Dear Me, Future Psychologist. Yours truly, Dr. Mitchell Prinstein

It’s time for the next installment of Dear me, future psychologist, a gradPSYCH Blog exclusive in which a prominent psychologist writes a letter to his/her 16-year-old self. We hope you enjoy these letters and glean some invaluable wisdom and guidance as you decide whether to enter graduate school in psychology, as you navigate the challenges of graduate school, and as you make decisions about your career and life.

mitchThis letter is from Mitchell Prinstein, PhD, ABPP. Dr. Prinstein is the John Van Seters Distinguished Professor of Psychology and the Director of Clinical Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Mitch’s research examines interpersonal models of internalizing symptoms and health risk behaviors among adolescents, with a specific focus on the unique role of peer relationships in the developmental psychopathology of depression and self-injury. He is the PI on several past and active grants from the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute of Child and Human Development, and several private foundations. He serves as the Editor for the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, and is an editorial board member for several developmental psychopathology journals.






Dear 16-Year-Old Me,

Hey! I’m you thirty years from now!  I know you must have a million questions, and I’ll try to tell you everything you want to know, but first things first:  yes, you will be over five feet tall.  Not by much, but you finally will start growing any day now!  Great job hanging in there for so long!

Guess what! You’re also going to be wildly ecstatic about your career choice!  It’s going to take a little time and struggle to get to that point too, however.  When you get to college, you’ll get wrapped up in all kind of questions about psychology vs. advertising vs. law, and you’ll end up sending in applications for law school and clinical psychology Ph.D. programs at the same time.  It will be tough.  Everyone will have an opinion on what is best for you – what seems most prestigious, what will earn you the most money, etc.  Don’t worry – the choice becomes pretty obvious just a few minutes into your first interview at doctoral programs.  You end up picking what you genuinely love, and that ends up more important than anything else.

For real – if you choose your path to make someone else happy, you will have a job, but if you choose what makes you truly happy, you will have a passion for life.

On internship, it will start all over again. You’ll start debating whether you want to stay in a med school environment or pursue your dream of a traditional arts and sciences job.  Even after you get tenure, you’ll fret over how much time to invest in your research versus university administration, or even service to the profession.  Your career will be filled with these kinds of decisions and questions.  But that’s the great thing about the path we’ve chosen, I think.  There are so many options, and so many ways to make a difference.  Clinical psychologists can do a ton, and there are many paths that lead to helping others.  Over the next thirty years you will hear so many of your friends in other fields complain that they feel stuck in their jobs, or bored with their careers.  But in psychology we pick what we love, and we can even change over time.  It really is the best job in the world!

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that most of your research will focus on relationships. But it turns out that this isn’t only an important area of study for you.  Professional relationships also will be where you find the energy to keep your career going for the next three decades.  It starts with the two most amazing mentors you can have – Annette La Greca and Tony Spirito.  They will teach you how to work with students, how to give back to the field, and how to meet trainees where they are while encouraging them to reach for more.  You will spend your entire career trying to be half the mentor that they were for you.  Relationships will also be the feature that makes you happiest in your department.  No one wakes up to look at their pay stub, and no one is addressed by their fancy title every day.  What gets you out of bed every morning is the excitement that comes from being part of a team that shares common goals and values each other.  It’s really quite simple, but so often forgotten in too many settings, and by too many applicants who make decisions based on factors ultimately far less important, in my opinion.

Last, you will find that the relationships you create with your own trainees will give you the greatest joy in your career. You will learn from them, you will care for them, and you will find their successes far more sweet than anything that happens to you.  This is what makes you happy at work.

Can I mention just a few more things you should keep a look out for while in graduate school and beyond?

  1. Don’t work too hard. You only get to be in your twenties once in your life, and it’s important you learn to balance your personal and professional demands. You’ll hear this a lot from people along the way, but it will seem harder to execute than you realize. Here’s the key – just commit to yourself. You won’t find it hard to commit four years of your life to graduate school just to fuel your career – let yourself commit a few hours each week for just for you too. Just block it off on your calendar and stick to it. Check out a few improv and acting classes while you are in South Florida – you will like those. Hit the gym a little too while you are at it. You could stand to gain a little weight.
  2. Learn how long it takes to accomplish a task well, and schedule only that amount of time to do it.
  3. You will learn way more about clinical work in one full-time internship year than you will in little bits and pieces throughout grad school, so don’t expect yourself to be so competent until then.
  4. As you finish grad school, the internship application process will stress the hell out of you. But it will give you a chance to reflect on your career and your unique identity as a psychologist like you never had before, and for that you will be grateful.
  5. You are a bit perfectionistic and pretty determined. That’s what helped you keep a perfect attendance record from kindergarten until high school graduation, and it will serve you well in other ways over the next thirty years too. But be warned: you will be surrounded by people who are amazingly productive, accomplished, impactful, and even “famous.” It will be intimidating at times, and inspiring at others. Let me let you off the hook now: you will never be one of them. And that’s OK. It’s not about you. And it’s not about the number of your pubs, or citations, or how many people know your name. It’s about the whole field working together, helping each other, and using science to learn the truth based on each other’s discoveries.
  6. In about 25 years, there will be something called Twitter. Resist it. It is the devil.
  7. There is no one way to be successful in this career. And even for every outcome you may hope for, there is no single way to get there. Don’t get too fixated on any dream. Drift with the tide a little and you may find options that you didn’t even know existed. Not only is this a good way to stay open-minded, but it also takes the pressure off big time.
  8. You will love clinical work, research, teaching, and service. Each takes time and dedication to do well. Pick two you want to focus on. Add a third 10 years later.
  9. Every day during your pre-tenure years, you will repeat the following mantra: Have learning goals, not performance goals. In other words, expect imperfections, and take every failure as an opportunity to learn something new. The pre-tenure years are your faculty-in-training years. You’re not supposed to know how to do it yet. So expect that you will stumble more often than not, and by the time you get to tenure, you may be starting to figure it out.
  10. Related, much of what it takes to succeed as a faculty member is based on skills that are not taught in grad school. Start reading books on management, accounting, mentoring, small business skills, and negotiation now!
  11. Last but not least, you will find that our field kind of stinks at sharing what it knows with the world. This is a shame because there is no scientific discipline that has greater potential to change the lives of humanity as many times a day as does psychology. Think about whether you can help make a difference by helping encourage folks towards public education.

I hope this is helpful advice for you, Mitch! Good luck with the next thirty years, and make sure you take mental snapshots along the way!  Meanwhile, I’m going to go check email (you’ll learn what that is in about five years) and see if there’s a letter from me when I am 76!  I sure would love to learn how the second half turns out!

Editor’s Note: Dear Me, Future Psychologist is inspired by the Dear Me book series by Joseph Galliano. Special thanks to David A. Meyerson, Ph.D. for creating this series for the gradPSYCH Blog. Please check out other letters in this series from Dr. Howard Gardner and Dr. Robert Sternberg.

3 thoughts on “Dear Me, Future Psychologist. Yours truly, Dr. Mitchell Prinstein

  1. Gayle L. Blakely

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I scrolled across the Net and found it, shared it on my LinkedIn, and cherished your words of encouragement for my hopeful future one day.

  2. Mindi Hamby

    Hey, Mitch!
    Glad to hear that you love your job. I was with you when you weren’t sure what to do. I’m sure you make a great psychologist. You were always a good listener.

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