I can’t say that I was one of those people who knew what they wanted to do from a very young age. In actuality, I don’t even remember thinking much about my career choice until I was most of the way through high school.
After completing a behavioral science course during my junior year in high school it dawned on me that this might be a possible career path for me. If you ask people who entered the field of psychology, most will cite a desire to help others as their main motivation.
While this was true for me as well, my primary draw was a little different. My biggest draw was a passion to understand more about the way our brains and bodies are connected.
I remember my behavioral science teacher explaining how despite having the most intelligent brains on the planet, humans only use a scant percentage of the entirety of their brains. This was intriguing. Our brains are the most sophisticated among any living creature and we still know so little about them.
This unknown was what led me to apply to several psychology programs. I was accepted into the Rutgers University Psychology program and I found myself eager to dive into this new subject matter.
What I Learned (and Didn’t Learn) in College
Although it started to seem clear that I would work in the field of psychology, I still wasn’t sure what kind of work I would do even when I graduated from college. The Rutgers Psychology Department allowed me to delve into many different subject areas in psychology.
Coursework, clinical labs, professor’s guidance and the help of mentors exposed us to everything from cognitive behavior therapy to health psychology. But I still wasn’t sure. Nothing felt right. I even left my studies at Rutgers for a semester and took classes at a local community college to consider whether I should change my major.
I ultimately did end up back at Rutgers the following semester, but it wasn’t until I was in graduate school that I found the specific area of study that interested me enough to move forward.
Accidentally Finding My Personal Psychology Path
During my undergraduate training, forensic psychology first came onto my radar. I was lucky enough to have a professor, Dr. William Tucker, who invited me to a special project investigating the field of forensics.
TV shows made it seem like an exciting field full of crime scenes and criminal profiling. What I found was that it was a lot more than that, and some of it was even a little boring. Forensic psychology sits at the intersection of psychology and the law and can take on many career forms. I wasn’t sure what part I wanted to pursue, but it was extremely interesting to me.
What drew me in most was the ability to understand human motivation and drive. It seemed almost like a superpower. As I studied the basics of criminal profiling, it struck me that this same set of skills could be applied in so many different areas.
Bachelors? Masters? Doctorate? Too Much or Too Little?
It was clear from my undergraduate studies that a bachelor’s degree would not be sufficient if I wanted to work as a psychologist or therapist. There are positions like mental health technicians and some research positions that require only a bachelor’s degree, but I knew those were not for me.
For me, the decision to pursue a master’s degree versus a doctorate degree was less clear. I knew I wanted to work as a psychologist but at what level? Pursuing a doctoral degree would mean more years of schooling and more debt.
Would a master’s degree let me advance far enough? How much more money could I earn with a doctoral degree versus a master’s? These were all important questions and not as easy to answer as you might think.
The Ups and Downs of Graduate Training
In the end, I decided to apply for my master’s of science in clinical psychology and specialize in forensics. My salary might potentially be lower than if I earned my doctorate degree, but the lower cost of training seemed like a reasonable trade-off.
I was accepted to Drexel University’s Clinical Psychology Program and I got to work. The classes I chose ran the gamut but I picked electives that focused more heavily on forensics and human behavior and motivation.
When I began, I knew that graduate training would be more intense than undergraduate work, but I was unaware of all the additional requirements that would be necessary to complete to earn my degree.
In addition to rigorous coursework, I would have to complete a master’s thesis project. This meant a year of research, lots of statistical analysis and completion of an extensive research paper on my research and findings. While completing the thesis project and coursework, I also had to complete a 20-hour a week internship.
At times it all seemed a little overwhelming. Every waking moment was spent learning, studying, researching, and working. The upside of the experience is that each class entering the graduate training program moved together as a cohort, so we had a built-in support system.
The Right Certifications
Along with meeting the educational requirements, thesis project completion and internships, each student in my cohort was tasked with securing the right certifications for their intended career path. For me, I had to earn my certification in Prolonged Exposure therapy, which is the treatment I was researching in my internship.
Most of the cohort was also busy prepping for the Examination for Professional Practice of Psychology (EPPP). If you wanted a psychology license in the U.S. or Canada, this was the test. Some of my cohort took classes to boost their score, I chose to complete an online study guide to make sure I would be ready.
Thankfully everyone who took the exam in my group passed.
Starting My Career in Psychology
The internship I started while in school was working as an inmate counselor at two prisons in Philadelphia. After graduation, I continued working there. The position involved conducting research on the efficacy of specific therapies for inmates who were diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
It was exciting to be able to dive right into the career path I had chosen, but, little did I know my journey was going to take me down some twists and turns.
Unexpected Career Changes
I have heard people sometimes joke that they didn’t find their career path, it found them. This was completely true for me. I envisioned myself continuing my work in forensics and working within the legal system for the rest of my career.
Within a year of earning my master’s degree, I was invited to become a professor of psychology at a local college. This was something I didn’t see coming. I excitedly accepted and began lecturing within two weeks of being invited.
It struck me that so soon after graduating I found myself wearing so many different hats. As it turned out, I would use a lot more of my academic training than I ever expected.
The most interesting turn my career took was when I was asked to complete several projects in the area of Industrial/Organizational (I/O) Psychology (or Business Psychology). Using the profiling techniques I learned in graduate school, I was able to help businesses and start-ups discover more about their customers, their products and their messaging. I hadn’t seen this career shift coming, but I found the work both interesting and challenging.
Where I Landed
One such project turned into a full-time position as the Clinical Manager for a healthcare startup, Resility Health. In this position, I use what I learned in school as well as my previous working experiences to help teens and their families deal with the impact of stress. I work as part of a team, but my team consists of people from many different academic backgrounds.
We have experts in marketing, computer programming, app development, and many other areas. It is my job to stay on top of those parts of our project that are clinical in nature. So while one person has to design the app for our consumers to use, it’s my job to make sure that what is delivered on the app is helpful and clinically relevant.
What I Have Learned
What my academic and career journey has taught me is that anything is possible. When I first began I had no idea just how varied the field of psychology would be. Like a medical student trying to find the right specialty, psychology students are tasked with the same.
I was able to find a job in the field that suited my personality, my skills, and my preferences. This is one of the strengths of a career in psychology. Had I wanted to earn more money I might have gravitated towards a position as a forensic psychology witness. Had I wanted to continue working directly with clients who had anxiety disorders, I might have gone into private practice. But here I am.
Psychology training exposes you to many different facets of psychology so you can choose what is right for you. Keep your options open and you will find the right path, no matter how unexpected the journey.