Guide to Kickstarting Your Career in Psychology
Congratulations. You graduated from college and earned a degree as a healthcare professional – counselor, social worker, psychologist, or therapist. Now what?
Psychology programs, across all subfields of psychology, graduate nearly 5,000 new doctorates each year. That said, with a shifting economic landscape, practicing psychologists putting off retirement, and an influx of new healthcare laws, the future is clouded for many of these graduates.
Although the US Department of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts a 12 percent growth in jobs over the next decade, many of these jobs will go to students with master’s degrees in psychology or related fields. That said, the BLS’s previous 10-year projections, which were estimated at about the same growth rate, grew by only 3 percent. Over the next decade, psychologists, especially clinical doctorates without specialties, may face even greater competition from graduating master’s degree students.
Quick Fact: As of May 2013, only 27 percent of all graduates have a job related to their major.
According to J. Ryan Fuller, PhD., Clinical Director at New York Behavioral Health, the fields of psychology, social work and counseling are “super competitive.” Although statistics show there are more opportunities in larger cities. Dr. Fuller asserts: “There are not enough jobs for the number of graduates entering these fields”. Dr. Fuller’s advice?...
“Get research experience. Even if you are interested in clinical psychology, for instance, which may seem like a deviation from research, gaining research skills and training will increase your overall worth as a job candidate.”
Keep in mind that unless you distinguish and define yourself both professionally and personally, you may fade into the background with the many other candidates trying to garner the attention of potential employers.
Take the Job or Go to Graduate School
For many graduates, receiving a bachelor’s degree is the hard part. However, after graduating you may be faced with an even harder decision: Do you go to graduate school or do you get a job? Making things worse is the fact that jobs are rather scarce right now.
Taking the job or going to graduate school is not a decision to take lightly. There are financial and personal matters that must be taken into consideration. For example, if you take the job, you may not have the education necessary to advance past your current position, but if you go to graduate school for two years, (and likely not work during this time), you will loose any wages you would have earned on the job.
So, do you take the job, or do you go to graduate school? There are benefits to both, including:
Taking the Job:
- Graduate school can be expensive. Even if it is fully funded, you will loose any wages you might have earned on the job. If you have other financial or family obligations grad school can add to, and/or prolong these commitments.
- Graduate school can be stressful.
- Maybe you’re just not sure your degree field is the field for you. Taking a job now can give you the time to think, an income, and possibly help you chart a course in another direction. If this is the case, there are a couple of resources that can help. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the Strong Interest Inventory. You can pay a fee to take either online.
- Volunteering or interning while holding down a job can help build your resume, your network, and your skills. Although many intern positions are unpaid, the hands-on experience and knowledge you will gain is priceless.
- While on the job, taking continuing education courses can often help you transition into another position and give you additional knowledge in a specific area or field, without the costs of grad school.
- Taking a job can give you the income to move to another geographic location. Maybe you’ve always wanted to live in another area, or maybe another area offers increased opportunities in your field. Your salary can get you there.
Choosing Graduate School:
- Depending upon your area of specialty, you may need a graduate degree to get a job or become licensed, such as a counselor psychologist, a clinical psychologist, or a clinical social worker.
- Enrolling in graduate school will provide opportunities to earn a greater wage and grow in the company through advancement.
- Earning an advanced degree may help if and when you want to change careers, or find a better position in another company.
- Attending graduate school will provide opportunities to enhance your education and your knowledge, making you a desirable candidate in a competitive job market.
- You would like to have the opportunity to complete research at a master’s or doctoral level.
- You’d like to teach at the college or university level.
- You’d like to increase your chances for future promotion.
- You’ve been recommended by a professor for graduate studies, in part financed with a position as a research assistant.
Building a Successful Career
View Career Profiles:
No matter if you returned to school and received your graduate degree, or jumped right into the workforce, everyone wants a successful career, to gain added responsibility and respect, and earn a higher salary. There are any number of ways to get ahead, whether that be as a recent graduate, joining a group practice, or opening your own private practice. And because the fields of psychology, counseling, therapy, and social work are competitive, it is imperative to start off on the right foot.
- Review job trends and specialties that are expected to see job growth.
- Determine both your short- and long-term goals.
- Take your career path seriously.
- Broaden your skill set. Take additional coursework to advance your knowledge, attend webinars and conferences, network, start a blog, or create your website, read books by other professionals, and use social media.
- Learn to communicate with colleagues and clients, and listen.
- Make sure what is said about you or by you online is accurate and helps you stand out as an expert in your field.
Believe in yourself, and find ways to help you reach your full potential, both personally and professionally.
