June 1st, 2011

How to love the job you have

When I ended last month’s column with the challenge to reconcile the work of psychology with the demands of available jobs, I realize now that I was being much too abstract. Without suggesting who is responsible for this reconciliation, I risk giving the impression that it should be left to professional organizations or administrators. The task is too important and the world moves too fast to wait for that to happen. It is up to us. Every day, psychologists at every stage of their careers make decisions about what jobs to apply for, which offers to accept and how long to stay in jobs that change in ways we could have never predicted when we were hired. When we have finally discovered who we are as a profession and who we are as individual practitioners, can we find jobs that allow us to do the work we love? And can we find the work we love in the jobs we have?

These questions are not unique to the profession of psychology though psychologists may be especially well positioned to respond to the challenges they imply. In a tight economy that expects workers in every field to expand the scope of their duties, there is little that experts in the field of human behavior cannot address in some useful capacity. The fact that we have 55 divisions in APA speaks to the diversity and extensiveness of our professional reach. Within the field of clinical psychology alone, similar diversity in specialty areas of practice, research and teaching provides the raw material out of which we can develop finely nuanced professional identities.

A new graduate who wants to do clinical work can find a job in a public or private hospital or clinic doing individual and group psychotherapy, routine and specialized assessments and psychological testing. The mix of clinical activities will vary from one setting to another and will constitute one factor among many that will make one job more or less attractive to the applicant.

New graduates do not always get the jobs they want and established psychologists cannot count on their existing jobs requiring the same combination of duties over the course of a long career. When job duties are too different from the work we enjoy, the effect can be demoralizing. There is always the option of not taking the job in the first place or leaving a job that has changed radically in undesirable ways. Even so, other influences, like the need for a reliable income, sometimes trump the impulse to say no. When that happens, it might be useful to consider the following tips for finding the work you love in the jobs you have.

1) Find something about your work that motivates you as your old job once did. If you love doing psychotherapy and you are expected to do only testing, then think of ways to provide testing results to your patients in a collaborative exchange that echoes the therapeutic alliance.

2) Know your cognitive style and preferences and look for ways to exercise them. If you are an intuitive sort who has always been counted on to grasp the big picture and you are suddenly expected to comb through charts for very specific information to answer questions that you believe are best addressed more holistically, you might be in trouble. But not necessarily. Preference is not ability and you certainly have the professional training and aptitude for your new role, even though it may not be what you prefer to do. Remember, psychologists can do anything. You can expect to be more tired at the end of the day when you work contrary to your natural inclinations, so be sure to re-charge your batteries with some contextual thinking at work or in your free time. Have that dinner party that you were looking forward to and forget about following the recipe. Just see who shows up and order out.

3) Don’t complain without making suggestions for improving the work process. This will make you look smart and cooperative and someone might even listen.

4) Don’t count on anyone listening. But do exercise leadership. Remember that leadership is not the special province of those with administrative titles or positions but the opportunity and responsibility of everyone in an organization. Leadership is nothing more than exercising our personal influence by using all of the instrumental and social skills that we work so hard to teach our patients. Use words and, if words are not enough, use actions. Try something new and make sure people know when it works. If it doesn’t, skip town.

5) Remember all of the miscellaneous benefits of your job. I recently read a poem in which the poet reflected that he had spent an entire day without speaking to anyone but his dog and a turtle. He was very pleased with this solitude. The next day at work I counted everyone with whom I came into contact. I was very pleased to reach 36 before I lost track at noon.

Well, there you have it, five suggestions to help you make the best of challenging working conditions in a struggling economy. And, when all else fails, you’ll come up with your own number six. After all, that’s what psychologists do.

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.

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