What Did I Do? Part II: The Career Path

Here’s the great irony about my career: I spent a godless amount of money getting trained for a set of skills I ended up not making a nickel off of.

Getting a doctorate in clinical psychology is getting steeped in all of the various clinical syndromes and learning how to treat them, right? The reality is, after my clinical rotations during grad school itself (which, not being research based, thus not having funds to defray students’ expenses, cost me, I don’t know, about $100,000), I never spent a minute in actual clinical practice. I don’t even need to pick up my abacus to calculate that ROI: goose egg! Heck, I’m still paying $100 a month on my student loans. Best of all, I will in fact retire in two years while still paying them off! (God bless cheap interest rates, is the story there.)

So, before suggesting that, “Kids, you should not try this at home,” here’s what I did discover about my education: you put doctoral alphabet soup after your name, a lot of doors are opened to you than might have been otherwise. And it isn’t exactly accurate for me to say I never applied anything I learned in grad school in my career. I obviously learned a lot about assessing people (no shitting you: it takes me about two minutes of interaction to understand about 80% of that person’s personality), learned a lot about how to talk to people to foster insight and motivation to change, and learned a lot about how to consume psychological research efficiently and turn it into practical ideas, or even just a compelling presentation. All of these things have been helpful almost on a daily basis throughout my career.

But I’ve never been paid a hot penny for therapy or for interpreting what you see in a group of ink blots (incidentally, be careful if I ask you what that cloud looks like). Which is funny, given all the time I spent learning to do such things.

Here’s a Readers Digest treatment of my actual career.

1993-1994: get my doctorate in clinical psych. Finish a post-doc at Johns Hopkins in behavioral medicine (and eliminate that field as a career candidate. Who can get over the smells in a hospital?).

1994: finding a clinical job is like dragging a lake, given the emergence of managed health care. Major pivot toward organizational psychology, take a consulting job in Washington, DC with a firm focusing on leadership development.

2000: transfer to same firm’s San Francisco office (bad marriage, trying to hit reset button).

2003: marriage blows up at the same time I move “in house” to one of my clients, Genentech, heading up their executive development function.

2006: jury now in—I hate being internal, leave Genentech, and thanks for all the fish, guys. Meaning, I made some good coin there so could float for a bit while I figured out next steps. That “float” lasted two years, during which I did two noteworthy things: one, realized I was done with the corporate world and the whole leadership thing, and two, coached a high school lacrosse team.

2008: make friends with the school where I’m coaching (Woodside Priory in Portola Valley), their school counselor quits, they ask, “Y’interested?” I take this as the sign I’m apparently waiting for, and that’s where I’ve happily been ever since, spending my days in the company of other peoples’ teenagers (making that happiness all the more remarkable, wouldn’t you say?!).

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To a lay person flying over that career at 35,000 feet it could appear to make easy sense: “a career in psychology.” But it’s really not, given the extent of specialization within the field, and how considerable the leaps actually were that I made from one professional village to the next. Consider, for example, the distinctions in these professional experiences:

  • Knocking on a door at 3am to notify the residents that a family member died tragically in a car crash earlier that evening.
  • Coaching a music industry executive in his office above Times Square, and ending the discussion early so he can go for dinner with Dave Matthews.
  • Discussing with an 8th grade boy how his friendship with a 10th grade boy is way too complicated for where he’s at and is taking him down the wrong path.

Maybe not the stuff of whiplash, but these are relatively sharp professional turns nonetheless. Just at the level of the atmosphere in which you work, the difference between a strange neighborhood in the middle of the night, a business in midtown Manhattan, and an independent school in Silicon Valley is Martian versus Venusian versus Saturnian, I promise you.

Back in ’94 when I was caught up in trying to figure out how to get set up in a clinical role (that “dragging the lake” experience), I spoke with a former classmate about her experiences in the organizational psychology space, a conversation that played a huge role in what happened next.  During it she said, “Matt, when I think back on all of our classmates, there’s only one person I think could have made the switch to working in a business environment, and that’s you.” I don’t say this to blow my own bugle, I’m just pointing out where not anyone can jump around within the broader field of psychology to do this and then do that. It takes a certain adaptability to comport yourself in a way that earns you credibility in the next endeavor. To put it bluntly, you have to have real balls to knock on that door at 3am, knocking what you’re about to do. You have to be sufficiently confident, bold and visionary to engage substantively with someone at the top of the music industry (while not getting all gee gaw when they mention their date with Dave Matthews). You have to be a bit playful and clever to hook a teen with what you’re saying.

Finally, it’s also important to be adaptable where your sense of intrinsic reward in what you’re doing is concerned, if you’re going to move around professionally like I have. A therapist may love the dickens out of the art of getting way inside another person’s head in order to understand and treat them, but you’re just not going to go nearly that deep when you coach an executive. The latter work can seem pretty superficial, frankly, to someone who loves the former.

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So, in summary, yes, “a career in psychology,” just one as pursued by “Dr. Zelig,” you could say.

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