Read the following real-life accounts from two psychologists to see whether this might be the right field for you.
Denise Stybr—School Psychologist
Denise Stybr has been a school psychologist with the Center Cass School District in Downers Grove, Illinois, since 1990. She earned a B.S. in psychology from the University of Illinois, Urbana, and an M.S. in school psychology from Governors State University in University Park, Illinois. She began her professional career in 1982.
Her duties include administering psychoeducational testing to determine the presence or absence of a disabling condition, such as a learning disability, mental retardation, or emotional disorder. She also provides individual and group counseling to the students, consults with the parents and staff, and designs behavior management programs.
Denise describes her job as extremely stressful but never boring, since she makes life-changing decisions that affect both children and their families. She works from 7:30 A.M. until 4:30 P.M., and the days are always full. She is often met in the parking lot with questions and concerns, and she regularly works a whole day with only a half-hour break for lunch. On a typical day she attends several meetings that focus on deciding whether a child should be tested and whether he or she qualifies for services after the tests have been completed. She also presents test results to the child’s parents.
Between meetings, she usually holds two to three counseling sessions, spends two to three hours testing, and spends the remainder of the time writing reports and talking to teachers or parents. She travels to three schools, often on the same day.
Denise admits that she doesn’t like the stress level or the toofrequent feeling that whatever she does isn’t going to be enough for a child. But she does like the freedom and variety of the job— she rarely has to do any one thing at a specific time (with the exception of meetings), and she can choose when to do her other tasks.
Getting Started. Denise originally planned to become a psychiatrist, but by junior year of college decided that medical school was not for her. She researched the different areas of graduate study for psychology and liked the freedom that school psychology offered. She doesn’t have to maintain her own office or records or purchase malpractice insurance. She doesn’t have to get coverage to take a vacation, and she never has to turn away someone who needs help but can’t pay. Most of her work is with children ages three to fourteen, an age range in which it’s relatively easy to make progress.
Denise explains that in order to practice as a certified school psychologist you must also complete a school-year internship, during which you act as a school psychologist but are closely supervised by a certified school psychologist. In addition, you must complete seventy-five contact hours of continuing educational activities every three years in order to maintain your national certification.
The reason Denise has a B.S. instead of a B.A. is that she originally planned to attend medical school, so she took more science courses than required for a B.A. Her M.S. is a specialist degree, which required fifty-seven or more hours, unlike a regular master’s that requires thirty to thirty-two hours.
Advice from a Professional. Denise has found that working as a school psychologist requires a certain personality type almost more than it does any special talent. You must be structured and organized but still remain flexible, and you must know when to take a stand and when to back down. You must have empathy, but not sympathy, and compassion without sentimentality. A school psychologist often works with no peer input and must remain impartial.
She recommends looking for after-school and summer jobs that put you around children and their parents. If possible, volunteer with developmentally disabled children in order to see if you have what it takes to work with that population. You can also ask to observe in some special education classrooms.
She also advises being realistic about your financial expectations. School psychologists often are paid lower salaries than teachers and may not receive the same benefits. They generally work longer days than teachers, and they often work during the summer and for a week or two before school starts and after school ends.
“This is not an easy, high-paying job,” she says. “It is truly a vocation more than an occupation.”
Gerald D. Oster—Clinical Psychologist
Gerald D. Oster is a licensed psychologist with a private practice. He is also a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland Medical School in Baltimore.
He earned his B.A. in sociology at the University of South Florida, Tampa; his M.A. in psychology at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro; and his Ph.D. in psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.
The Work. Dr. Oster points out that he consciously set out to have several jobs because he enjoys variety, and his career allows him to experience a great deal of variety in his workdays. For instance, on Monday he works at home and in his private practice. On Tuesday morning he spends two hours at a community mental health center in the inner city of Baltimore, where he works as a child and family therapist. His two current patients are an adolescent and a young child. One is a sixteen-year-old boy who has served time in juvenile delinquent centers and now is trying to reenter the community but is struggling to fit in at school and in his foster-care placement. The other is a boy in kindergarten who is very insecure about his environment. He lives in a dangerous neighborhood with his grandparents as his primary caretakers. His mother, who also lives with him, is a drug addict.When he is not working with these two patients, he is doing the large amount of paperwork required by the various governing agencies that monitor the clinic.
After catching up at the clinic, he spends eight hours at the University Counseling Center, where he sees the opposite end of the spectrum—very intelligent and creative people who are in various professional schools, such as law, medicine, or social work. Although quite articulate and resourceful, they have their own struggles and often make good use of the support that the center provides. Most visit the center primarily because of the stress of school but also due to problems in relationships or in the caretaking of others (many are married or have relatives or children that they are responsible for). Also, the pace and expectations for learning are incredible and require a huge sacrifice socially that many have a difficult time adjusting to. After these hours are over, Dr. Oster usually goes to his private practice to sort through the mail or see an occasional evening patient.
