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Students contemplating entering the field of traumatic stress studies often find it helpful to hear from professionals about what drew them to the field, and to listen to advice they have to offer. I recently interviewed three professionals about work that shaped their careers:

  • Elissa J. Brown, PhD, associate professor of psychology, St. John’s University; adjunct professor of psychiatry, NYU School of Medicine
  • Christopher M. Layne, PhD, assistant professor of psychology, Brigham Young University; serves on various task forces within the UCLA National Center for Child Traumatic Stress
  • Briana S. Nelson Goff, PhD, associate professor in the Marriage and Family Therapy Program, School of Family Studies and Human Services at Kansas State University

Describe how you became involved with your current work in trauma?

Brown: I had an incredible internship at the University of South Carolina, surrounded by colleagues involved in clinical work and research. This positive experience led to my career as a treatment outcome researcher. I have participated in research on the psychosocial sequelae and treatment of sexual assault, child physical abuse and children with sexual behavior problems.

Layne: Bob Pynoos was asked to conduct trainings and develop postwar programs by UNICEF in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina. He approached me and my colleague Bill Saltzman about going to Bosnia. We agreed, and that was that. With my colleagues from UCLA, we developed UCLA/UNICEF School-Based Program for War-Exposed Adolescents designed to systematically identify and treat Bosnian adolescents with histories of severe exposure to war and other traumatic life events. We also created a battery of risk screening materials and a 16-session trauma/grief-focused group treatment protocol for traumatized and traumatically bereaved Bosnian adolescents.

Nelson Goff: I received grants from the National Research Council of the National Academy of Science. These grants were part of a program that supports young professionals—Trauma and Recovery in Bosnia-Herzegovina. I was a member of a team of researchers and professionals from the United States and Bosnia who assessed the current condition of postwar trauma and reconstruction in Bosnia. I received a follow-up grant to continue research at Dom Bjelave Children’s Home in Sarajevo. These projects expanded my experience to international trauma; I gained a broader theoretical perspective on traumatized systems and communities.

How do you maintain a balance between your trauma research and other aspects of your life?

Brown: This is probably my biggest struggle. I love my work and view it as valuable to the children I serve, but it is important for trauma workers to take care of themselves too. My family and friends provide the balance and support I need—as does the gym!

Layne: It is important to make time to do things that have nothing to do with trauma, loss and tragedy. But I enjoy mentoring students and helping them develop a passion for these pressing and important problems. My personal relationships with my friends and colleagues overseas also imbue my work with a deep sense of meaning and purpose, wherein I am helping them tell their story in a compelling and convincing fashion.

Nelson Goff: I learned from my major professor in my doctoral program to set aside one day a week as a research day—work from home, with no interruptions. On that day I try to spend the majority of my time doing research-related work. But I have to make an effort to set my boundaries around that day—otherwise it’s easy for other work to encroach on that time. To me, this has been a lifesaver!

Any last words of wisdom?

Brown: Two things David Kolko taught me: 1) take time to read, think and talk about what interests you—the beginning of your postdoc is the only time you will have to do this; and 2) think ahead—about where you want to be in 10 years and consider what you have to do to get there.

Layne: My postdoc experience really taught me how limited a traditional educational experience can be in preparing to contend with real-world problems, and how important it is to be prepared and to know your stuff cold. My best advice is to not let fear, uncertainty, habit or anything else prevent you from doing what you really want to do.

Nelson Goff: Find the area you are passionate about and follow that through graduate school and your early career—that’s the best way to build your career because the passion and excitement you have for the work you are doing will help keep you motivated. Also, it’s important to be focused. You can have lots of great ideas, but you soon may find yourself trying to balance too many things and accomplishing nothing. Being focused and passionate about your work will help direct your energy where it needs to go.