Psychotherapy Bulletin

Psychotherapy Bulletin

Self-care Together

Strategies That Benefit Early Career Psychology Faculty and Psychology Doctoral Trainees

In the hectic pace of being an early career psychologist (ECP) and junior faculty member, it is often more possible to extol the virtues of self-care rather than to authentically engage in it. In many cases, this challenge may partially stem from limited education and insufficient opportunity to develop effective self-care habits during doctoral training. Perhaps it is reasonable to consider that generating and maintaining self-care practices as a doctoral student and ECP faculty member are two sides of the same coin. In this article, I briefly review literature concerning stressors and potential benefits of self-care for ECP faculty and doctoral students in psychology and highlight barriers that may decrease the likelihood of self-care practice among these groups. I offer concrete strategies to incorporate in academic programs that have potential to increase productivity and well-being of ECP faculty and trainees simultaneously.

Early Career Psychology Faculty

Across the professional developmental trajectory, ECPs report more emotional exhaustion, less satisfaction with their career, and less engagement with self-care than mid- or late-career psychologists (Dorociak, Rupert, & Zahniser, 2017). Although these data are reflective of professional psychologists, similar experiences are encountered by ECPs in academia, who must develop and teach new courses, establish and fund a program of research, and manage multiple service and administrative commitments (Good, Keeley, Leder, Afful, & Stiegler-Balfour, 2013). There is evidence that academic psychologists are more stressed earlier in their careers, and on the whole, experience greater stress and less personal fulfillment from their work compared to licensed practitioners (Boice & Myers, 1987; Radeke & Mahoney, 2000; Watkins, 1992), although these phenomena have been understudied among ECPs.

In a health services psychology doctoral program, an ECP faculty member may simultaneously be in the process of integrating newly acquired roles such as licensed psychologist, clinical supervisor, and/or clinical training director. ECP faculty are also likely to be juggling additional responsibilities and life transitions, such as repaying student loans, entering a committed relationship, starting a family, relocating, settling into a home, and assuming responsibility for elderly or ill family members. Indeed, research indicates that among the greatest challenges encountered by ECP faculty is achieving a “balance” between academic and home demands (Good et al., 2013). To borrow loosely from Daniel Stern’s concept of “motherhood constellation” (Stern, 1995), the transition from doctoral trainee to an ECP faculty member thus involves a vulnerable and heightened state of negotiation and re-organization of identities, during which self-care is unlikely to be a priority.

Although there is a sizeable literature—and even a division within the American Psychological Association—devoted to pedagogical practices within psychology, which are essential to supporting instructional skills and professional development, there is less emphasis on self-care and its potential utility in addressing academic burnout and stress (Weimer, 2010). Exploratory research with faculty in a social work program revealed that whereas faculty members across academic rank did engage in multiple forms of self-care, assistant professors tended to engage in fewer self-care practices than associate and full professors (Miller, Grise-Owens, & Shalash, 2018), citing tenure-related stress and financial reasons as potential barriers. Of the various forms of self-care measured (i.e., professional support; professional development; life support; cognitive awareness, and daily balance), “daily balance” (Dorociak, Rupert, Bryant, & Zahniser, 2017) was least endorsed by participants (Miller et al., 2018). This finding underscores the idea that integrating small – but potentially influential - self-care practices within the workday is perceived as challenging and reinforces the notion that self-care is something to be done outside of the professional setting. This is problematic considering that junior faculty report working nearly 10 hours/day (Good et al., 2013), leaving little room for self-care afterwards. The combination of adjusting to institutional expectations and barriers of consistently integrating self-care can contribute to poor mental health and burnout among ECP faculty (Fowler, 2015; Lackritz, 2004) and potentially compromise their road to career advancement.

Psychology Doctoral Students

Not surprisingly, there are parallels between the challenges that an ECP faculty member and a doctoral student in psychology encounter in their roles. Doctoral students in health services psychology are a particularly vulnerable group given the challenge of managing coursework, clinical training, and personal demands while providing supervised therapeutic services in the community. Further, the sheer length of a doctoral program in psychology (five to seven years) exposes students to enduring several episodic and chronic stressful life events during the course of their training (i.e., health and relationship problems, illness/death of close family members, financial distress), which can interfere with or delay timely progression. Underrepresented students in psychology doctoral programs may additionally encounter unique barriers such as being disproportionately burdened in culturally or linguistically specific clinical settings (Verdinelli & Biever, 2009) and are less likely to seek counseling services (Cheng, Kwan, & Sevig, 2013), further justifying the need for programmatic support.

