Postdoc application woes

Great title, huh? Really grabs your attention and makes you want to skip this post. Which is ok, feel free, my feelings won’t be hurt a bit. I don’t wish these woes on anyone.

The process for getting a doctorate in psychology is a long one, with financial and time related hardships that many people don’t even know about before they start school. Even I, the research queen didn’t “get” what this part of the process would be like.

Last night it struck me how it parallels the process for becoming a medical doctor. First, let me say I am not a medical doctor nor do I know any, personally. Everything I am about to say came from TV (old ER and old Grey’s Anatomy), my sister’s nursing experience and, well, you know, the cultural nether.

How I understand it is this, MD residents work ridiculous hours, with little time off. They are asked to stress their physical bodies and their mental acuity with these hardships for at least a year. They are prone to mistakes because they are sleep deprived, not to mention illness – physical and psychological. They are asked to work hours “regular” doctors wouldn’t, and to go against all their training on how to stay healthy and clear headed.

After residency they do some specialty work (more underpaid, long hours) and then they still have to take tests to become “actual” MD’s.

Psychology interns are treated to similar stressors. Starting with the internship application process, which is very competitive but without clear rules, so extremely psychologically stressful. Plus the cost of applying and flying out to interviews. Finally many interns are forced to move far from wherever they’ve been in school to work at a difficult job with very little pay. Lots of hours (not usually overnights like MD’s, but stay with me here), usually very tough cases that many psychologists with the choice choose not to see.

After internship these candidates are still not “actual” psychologists, but postdocs. Which means they have their degree (doctorate) but are not yet licensed. So another round of applications is opened midway through the internship year – even more competitive because there are fewer positions – and still completely arbitrary. They are usually paid better this year, but because they are not licensed, they are still not paid “well,” which is a stressor also because student loans are now coming due.

Postdocs do have the option “create their own” postdoc, meaning make an arrangement/agreement with a licensed psychologist or agency to let them work under the LP’s license while paying for or somehow getting supervision. There are a lot of variables there, but it is possible. And sometimes people stay on at the site where they do their internship, usually with slightly higher pay.

If the postdoc wants specialty training, however, or to hold off those mountainous student loans, a formal postdoc is the way to go. Which means that in the middle of internship they cast their lots again, and again manage the stress and cost of applying and interviewing. Depending on where they are located, this means another move.

Like MD’s, psychologists are asked to do all the things they would encourage their patients NOT to do: move away from social supports, work ridiculous hours for little pay, move again in 12 months just as they are settling in, and incur ridiculous debt to do so.

Writing cover letters is what I’ve been up to for the last couple of weeks, and it sucks. I wasn’t good at it last year and I’m still not good at it today. It stresses me out and seems pointless. None of the bits of paper I send to these sites tells them if I am or am not a good psychologist, so I have to hope that at least my experience will say something useful about me. But besides all that, I also struggle with that age old question:

Maybe it would be better for me to stay here, at my current site. No, I wouldn’t make much money. Certainly not enough to pay my student loans. But I like the office and the staff and a few co-workers (although the agency has a pretty high turnover rate). It would mean not moving (bonus points) and not trying to find a place for me and Bodhi.

Who could deny this face?

It would mean feeling better about making friends in the area. It would also mean staying far from friends – but it is really unlikely that I will make it to any of my close friend’s locations, so that doesn’t seem relevant.

Thinking about all this reminds me of something a professor once told me, years ago, “be sure to do your graduate work in a place you don’t like, because it’s unlikely you’ll end up there.” And something another mentor told me, “people often end up staying where they did their internship because they have begun to build relationships and be known in that community.” So, if I stay on another year, it’ll be that much harder to move. Back to my original question – which is stronger here, a body in motion stays in motion – or a body at rest tends to stay at rest?


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