Why Building a Professional Network is Important to Your Career
Does the whole idea of networking have you sweating bullets? You’re not alone. However, recruitment experts say that only 20 percent of all jobs are actually published. The portion of jobs not published is often filled internally, or by people the company finds through employment agencies, other professionals in the field, or through networking. It makes sense then to find a way to apply for the 80 percent of jobs not published.
Lynne Sarikas, Director of the MBA Career Center at the D'Amore McKimm School of Business at Northeastern University, says that the single most critical step in the job search is networking and unfortunately it is the most frequently overlooked step. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, more than 80% of jobs are filled through networking. Networking is NOT about asking for a job. It is meeting someone at the company to learn about the company, the industry, the types of position they offer, the skills they value, etc. Networking involves a significant amount of listening.
Start with friends and family and explore who they know at target companies. Do your neighbors or your friends’ parents have any connections to those companies? What about former co-workers or classmates? Join the alumni network at your school and leverage the alumni database to identify contacts. Ask each networking contact for at least three other contacts. Always thank the contact and keep track so you can follow up when you see an opportunity at that company. Challenge yourself to make at least five networking connections each week. It does make a difference.
Here are some of Lynne Sarikas’ tips for successful networking:
Through networking you will learn about different companies, different functions and roles that interest you, the critical skills required in your desired field and gain insights in the company hiring practices and priorities. Your networking efforts also build you a network within your target companies to provide access to the hidden job pool, to act as an early warning on open positions and serve as an internal advocate. Networking is the most critical step in the job search.
So often, frustrated job seekers feel that spending more time on the computer looking at job boards and applying for open positions will increase their chances of landing a job. The majority of online applications are never seen by the hiring manager. You could be the most perfect fit for the job and if your only connection is through an online job board the chances of you landing that job are slim. You should spend ten times more time and effort in networking than you do on the computer if you hope to succeed in your job search.
Sarikas always encourages job seekers to start with the low hanging fruit – people you know when starting a networking process. Ask your friends and family who they know in the companies on your target list and in the field you are most interested in. Ask your friends’ parents and your parents’ friends.
Always ask each networking contact who else they can introduce you to. Once they know more about what interests you they likely have contacts who can be helpful. If you respect their time, listen well and say “thank you” they are likely going to be willing to make referrals. Ask them what professional associations they belong to and what meetings they find most valuable. These groups can provide many valuable connections.
If you are focused on networking and have a clear sense of your target companies and your career interests, it can be amazing where you will find connections. You could find your next connection at the neighborhood barbecue, a social event with friends, an adult education class, or sharing a seat on the train or plane. Ask people what they do and where they work. You can learn a great deal and can make valuable connections.
Above all, networking is the key to job search success but it is also an interesting journey. Enjoy the people you meet along the way and learn as much as possible from each connection. You don’t know which connections just might lead you to your next job.
Tips for Building a Professional Network
What does it take to build your professional network?
- Talk to as many people as possible in your field of specialty
- Join a group or club that shares a common interest in your field
- Intern in your chosen field, or a field that is closely related
- Volunteer with organizations or associations to meet people who share a common interest in your field
- Network online though social media outlets, such as LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus+, Instagram, & MeetUp.
- Take advantage of mentoring relationships you build, professors, and advisors you become acquainted with, in college.
Even if you’re not a born networker, it is an important skill that can be learned and refined. Networking is a way to exchange ideas with like-minded people, share knowledge and gain word-of-mouth referrals. Recent graduates and those just entering the job market often feel the additional pressure of finding employment as college loans, living expenses, and personal obligations add up.
Lida Citroen, an international branding and reputation management expert, maintains that:
“A network of viable contacts is critical in today's competitive business climate. Your network serves not only as lead sources for new business but also as a sounding board, support system, cheerleader, news source and industry expert. Your network is the "circle of influence" that will guide you through your career, if carefully planned and managed”.
Dr. J. Ryan Fuller suggests gaining experience while still in school, either through internships or by volunteering, and building a network of faculty members and colleagues. Networking and building informal systems of support often emerge from personal and professional connections gained with faculty and other peer colleagues in a specific discipline. These networks are often instrumental in providing support and motivation for collaborative research, access to new sources of information, and employment.
“As you continue to build a circle of peer and professional support, you will naturally meet other colleagues, and the number of your connections will expand”.
Kelly Higdon and Miranda Palmer, experts at building and growing a private practice, offer the following advice:
"Have a vision...When you build your practice you want it to enhance your life and to be of service to others. You don't want your life to have to cater to the needs of your business. By having a vision, you will be clear on what kind of practice you want to create. There are a million ways to build a practice; you get to create one that works best for you".
"Own your value...Often when people start out they miss their value and what they bring to the table. Think about how you help people, what it's like to be in the room with you, and what makes you different than the other therapist up the street. Surround yourself with support – Truly supportive colleagues believe in your ability to succeed in private practice and this is worth its weight in gold. Be with people that will challenge you to be your best self and are a source of encouragement.
