A World of Pain: What Exactly Does a “Pain Psychologist” Do?

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Naomi Edelson, Pelvic Pain Psychologist at Kaiser Permanente San Francisco took her first Psychology course on a whim, but her decision to become a Psychology major was no fluke. After going through grad school, post-docs, and a few different positions, she eventually discovered that working as a psychologist can offer a lot of flexibility and benefits—if you learn how to play your cards right.

We caught up with Naomi to find out how she’s approached her career, how things have changed now that she’s a mother of two, and what you should know about starting a family even if you’re still in the early stages of your career.

Where did you go to school and what did you study?

I completed my BA in Psychology at Reed College and my PhD at The Wright Institute and then I worked at the VA Medical Center in trauma and did my post-doc at Kaiser Permanente.

What is your current job title? Have you changed titles since you started at Kaiser Permanente?

I used to be a chronic pain psychologist (a generalist position) at Kaiser Permanente, but last November I switched to a speciality in treating women with pelvic pain. My official title is “pelvic pain psychologist.”

I didn’t know anything about pelvic pain when I accepted this position, so the switch involved a lot of reading and research and a lot of talking with my new boss and coworkers. I’m the only pelvic pain psychologist in Northern California, so unfortunately there wasn’t anyone else in the area that I could consult with.

What’s a typical day on the job like for you?

In a typical day, I see any number of patients. I work in a small speciality clinic and meet with women who have some sort of pelvic pain that is chronic (lasting longer than six months). People have pelvic pain for a variety of reasons, and I can teach women ways to help manage their pain conditions. I also treat contributing factors such as sleep problems, mood disorders (such as anxiety or depression), relationship issues, or sexual trauma, and recommend behavioral ways to manage chronic pain. I meet with each patient for about an hour; sometimes we meet for one session and sometimes we meet for up to six sessions.

I also spend a lot of time writing notes and documenting everything. Since Kaiser Permanente is an HMO, working here involves a lot of note-writing and documentation. And because I’m the first and only pelvic pain psychologist, I’m developing the psychology practice here. For example, I created a pelvic pain group and a pain with sex group so patients could meet and support each other.

I also spend time networking, developing the notes that I write, researching, and learning more about pelvic pain. There are different behavioral ways of managing chronic pain that can help in addition to meds or procedures (and have the benefit of no side effects).

What are your favorite aspects of your job?

I love being with interesting patients and the fact that it’s close to home. I like my coworkers and I like working in women’s health and having the chance to talk to young women about relationships and health.

What did you study in college? How does your major relate to your current position?

I studied Psychology and I’m a psychologist, so it’s a pretty direct correlation. I approached grad school with the goal of getting a good job afterward, and doing work that I found interesting, so I chose the topics and pursued the work opportunities that would be marketable. I did my post-doc at Kaiser Permanente, which was a big goal of mine, because once you get into a big hospital it’s easier to stay in one.

I initially chose Psychology as my major because a good friend was a Psych major. Originally I wanted to work with kids, but then I fell in love with working with adults over time. My goal was always to make a decent income but still have some flexibility with my schedule.

What advice would you give to college students who are interested in working in your field?

I would say to find little niches that are interesting to you and do cool and interesting things that’ll help you stand out. For example, I worked in Bosnia with war refugees for a few summers and that experience helped me stand out among all the other Psychology majors when I was applying to grad school.

Work hard and make connections.

I’ve taken a scientific approach to work—I’m not a psychoanalyst because there are fewer jobs there. Everything was geared towards not necessarily what was most interesting but also what would help me down the road.

I always tried to stay ahead to increase my marketability. I did this by talking to people who were ahead of where I was, asking what they thought were good internships and pre-docs, and really taking their advice and pursuing those things. I was very competitive just to try to stand out from everyone else.

What impact has your background in psychology had on your life in general and understanding of human nature?

It gives an interesting outlook on the impact of stress on your life. Now that I’m a working mother, I realize balance is really important. I don’t work overtime, I don’t come in early, I don’t go to conferences on weekends because I need that time to be with my family. I also understand the importance of giving myself little pockets of time to do things that help me relax—like getting a mani/pedi during lunch since I can’t do that in the evening.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

If there are any college students who are thinking that they don’t want to have kids because they feel like it’ll decrease their ability to have a real profession or vice versa, that they don’t fully want to invest in a career because they want a family, you don’t have to approach things that way. I’ve wormed my way through the system and found a way to make it work and be happy in both aspects of my life. It is possible—you just have to sacrifice a little bit at both ends and set strong boundaries for yourself.

Homework time! Naomi mentions the importance of approaching your academic career with a scientific mindset and looking for people who are further along in their careers to mentor you. Start by talking with your professors. Find out what career paths people with your major have followed. Try to connect with those people and get their advice about internships, graduate studies, and your career options.

P.S. Want to learn more about what it’s like to work at Kaiser Permanente? Check out our interviews with a few recent grads who began their careers there.

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