Early Career Psychologist Column

Spotlight on early career psychologists within the field of child maltreatment

Cheryl Arndt, PhD, is a great role model for members interested in a primarily research-oriented career path with a nonprofit organization.

By Anna Westin

The ECP column spotlights successful ECPs with a variety of career paths to help graduate students, interns and recently graduated ECPs in making wise training and career choices. Our current spotlighted ECP is a great role model for members interested in a primarily research-oriented career path with a nonprofit organization. This role includes research analysis, technical report writing, supervision, chairing various committees and informing state policy.

Cheryl Arndt, PhD, is director of performance improvement at KidsPeace, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing mental health, foster care and juvenile justice services to children and youth in nine states. Arndt received her PhD in psychology from Capella University in 2015. The program was primarily online and enabled her to work while completing her degree. She chose a program focused on research and statistics because this area was a personal strength for her, and she had a “love for data,” she said.

Arndt worked in the mental health field for about two decades prior to entering her PhD program. She received her MA in applied psychology (counseling psychology and dance movement therapy) in 1990 from Antioch University and took a therapist position immediately after receiving her degree. Soon after, she moved into a management position. She spent about eight years running treatment foster care and community-based programs and another six years developing and running partial hospitalization and crisis residence programs for adults with schizophrenia. After that, she became a partner at a consumer insight research company where she had previously served as data analyst for several years. The company was affected financially in 2008 when the economy took a downturn, and Arndt recalls juggling multiple jobs to make ends meet, including teaching seven courses per semester as an adjunct faculty member. Due to her increasingly demanding schedule, she decided getting a PhD would be beneficial for her career. Her entry to a PhD program in 2009 was also “good timing from a family responsibility perspective,” she said. Cheryl's son had just graduated high school, and she was no longer a caretaker for her elderly father who had passed away. She believes her career path can help show others that “it's never too late” to make career changes or continue to grow professionally. A benefit of entering her PhD program later in her career was also that she had a better understanding of her own personal strengths and weaknesses, which helped her find a meaningful career path.

Arndt completed her dissertation, entitled “Protection Against Child Maltreatment: A Factorial Analysis of Service Programs,” in about a year and a half. She attributes the timeliness of her dissertation both to being able to use collected data and to staying on task with writing. Arndt's advice for others is to “be decisive and start writing.” It can be easy to get overwhelmed with a large project when staring at a blank sheet, and getting started appears to hold people back, she said. She also has noted benefits of social connections and encourages students and ECPs to connect with others in their field, ask those further along in their careers for advice, join email lists and get involved in professional organizations. Arndt was able to use collected data because of a connection she made, and she was also recruited for one of her jobs via her social network.

When Arndt was hired with KidsPeace, the position “felt like home to me.” Her role was the perfect marriage between her data-analysis skills and her past experience and passion for children's mental health. At KidsPeace, her primary duties involve supporting/overseeing Joint Commission Accreditation (i.e., collecting data related to accreditation standards), data analysis and technical-report writing to meet funder requirements, internal performance improvement analysis and supervision of quality improvement staff. Arndt also chairs several committees, including the Corporate Quality and Safety committee. She spends about 20 percent of her time in supervision, 40 percent in meetings and committee-related activities and 40 percent of her time on data analysis/writing for internal and external purposes. She also is involved in some projects relevant to state policy. For example, she works to “define how quality of services is measured” in the state of Pennsylvania. For students interested in a similar career, she would recommend finding a program that emphasizes research, statistics and quantitative data analysis. She also emphasizes that to do well in her role, you have to embrace technology and be interested in staying up to date on advances in technology over time, as the field is always changing.

While Arndt changed jobs multiple times in her career, she continued to use many of the same skills. She finds it useful to have experience in direct service provision when doing clinical research and has been able to use research and management skills across settings. She was excited to switch from consumer research to mental health because she finds meaning in “contributing to better outcomes to children and families.”

While there are many similarities across research settings, she highlights that research in the area of child maltreatment comes with some statistics constraints (e.g., nonrandom design, difficulty manipulating variables of interest) that she did not have to worry about when doing market research. While Arndt loves doing research, she is also “a therapist at heart,” she said. Sometimes she misses the direct contact with families she used to have as a therapist and manager, and a few years ago she decided to certify her dog as a therapy dog to be able to volunteer and make connections with clients and staff at KidsPeace residential treatment facilities.

We thank Arndt for her insights and contributions to our section students and recently graduated ECPs. We would also like to introduce and welcome Arndt as new co-chair on the ECP Committee for the Section of Child Maltreatment.

Arndt has already contributed great ideas to the section, including the creation of a LinkedIn group to help connect section ECPs with each other and with professionals further along in their careers. (You will be able to join this group in the near future to connect with Arndt and other section members.)