Using LinkedIn to Build Your Professional Network
Elaine Krehmeyer, who started her own career coaching business called, Career Revelations states that LinkedIn, one of the most powerful networking tools, provides job seekers with the ability to connect, find jobs, and read and comment on interesting articles in their field of choice. Krehmeyer outlines a 3-step process for navigating LinkedIn and making it work for you.
- Create your profile - Get started! Add a professional headshot (don't edit out your friend next to you), highlight your education and experience. Like your resume, your profile is a fluid document that will evolve over time. You just need a basic framework to your profile as you begin your networking.
- Build your network - Start adding contacts. Consider who is in your network and Link In with them. This may include friends, friends' parents, parents' friends, professors, managers, co-workers, and contacts that you've met along the way at receptions, networking events, etc. Anyone you meet is a potential contact for your job search. The more contacts that you have, the more effective LinkedIn will be for you. People are very willing to help you in your job search, but especially when you connected to someone they know well. Job seekers should also join groups on LinkedIn that are relevant for their field or alma mater. Active groups post interesting articles daily. The job seeker can get their name out there by reading and commenting on articles. Even better, the job seeker can author and publish their own posts, providing insight on topics of their choosing.
- Use your network - Online job postings and resume submissions can be a black hole if you simply apply, wait and hope for the best. However, with LinkedIn, you have the ability to connect with contacts who work for the companies to which you are applying. Job seekers should supplement ALL job applications with a relevant connection on LinkedIn. Message that individual, let them know that you have applied online and ask them to forward your resume (or profile) to the appropriate recruiter or hiring manager. Even better, link with the actual recruiter or hiring manager and you are one step closer to getting the attention of the decision makers!
Three Networking Suggestions Students Should Do Now
Suzanne Garber, CEO and Founder of Gauze, says that there are 3-quick networking suggestions students/recent graduates need to do NOW:
- Join Professional Associations - Whether at school or outside of school, professional associations in their field of study such as marketing, physical therapy, or human resources expose students to real life work situations that they will likely encounter during their professional life. It helps them get connected to others in that field, potentially find mentors, and learn new skills. Get involved early.
- Find a Mentor - Before you go asking anyone and everyone with a title higher than ³individual performer² make a checklist of the personal attributes and career accomplishments you admire and would likely like to have in the next 5-10 years. Then, start looking for people accordingly. It¹s easy to find those with the title of VP but it becomes a little more challenging when you¹ve identified personal attributes of ‘appreciates family’, ‘gives back to the community’, or ‘stops at nothing. You define who you want to be and emulate.
- Create a Plan to Meet People - Knowing what you want will help you get there. Using your own network, attending a variety of events to put you in a better position to meet the types of people you already identified above. Then, have a quick elevator pitch ready as to why you both want a mentor and why a mentor would invest time and energy in you. Even if you are not looking for a mentor but looking for a job, you still need to identify what you want, who the people are and why they are successful (or have what you want), you still need to have a plan in place. Networking is never by happenstance.
The Importance of Referrals
There’s no question about it, one of the very best ways to start or advance in your career is through referrals. After all, if a client is thoroughly happy with your service to refer a new client to you, they have done a good proportion of your marketing in advance. In a recent survey at BNI.com of more than 3,000 people, 50 percent of respondents said they got 70 percent of their customers through referrals.
Dr. Steven J. Hanley, a clinical psychologist in Michigan attests that:
“Building a successful referral network is about building successful relationships with others. Don't be afraid to ask directly for referrals from other professionals with whom you've established a relationship”.
Basically, there are two forms of referrals: your current clients and other professionals in your field, which may include mentors, professors, associates, etc. There are a number of real benefits to focus your efforts on gaining referrals:
- There are no or very little costs. Referrals by word-of-mouth are inexpensive and effective.
- When a current client refers a friend or acquaintance to you, you are more likely to develop a successful client-relationship.
- Referrals beget referrals. Forming partnerships with other professionals by sending referrals their way, and in turn, they sending referrals to you is a tried and true method of increasing your clientele.
- Grow referrals proactively by asking happy clients, mentors, and other professionals to introduce you to someone they may know, through a face-to-face meeting, via phone, or through email.
- Referrals build loyalty with current clients.
- Say thank you to people who have given you positive feedback. Doing so may lead to a referral.
- Stay closely connected with past clients/patients.
Dr. Jared Heathman, MD, a Houston child psychiatrist maintains:
“When I started my private practice, one psychologist made the effort to build a connection with me. This psychologist discussed the type of clients she prefers to see, what services are offered, and discussed how referrals could be easily facilitated. I have more clients from this psychologist compared to others as I know exactly how to easily refer appropriate patients and the quality of care provided”.
