By Heather Stringer

This article is republished with the consent of the APA.


When Jerrold Yeo moved from Singapore to the United States to start graduate school in clinical psychology, he was surprised to find that there were lots of leadership opportunities for students at APA, such as serving on boards and committees and advocating on behalf of psychology on Capitol Hill.

“In my own country, there were a lot of barriers to getting student voices heard and implementing changes,” says Yeo, now a fifth-year graduate student at the University of Denver. “I wanted to make use of the freedom to be heard in this country.”

Yeo initially assumed his chances of being selected for a leadership role were slim because he had little experience, but he applied anyway. He was delighted when he was chosen to be a member of the Convention Committee for the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students (APAGS), a position he held from 2013 to 2015. As he made connections within the organization, he started getting invitations for other leadership positions, such as serving as an APAGS representative to the Global Approaches to Integrated Health Care Summit, where he met psychology leaders from China, England, Norway and the United States. Now as a member-at-large with a practice focus on the APAGS Committee, Yeo is one of nine elected officers who advocate for graduate students and discuss new policies within APA.

The experience has been invaluable for his career growth, he says. “These leadership roles have taught me to be more confident, to be a better speaker and to negotiate,” Yeo says. “It’s a great way to find your own voice and learn what it’s like to be a leader.”

Yeo’s advice to others who are considering leadership is to start by trying. “If you don’t try, you’ll never know where you might be successful,” he says. “And don’t let rejection discourage you.” Yeo was rejected from multiple positions throughout his journey, and initially he took these experiences personally. “But now I understand that it’s not about whether I’m good enough or have a flaw in my character. If I’m not the best person at that moment, there is probably another position for me that is a better fit.”

The Monitor asked psychologists involved in leadership to share tips about how graduate students and early career psychologists can break into these roles. Here are their suggestions.

Determine what excites you.

Look for leadership opportunities in an area that deeply interests you, says Sandra Shullman, PhD, a managing partner of the Executive Development Group, an international leadership development and consulting firm. “Effective leadership involves having a passion for what you are doing,” she says. “You will meet like-minded souls you can learn from, and some of those people may become role models.” Pursuing leadership in an area of interest can also help leaders grow during stressful times. For example, she’s seen newer leaders struggle when they make decisions that displease certain people. They learn how to find the courage to do something, even if it’s unpopular, and “they are more likely to do that in an area they have passion for.”

Start small.

Look for leadership opportunities at state and regional psychology associations, says Daniel Reimer, PhD, who recently earned a doctoral degree in behavioral psychology from the University of Nevada, Reno. He started learning how to organize conventions by joining a committee with the Nevada Psychological Association. That experience helped him land a two-year position as chair of the APAGS Convention Committee in 2013. Another entry point could be serving as a student representative for an APA division, a state, provincial and territorial psychological association or the APAGS Advocacy Coordinating Team, a network of graduate students who engage in legislative advocacy and awareness, he says. For those who enjoy working on projects, serving on a task force or special project within an organization is another way to get experience and to observe how others lead, says Shullman, who is also a member of the APA Board of Directors.

Do it well.

Once you get a volunteer leadership position, follow through on everything you are asked to do, says Nadine J. Kaslow, PhD, a former APA president and a professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University. “You get a reputation quickly as someone who follows through or not,” she says. She served in leadership roles on various APA committees earlier in her career and was always careful not to take on more tasks than she could do well.

Find leadership mentors.

Kaslow encourages psychologists to find mentors who can provide guidance, feedback and connections. Potential mentors may surface in a variety of places, such as psychology departments, postdoctoral programs, state psychology associations and APA divisions and committees. She’s also seen the benefits of peer mentoring. Kaslow and her colleagues recently surveyed graduate students and early career psychologists who had served as chair of APAGS or of APA’s Committee on Early Career Psychologists during the last seven years and found that a combination of peer and senior mentoring seems to be “the ideal plan” because they have different strengths. A senior mentor can help mentees understand an organization’s system, introduce them to people and share past experiences. But a peer can say, “I just tried doing something similar, and here is how it went,” Kaslow says.

Find areas of need.

Keith Micoli, PhD, was a postdoctoral fellow when he started feeling isolated because he wasn’t part of a cohort or department like the graduate students at his school. After talking to other fellows, he quickly discovered he wasn’t alone. To solve this problem, Micoli decided to launch a postdoctoral association at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. When he approached the university with the idea, he shared how a group for postdocs would benefit the institution by increasing postdoc satisfaction. “If you want to solve a problem, you’ll increase your chances of support if you go beyond your personal need and consider the value to the institution,” Micoli says. This experience led to connections on a national level, and now he’s the director of postdoctoral affairs at the NYU School of Medicine.

Say yes.

Melanie Lantz, PhD, an assistant professor of counseling psychology at Louisiana Tech University, wasn’t looking for leadership opportunities during her first year of graduate school. But then several professors started encouraging students to apply for the Student Affiliates of Seventeen, or SAS, an organization for students associated with APA’s Div. 17 (Society of Counseling Psychology) and Lantz applied. She ended up co-chairing SAS, which included serving on the Div. 17 executive board. Through the experience, she learned about APA’s governance structure and the professional issues in the field. Now she’s chair-elect of Div. 17’s Early Career Professionals Committee and chair of the division’s Hospitality Space Committee for the next convention. “If someone hadn’t tapped me to apply for a leadership role when I was a new graduate student, I probably wouldn’t have gotten involved,” Lantz says. “If you are tapped to lead or serve, take those opportunities.”

Attend conferences.

Conferences and conventions are critical for networking, psychology leaders say. “Introduce yourself and get yourself out there,” Yeo says. “When I attended conventions and division conferences, I met people who encouraged me to apply to certain leadership positions that were open.” It’s also important to develop and practice a 30-second elevator speech to introduce yourself to new people, says Helen L. Coons, PhD, president and clinical director of Health Psychology Solutions in Colorado and a member of APA’s Board of Directors. Although the speech will vary depending on the audience, in general it’s effective to share your name, your specialty and your interest in learning more about leadership opportunities, she says.

Seek out training.

Look for leadership training programs offered by APA, state psychology associations and other organizations. Div. 17, for example, offers the Society of Counseling Psychology Leadership Academy for students and early career psychologists. When Kaslow started getting involved in leadership, she knew she needed to develop a new set of competencies, which prompted her to apply for leadership training programs offered by her university, the American Association of Medical Colleges and the Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine program. She also secured fellowships through organizations like the U.S. Public Health Service to learn about public policy and other aspects of leadership.

Ask for feedback.

While securing a leadership position is valuable, you can make the most if it by gathering input along the way, Shullman says. After leading a meeting, check in with a colleague to learn what went well and what could be improved. “Let people know that if something is bothering them, you would like to hear from them,” she says. “Create an environment that invites feedback so you can gauge how you’re doing and make midcourse corrections,” Shullman says.

Leadership resources in a nutshell

  1. Go to and search for “leadership opportunities” for a wealth of ideas and resources.
  2. Contact your state and regional association for leadership opportunities.
  3. Attend conferences to meet other leaders, including APA’s Annual Convention, Aug. 3–6, in Washington, D.C.
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