Insights from an Early Career Psychologist – 10 Lessons and a Duck
Why did I decide to write this piece? I am 6 months into working in a private practice, having to balance the demands and difficulties that come with beginning a new job. Add in the balancing of extra pressures and responsibilities, I felt very out of my depth, overwhelmed and the ever common ‘imposter syndrome’ was at an all-time high.
The purpose of this piece is to provide insights into my first 6 months as a registered psychologist. To provide a sense of normality to those who feel like that on the surface they are a duck gliding across the water effortlessly, but under water its feet are paddling like mad.
The following insights are personal insights and I do not profess that these would apply to all individuals. Each individual journey is unique and these insights are derived from my journey. My intention is to create a discussion so we can learn from the collective psychologist community.
So here are my 10 lessons.
LESSON 1: YOU ARE NOT DEFINED BY WHAT YOU DO BUT WHO YOU ARE
Who am I? I am a registered psychologist. I am an educational and developmental psychology registrar. I am a PhD candidate. I am a sessional teaching associate. I am a facilitator for a social and emotional program in high schools.
These are all structural, external definitions of who I am, which can sometimes result in a loss of who I am as a person – a person with different qualities, values and interests.
LESSON 2: AHPRA WILL NOT APPROVE YOUR REGISTRATION OVERNIGHT - BE PREPARED AND BE PATIENT
Back to the very beginning…
I had just passed my confirmation milestone of my PhD and published my first ever paper in an open access journal called Behavioral Sciences.
Yes! What an amazing day! I can finally apply to become registered as a psychologist after 6 years of training. (To provide a bit of context here I started a Masters of Educational and Developmental Psychology, and after my first year I articulated into a combined degree with the Doctor of Philosophy Program.
This meant that to become registered before completing the PhD I needed to publish an article to demonstrate the equivalence of a Master’s thesis).
The excitement quickly started to dwindle as I sat on reception at the clinic I was to be working at, waiting ever so patiently (or impatiently) for my acceptance letter to arrive. I applied for my registration in January of 2018; my acceptance came towards the end of March 2018.
Do not expect your registration to occur instantly, ensure that your future employers are aware of the situation and are flexible – otherwise look for work after you receive it.
It can be a stressful time waiting and to be honest it was like watching grass grow or continuing with the metaphor of the duck, it’s like our friends the beavers created a dam, and there was no way we were going to be able to continue riding down the stream.
LESSON 3: BE AWARE OF THE POLICIES AND PROCEDURES OF YOUR WORKPLACE AND THE ASSOCIATED PAPERWORK THAT COMES WITH BEING A PSYCHOLOGIST (INSURANCE, INSURANCE AND INSURANCE!)
But the day finally came – the duck was able to get through a small opening in the beaver dam, and I was free! Or so I thought.
Then came all the paperwork with Medicare, HiCAPS, TAC, consent forms, public indemnity insurance and the list goes on. If you decide to enter into private practice, please be aware of the paperwork that is associated with it.
LESSON 4: BE PREPARED FOR THE WAVES OF ANXIETY THAT TAKE OVER YOUR BRAIN AND YOUR BODY DURING YOUR FIRST DAY - THIS IS NORMAL, BUT KNOW WHAT WORKS FOR YOU TO REDUCE THAT ANXIETY
My first day…
It was early on a Wednesday morning. I arrived at the clinic at 7:30 am – my first client to arrive at 9 am. I had no information about the reason for referral, just the name and the age of my client. And all of a sudden the calm duck on the surface of the water, matched the feet paddling like mad under the surface. I was feeling so out of my depth, and I know that all the reception staff and other psychologists could see my anxiety.
I sat at my desk, hot cup of tea in hand, looking at the beautiful flowers my parents had sent to say congratulations on my first day. I ran my fingers against the desk, looking around the room, trying to remember my training, reading about effective intake interviews, but nothing was sinking in.
All my brain could think was ‘oh god, oh god, oh god – are they going to know I’m an imposter? That I’m not supposed to be here?’
My first client was an adult female – all of my placement training was with children. I worked at the Monash Children’s hospital in the developmental disability clinic and then at a private school for children aged 3 – 18 years.
Did I have experience with adults during this time? Yes – but it was in relation to treating their children. As you can imagine the panic set in when the appointment status changed from ‘confirmed’ to ‘arrived’. I welcomed her into the clinic, asked her to take a seat and whether I could get her a drink. I sat down, heart racing, feet paddling like mad underwater and then I took a deep breath and said ‘hello – my name is Jess, I am a psychologist’ (first face to palm moment). I proceed with ‘why are you here today’ (second face to palm moment). I knew I had to calm down, to compose myself.
