Many psychologists find their passions are not stirred by providing direct therapy, conducting research or teaching. They are more interested in applying their expertise on human behavior in new and atypical ways—but aren't always sure what those career paths look like.
Looking to find your own unique career path in psychology? Here's advice from career experts and psychologists who work outside academia on how to do it.
Before you start exploring career possibilities, figure out your internal motivations and passions.
"People tend to focus on knowing what's out there and don't pay too much attention to knowing themselves," says Jennifer Polk, PhD, career coach and owner of the website From PhD to Life, which provides job advice, coaching and mentoring to doctorate holders seeking nonacademic jobs. She works with job seekers to delve into their broader interests and explore which career opportunities might be a better fit for them.
Getting comfortable with the thought of a nontraditional career requires job seekers to be honest with themselves about what they really want and why it's important to them, says Paula Chambers, PhD, founder and CEO of The Versatile PhD, a career education website that helps grad students and new doctorate-holders identify and prepare for nonacademic careers.
She recommends asking yourself questions such as:
- What do you love about psychology?
- What's missing?
- What weird passions do you have that have nothing to do with your work, but you never run out of energy for?
These types of assessments can help you realize that the No. 1 person you need to please with your career is yourself, she says.
To conduct such a selfassessment, check out APA's free online resource aimed at helping job seekers develop a plan of action for pursuing their ideal jobs. Authoring your Individual Individual Development Plan starts with a self-assessment, and the tool helps users explore careers, identify gaps in experience, set goals, and create a plan with milestones and outcomes.
Get to know people in business and industry who can give you an inside perspective on different career paths. One way to network is to attend nonacademic conferences in the specific fields you might be interested in, such as social work, advocacy, criminal justice, military, transportation, modeling and simulation, training, engineering, energy and more. "Market yourself to people in industry," says Brandon Perelman, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory in the Human Research and Engineering Directorate. "Communicate why your research and skills are important to them," he says.
Also, search for people who have a job you might like and contact them. "Don't be afraid to reach out to complete strangers, like someone you found on LinkedIn," says Chambers. "Ask if they would be able to talk to you for 20 minutes on the phone about their work." Such informational interviews can provide inside information about various careers and help establish new connections.
Identify your skills
As you start exploring alternative career paths, think carefully about the skills you already have. If you've coordinated a large research effort like your dissertation, you have project management experience. Conveying your ideas during presentations and discussions has honed your communication skills. By working in a lab, you've developed teamwork skills. Once you start examining the components of what you do on a daily basis, you can determine how to apply those skills to nonacademic jobs.
Test the waters
If you lack some qualifications for the type of job you ultimately want, work to develop those skills, says Chambers. Students can get involved in activities on campus and those already in the workforce can look for opportunities to bolster their resumes, such as writing grant proposals, learning about budgets and financial management, or developing and leading a project. Also, consider taking classes relevant to the jobs you want, such as business, grant writing or marketing.
Volunteer work can also help you learn a new skill.
Internships and fellowships also provide the hands-on experiences psychologists need to prepare for their dream jobs. Most federal and local government agencies have internship programs. For instance, you might find internships in health policy and advocacy, criminal justice or education program evaluation, and human rights advancement around the world.
Many private companies also offer internships where you can learn about for-profit research, government contracting, business development and customer relations. Companies don't always have formal internship programs, but many will hire an intern for the summer or during busy times. "I started doing a summer internship at a private government contractor and discovered I liked it a lot," says Perelman. The experiences and connections he made during his internship helped him land his current position.
Apply for the job
So, once you've identified the job you want, how do you get hired? "Talk about your experience and skills in ways that are friendly to the industry and the organizational culture where you intend to work," says Eddy Ameen, PhD, who directs APA's Office on Early Career Psychologists.
Also, be sure to read job ads carefully to address all the requirements. For example, don't submit an academic CV when the ad asks for a resume. Prepare a resume that is shorter and more focused than your CV. Instead of talking about yourself, shift to what an employer needs and speak directly to their requirements.
Land the job
During the job interview, "your answers must be focused on the company first and yourself second," says Chambers. "Research the company extensively so you can speak intelligently about the specifics of the business."
And, employers want to know your answer to a key question: What can you do for me right now that will benefit my organization? Show them that you are the person who will meet their needs by articulating the value a psychology degree brings to any field.
Above all else, be confident. "You need to be able to sell yourself," says Shari Schwartz, PhD, who works as a mitigation expert and trial consultant at the firm she launched called Panther Advocacy and Litigation Sciences. "You've attained a doctoral-level education so there is nothing to be intimidated about. Go in there and make sure they understand you have something to offer and you'll be an asset."
APA's Resource for Individual Development Plans
'So What Are You Going to Do with That?': Finding Careers Outside Academia
Basalla, S. & Debelius, M., 2007
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