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Taking the leap: going from employed to self-employed in psychology

Organizational Psychologist, Former Clinical Mental Health Therapist, & Mental Health at Work Specialist (www.melissadoman.com)

 

I like my boss – she’s pretty great. She chases after and creates opportunities for herself. She works on projects that align with her purpose and passion. She’s pretty flexible about schedules. My boss: is me.


As idyllic as the above sounds (the work setup, not me) - trust me when I say that it only came after years of working for other people, having a side hustle, rejections, failures, perfecting the art of self-management even when I didn’t want to, and learning to accept uncertainty as a certainty.


Making the jump from being employed to self-employed is just that – a jump. Not knowing how you’ll land, but (hopefully) taking precautions to ensure that you’ll stick the landing and then stand up tall saying something to the tune of, “I did it!”


I’m confident you’ve heard this ad nauseum by now, probably 45,173 times, that we’re currently in a very unstable financial and economic situation worldwide. Furloughs, people being made redundant, lockdown after lockdown, and one thing is on everyone’s minds – uncertainty. The brain’s least favourite thing to experience.


As humans we love certainty in some ways – it’s like a warm blanket around us. Sadly, while none of us can have this absolute certainty right now - what you can have (especially if you’ve been made redundant) is consider self-employment – especially within the field of psychology if you’ve had the training and experience in one of the subfields (more on this shortly).


From a field-specific perspective, despite the absolutely horrid and life altering effects that COVID-19 has had throughout the world on countless people, now is a time in our global society where psychology has come into the spotlight. Why? Because we’re all reflecting in different ways about how we feel, why, and trying to understand how to manage these feelings in a variety of contexts.


From a professional perspective, many people are migrating towards self-employment because the World of Work is changing – specifically how and where we work. And, companies these days like the ease and flexibility of engaging with contractors who can ‘dip in and out’ to provide services without having to pay for employee benefits. Sounds cold, but it’s true.


So, for those of you who are thinking of making that transition, and especially within the psychology field, here’s what I can share with you.

 

Why I did it


I started out in counselling psychology. I got my master’s degree, did the clinical practicums, and went on to become a real-world credentialed clinician - diagnosing, educating, and treating clients – as I was trained to do.


After years of working in clinical, and working for others in a variety of settings, I wanted to make a bigger impact and in a different way, particularly in the workplace. So - I adapted my skill set and transitioned to organizational psychology – with humility and a thirst for knowledge and experience.


First, working for others, learning the ropes and the knowledge. You have to do that and those experiences were (and still are) incredibly valuable. But, when I realized that the role I wanted for specifically wanted to do wasn’t there (e.g. the nexus of my former clinical & current organizational work – mental health at work) I had to create my own role.


And so, I did.


I made this change because I realized that I had an idea in my mind of how I wanted to impact people and companies and no company could give it to me in the way I wanted to do it. That didn’t sit well with me, so I took it into my own hands. My own shaking, afraid, clammy hands. But, it had to be done.


How I did it

I decided the exact thing I wanted to address in my work: mental health in the workplace. Building awareness and teaching people how to actually talk about it at work. I narrowed down the core offerings I wanted to give and I assigned a professional value to what those services were worth (no one tells you how hard that process is by the way).


I built and continue to build relationships – I mean a lot of relationships. All the time. Digitally and in person. I spoke to literally everyone. A huge piece about working for yourself is building relationships and getting to know people across industries and companies. You never know when that person will think of ‘you and that thing you provide’.


I took responsibility and accountability for my growth. Learning new things I didn’t learn in graduate school or at the companies I worked for. Learning to run a business (which by the way, you don’t need to have an MBA or financial degree to do). I kept myself on a schedule every single day. I learned to take a break when I felt overworked or like I wasn’t being heard by the people I reached out to. Yes, taking breaks is absolutely crucial when transitioning to self-employment. You wouldn’t work 19 hours a day for an employer, so don’t do that to yourself either.


I learned, quickly, that I couldn’t be everything to everybody. And, despite the fact that I was worried I would ‘lose opportunities’ – I specialized – and quite succinctly. When it comes to hiring contractors for services – generally speaking – people want a specialist not a generalist.