“Network and continually build relationships with other mental health resources in the community. Strong business relationships often yield strong results”.
Increasing the number of referrals takes both time and energy, but the benefits far outweigh any effort on your part.
Why Social Media Is Important to Your Career
Your personal profile on social media can help you land a job, make valuable connections, promote your website or blog, help you gain clients, and much more. However, if you’re not careful with the information (of photos) that you post online, it can also damage your reputation, your business, or your chances of getting/keeping a job.
There are a number of social media outlets that can help build your personal online brand and enhance your career. They include, but are certainly not limited to:
John Nesler, an SEO and web design expert from Creative California, reports that Facebook is the #1 social media, based on his personal and professional experience:
“Shortly after a number of my classmates graduated, they created a private Facebook group (or as Facebook dubs it, a "secret group") in which they could discuss matters related to their field. It quickly became very common for people to (1) inquire as to the availability of jobs in certain areas, (2) advertise job openings, (3) look for professionals with particular areas of expertise, to whom they could refer clients or fall back on as a resource, and (4) find resources such as groups and online tools for both clients and practitioners”.
“For those in the field [of psychology], it would be wise to ask other practitioners if they happen to be a member of any relevant social media groups, and if so, if they could send an invite. Because psychologists and therapists tend to value privacy, their discussion groups on Facebook (and elsewhere) tend to be private, so that you can't find them just by using Facebook's search feature. So you need to talk to everyone in the field that you know and/or work with, and see if any of them happen to be a member of such a group”.
Vitanee Oliver, a marketing executive for Talent House Recruitment, in the UK, recently published 'How To Use Social Media to Find a Job'. In her experience, social media is one of the key tools in helping people find a job. The majority of recruiters or even businesses post their vacancies on social media, so it's always good to check Facebook and Twitter for job listings that others might not have seen. More specifically, LinkedIn is a great social media tool for your career. It's like an online, interactive resume, and extremely useful for networking within your industry. Oliver does assert, however that:
“Social media can have its downfalls when it comes to gaining employment. Often, recruiters or potential employers will look you up if they're thinking of employing you, so if you have anything offensive or extremely unprofessional it can damage your reputation and your chances of landing a new job”.
Why Blogging Is Important to Your Career
Blog, is short for web log. Its origins that go back to long before the internet, in the form of diaries and other written musings. Today, a blog is a webpage that serves as a publicly accessible personal journal for an individual or business, according to webopedia.com.
Although most people will agree that blogging takes time and energy, many professionals believe the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. Through blogging, or guest blogging on a partner site you can become an influencer in your field, build your network, and collaborate with other professionals. Maintaining a blog can also allow you to test SEO and Social Media marketing strategies.
As search engines like fresh content, updating a blog regularly with relevant content sets a web site apart and gives search engine crawlers more pages to crawl and index for your domain, thus increasing your visibility – all of which can help to advance your career, gain recognition as an authority within your network, and demonstrate your passion for your specialty or practice.
Katelyn Cresmer, owner and blogger from Taking it Back a Notch, contends that,
“Blogging can help people in their careers because their blogs reflect what they know about their industry”. Although she doesn’t recommend turning a blog into a personal diary, (that won’t get you a job), she does believe that “niche blogs that relate to the industry you want a job in, will show interest, knowledge and passion. Qualities employers love.”
Anna S.E. Lundberg, an expert in brand-building for start-ups and life coaching, recommends that:
“Blogging is a way to process your own thoughts and arguments, as writing forces you to get focused and clear on what you’re trying to say. If you’re managing the platform yourself, for example Wordpress, then you will also learn a lot about web design, html, social media, and so on. As your audience grows and you share your posts across social platforms, you will be connecting with people, building your reputation and establishing yourself as a thought leader or at least someone with passion in the area you’ve chosen to write about. If done well, your blog becomes an important part of your CV.”
According to John Nesler, of Creative California, blogs are particularly tailored to the fields of psychology, counseling and therapy. He offers three reasons that individuals in these fields can benefit from blogging:
- For those who want to work in areas of the field that involve writing and publishing work, whether self-help style books for the general public, or papers for psychology-related journals, blogging is a good way to improve your overall writing skills, and keep those mental muscles in good working order. If you haven't done a substantive amount of writing for several years, and then suddenly jump into writing a major piece of work, you're going to run into roadblocks because you don't have a fleshed-out writing process. A blog is a good way to keep the writing juices flowing.
- If someone is actively looking for a job that involves a lot of writing, well-written blog posts can serve as good examples of your writing ability. When responding to a job query that requires the inclusion of writing samples, you can polish up some of your best blog posts to give them a more professional feel, and submit those as examples.
