I interviewed Dr. Don Baucom, a distinguished professor of psychology here at UNC. His title includes conducting research, teaching at the graduate and undergraduate level, and clinical counseling. He is a double UNC alum, and has been working at the university for over three decades.
What influenced you to enter this field?
I knew that I wanted to go into the mental health coming into UNC, and for me it was one of those experiences of taking my first one or two psychology courses and saying “that’s it”. I love the stuff, and whereas there’s still a lot of information to learn, it made sense to me. It felt like one of those perfect fits in terms of content of the field, and when I started doing my work in graduate school it became clear that the things you do as a college professor are the things that I love. I love doing research, I really enjoy psychotherapy, and I just love to teach.
What are the educational/professional steps you took to get to this position?
After getting a bachelor’s in psychology, I got my Ph.D. from UNC. For clinical psychology, most people go straight to a doctoral degree program that takes approximately 6 years. They might get a master’s along the way, but generally do not go into a master’s degree program. The model used in most clinical psychology programs is a scientist-practitioner model, which means that the students are trained as researchers, teachers, and clinicians. As part as the degree programs, you do all the on-campus work of classes, clinical work, and teaching, and at the end you do a year of an internship.
What is your favorite part of your job?
The balance of all the parts is what I love. Doing research and teaching are exhausting all day every day, and if I wrote all day I would need more human contact. If I was doing clinical work all day, I wouldn’t be as good at it; I wouldn’t be as fresh. Part of it is that I get to do so many interesting things, and another big part is being around so many intelligent, interesting people.
What qualities would you say are important for someone to have in your occupation?
For clinical work, you need to be interested in people, empathetic for people with difficulties and problems, and not be scared by them. There needs to be a natural interest and enjoyment for figuring out people, which I call psychological mindedness. You are going to be trained to work with people, so having an interest in helping and understanding them is important. For research, you should be inquisitive but also able to translate your questions into research ideas, enjoy writing, and have a good mathematical aptitude because you will be working a lot with data and statistical software. As far as teaching goes, being comfortable with public speaking is a good quality.
What advice would you give someone interested in taking a similar career path?
First, get an undergrad degree in psychology! And just as importantly, get involved in research. You will not get into a graduate program if you do not have a research background. You need recommendation letters, so getting to know faculty through research is important. Also, do applied work for two reasons. First, it gives you needed experience for your application, and secondly it will let you know whether or not you actually enjoy working one on one with the people. Many students volunteer at the state psychiatric hospital in Buttner, NC, the Carolina Women’s Center, the Orange County Rape Crisis Center, and other organizations where you get experience working with the public. Most importantly, figure out if you have a passion for the field, because this can be a mentally and emotionally exhausting field and the passion makes it feel like fun rather than work.