Hear as Dr. Laura Kauffman talks about her career as  a child and adolescent psychologist.  Her practice can be found at www.drlaurakauffman.com.  You can also follow you on her Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview.  

What do you do for a living?

I am a psychologist in private practice. Thus, I am not part of a group or agency; I am completely self-employed. I specialize in treating kids, teens and adults who are struggling with anxiety, depression, and eating disorders, but I see clients who are struggling with other issues, such as coping with divorce and general relationship issues. I see clients in individual and family therapy, and I also meet with parents to provide support and guidance on parenting topics.

How would you describe what you do?

Many people think that therapy is just a place to talk about your struggles, but it is actually much more focused and scientific than that. I have been trained in a variety of evidence-based treatments (meaning research has shown that the treatment is effective for that particular disorder) that specifically target symptoms of anxiety, depression, etc. One such treatment is called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This treatment is built upon the belief that thoughts and feelings are closely and related and that our thoughts drive our feelings. Many people fall into traps of negative thinking (e.g., “People don’t find me interesting” “I’m not smart” “I’m not pretty”). We say a lot of “mean” things to ourselves sometimes and over time that can make someone feel pretty bad about themselves or their situation. My job is to help clients to become a detective in order to better identify the underlying negative thoughts and test out whether those thoughts are true or not. If not, they should be cast out and new, more accurate thoughts need to be replaced. With time, like strengthening a muscle at the gym, the new, more accurate and positive thoughts become more common and natural leading to more positive feelings.

In addition to therapy, I also perform other complementary activities to support the emotional well-being of a client. For children, I sometimes talk with their teacher about different strategies that might be useful to reinforce skills learning in therapy and I sometimes attend school meetings to inform discussions about educational decisions for the child.

In the past, I performed quite a bit of psychological assessment, administering standardized assessments (e.g., intelligence, executive functioning, emotional well-being, etc) to better understand a child’s learning strengths and areas of improvement (including whether they have a learning disability) and mental health. I am not currently performing assessments in private practice, but many psychologists in private practice do.

What does your work entail?

See above.

What is a typical work week like?

I typically have therapy sessions with adult clients in the morning and midday, and I see children and adolescents in the afternoon and early evening. I sometimes start as early as 8am (although rarely) and end about 7 or 8pm. I routinely have breaks in the middle of the day, and I try and catch up on therapy notes (session notes for each client) and phone calls. I routinely schedule lunch with friends and colleagues if I have a break.

How did you get started?

I thought I wanted to be a teacher and a writer when I was a child, but I discovered that I enjoyed listening to people’s stories and supporting them in high school. I started taking psychology courses as an undergrad, and I was hooked. I quickly realized that it would be difficult to do much in psychology without a graduate degree, so I decided early on in college that I would go on to graduate school. I was also very interested in asking questions and uncovering the truth, so I decided to pursue a PhD, so I would have the flexibility of doing research, teaching, and/or therapy. I have done all, and I love knowing that I can get involved in any of those areas at any time.

What do you like about what you do?

I think people are so interesting! I love trying to understand people, why they do the things they do, what influenced them, and what might help someone to get on the right track.

What do you dislike?

There is a money aspect to owning my own business that doesn’t always feel good. I have had to call and pursue clients in the past who are behind on their payments, and I hate acting as a “bill collector.” As a last resort, I could utilize a collection agency, but I don’t want to do that with a client unless I absolutely have to.

How do you make money/or how are you compensated?

I am paid on an hourly basis for time spent in therapy, reviewing reports, meetings with school personnel, or phone consultations with parents and school staff that extend beyond 15 minutes.

How much do child psychologists make?

I charge $175 an hour (before taxes). My take home pay depends on how many clients I have in my practice at any point. In general, I aim for six client hours a day.

How much money do/did you make starting out as a child psychologist?

While I was on internship (a required year long training experience somewhat like a medical school residency), I think I made $18,000 a year. Once I started in private practice, I could charge the going rate for psychologists in the Bay Area (~$160 to over $200).

What education, schooling, or skills are needed to become a psychologist?

A masters or doctorate is required for licensure as a therapist. Folks with a bachelors degree can work in group homes or other kinds or agencies like that, but the pay not as high and they are generally not able to conduct therapy. Graduate training includes supervised experiences with individuals, families, couples, and families to acquire the necessary skills to conduct different kinds of therapy.

What is the most challenging aspect of what you do?

Sometimes, I work with kids who don’t really want to be in therapy. They are struggling with some feelings or behavior, and their parents have brought them to therapy against their wishes. It can be a challenge to conduct therapy with someone who doesn’t perceive an issue or who doesn’t want to be there. They tend to withhold information and don’t work hard outside of therapy to apply skills they learn during sessions.

What is the most rewarding?

It is so incredibly rewarding to watch a client go from struggling to thriving. Therapy is very powerful and effective and the changes that people make in their lives as a result of therapy is really exciting. There is nothing like the moment when a client says, “I’m doing so much better because of the work we do in here…”

What advice would you offer someone considering this career?

It is an very exciting rewarding career with many positives. It really works best if you enjoy being and interacting with people because there is a lot of that in the day and the relationship between you and your clients is often one of the most powerful elements of therapy.

How much time off do you get/take?

I am self-employed, so I set my own schedule. I tend to take my vacations during the summer while children are out of school and doing their own vacationing and travel. I take 2-3 weeks off.

What is a common misconception people have about what you do?

I often hear people claim that therapists don’t care about their clients because they are paid to help and support them. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. I think about my clients often and care about their well-being very much. There have been many instances when I feel a great deal of emotion listening to a client’s pain because I imagine how much they must be suffering, and I don’t want that for them. This only motivates me to work harder to help them learn the skills and tools they need to be successful in whatever they want in life.

What are your goals/dreams for the future?

I hope that I can continue to maintain a thriving practice with the flexibility to teach at the undergraduate/graduate level and engage in research when I have the time. Basically, I want to continue to do as I am doing, living the dream.

What else would you like people to know about your job/career?

It is a career that does require quite a bit of education and training, but it is a wonderful and rewarding career with a great deal of flexibility. I feel incredibly blessed and lucky to have the opportunity to be in the field and help people the way that I do.