Developmental Psychologist Profile

developmental psychology career profile

Jeff I. Dolgan, Ph.D.
Senior Psychologist
The Gary Pavilion at
The Children’s Hospital

After 23 years of working as the chief of Psychology at The Children’s Hospital in Denver, Jeffrey Dolgan knows quite a bit about what personality traits and experiences lend themselves to a successful career as a clinical or developmental psychologist working in a hospital setting.

Dolgan looks for a mix of practical life experience, work experience, and certain passions beyond work. The Children’s Hospital hires licensed psychology professionals with backgrounds in clinical and developmental psychology, or a combination of both specialties.

“I look for someone who has been processed by life,” said Dolgan, who stepped down in 2009 from heading the hospital’s psychology department to become senior psychologist. He said “processed by life” means having some valid work or volunteer experience in the field.

Perhaps that means spending a summer volunteering at The Children’s Hospital to get a feel for what the job entails. Volunteering would be especially important for graduate students who go straight from undergraduate to graduate school, and have little work experience.

“Processed by life” also applies to those who return to school for a psychology career after working in another field or discipline. Dolgan credits these individuals with having high levels of maturity and the kind of real-world experiences that the hospital considers highly valuable – and applicable.

Dolgan described his own career path as unusual for a psychology professional who works with children and teens. After receiving his PhD in clinical psychology in 1967 from The Ohio State University, he first worked in academia before receiving a fellowship to The Health Sciences Center at the University of Colorado Denver (UCD) for post-doctoral work. It was at UCD that he took specialized classes in developmental psychology, and he became interested in working with children. Most psychology professionals wanting to work with children traditionally come up through the developmental psychology route, he said.

Psychologists at the hospital work with kids, ages 0 to 21, and their families, and because these children have unique, complex conditions that often include both medical and emotional issues, the work requires a great deal of empathy, Dolgan said. For instance, he said a complex patient is a 13-year-old diabetic boy who refuses to test his blood sugar, eats anything he wants, and has a psychotic illness such as bipolar disorder.

“That’s very hard to treat,” Dolgan said. “But I’ve just described a lot of the kids we see.”

In addition to working in pediatric and medical units in the hospital, psychology professionals also work with the hospital’s inpatient and intensive outpatient units for children solely dealing with emotional disorders and developmental disabilities. They also offer weekly therapies, individual therapies and psychotherapy. Kids with emotional disorders seen at the hospital have often been diagnosed by different doctors and by school personnel with varying conditions, and have tried a number of medications that haven’t worked or that worsened their conditions. They and their families come to The Children’s Hospital to sort through these conflicting and complex diagnoses.

Psychologists at The Children’s Hospital also work in the medical units with children receiving cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy. They teach the children relaxation, distraction and meditation techniques to ease anxiety, and help them manage pain without necessarily taking narcotic pain medications.

These are all positions requiring excellent psychological training and expertise, especially in developmental psychology, and also requiring those “processed by life” qualities that Dolgan refers to, pointing to another important trait. “These professionals should have an identity as an adult,” he said. “By that I mean you have resolved any childhood or teen issues sufficiently, and have become a fully functioning adult.”

In other words, these professionals might have had difficulties themselves, but they learned from them and are now able to help others move past them.

Lastly, Dolgan said he seeks out psychology professionals who have interests and passions outside of their jobs, such as hobbies, families, kids, pets, and the arts. Because this type of job is demanding and often involves intense emotional and medical issues, professionals in this field need something or someone to go home to.

Dolgan’s current position at The Children’s Hospital now involves mentoring and training psychology graduate students who work at the hospital as externs or interns. Externs are usually in their third or fourth year of a PhD or PsyD program, while interns have already completed one or more externships, and are almost finished with their degrees. An internship is similar to what the medical profession labels a residency.

When Dolgan isn’t mentoring and supervising, he’s playing drums in a jazz band- the type of creative outlet he advises all psychology professionals at the hospital to pursue. But his love for music goes back many years, and has made a difference beyond serving as a outlet for this creative psychologist.

Dolgan calls himself the grandfather of the music therapy program at The Children’s Hospital because he helped start the program after coming to the hospital in 1986. From that program, the hospital added art therapy, dance and movement therapy, and yoga. “Creative ward therapies” now exist at the hospital, which Dolgan describes as an interesting fusion of psychology and the arts.

“These are what we call integrative therapies, which means these creative therapies are integrated with more traditional psychological therapies.”

Psychology professionals at The Children’s Hospital in Denver can specialize in one developmental stage such as infancy or they can be more of a generalist. Those who specialize in infancy, for example, can help design neonatal intensive care units for premature infants that are conducive to developmental health. Or a psychology professional can work with teen eating disorders, or children with emotional disabilities, or those with cancer or other diseases. At a hospital like The Children’s Hospital where children of all ages are seen and treated, developmental psychology professionals can specialize in one developmental stage, but also get exposure and develop other specialties as their experience grows.

In contrast, those in the Developmental Psychology field who remain in academic and research positions often stay with one developmental stage, such as children ages 3 to 7, and one specialty, such as emotional development, over the course of their careers.

If you want to work with children in a hospital or other type of clinic, you should consider a career in developmental psychology. The Children’s Hospital at Denver requires a PhD in psychology or a related field to work in the field; however other hospitals, clinics and non-profit organizations often hire individuals with master’s degrees in psychology.

Developmental psychology is a broad field that covers many areas of study and practical applications. If you desire to understand how and why people change over time, and you find satisfaction helping others heal and achieve their full potential, you should consider contacting a school offering degree programs in this field and learn more about the process of entering an area within this field.

Also, learn more about the psychology career licensing processes and what the requirements for licensure are: Psychology Career Licensure.

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