What I’m doing now


My husband often has to pinch me (literally) and remind me of what I’ve achieved and how hard I worked over the years to get here. My company Melissa Doman, LLC focuses on mental health at work – specifically equipping companies, leaders, and individuals with the mindset and language required to talk about mental health at work. I also do training & development and coaching within organizational psychology – particularly around behavioural awareness, behaviour change, emotional intelligence, and communication at work.

 

What’s Enjoyable

This is a long list, but I’m conscious that most people don’t want an article to be tome-length - so here’s a brief list of my favourites:

  • When people have told you that you’ve made a difference (**tearing up**)

  • That there’s opportunity – everywhere

  • The independence

  • Landing the deal: the true feeling of pride when you win business – because you made it happen

  • Helping ‘your baby’ grow: your business can be exactly what you want it to be

  • Business deductions are a life saver

 

What’s Hard

I would be doing you a disservice if I didn’t cover this off – and that’s the last thing I want to do. While these aren’t insurmountable, they definitely take their toll. Again, this is a moderately long list, but here are the main ones:

  • Financial uncertainty: some months you’ll make loads and other months you’ll scrape by. Especially with the pandemic, many companies are tightening their belts – and that means potentially engaging with fewer contractors

  • Comparing yourself to others who do what you do: this is destructive, don’t do this

  • Hearing no repetitively

  • The social & logistics impact of the pandemic: ensuring that people can see that you can provide value remotely. This can sometimes be a tough sell – especially when there’s a lot of pop psychology or articles available online that people could read.

  • Dealing with Imposter Syndrome on your own – the struggle is real for so any people


Despite these challenges, and even on the days when I feel uncertain, I wouldn’t change what I do and how I do it for anything. I’m doing work that I love and making a tangible impact in workplaces on a topic that has been, and will continue to be, very important.

 

Realize that psychology is in everything – make it work for you


Psychology is the study of the mind and behaviour and the human condition. The good news is that humans staff every industry and company (well, except for robots & automated processes).


There are so many fields of psychology to study and practice in. Abnormal, cognitive, clinical, counselling, developmental, educational, industrial/organizational, forensic, childhood, experimental, health, consumer, human factors, personality, school, social, sports. Those are all types of psychology.


Remember earlier how I said there’s opportunity everywhere? Even in the time of COVID-19, that applies, and thankfully in a way where you can help people in a useful way and make a living.


While there are many jobs in those respective fields with respective licenses, certifications, and processes – once you achieve that education and professional experience in the field of your choice – there’s a whole world out there that could use the services. You don’t need to be a big company to provide that. In fact, some companies prefer engaging with an independent contractor because they get more personalized service, better rates, and a more unique experience.

 

8 tips to consider if you want to jump on the self-employment wagon:


1. Your knowledge in psychology has value – now more than ever. You studied the science of people and how to understand & help them. Remember that.


2. Level set your expectations: if being self-employed was super easy and had no challenges, most people would do it. Just as you would learn any new skill set, this too is a new skill too. Be patient with yourself as you navigate this new way of being a professional.


3. Do. Not. Give. Up. Failure is healthy – there are always learnings that come from it.


4. Don’t jump in all at once. Not only is it helpful to start with a side hustle, but you also need time to develop specifically what you want to do, how you want to do, and for whom. It’s best to work out those processes while you’re employed as opposed to while you’re trying to make enough cover next month’s rent. Particularly with psychology, as there’s so much you can do with it, that’s all the more reason to be crystal clear on what you do and why you’re different from others on the market.


5. Be honest with yourself:

a. Can I (reasonably) handle the natural peaks and troughs that come with being self-employed?

b. What’s the dent I want to make in the world?

c. What do I want this impact to look like?

d. What services can I provide with my knowledge and skill set?

6. Have a solid support network – just because you work for yourself doesn’t mean you should shoulder all of the challenges and successes by yourself.


7. Be organized… I mean it!


8. If it doesn’t work out – wash, rinse, and repeat at a later time. You can always go back to being (hopefully) employed at a company and then give it another go down the road.

 

Now I would never aim to represent everyone’s experiences in the field of psychology and transitioning from being employed to self-employed. This was my experience, and just as you would do with a menu, pick the pieces that sound good to you – but keep the other bits in mind.


Are you going to make the leap? Even if you don’t stick the landing – there’s always antiseptic ointment and bandages to fix you up.

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