- In almost any field of work, but especially psychology, personal processing is extremely important. It's very easy to burn out if you internalize stress, and don't have an outlet for it. Blogging can be a way to work through difficult experiences, and also develop insights that may be useful on the job. Of course, for psychologists it's important to be careful to not violate HIPAA when writing about professional experiences. It might be wise to have a personal blog that is for your eyes only, as a safe way of writing about professional concerns.
Why Building an Email List is Important to Your Career
What are email lists, and why are they important for building a network or fostering business and individual/mentoring relationships? According to Wikipedia, an email list is an electronic mailing list that allows for widespread distribution of information to many Internet users. While some people feel that email is outdated when compared to other social media, email marketing is still considered the most direct line of communication for turning leads into sales.
Jonathan Koenig, co-founder of CareersinPsychology.org, maintains that building email lists are increasingly valuable for most online businesses, and by far the most important tool to use to build your brand, your revenue, your social network, and a following. Essentially, an email list is a list of individuals who have opted-in to receive emails from you about your services or products. The people who have opted into your email list are, for the most part, interested in your segment of the market, and therefore, interested in what you have to say or offer. Koenig emphasizes that,
“Building an email list isn't about capturing an email and just sending mass emails to buy some product. It’s about building relationships. As long as you continue to send the reader amazing content, content that excites them when they see it in their in-box, then you are doing your job to nurture the relationship”.
So how does this help a graduate with a degree in psychology? As with any business, the key to successful sales is marketing. It’s not enough to simply be a good practitioner, you must market yourself, too. Any business that someone might conceive is going to need people who will pay for those services. Running a psychology practice is no different.
Although most graduates are not going to go right out and begin a private practice after graduating from college, according to the Center for Workforce Studies, more than half of all psychologists are independent practitioners. So, at some point – after gaining valuable experience and acquiring financial and marketing acumen – private practice may be an option to consider].
Koenig suggests cultivating a following at all times.
“In psychology, there are specific ethical boundaries that must be considered when publishing information, but if I were simply looking at a newsletter from a business standpoint, I would provide my readership with information about a specific issue or problem. Recipients of the newsletter will then be receiving valuable information that they can, in turn, share on social media or send to friends who may have the same issues/problems”.
It should be noted that the APA’s Ethics Code says that psychologists may only share the minimum information necessary.
If then, in the future, you intend to open a private practice, you now have an established following of loyal readers who trust you as an expert in your field. Then, with your qualified email list, you can simply notify them you are open for business. If instead you choose to join a group practice, having an established following of loyal readers would be a valuable asset you bring to the table, and may give you leverage during an interview with a potential employer.
How Reviews Can Help or Hurt Your Career
There are dozens, if not hundreds of consumer review sites on the web. At any given time, hundreds of people are using these reviews to decide things, such as which restaurant to choose for Friday night’s birthday celebration, or which hotels have completely eradicated bed bugs in all of their rooms. Because we recognize that not all reviews can be trusted or assumed authentic, it is difficult to make important decisions simply based on the reviews of a few dozen people. Yet, hundreds of people do exactly this, everyday.
One such consumer review site is Yelp. Founded in 2004, Yelp’s purpose is ‘to connect people with great local businesses’ like coffee shops, hair stylists, and mechanics. With a monthly average of more than 89-million unique visitors, and more than 90-million reviews by the end of their third quarter, 2015, people seeking honest reviews don’t think twice about trusting Yelp.
But what about trusting Yelp reviews/reviewers when searching for a professional, such as a doctor, dentist, or even a psychologist? Is reviewing a restaurant anything like reviewing a therapist? And can those reviews be trusted? There’s nothing wrong with the idea of reviewing, and/or posting reviews for healthcare professionals. But what about when those reviews contain confidential information about a person’s relationship with his or her therapist.
On Yelp, there are currently more than 50 pages of 1-star to 5-star reviews for pediatricians, therapists, psychologists, and other healthcare professionals, in San Francisco alone.
With thousands of professionals relying on 5-star reviews for future business, is Yelp the safe, or trusted site to talk therapy, much less choose a therapist? Does the information found on Yelp offer any validity, or is it no better than relying on the advice of a stranger on the street? Social networking can create buzz and provide free or semi-free publicity for a business…or a psychologist. Even negative reviews, if polite, can actually increase business, according to the Journal of Consumer Research.
One interesting statement found on Yelp says that because, “Trust is our main concern, businesses can’t pay to alter or remove the reviews.” That said, a patient could have a lousy therapy experience with a wonderful therapist, thus producing 1- or 2-star reviews. Because the relationship between therapist and patient is both complex and intimate, a review may or may not completely or correctly present the final outcomes.
