This article is part of the series, Careers in Behavioral Health, where we interview professionals in the field about their educational and job experiences.
Madeline E. Brener, PsyD is an adjunct psychology professor, field researcher for psych test revisions, and clinical psychology post-doc. Here are the questions we asked Dr. Brener.
How did you decide on your career path?
Cliché as it may sound, I’ve always wanted to help people. When I started undergrad, I thought that this would take the form of being an advocacy attorney, but I fell in love with psychology from my first course and completely changed my plan. I had a history with teaching and tutoring as well, so I knew I wanted my future to include a combination of clinical work and teaching.
What made you choose the graduate program you attended?
I chose my graduate program because of location and one specific course. My school had a program called “the intensive,” where students had the opportunity to act as therapists and observers for actual clients using a systemic model. It was a very cool course.
What surprised you the most when you started your graduate program?
I came from an undergraduate setting that was very campus-oriented; lots of activities, outreach opportunities, etc. Graduate school surprised me by how hands-off it was. Students went to school, did their work, and went back to very separate lives at the end of the day. There was little-to-no sense of campus, or even cohort, cohesion. Many of my classmates were significantly older than I was, and had spouses and kids and jobs in other fields. It was a big shift.
How did you decide on your specialty?
Once again, a single opportunity took me in an entirely different direction than I expected. I started my clinical psychology program with every intention of specializing in developmental disorders and delay. However, I was rejected by a first-year practicum that served that population and instead found myself at a local LGBTQIA+-specific clinic, where I fell completely in love with serving that population.
If you had to work in a field other than behavioral health, what would you do?
I’d probably be teaching either way.
What do you like most about your chosen field/job?
Whether I’m teaching or providing therapy, I feel like I’m making a difference in people’s lives. I’ve been privileged to observe enormous growth in people, both students and clients, over the years.
What do you like least about your chosen field/job?
When I tell people what I do, I’m constantly being asked if I’m “psychoanalyzing” them. I tend to respond with, “not unless your insurance is paying me!”
What was the APPIC Internship Match process like for you?
I went through CAPPIC (California’s match process) two years in a row for half-time internships. It was a nerve-wracking and intense process, but much easier than having to search for jobs/post-doc positions without any sort of list or matching process.
What was it like finding a postgraduate position/job?
Grueling and frustrating. I’ve been living in a small town in North Carolina since right before I graduated with my doctorate, and there are no post-doc opportunities within a 90 minute radius. The psychology board here also has very different rules than the one in California (where my husband and I will be permanently relocating in late 2016). As such, I’ve had to put my licensure plans on hold and pursue other opportunities.
I’m currently working as an adjunct instructor at a military base extension campus of a 4-year college, as well as doing freelance field research for a psych testing publishing company. The combination of the two still doesn’t come close to full-time work, which can be frustrating (both emotionally and financially).
I’m also starting to look for jobs in California, which is hard to do from across the country. My biggest frustration with the job application process these days is that it is mostly done through hugely impersonal, digital means. It can be hard for a recent graduate to stand out as a promising candidate when there isn’t any chance for personal interaction.
Describe a typical day at work for you.
I’m currently teaching a blended (half online) class, so I only lecture/see my students in person one night a week. The rest of my time during the week is spent responding to student emails, grading discussion boards and papers, and recruiting, contacting, and testing my field research participants. There isn’t much consistent structure to my schedule, which is a big shift from student and intern life.
How many hours do you work per week?
If I include all of the emails, grading, and testing participant outreach, I work somewhere between 20-30 hours on a busy week. This number drops significantly when there aren’t any active testing projects.
Is there anything you wish you had known before you decided on a career in your chosen field?
I can’t really think of something I wish I’d known before studying psychology, but I wish my graduate program had offered course work on the politics and processes of job searching and self-promotion.
The practicum and internship matching processes really don’t mirror the real-world job search very well, and while it was fantastic to have that system in place at the time, it left me feeling very unprepared for finding a position after graduating.
What do you feel is the biggest problem in your field today?
There is still so much stigma around mental illness and getting treatment. As a military spouse, I see a lot of it first-hand.
How do you see your field changing in the next 10 years?
I think that technology will have an increasingly large presence in the ways we diagnose and treat clients. I just hope the field doesn’t allow for things to become so automated that the human element, which is often considered the most important part of therapy, gets lost.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
I like spending time with my husband and friends, eating good food and watching movies. I also enjoy making jewelry, and I’m teaching myself how to crochet.
How do you balance work, life, and family?
My husband and I have a house rule that at least part of Wednesday evenings has to be completely tech-free so that we can spend some time just talking and catching up without distractions.
I’m not really working enough hours right now for my jobs to threaten my downtime, but I know that in the future, scheduling time with family and friends, and sticking to those commitments, will become increasingly important.
What advice would you give students pursuing a career in your field?
Make sure you are passionate about it, because many jobs in this field come with modest paychecks. You will probably do several years of unpaid or minimally paid work before seeing a consistent salary at all.
Also, really weigh your options when it comes to your degree. Doctorates are expensive and take a long time to complete. I got mine because I know I wanted to teach at the university level as well as provide therapy, but if you only want to work with clients, one of the many master’s degrees may be a more suitable option.
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