Career corner: Spotlight on fellow

When you come to a fork in the road — Take it: My developmental pathway in child and family psychology

A Div. 37 fellow encourages others to be open to unforeseen career paths.

By Patrick H. Tolan, PhD

I was 24 when the benefits of psychotherapy awakened me from my complacent life as a steel fabrication fitter with a union card, a good paying job and a family and community to which I belonged. This awakening was focused into a career track in my introduction to clinical psychology class were my professor (Jerome Resnick) asked me to stay after and asked me, “What is a steelworker doing in my clinical psychology class?” While informing me about how tough the competition was and forthrightly showing how utterly unprepared I was, he suggested one immediate action — get a job in mental health even if it meant reducing my income in half (it did). I secured an entry-level position in a newly established adolescent unit because Robert Klein, PhD, paid more attention to my interest than my (lack of) credential. His teachings (e.g., “I hire good people and let them take responsibility and then I take credit for being smart enough to hire them,” “no one is too important to be irreplaceable”) have stayed with me, but the most important was his advice to recognize your talents and to pursue work that makes use of them; that will be most enjoyable. My young patients showed me that my competencies and passion coincided in the puzzles of psychopathology. How did they get to this state, and how were they different from us who had not? How were my able and confident peers working in the unit different from them?

Graduate school included what to me was unfathomable, that not only was my tuition paid but also I would actually get a stipend ($1,500/year). I barely spoke in my first classes; I was sure everyone was smarter than I and had privy to information I did not. Through friendship and mentorship of professors Rich Saudargas, Ray Lorion, Bob Wahler and others, my vocational goals shifted from opening a school for behavior problems to systems-oriented scientific understanding of delinquency. Lorion in particular engaged passionately with me in arguments about what I should pursue. His imploring scolding to use my brain for prevention not treatment (“instead of trying to pull the never ending parade of people drowning in the river, go upstream and stop what is pushing them in”) and to pursue what was important to me, not immediate comforts (“don't chase the money, do what you care about — the money will come”) are still great guideposts I offer to students and colleagues.

My graduate years coincided with the emergence of adolescence as a distinct focus of developmental study, of multivariate modeling and ecological thinking and of longitudinal study as key methodology. Delinquency study was just emerging from a near death in the prior decade.

Because of the Reagan recession, the academic market was thin. A “safety” application for a postdoc at the University of Chicago with Daniel Offer and Bertram Cohler, once I began talking with them directly, was clearly the best opportunity. These two models of encyclopedic knowledge modeled that debate was important and that ideas mattered. They criticized but welcomed my delving into family systems theory, which introduced me to Betty Karrer and the Institute for Juvenile Research. These connections, a dual-career relationship with parenting on the horizon and growing interest in Chicago as a great base for studying delinquency made the offer from DePaul's clinical/community program most attractive. Dynamic and creative scholarship by peers such as Timmy Moffitt, Ed Mulvey and Scott Henggeler and mentoring from Rolf Loeber, David Farrington, Terry Thornberry and Joan McCord guided my interest in delinquency risk and prevention toward complex contextually focused research.

Five years later, out of the blue, I was offered a position, reviving research at the University of Illinois Institute for Juvenile Research (IJR) — the original child mental health clinic and research center in the United States. Ironically (and serendipitously) this offer came on the heels of a very disappointing not getting an offer at a prestigious university. In retrospect, that position would have not been as interesting or rewarding as what ensued at IJR.

This move not only allowed me to engage in field building and to learn about organization management from a master (Boris Astrachan) but to collaborate with Nancy Guerra, Deborah Gorman-Smith and David Henry. These colleagues made me up my game but more importantly convinced me that the whole is more than the sum of the parts. The rapid emergence of prevention science and the collegial engagement of Shep Kellam, Del Elliott, John Reid and many others led to absorption in randomized trials and to connect the science to policy and social values in a way that had been only rhetoric in my prior experience.

Over the next 20 years I had the privilege of helping and then leading IJR toward one of its most productive and influential scientific periods. At the same time we sustained and deepened engagement with the community and policy, working on major city and state reforms. My role often was to ensure talented faculty were able to do their best work and to take chances. It meant successfully challenging tired traditions about tenure, disciplinary hierarchies and motivational systems that promote insecurity and narcissism at the cost of quality of work. It was deeply satisfying to forge a purpose driven organization.

We often said around IJR that change is the one constant. After almost 20 years at IJR, it was time to think about the next step. Developmental changes (youngest heading to college, new partner who happened to live 500 miles away) helped spur this looking forward. At a lunch with Margie and Dan Offer, I was talking about next steps, perhaps a return to “plain old professor,” when Margie asked, “Did you ever imagine you would be directing IJR?” No, it had not been in my career map, at least as I had looked ahead. She exclaimed, “Then we have to imagine a next step that you have not yet planned.” Within a week I was contacted about a new center at the University of Virginia (UVA) focused on the emerging field of positive youth development. And, it worked for my partner and our parenting responsibilities. This was the next step I had not imagined but was obvious once presented.

So I left Ms. Jane Addams' neighborhood for Mr. Jefferson's academic village to start Youth-Nex, the UVA Center to Promote Effective Youth Development. A new chapter to focus on the important but relatively unexplored question: How do youth develop well and into satisfied, productive, and good people? And I get to do so with a new group of talented and engaging colleagues as well.

I never would have imagined… So it's important to imagine that next step you had not foreseen.