Volume 49 Number 1 
Winter 2016

Early Career Interest Group

Edited by Ashlee Lien and Ben Graham

Selecting a Career in Community Psychology

Written by Ashlee Lien, SUNY College at Old Westbury, and Adam Voight,Cleveland State University

Contributors to this column: Ashley Anglin, Atlantic Health System; David Asiamah, Atlantic Health System; Ashley Boal, WestEd; Jamie DeLeeuw, Monroe County Community College; Andrew Greer, Westat; Laurel Lunn, Westat; Neal Palmer, CUNY Institute for State & Local Governance

A task that every aspiring Community Psychologist faces is selecting a career. Deciding on a career direction can be daunting, even with guidance from mentors in the field. When seeking advice, the first question is often whether you intend to go into an academic or a practice-related field. The distinction that is often drawn between these career directions is unclear at best, although the advice for preparing for a future career is often targeted for one specific direction. While preparing for a career is typically more of a concern for graduating students, it can also be an issue for early career individuals who may be questioning the direction they have chosen.

How to determine the best direction for your career

Determining which specific direction you want to follow for your career means that you must understand what the direction means. In spite of the distinction we often draw between academic and practice-related fields, there is often overlap between the two and a wide range of directions that one may pursue.

Many academic jobs in community psychology include an emphasis on community partnerships and direct practice work, while others may place a higher value on traditional academic research. As community psychologists, it is important to advocate for practice and non-traditional forms of research, but institutional support is an important aspect of a career. In the academic career direction, therefore, there are varying amounts of practice involved. Practice-related fields typically include direct action in a specific setting, but include a vast amount of diversity. With this career direction, community psychologists work in a wide range of settings that may not always be classified as “practice” by the community psychologists working in those settings.

Making the decision to pursue one specific direction is difficult. In academic settings, you may not be able to engage in as much application of research, but you have an added benefit of engaging students in research and training future practitioners to apply the research in community settings. When considering this direction, it is important to know whether the academic setting is teaching or research focused, but research publications are becoming more important for all academic settings. Engaging in ongoing research and some teaching is an important consideration for anyone who may want to have an option for an academic career. The decline in tenure-track positions, however, places increasing importance on emphasizing practice skills in academic programs and providing more directed guidance for graduating students and early career community psychologists who may be considering practice-related fields.

One of the highlights of choosing to go into practice-related fields is the ability to engage in direct action around specific causes. Applying research and practice-skills for a good cause is often a drive for individuals who go in the practice-related fields. Others may choose this direction because they do not want an academic orientation, don’t like teaching, or may have the perception that practice fields are less stressful than academic settings. Given the diversity of settings, however, this assumption may not always be justified and it is important to realize the different pressures of any career direction.

In actuality, however, many community psychologists choose their career simply by which direction they feel most adequately prepared for or by the job market. This places increasing importance on academic programs and mentors in guiding graduating students and early career professionals toward the ongoing development of applied skills and advice in being marketable in a variety of career directions.

Where and from whom to get guidance (especially for jobs in practice)

For many graduate students, most career guidance comes from their graduate school advisor and faculty. Because most academics are familiar with academia, guidance from advisors and faculty may—intentionally or not—be partial to academic jobs. In some cases, advisors and faculty may operate from an implicit or explicit hierarchy of possible student career outcomes that views academic jobs as superior to practice jobs. For students seeking guidance for a practice career, finding a faculty person who values a non-academic track is important. For CP students involved in collaborative projects with community organizations, members of those organizations may be potential career guides—both for finding jobs in those organizations, in particular, and for advice on how to go about a job search in practice-related fields, in general. Students may even consider reaching out to organizations with which one has no ties to request an informational interview. Fellow graduate students are often good sources of career guidance, as well, and it can be helpful to solicit alumni of one’s doctoral program for advice, particularly those who have placed into a relevant job (academic or practice). Finally, many universities have career centers that may be particularly helpful with searches in practice-related fields, where conventions related to resume preparation and interviewing are unique from academic searches.

Finding position openings

While academic position openings are typically advertised on university human resources websites, professional association email listservs, and websites like The Chronicle of Higher Education, identifying openings for practice-related positions often requires more creativity. For these latter searches, it helps to be broad—it is unlikely that a doctorate in community psychology will be listed as the required or preferred education for many practice jobs. It may be helpful to consider fields related to community psychology, like public health, community development, and education, and related skills like program evaluation and technical assistance. For students intent on working in a particular geographic location, a good start may be to identify local organizations that work in these areas and search their human resources websites and, even if there are not current openings, contact a representative to indicate interest and share a resume. For any type of position, it is important to network within one’s professional associations and among other students, faculty, and alumni to make it known that you are on the market and learn about potential openings. For practice jobs, the application and hiring timeline does not always follow that of academia.


Given the climate of competitiveness for jobs in both academia and in practice-related fields, you can increase your odds by sending out many applications. It is important, however, to ensure that your materials are tailored to the requirements of the position. Learn as much as you can about the organization and position prior to applying. In academia, it is important to distinguish between positions that emphasize research versus teaching and prepare your vita and personal statement accordingly. This customization may be more demanding when applying to practice jobs, as there may be significant differences in the experience and skills required from position to position. Most practice jobs are not simply looking for an academic vita and cover letter, and it may pay to emphasize experiences that are often undervalued in academic searches, like program and project management, evaluation, and consultation. Other skills that may be helpful to emphasize in applications for practice jobs include quantitative and qualitative analysis (including proficiencies with specific software), technical writing, and oral expression. Make sure you give your references plenty of notice to either write you a letter or to be available for a call from a potential employer. Some references will appreciate it if you help them out ahead of time by giving them information about how to tailor their letters or verbal comments and what skills or experiences of yours they should emphasize.

Specific Resources

Job advertisement websites:


Professional association websites:

  • American Educational Research Association
  • American Evaluation Association
  • American Public Health Association
  • Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues

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