Compared to the literature on ECP faculty and self-care, there is more research available on this topic among psychology doctoral students. Whereas self-care is thought to aid in doctoral student stress reduction (Myers et al., 2012), a meta-analysis of 17 studies examining self-care among graduate students in psychology suggests that self-care is especially valuable in enhancing one’s sense of satisfaction and self-compassion (Colman et al., 2016). These practices are considered to support trainees’ productivity and well-being and to potentially reduce likelihood of professional burnout and dropout from the field (Myers et al., 2012; Zahniser, Rupert, & Dorociak, 2017). Of note, the aspects of self-care related to professional support (e.g., cultivating collegial relationships) and cognitive awareness (e.g., monitoring one’s own reactions) have been especially important in students’ well-being and training outcomes (Zahniser et al., 2017). However, psychology doctoral students, like ECP faculty, also struggle with implementing regular self-care practices, due to time limitations, stigma, and lack of encouragement to engage in self-care (El-Ghoroury, Galper, Sawaqdeh, & Bufka, 2012).

In sum, there is evidence that ECP faculty and doctoral students in psychology experience concerning levels of stress and possess limited practical training and knowledge about how to successfully integrate self-care practices in their personal and professional lives. Understandably, traditional conceptions of self-care may be incongruent with the varied schedules of doctoral students and ECP faculty. Additionally, the financial burden that many graduate students (as well as ECPs) carry may prohibit or reduce the likelihood and frequency of engaging in favored self-care activities (e.g., massage; vacations; going to a gym; dining out; attending music, art, and other cultural events; and self-improvement activities). An interpretation of the existing literature on self-care efficacy among ECP faculty and doctoral trainees in psychology suggests that implementing self-care “daily balance” activities within the workday may help target specific stressors in the academic and clinical environment, be less costly than “traditional” self-care, and enhance overall satisfaction and productivity in one’s role.

Multiple studies recommend implementing a culture of self-care at the programmatic level to socialize and model the importance of self-care practices for doctoral students in health service psychology (e.g., Zahniser et al., 2017; Burkhart, 2014). Examples of self-care focused programs offered in health service psychology training include topical workshops on self-care, a peer mentoring program for new students (Dittman, 2005), mindfulness training (Chlebak, James, Westwood, Gockel, Zumbo, & Shapiro, 2013) and Integral Life Practice interventions (Burkhart, 2014). Integrating such practices within the program can relay a powerful message to students about the value of self-care; at the same time, these measures require a relatively substantial commitment from graduate students and faculty. Because a majority of the aforementioned self-care programmatic efforts are optional, they could be viewed as an additional burden and may unintentionally exclude students who are in most need of self-care and support. Programs lacking the infrastructure to implement these programs may aspire to these practices and begin with simpler, intermediate steps that address the idea of “daily balance” (Dorociak, Rupert, & Zahniser, 2017). There are positive implications for ECP faculty (and likely, all program faculty and staff) if there is a concerted effort to normalize the ethical necessity of self-care in health services psychology.

Self-care Strategies

I am currently an ECP faculty member in a tenure-track position within the Clinical Psychology PsyD Program at the University of San Francisco. I joined the program one year after its conception, and thus, in addition to the usual demands of junior faculty, my colleagues and I have been significantly involved with program development and the APA accreditation process. Needless to say, self-care has traditionally been less publicly emphasized within our program, although we are striving toward more systematic practices as we progress in our development. In the meantime, it has been helpful—both for myself and for students in our program—when we can make self-care more attainable in the classroom, within our respective research efforts, and in mentoring relationships.

I provide suggestions for self-care based on strategies that I have consistently incorporated across teaching (Table 1), research (Table 2), and mentoring (Table 3) domains. While not comprehensive, these strategies are intentionally simple, meant to be mutually beneficial for faculty and students in supporting both parties’ self-care, and can be adapted based on individual program curricula and requirements. The strategies suggested for the teaching domain are perhaps most easily embedded on a regular basis, whereas the strategies for research and mentoring may take more planning or initial investment.

As the landscape of mental health services and training continues to diversify, professional and academic psychologists must find ways to keep pace and sustain themselves through increasing demands and limited resources. Self-care is an essential component of teaching, research, administrative service, and clinical work, and should not be considered an elusive afterthought, but rather acknowledged for its restorative potential to promote and elevate the efficacy of trainees, faculty, and practitioners alike.