His other days are similar, but each involves different demands and different populations. He may spend time at the local community hospital, interviewing or testing a suicidal or out-ofcontrol adolescent. His private practice is devoted to seeing children and adults with an assortment of problems that might stem from family discord, learning difficulties in school and their emotional impact, or relationship problems.
Although he is always busy, Dr. Oster says that he still has to look for new ways to maintain his practice, especially in the context of managed care. For many clinical psychologists in private practice, the paperwork and payment problems of managed care have become quite difficult. This has also affected the hospitals where he works and has created uncertainty in many of the health professions.
Getting Started. Gerald Oster began his undergraduate studies as a business major, but he found that courses in sociology were much more appealing, and his thinking and viewpoints were similar to those of the sociology students and faculty. He was intrigued by the prospect of studying topics such as social and political theory and how people adapt to environmental and economic change. The prospect of studying these topics on a higher level was challenging as well.
He says, “Learning about and helping people in all aspects of life filled a need in myself to go beyond my own boundaries and provide support to people in stress or to help the broader institutions in gaining the appropriate placement for people who needed assistance, whether it was the aged, juvenile delinquents, or children with learning problems.”
The decision to pursue a career in clinical psychology didn’t occur until after he received his undergraduate degree and owned a bookstore for several years. He believes that this waiting period is not unique, and that only a few students have a specific direction regarding careers. Rather than graduating from college with the hope of just getting a job, career choice means much more.He feels that it is something that you know you love and want to pursue full-time; in essence, it becomes a paid hobby.
Once he realized that psychology was his career choice, he still had to decide which specialty to pursue. He initially chose criminal psychology and was fascinated by courses in personality, psychopathology, and child development. This led to his master’s degree and to work in the juvenile justice system, providing evaluations for the courts on delinquents. However, through the support of his professors and continuing interest in all of psychology, he applied and was accepted into a doctoral program where he was exposed to a greater depth and breadth of psychology.
During his doctoral studies, he worked in a rat laboratory, was part of a developing center for aging, taught courses in developmental psychology and child development, and was exposed to continuing clinical work through practicums at child development centers and psychiatric units for the aged. He also participated with many research teams on topics of learning theory, intellectual testing, and cognitive changes over the life span.
His professional career began in 1981 at a private research firm that subcontracted work from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), where he was involved in coordinating research projects for a nationwide study on depression. After a year, he decided to return to clinical work and obtained a job as a psychologist in the adolescent unit of a state hospital. During that time, he also consulted to a geriatric unit and continued his own learning through weekly seminars and clinical rounds.
After several years of practice and earning his independent professional license, he changed locations and began working at a residential
treatment center for emotionally disturbed children and adolescents, where he became director of psychology internship training. He also continued his own training, which included study in family therapy at a well-known institute.He then became interested in expanding his private practice and continuing the writing he had begun during this time, so he resigned and began collecting a series of part-time jobs.
Dr. Oster has authored or coauthored a number of professional books on psychological testing and therapy. He also cowrote a trade book, Helping Your Depressed Teenager: A Guide for Parents and Caregivers (Wiley, 1995).His most recent book is Life as a Psychologist: Career Choices and Insights (Routledge, 2004).
Advice from a Professional. “Learning is a lifelong process. Degrees only give you permission to learn,” says Dr. Oster. He advises that you should expect to change career paths several times, and that going to college and possibly to graduate school allows you to gather technical skills as well as to explore possibilities. A field such as psychology offers numerous outlets to pursue, and along the way, you can define yourself in many ways.
Dr. Oster recommends sticking to a broad path and realizing that the path may have many branches. While they are all quite good, it takes exposure to these branches to realize the possibilities. Read articles from journals or magazines by people who are doing the kind of work you can see yourself doing, and learn what is exciting and meaningful to you. Don’t be afraid to contact these people or talk with your professors, who want to help and have placed themselves as models and as valuable resources.
He also suggests gaining experience wherever you can through paid or volunteer work. Attend seminars and conventions, even if they are supposed to be for professionals, because they are the best way to learn about the possibilities within a profession. You’ll gain incredible exposure and an awareness of what the field is all about.
It’s also a good idea to gain mentors along the way. Becoming an assistant, whether in teaching or research, is an excellent way to discover your strengths and weaknesses and to learn whether you could see yourself doing this work on a daily basis.You should also pursue as many practicums or internships as possible.
Dr. Oster also recommends traveling. He says, “In striving for an ideal picture of yourself, you also want to be aware of possible settings. Do you enjoy the outdoors or city life? Does your profession offer more possibilities in small towns, where you actually perform more duties, than in large cities, where there are many specialists but more people, job opportunities, and so on. What type of atmosphere do you prefer—the pressure of the Northeast or the slower pace of the South or the alternative lifestyles of the Southwest?”