When you were 17, what did you want to be?
I really loved art and I was trying to come up with a practical thing I could do with art. I knew being an artist was too risky financially, so I was trying to think of a way, like fashion design even though I don’t especially like fashion, but I liked to draw. And architecture, I do like architecture but at the time I was really turned off by the idea that it would be a five-year program and that seemed like an overwhelming amount of schooling at 16.
My mom knew about MIT. She and I had some sort of a book similar to The Princeton Review books, and it’s really hard going through a book and sifting everything out, so she and I talked about it a lot. And I’d seen a fair amount of schools between me and my [older] sister. I wanted to leave New York State. My mother didn’t want me going very far, so Stanford was not an option although I would have loved to go to California.
I applied to a range of schools, and as a reach I applied to MIT and I got in. I didn’t give it an awful lot of thought. I liked math and science and I figured if I was good at math and science and I could make a good living at a job using math and science, that seemed like the practical decision to make.
How did you choose your major?
There were certain courses you had to take as a freshman, and one of the courses I took was a materials engineering course and it was really interesting. There were really fun labs where we did crystallography and all sorts of interesting techniques about the characteristics of materials, and I declared that as a major based on enjoying that one class. It was fun. I always loved labs.
[MIT] had a program where students could do research, so I did some hands-on research and I liked that. And they had a co-op program where you could do an internship for credit, so you’d be working after sophomore and junior year. I remember talking to a woman on a plane one time and she was some sort of businesswoman, and I remember her saying how anything that differentiates you on a resume is a good thing as you’re going into the work force, and I liked the idea of having real jobs [on my resume]. By being in this co-op, I got to get my first job with Johnson & Johnson, and they gave me these really great projects. It was fun and it seemed like I could do something that I liked with it.
How did you get from college to where you are now?
I did nine months of work after senior year, and then I wrote a thesis, and graduated with a master’s [degree] in an extra year. I got my very first job at Texas Instruments and it wasn’t great. The guy who hired me was actually really sharp, but he left within months of my starting. I was in new business development and the new manager just couldn’t get a handle on how to do a job that abstract.
Then I got transferred to a department making conductive rubber keyboards. From a business standpoint it was a horrible idea. We were competing with I can’t remember which country, where they were making these assemblies for a lower price. I enjoyed it, the work was interesting, but I was pregnant virtually the whole time I was there, and then I was on maternity leave, and then I came back knowing I was going to move to Florida because your dad and I both got jobs there.
We decided Florida would be the place to go, [because] Massachusetts was having this incredible housing boom at the time and it was super expensive. So we decided to go to Melbourne, Florida and work at Harris. And again, within a month it was clear it was a mistake. I got down there and they immediately announced they were having this shutdown where everyone had to take two weeks off, including brand-new people before they could start working. So I had a brand-new job and I had to not work for two weeks.
I stayed for two years in a semiconductor packaging facility there. The work was really interesting, and I worked with this one older engineer who was brilliant, so I got to learn so much from him. It was a fun job to do, but I didn’t think highly of the company. They were constantly having layoffs; I never got laid off, but it was clear it was going to happen at some point.
Then I decided Silicon Valley was where I should have gone in the beginning. I ended up going to a company, LSI Logic, and I really like that job. But again, I was there for two years, and they had this massive layoff. It was really disturbing to me because there were very few women in engineering or as technicians, and the women were hit so hard in the layoffs. I didn’t get laid off but I felt very uncomfortable staying there after that. It just didn’t feel like a place where I would be able to thrive.
I stayed at LSI Logic until I got a job at Raychem. They had an exciting research facility, but again two weeks later they said the company was on the market. I stayed because I didn’t really want to go back to LSI, and they dragged it out for two years before they shut the department down. That was a good experience - not the company being shut down – but I enjoyed the work that I did there. After that, Fujitsu was opening up a research facility, so I went there.
That was the only job I stayed at a long time, I was there for five years. It was so great when I got there. It was going to be this phenomenal research facility - we were working on packaging for supercomputers - and again, very very shortly after I got there, the Japanese economy crashed and they cut our budget so sharply. We stuck around for 5 years, and I ended up leaving knowing they were going to shut down in another year or so.
At that point, I thought about getting another technical job, but the industry was really changing at that point and I could see how intense the work environment was, especially from an hours perspective. I always put in probably 50 hours a week, and I wanted to have another baby and I just couldn’t see how I could possibly ramp it up. So I decided to leave engineering.
How did you go from engineering to psychotherapy?
I stayed home for about 4 or 5 years, we adopted your sister, and I just raised my kids. After about 5 years, I knew I wanted to go back to work and I didn’t want to go back into trying to mommy-tracking in technology. So I really thought about what kind of work I could do that I could be more in control of my own schedule. I went to a career counselor and she wasn’t particularly helpful, but I thought I would really like the idea of being a career counselor. She told me I would hate it, but I decided I would do that anyway.
