fruitful, I recognized that they would lead to me doing research activities just to be productive, rather than research that I am really invested in.
Third, I try to find meaning and purpose from multiple diverse work activities. As much as I love conducting psychotherapy research, I recognize that I cannot put all of my eggs in that basket. In my current academic position, I also get to spend time in the classroom with graduate and undergraduate students, I get to supervise students in clinical work, I visit high school classes and deliver lectures on anxiety and mental health, and I serve on various department and university committees and in leadership roles in professional organizations. At first I viewed some of these activities simply as things that took away from my research efforts. However, over the years I have worked hard to find meaning and joy in all aspects of my career. As a researcher, I have faced many difficult moments, including rejected manuscripts with demeaning comments from reviewers, rejected grant proposals that took months to prepare, and studies that just do not go the way I had planned. In these difficult moments, I can turn to my success in other areas to help me regroup and get ready for the next research task that is in front of me.
Fourth, I remember that my time away from home is valuable. Even though my work as a psychotherapy researcher is important and meaningful to me, it pales in comparison to the time that I spend with my wife and children. Remembering this fact helps me avoid distractions while at work and only take on tasks that are going to result in the most efficient use of my time.
Fifth, I incorporate self-care activities into my daily and weekly routine. Because I always want to use my time productively, it is sometimes hard for me to drop everything and engage in a self-care activity. However, I have found a few things that help me with this. First, I set up my environment in a way that forces me to engage in self-care. For example, I don’t have a car (my wife does, though) and refuse to buy a parking pass to campus; that way I have to ride my bike to work each day. Rain, snow, or shine, I do it without excuse. Also, I purposely do not own a watch or cell phone, in order to help me to stay in the moment with whatever activity I am doing. Second, I put self-care activities into my schedule and treat them as immovable (similar to a class I might be scheduled to teach). Some of these include a family service activity on Wednesday afternoons and swimming with my children on Friday afternoons.
Sixth, I try to find opportunities to combine business and pleasure. I use this strategy in particular when I travel to present my research at conferences. For example, whenever the APA convention is in Washington, DC, I bring one of my children along and together we fit in visits to the Capitol building, the White House, and the various Smithsonian museums. My wife and I have also used conferences as excuses to vacation internationally together. In recent years I have wanted to establish research collaborations in China and Taiwan. So, last summer, we stayed as a family in Taiwan for two months and toured the island as I made presentations at different universities.
In short, I love being a psychotherapy researcher. I still get excited about the work that I get to do every day. Thus far, I believe that the six self-care strategies that I have discussed in this article have helped me avoid the publish or perish and the publish and perish mindsets. And I look forward to the long research career that is still ahead of me.
Cite This Article
Swift, J. K. (2019). Self-care strategies for a psychotherapy researcher. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 54(3), 11-13.
Barnett, J. (2014, December). Distress, burnout, self-care, and the promotion of wellness for psychotherapists and trainees: Issues, implications, and recommendations. [Web article]. Retrieved from https://societyforpsychotherapy.org/distress-therapist-burnout-self-care-promotion-wellness-psychotherapists-trainees-issues-implications-recommendations/
Hynes, J. (1998). Publish and perish: Three tales of tenure and terror. New York, NY: Picador.
Norcross, J. C., & VandenBos, G. R. (2018). Leaving it at the office: A guide to psychotherapist self-care (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.