Customizing professional identity: a model for early career psychologists

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Fitzpatrick, Nicole Danyon

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The process of becoming a psychologist requires a great deal of time, energy, and training that results in a transformation from student to professional. Likening the developmental process of professional identity construction to the building of a custom home, the current study sought to understand the process whereby early career psychologists begin to “customize” their professional identities. With the understanding that the construction of professional identity is a lifelong developmental process, the current study provides a conceptualization of the important factors comprising customization. After the foundation of one’s professional career has been “laid and framed” throughout graduate training, customization commences. As no two custom homes look completely alike, neither do the careers of two recently licensed psychologists. Qualitative research methods afforded the opportunity to explore professional identity using in-depth interviews with eleven early career child psychologists who had graduated from doctoral training programs within the last two to six years. Upon thorough analysis of the interviews, a theoretical model emerged conceptualizing the decision-making process of early career psychologists during customization. The decision-making process is comprised of three components: connections, weighing options, and settling. Forces of reality and ideals were found to significantly impact decision making. Forces of reality exist outside of the individual and include romantic relationships, family, finances, and health issues. Ideals exist within the individual and are comprised of personal and professional interests, characteristics of self, and goals. Achieving balance between forces of reality and ideals in the context of the decision-making process is discussed. The results of the current study hold implications for training and professional practice. It is hoped that results are used to inform training practices for students and establish mentoring programs for early career psychologists. Psychologists-in-training require time and experience to grapple with the forces of reality and ideals within the supportive context of graduate school. It is hoped that such experiences will result in a shift of priorities for the early career psychologist, placing importance on the need to strive for balance between personal and professional factors, which will facilitate preparedness in making informed professional decisions.