A Mock Career Counseling Session

Counseling techniques plus lessons in leadership.

Posted Sep 18, 2019

Pixabay, Public Domain
Source: Pixabay, Public Domain

In this mock career counseling session, the chair of a psychology department is trying to change its emphasis from applied psychology to basic research.

Chair: Psychotherapy’s results aren’t all we wish for and haven't improved that much over the decades. Rather than pass on those insufficient approaches to the next generation, we have an obligation to our students, patients, and society to focus on basic research, especially neuroscience research, to better understand the root causes of mental illness, from mild anxiety to major depression, autism to Alzheimer’s. But entrenched interests will fight it to the death, or at least until I’m fired.

Counselor: Who are the entrenched interests?

Chair: Professors who teach traditional psychology courses, alumni donors who don’t want to think their education is obsolete, students who want to be practitioners and not basic-science researchers, the community that likes getting free psychotherapy from our interns, the government, which wants our graduates to get jobs. Everyone’s fighting me except the few long-range thinkers who recognize that the field must change lest it joins phrenology and alchemy on the dustbin of pseudoscience.

Counselor: What’s a point of entry into the problem, that is, the person or idea of least resistance to moving toward basic research?

Chair: I guess the provost and the professor who’s currently teaching a course in neuropsych.

Counselor: Have you met with them to brainstorm a strategy?

Chair: Only in bits and pieces. I should convene a formal meeting.

Counselor: Do you have a sense of whether to start the transition not by replacing any existing faculty but by trying to bring in an outside heavy hitter in neuropsych?

Chair: That would cost a fortune. Atop a fat salary, s/he’d demand a well-equipped lab. I’d need to get top administration behind that. For now, it might be more feasible to convince some existing faculty to teach neuroscience.

Counselor: Sometimes, status matters. Might you want to create a “Center for the Study of the Biological Basis of Psychology?” Name it and they will come?

Chair: It’s a thought. Maybe it could initially be led by one of our professors and staffed by post-docs and graduate students.

Counselor: By any chance, might an influential member of your faculty who’s a likely obstructionist be named its head and given a sabbatical to get up to speed?

Chair: I don’t know enough about neuropsych to know whether s/he could learn enough in a six-month or even year-long sabbatical to be a worthy head of the center.

Counselor: So are we back to trying to sell upper administration on bringing in someone with a huge grant and reputation in neuroscience?

Chair: That’s worth discussing with the provost. But I worry that even if that’s approved, so many of our faculty are steeped in tradition that they’d fight changing the required courses, the specializations for the Ph.D., and so on. That change would render less than useful all their years as experts in psychoanalysis and psychodynamics in favor of something they know little about.

Counselor: Yes, it would be very tough to bring them around. Might one or two of the professors who are most likely to be obstructionist be encouraged to take early retirement or counseled to transfer to a university where their expertise would be more valued?

Chair: Very iffy but maybe a necessary try.

Counselor: You mentioned that the students are another source of resistance.

Chair: Yes. They’re spending all that time and money on a psych degree in hopes of being a therapist or some such. To avoid an uproar, I’d need to make the transition slowly, maybe over a five year period.

Counselor: That also would help mollify the alumni?

Chair: Yes, for that, I think we’d also need to meet one-on-one with the fat-cat donors, have the alumni magazine focus on alumni accomplishments in psychotherapy and then slowly transition into articles on our exciting neuroscience program and its fine professors and students.

Counselor: You also mentioned government pressure to increase your graduates’ employability.

Chair: Right. We’d probably need to beef up our contributions to the campus’s career center, hold events in which successful therapists come in to talk with the students, and maybe offer a course in transitioning from college to psychology career.

Counselor: Will the community object too vociferously to ending the free psychotherapy provided by your interns?

Chair: We’d need to shrink the program slowly, and when wait-times to see an intern got too long, make referrals.

Counselor: Okay, we’ve at least touched on all the areas you mentioned. To summarize, what do you want to put on your to-do list?

Chair: I should do some hard thinking about each of those issues: getting a star to head a center, gaining buy-in from faculty and administration and somehow neutralizing the most fervent opponents, effecting a fair transition for students, and bringing alumni and government along. Then, set up a meeting with a swing-vote and a supportive faculty member and at least one senior administrator to develop a plan that we can all get behind.

Counselor: At the risk of sounding like a shrink, how are you feeling about it, really?

Chair: Nervous but willing to take a few low-risk baby steps.


Here are counseling principles embedded in this session:

  • To preempt or address client overwhelm, ask the client to identify a relatively easy first step. In this case, the counselor asked, “What’s a point of entry into the problem: the person or idea of least resistance?”
  • It’s helpful to structure the session. In this case, the structure was the sources of resistance.
  • Especially when dealing with an efficacious client, get as many of the ideas to come from him or her as possible.
  • When offering a suggestion, it’s often wise to make it a choice, e.g., “Do you have a sense of whether to start the transition by not replacing any existing faculty but by trying to bring in a heavy hitter in neuropsych?”
  • Near the end of the session or whenever a draft plan has been created, it’s wise to do an emotional check-in. In this case, the counselor asked, “At the risk of sounding like a shrink, how are you feeling about it, really?”
  • End the session with a summary, ideally said by the client and that includes a to-do list.

Here are embedded principles that might be of value to leaders and other change agents:

  • Consider the long view—the megatrends affecting your organization’s products or services.
  • Early on, identify major likely sources of support and of resistance, and develop an individualized plan for working with each.
  • Decide whether it’s wise to make a precipitous or gradual change. In this case, it seems clear that an incremental approach is appropriate but that won’t always be the case.
  • Develop a shoestring competitor to the ideal. In this case, it was to, rather than recruit a star, start by reassigning an influential and potentially obstructionist faculty member to head the initiative. As they say, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” The other part of the shoestring competitor is to staff it as much as possible with low-cost post-docs and graduate students.
  • Recognize the power of status. In this case, even if the initiative were modest, many people would like to be associated with something that sounds prestigious: The Center for the Study of the Biological Basis of Psychology.

Are there one or more ideas in this post that you’d like to incorporate into your work?

I read this aloud on YouTube.

This is part of a series of mock career counseling sessions.