I looked at different schools and Santa Clara was very relaxed about it, and they said, “Just take a course over the summer.” So I took a course that fed into career counseling and I loved it. And then I was talking to one of the professors, and she asked a really interesting question. She said, “If you were a career counselor and your client was so depressed that they couldn’t look for work and you needed to refer them to a psychotherapist, would you be giving them up at the most interesting part?” And I said yes. I decided instead of just career counseling, I really wanted to do the full marriage and family therapist [degree], so I shifted.
I got a master’s degree in counseling psychology, and it’s a big master’s because the governmental board that manages psychotherapy licenses has a ton of requirements. It took me three years. I did summers and weekends; I didn’t want to do too many nights a week because I started when your sister was four and you were 16.
The requirements for getting your license are daunting; you have to do 3,000 [supervised] hours. And it’s not 30 hours a week times 52 weeks a year. It’s 3,000 hours that you can only count when you have a client in front of you. So that took me about 3 years to do, and then about six months to do the two exams. And then you’re a licensed marriage and family therapist, and you’re allowed to practice independently.
Some people choose to work in a clinic, but I always knew I wanted a private practice. It goes back to my engineering days; I wanted to be in control of my schedule. I wanted to not work at 3:00 so I could do school pickup and then go back to work. In private practice, that was perfectly acceptable and it did not impact my hourly rate whatsoever. That’s what I wanted as an engineer, to be able to work really hard and do a good job and still be able to do all the things I needed to as a mom, and it just wasn’t possible. I also don’t really like meetings and I don’t really like paperwork, so I wanted to be in charge and only do what I wanted to.
One of the things I heard was to think about the favorite clients you’ve had. In my first practicum internship, I was placed at a science magnet school because I had been an engineer. But they also were the special needs hub for the district, so I had a lot of special needs clients. I really liked the special needs kids, they were my favorite clients, so I decided that would be a good niche to work with.
There’s some overlap between Asperger’s and engineering and science. It’s not uncommon that there’s a hint of Asperger’s in a lot of engineers, and there’s a higher degree of autism in the children of engineers and scientists. I found that I fit in well with that community. My clients are looking for a therapist who’s going to be very problem-solving oriented, a practical focus on how to make their situation better, instead of a deep discussion of their childhood and their mother.
I really enjoyed the attempt to translate from myself as a neurotypical how something as abstract as emotion works, and try to communicate that to my clients who experience that in a different way. It’s really tricky because I don’t understand my clients’ experiences; they tell me what it’s like for them, so I try to hold the space as well as a neurotypical can.
And I love when I can throw calculus or math or science into a conversation about emotions. One of the things I always think about is procrastination; I work with a lot of clients with ADHD and there’s a difficulty in motivation. If you graph out discomfort over time, you can see the idea that in any moment it’s easier not to do it, but in the long run it’s way easier to do it now. It really becomes a conversation about the area under the curve, which is really a discussion of calculus. So I will actually graph that out for people, and it gives us something more concrete to discuss it around.
I’ve really come to the conclusion that engineering really is a young man’s job. It shouldn’t be but it’s set up that way. So being neither young nor male, it felt like I really wasn’t fitting. Therapy is an older woman’s job, and I love the idea that I can adapt the work I do, I can shift the focus of my practice, I can work how much I want to. Right now, because I don’t have any kids at home, I work four really long days and have a three-day weekend. I could choose to take off weeks at a time if I wanted to. I could work part-time if I wanted to. I’m in a phase right now where I’ve only had two years of not mommy-tracking for my entire career, so I really want to be able to work a lot right now. But I like being able to look to the future and in ten years I probably will work fewer hours, and in 20 years I could still be working if I wanted to.
Looking back, what seems clear to you now?
I think the idea that you can plan ahead is not realistic. I don’t think when I was graduating with my engineering degrees that people were really accurately predicting what would happen with manufacturing and the professional economy, and I think people really have to accept the fact that they’re going to have to regroup.
Even in my own career now, my guess is technology is going to shift and there will probably be a lot more remote work, even as therapists. I’m guessing they’re going to change the licensing requirements at some point and that will be easier to do. And as healthcare changes, that’s going to change the work for healthcare providers. I can’t predict any of that but I feel confident that I will be able to figure it out, because I’ve been able to all along. But it might involve massive changes in the work I do.
You just have to go with the flow. Recognizing that right now I leave home and go into my office and see people face-to-face and that may change. I see clients every week or two and that may change. The structure around the work I do could be very different and I just have to figure out how to adapt to that.