Table 1: Self Care Strategies in the Teaching Domain
Self-care Strategy Description and Rationale
In-class mindfulness moments These moments should be brief and can be self, faculty- and/or student-led at the beginning or end of class.  Gives explicit “permission” to breathe, re-center, and focus inward. Opportunity to ground oneself and increase engagement with material.
Stretching and moving Beyond class breaks, incorporate opportunities to stretch, stand, and move around the classroom. Music can also be incorporated during this time to aid in movement. Some of these exercises can be built into transitions between activities, and are especially helpful for graduate courses which tend to be 2-3 hours in length
Class pulse This is a time-limited opportunity (~5-10 minutes) that faculty can offer to students to “check in” about how their day or week is going, which can include personal and professional concerns. This activity can be particularly useful during stressful times in the academic year cycle and provide students and faculty opportunity to transparently share contextual factors that may interfere with course engagement.
In-class written reflections Aligned somewhat with the idea of a “flipped classroom,” students can be given time to reflect on course readings and topics in-class to help bring a more present focus to the discussion. This activity can occasionally or routinely replace “homework,” reducing demands on faculty and students outside of the classroom.
In-class snacks A brief discussion at the beginning of a course can help determine whether students and faculty want to involve food as part of the class setting (this is particularly helpful when classes occur during standard mealtimes); a rotating schedule can be set up to distribute the task, and students and faculty should be able to opt out. Nutritious snacks nourish the body and provide fuel for engagement
Outdoor class sessions When possible, take the class outside (could be done for more discussion-oriented courses); give advance notice to students and/or take a vote at the beginning of class so that students can be prepared and participate in the decision. In addition to providing fresh air and exposure to nature, this offers a different way for faculty and students to engage with one another.
Reduce the use of standard lecture slides for every class session One way to do this mindfully as a faculty member is to alternate weeks during which lecture slides are used one week and the class is more discussion-oriented or “flipped” the following week. This effort can lower the stress associated with lecture slide preparation and decreases information overload among students. Additionally, it allows for different learning styles and explicitly encourages discussion and active listening on certain weeks
Structured, yet flexible attendance policy Decide ahead of time the attendance “policy” (it may be instructor specific or program-wide); communicate clearly via syllabus and in-class, sharing the equal importance of student attendance in classes and other obligations (practicum, work). Encourage students to exercise professional communication skills to provide advance notice about class absences and clearly convey consequences. This strategy can increase class participation, help create a value for coursework among the students, and give faculty validation for the time they spend preparing the course. Additionally, it may result in fewer disputes between faculty and students regarding attendance.
Guest speakers Occasionally invite a guest speaker such as a community-based practitioner who can provides a refreshing, applied perspective for students. This can give faculty members a “breather” and/or someone to collaboratively teach with.

 

Table 2: Self-Care Strategies in the Research Domain
Self-care Strategy Description and Rationale
Writing challenges Many forums support ECPs to progress in their writing by joining an online “writing challenge,” which involves committing a specified amount of time to writing daily and participating in a forum to report one’s productivity. Faculty can encourage students to participate and create their own internal “writing challenges” to progress on their independent and shared research projects. This helps to alleviate stress for faculty and students by creating structure and accountability for the often amorphous task of writing.
Synchronous writing days/retreats On an agreed upon date/time block, faculty and students sit together (or participate virtually) for a writing retreat to work on their respective writing projects. If possible, procure funding from program for food and beverages. Within each hour of writing, build in a 10-15 required break to enhance productivity. This models the importance of setting aside dedicated time for writing, and also enables faculty and students to make steady progress on their writing.
Allowing for “on days” and “off days” Faculty can determine, based on other commitments, a reasonable and realistic period of time each week that can be devoted to research. Similar strategies can be offered to students during their dissertation process, with permission to designate certain days or weeks during which other tasks are prioritized (“off days”). This intentional effort reduces guilt and self-blame related to research progress, and may enhance productivity and motivation for students and faculty.
Research lab mini-celebrations Within the limitations of resources, these mini-celebrations help to acknowledge the efforts of faculty and students and recognize important milestones or moments in student and faculty lives. Can be built into already existing meeting time (i.e., at the end of a scheduled lab meeting) and additionally provides opportunity to socialize as a group.

 

Table 3: Self-Care Strategies in the Mentoring/Advising Domain
Self-care Strategy Description and Rationale
Offering recurring, shorter meetings For students who may want more frequent contact, faculty can offer to have recurring meetings scheduled. Meetings do not need to be scheduled weekly or for 1-hour, which is often the default on calendar settings. Instead, they can be bi-weekly or monthly, and 30-40 minutes to reduce faculty time and improve efficiency. This provides predictability for students and faculty, may relieve anxiety for students, and reduces last minute scheduling for faculty. Flexibility can be offered to cancel meetings or to conduct them virtually/by phone if either the faculty member or student has other pressing issues on a given week.
Walking/outdoor meetings As weather and physical ability permit, walking meetings provides exercise, reduce screen time, and stimulate creative thought. This is a “daily balance” strategy that could be incorporated with other one-on-one meetings as well. If weather is not conducive to an outdoor walking meeting, identify an indoor area on campus that may work alternatively.
Advertising office hours Faculty are required to hold office hours, which are often underutilized by students. Encouraging students to come to office hours to discuss issues other than coursework can be beneficial in multiple ways, including supporting student and faculty professional development, enhancing student-faculty relationships, and making use of this already scheduled time instead of scheduling a separate meeting.
Encouraging use of other faculty and peer mentors ECP faculty can sometimes feel overwhelmed with the amount of support their student advisees need; additionally, students can benefit from cultivating relationships with other faculty and peer mentors. When the primary mentor suggests consulting others’ guidance, it may help alleviate some of the pressure felt by faculty, and support students in their professional networking and growth.
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Cite This Article

Meghani, D. (2019). Self-care together: Strategies that benefit early career psychology faculty and psychology doctoral trainees. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 54(2), 5-12.

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