Deep breathing, mindfulness, meditation, challenging automatic thoughts are all techniques that come in handy for that nervous day 1. So use it to your advantage!
LESSON 5: YOU KNOW MORE THAN YOU THINK YOU KNOW; TRUST YOUR KNOWLEDGE AND TRAINING
She stared blankly at me for a moment, wide-eyed, I had not made her comfortable which is so important in the first few moments of meeting a new client (I know this now – not so much then).
And then she introduced herself and all of a sudden all my training came back to me; all those micro-counselling skills started kicking in.
My feet still paddling like crazy but instead of going against the current I started to ride it. She proceeded to tell me in that intake interview about her complex history of trauma, violence, and substance use, before pausing and saying – all I want help with is how to manage my anxiety, I do not want to revisit the trauma.
After this session, I began reading widely through the literature and textbooks, watched webinars, and received professional supervision. She continued to see me for 6 sessions after that before deciding that she was ready to revisit her trauma.
LESSON 6: IMPOSTOR SYNDROME IS A GOOD THING! COMPLACENCY AND OVERCONFIDENCE ARE RISKY. PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT AND GOOD SUPERVISION ARE KEY TO YOUR SUCCESS
As clinicians, it is important not to succumb to the Dunning-Krueger effect which is a cognitive bias in which people of low ability have illusory superiority and mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is.
There is always scope for ongoing improvement in clinical practice, and proper supervision is essential.
LESSON 7: MONEY SHOULD NOT BE THE PRIMARY MOTIVATION - BE PASSIONATE ABOUT WHAT YOU DO
The next 6 months.
And so I became a psychologist working in private practice. My client base started to build, and referrals started to come addressed to me!
Who would’ve thought that in such a short time that I would have a waitlist of three weeks?
This I believe comes down to time and passion. How much are you willing to put into your private practice?
You get paid for the time that you are there, everything outside of that is in your own time, with no monetary benefit. Build goodwill.
However, if you want to succeed and be the best practitioner you can be it shouldn’t be about the financial gain. It should be about the best service you can provide to your patient to make a difference in their life. And that requires passion.
Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. (Steve Jobs)
LESSON 8: COLLABORATION IS KEY TO CLIENT SUCCESS
I am often in contact with parents, teachers, well-being counsellors, general practitioners, paediatricians, occupational therapists, speech pathologists, psychiatrists, and the list goes on.
Why? Because collaboration and building a support network around your clients is what creates change.
LESSON 9: WORKING WITH CLIENTS IS A PRIVILEGE NOT A RIGHT
I say this from my very little experience; however, the response from clients when they feel supported, when they feel like you have gone just that little bit extra, that your interests are solely around their treatment, well-being, and improvement, and not about the financial gain – that is when you have their trust, their faith, and most importantly, when you instil hope.
We are incredibly privileged to work in this industry; it is not a right or something to be taken for granted – never lose sight of this.
LESSON 10: TIME MANAGEMENT AND SELF CARE ARE IMPORTANT FACTORS FOR SUCCESSFUL PRACTICE
Ok so what about the balance? What about when I started teaching? When I took on the facilitator role? And wait.. what about your Ph.D.? My answer to all of this is that you must be organised. You need to become a master at your time management in a way that works for you.
My own experience is:
- Get a really good calendar (I use google calendar because it combines my personal, my university, my teaching, and my professional email account);
- Stay on top of your emails and get a good system of identifying what a priority is;
- Your clients become the priority – everything else becomes second;
- Do not make a ‘to do list’ but rather a schedule of things you need to do that day; and
- Make sure there is time for yourself – whether that be to exercise, to bake (I’m a self-confessed master chef), spend time with friends and family, or to simply just ‘Netflix and chill’.
I won’t continue rambling about my experiences and my life, but I have covered the main points that I wish I knew when I started. The road to becoming a psychologist is a long one, but don’t give up trying to do what you want to do.
Mainly because the road after you become registered is existential, I fully believe that where there is love, passion, and inspiration, you can’t go wrong. Remember why you chose this journey and all of a sudden the destination becomes irrelevant.
For me there is no destination, it is ever changing, ever evolving into something different.
Remain a duck gliding graciously along the water, the passage of time, paddling ever consciously underneath, riding the currents, the waves and obstacles that life and your career will bring. Just don’t forget to take the time to appreciate the journey on the way.
As Mark Twain said:
Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.