My Life Story: Becoming a Practicing Psychologist

In a previous post about changes in midlife, I described several significant changes that I underwent. The first of these was that, at age 32, I decided that I wasn’t satisfied teaching what I hadn’t practiced, and sought part-time (later full-time) clinical work in state prisons. This post will describe how that came about.

When I went to graduate school in the clinical psychology program at Kent State University, I thought that I probably would eventually work with clients. During  my training I enjoyed the practicum and internship experiences I had, largely because I was making a difference in people’s lives. I also very much liked a different aspect of the program, namely the academic side of psychology. I was required to take coursework in several of the basic areas of psychology, and I found courses in social psychology, personality, learning, and human development particularly fascinating. A major emphasis of my undergraduate program at Calvin College had been that faith should not be isolated but instead integrated with whatever field we happened to be studying, and I discovered that psychology is a field that is ripe with opportunities for integration. I started to think that I could explore commonalities between Christianity and psychology while serving on the faculty of a Christian college.

When the time came to look for jobs, then, I had two options open to me. I could try to find a clinical job, or I could try to find a college teaching position. I ended up looking primarily for a teaching position. One practical reason for going this direction was that I hadn’t finished my dissertation yet, and lacking that credential would present more problems in a practice setting than in academia. My supervisor at the time recommended that I go the academic route. Perhaps an even bigger factor was that I wasn’t entirely confident that I could be successful as a clinician. It wasn’t so much that I couldn’t do the work as that I might not be accepted in a professional role by colleagues and the public. I still felt rather awkward in many social situations and doubted my ability to present myself as confident and capable. A college environment seemed to me a safe place to continue to work out my social anxieties. After all, I had been in school almost nonstop for over twenty years at that point, and was comfortable in the classroom.

I ended up getting a job at Spring Arbor College (now Spring Arbor University), a private college affiliated with the Free Methodist Church. The school was a good fit for me. I found a mentor in John Allen, a professor in the Psychology Department who was a few years older than I was. As I expected, the environment was conducive to thinking about issues of faith and psychology, and I published a handful of articles in that area. I was overly pedantic at first as an instructor—I’m afraid that I bored a fair number of my early students—but with time and practice I got better.

Still, I wasn’t entirely happy. As I became more effective as a college professor, I

State Prison of Southern Michigan, which was closed in 2007. Image from www.mlive.com

State Prison of Southern Michigan, which was closed in 2007. Image from http://www.mlive.com

started to regret not having developed that other possible self that had once been so prominent, the practicing clinician. I had my doctorate by then, which would make it easier to find clinical work. I started looking around for a place I could practice on a part time basis, working toward licensure. I eventually found myself in a prison! In nearby Jackson, the State Prison of Southern Michigan, a hulking old facility that was at the time the largest walled prison in the world, had twenty or so psychologists to do intake assessments, parole evaluations, and psychotherapy. The psychology staff always had openings (not many psychologists want to work with inmates), but only for full-time employees. When I contacted Robert Walsh, the head of psychological services, he had just gotten approval to divide some of his unfilled full-time openings into part-time positions. I was the first part-timer hired. I enjoyed working there so much I eventually left the college and spent the next twenty-two years in clinical work of one kind or another.

So, what do I make of this episode in my life? Where does it fit in the First, Second, and Third Journey perspective that I outlined earlier? I’ll reflect on those questions in a subsequent post.

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About bobritzema

I am a fourth-generation American of Dutch ancestry and am trained as a clinical psychologist. In 2012, I retired from Methodist University in North Carolina to return to my parents' home and provide them with assistance. I maintain part-time therapy practices in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Fayetteville, North Carolina. I currently worship at Square Inch Community Church in Grand Rapids. I can be reached at bobritzema@hotmail.com.
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