A professional psychology group called, Williamsburg Therapy Group, with two locations in Brooklyn, NY holds a coveted spot on Yelp with a dozen 5-star reviews. The group’s overwhelming opinion is …
Yelp is great for business. “It has been a tremendous help to the practice.”
Much like many other therapy groups found on Yelp, Keene Murray Therapy, also located in Brooklyn, NY, says they have found Yelp to be a crucial part of their marketing strategy.
“Nearly all of our clients find us online, and more and more of them are using mobile devices. Yelp is optimized for these kinds of searches and seems to be one of the first places potential clients check.
We started out buying Yelp ads, which boosted our presence in Yelp search results. After some good reviews, we chose to reduce and, finally, eliminate paid Yelp ads without noticing any negative consequences. We feel that our investment in Yelp ads over the course of four years really paid off.”
Yuko Hanakawa, PhD, a NY state licensed clinical psychologist has a wonderfully beautiful website, Flowers Rivers, and a presence on Yelp. She asserts that her experience with Yelp has been scarce. However, all of the reviews for her practice have been positive:
“The positive reviews have helped to attract a few clients, especially the younger ones.”
Given that most people find healthcare professionals and therapists via word-of-mouth or by referrals from another healthcare professional, Yelp is still a great marketing tool for many, many businesses. Nonetheless, the jury may still be out on whether or not Yelp is beneficial for healthcare professionals, psychologists, doctors, social workers, and others who treat patients and perform so much more than a simple oil change.
What to Expect From Private Practice
It would have been valuable to have been taught the ins and outs of private practice while in grad school, but unfortunately all too many individuals graduate without the knowledge necessary to open a private practice, much less keep it open. The main complaint of psychologists, counselors, therapists, and social workers in the first years of small group or private practice is the lack of information and knowledge about the general business skills needed to build a private practice. Some may admit knowing a bit about business and marketing in general, but few said they understood the amount of work it takes to start and expand a private practice.
Kristen Martinez, M.Ed., Ed.S., LMHCA, NCC, Co-Founder, Psychotherapist, & LGBT+ Affirmative Counselor in private practice in Seattle, WA offers credible advice on a number of issues for those brave souls opting to enter private practice. Her main piece of advice for anyone entering opening a private practice in the fields of psychology, therapy, social work or counseling?...
“Beginning a private practice takes lots of courage! You must have passion, ambition, and compassion for your clients and the field. However, if you're interested in opening up a private practice, it takes much more than that. You need to get comfortable and get informed about business in order to succeed in private practice - passion and competence as a therapist is simply not enough. Especially in the beginning”.
Martinez goes on to say that you need to wear many hats at once, and that is something you must get comfortable with (or at least tolerate, for the time being).
“If you will be bootstrapping (defined on Investopedia as “A situation in which an entrepreneur starts a company with little capital”), you will first want to look into the regulations and rules for your state and country for your profession. You will need to register as a business... so now's the time for you to come up with a great business name. Spend a good amount of time on this: an alluring name can really help your business stand out and stick in the minds of potential clients”.
Martinez believes it is also very important to determine/choose a specialty if an individual is wishing to open a practice.
“Private practices succeed far more when they can stand out from the multitude of others, and being a generalist here won't get you very far. You want to be specializing in a client population or issue that you are passionate, informed, and knowledgeable about. Take your time to really think about who your ideal client would be”.
Dr. Steven J Hanley, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Michigan offers these relevant and useful tips for starting and growing your private practice:
- This is a marathon, not a sprint. Think it terms of years and not months. Many psychologists have unrealistic expectations about how quickly they will become successful.
- There is not one RIGHT way. You need to find your way that matches your personality and skills.
- Are you going to accept insurances? If so, you will likely have an easier time building your practice. However, you may be hampered by fee agreements that you would not otherwise have.
- Every professional contact you have is an opportunity to let people know about your practice and specialties.
- Building a web presence. At minimum this should include a professional looking website. Ideally that site would also include a blog that consistently publishes helpful and high quality information that potential patients and other professionals would find useful.
Unquestionably, beginning a private therapy practice is much like starting any business, and there are a number of questions you must answer prior to opening your doors. Where will your business be located, what kind of insurance will I need, who is my competition, and how much money does it take to start a practice, are just a few. The bad news is that nearly 50 percent of all new businesses close their doors within five years, according to the US Small Business Administration. Do your homework beforehand, and chances are you will be part of the 50 percent who make it.
Rob Reinhardt, a Licensed Professional Counselor Supervisor, ethics and technology expert, and private practice consultant started his practice years ago, and now provides advice on starting and building a private practice through blogs, magazine articles and through his consulting services. Although he maintains there is much more to opening a practice, he offers this advice to those just starting out:
- When someone is contemplating starting a private practice, the first thing I encourage him or her to develop is a vision of what they want that practice to become their ideal practice, if you will. This includes answers to questions like, ‘What are their motivations for being in private practice?’ ‘What do they envision their work hours being?’ ‘Do they see a solo or group practice?’ ‘What kind of services do they want to be offering?’ I also encourage them to think about what their practice will look like in five years.
- This exploration is incredibly important as having that vision will provide answers to many, if not most, of their questions. Like a mission statement for any company, they can base decisions now on whether or not they will lead them to what they have envisioned building.
- In a more nuts and bolts arena, I encourage them to examine how they will use technology from the get go. It's much easier to implement complementary technology like EHR/EMR/Practice Management System, Internet Fax and Phone and others at the beginning, before your caseload is full.
Many professionals in the field will advise speaking with other clinicians who have opened a practice, gaining marketing, networking and business knowledge while still in college or through continuing education and internships. Consulting a mentor can also be a great way to find answers to questions you may never of thought to ask. Although a mentor may not have all the answers, they can often offer some insights to opening and maintaining a practice. However, there are downsides to relying too heavily or solely on mentoring relationships when just starting out.
Nikki Martinez, Psy.D., LCPC Psychologist, Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor says,
“I think having a mentor would make professionals lives so much easier, but this is a challenge itself. You cannot ask your boss from somewhere you are leaving to be a mentor, and some of the people who have been my mentors have not had super successful private practices. So, there is much to be learned for them as well. They can give you some ideas and mistakes to avoid, but in terms of the nuts and bolts, I found better lists and advice online over any person I asked. I even think there is a little factor of the air of competition, like placing one more person out there to take referrals”.
Liz Morrison, LCSW, a Manhattan-based psychotherapist and owner at Liz Morrison Therapy agrees that networking and setting yourself apart from the competition is imperative when opening a practice. She offers this advice:
“When starting a new business, it is important to establish yourself in the community of others who are doing the same thing. Setting up casual meetings to introduce yourself is a positive way to get your future business started. Additionally, meeting with people who you could partner with in the future is a great way to make connections that will help your business thrive”.
“Opening a new business in a sea of other similar businesses can be exceptionally challenging. The competition is fierce and everyone is fighting for the same customers. Researching what others in the field are doing can be the first step in setting ones business apart from the rest. After researching the competition, you will be able to start off on the right foot in providing something new and unique to your customers, rather than getting lost in what everyone else is doing. If this is done after opening your business, it might be too late, as people will already know you as the person who does the same thing as everyone else”.
Important Factors to Consider About Private Practice
According to the APA, 31 percent of the American Psychological Association’s members were in private practice in 2012. But, before you jump headfirst and hang out your shingle, there are a number of important factors to consider:
- Get a Doctoral degree. You can’t open a psychology practice without one.
- Obtain state licensure in the state you wish to practice. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, all clinical psychologists must be licensed or certified to practice.
- Many professionals already in the field will recommend gaining experience by working in an established or group practice or clinic. This step allows you to practice your skills and learn the ins and outs of how to run a business prior to opening your own private practice.
- Develop a plan, both for your business and for your personal life. Opening a practice can take time, money and a great deal of hard work. Preparing beforehand can safe you many headaches in the long run.
- Network with other professionals, gain referrals, get your name out there in social media and through advertising in publications, and inform other professionals about your intent to open a practice.
- In advance, gain a thorough knowledge about taxes, accounting, mental health law, marketing, hiring, and an overall general knowledge about how to run a business.
Annette Poizner, MSW, Ed.D., RSW agrees that there are many things to consider prior to entering private practice, yet also maintains that most graduate students expect to “do time in the trenches’ prior to launching into private practice. She says that,
“One of the big mistakes that people make when they go through graduate school is that they focus on their interests, as opposed to thinking about what sort of niche will be marketable once they graduate. The market is flooded with psychotherapists, psychologists, etc. Many of the students in my graduate program did all their papers and also their doctoral dissertation on some topic that they personally found interesting; a topic that, down the line, would in no way attract a psychotherapy clientele”.
“In graduate school, students who want to launch into private practice ought to explore interesting treatment methods that will make the practice easy to promote. Students should find their niche and become an expert so that they become the 'go to' person for the media. Think innovation, think cutting edge, think about what’s coming around the corner but isn’t here yet. Secondly, students can prepare themselves for the competitive realm of private practice by pursuing institute training throughout school. Graduate school provides credentials and basic counseling skills, but institutes are more likely to help the student acquire cutting edge skills that will sell”.
Although cold-calling is difficult for most people, proactively prospecting for clients/patients can reap benefits. Karen Sherman, Ph.D., Psychologist/Author/Internet Expert/Professor says,
“One of the best ways to start is to give free talks at your local library/YMCA/YWCA, etc. Obviously, speak about your area of expertise. Hand out a sheet with the main points of the talk and on it have your contact info. I did this and always got a client out of it”.
Why a Website is Vital to Your Private Practice
If you’re in private practice, it is imperative to communicate your unique message in a professional and engaging way through your website. Although most websites will generally cost about $100/month, it is money well spent for a number of reasons:
- Your practice will gain credibility.
- our clients/patients can stay informed about you, your practice, upcoming events, blogs, or any other information you want to provide.
- Your website is open 24/7 even if you’re not. Patients can review your hours, have access to emergency phone numbers, etc.
- If you are recommended by another professional or from a listing on a directory, people can log on your website to read about you and gain greater confidence in you as a practitioner.
- Providing information to your patients takes time; whether by phone, in emails, in your brochure, or face-to-face. Your website can provide this information in less time, and for less money in the long run.
A number of must-have’s for your website:
- An domain name that is easy to remember. The name of your practice or your personal name is typically more professional.
- An easy-to-find contact form. More than just an email, this form will allow patients to get in touch or make an appointment without the fear of landing in your spam file, or forfeiting confidentiality through an email.
- A list of your specialties, or those treatments you are best at. If a client wants help for a particular condition, they will look for a therapist who can provide them the very best treatment. Listing your strengths and specialties will save both you, and your potential patients, time.
- Putting a face to a name can have a positive effect on you and your practice. Studies have shown that having a professional photo (not a grainy photo you cropped and copied from your Facebook page), increases the chances of visitors to your website becoming clients.
- Make sure your website is mobile-friendly. Many potential clients will first visit your website via a mobile device, and nothing is more frustrating than a website that doesn’t resize or look professional on a mobile tablet or phone. The easiest way to test your site is on Google’s ‘mobile friendly tool’.
Liz Morrison, LCSW maintains,
“Having an online presence can be the make- or break-it deal for most businesses. Setting up a website can generate attention even before opening your doors. Additionally, making your business known through the various social media sites (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.) will go a long way in preparing to secure future customers. This is something helpful to have in place before opening your business as it can take time. If you wait until after your business officially opens, you might lose potential clients who are looking for your services online”.
Important Advice About Taxes and Insurance
Many practitioners who open a private practice are surprised by self-employment taxes, income taxes, employment taxes, HIPAA compliance, billing for your services, and insurance choices and requirements. Trying to grasp the ins and outs of taxes and insurance while trying to build a practice can be frustrating, costly, and time-consuming. The American Psychological Association (APA) is a valuable resource with answers to many of your questions, and information to help get you started. Here, you’ll also find information on HIPAA compliance, legal and regulatory compliance, alternative practice models, pointers for all practitioners, and much more.
What is the #1 advice from professionals who have started and are successfully maintaining a private practice? Get financial advice from a qualified CPA. You may have to interview a few until you feel comfortable with their suggestions and advice, and yes, CPA’s do charge a fee, but this is money well-spent as he or she can save you both financial and tax problems down the road.
Before you begin your practice you’ll also have to obtain insurance coverage for your practice, which can be customized to fit your practice’s specific liabilities. They include: General Liability Insurance, Property Insurance, Malpractice Insurance (also called Errors and Omissions Insurance, E&O Insurance, or Professional Liability Insurance), Business Owner’s Insurance, Worker’s Compensation Insurance, Cyber Liability Insurance, Umbrella Liability Insurance and Auto Insurance. Speaking with a insurance specialist is recommended for any business owner, especially those in mental health professions.
There are also decisions to be made regarding what type of business you plan to open; a Limited Liability Company (LLC), a Sole Proprietorship, a Partnership, a Private Limited Liability Company (PLLC), which is offered in some states, a Corporation, or something else? There are benefits and obstacles to each type of business, and consulting with a business expert, a lawyer, or your CPA is not only necessary prior to opening your doors for business, it is a requirement. The U.S. Small Business Administration can offer information on each.
Private practice is not for everyone, and many psychologists, therapists, social workers, and/or counselors will choose to join a group practice, work for a non-profit, gain employment at a company or hospital, work for the government, teach, go into research, or find another way to use their skills and knowledge. No matter which route you choose, there are a number of factors to keep in mind to be successful in your career:
- Focus on what you’re good at – specialize. Find a niche and focus your energy on being the best your can be
- Set attainable personal and professional goals – this is true no matter where you choose to practice
- Mentor, and acquire mentoring relationships throughout your career
- Build a professional network of colleagues and other professionals
- Use social media to your benefit
- Blog, build an email list, get referrals, and do your best work to secure credible / 5-star reviews
- Get listed on applicable directories
- Submit articles to relevant magazines and publications