A Hero’s Journey

May 2013


I want to tell you thank you, and give you an update on my career path. Exciting things are happening. 
Forgive me for telling a long story over email, but I need to start at the beginning.
In the dusk of 2011, I rang your bell with my [career testing] report and career list with several different, widely divergent possible career paths. They ranged from scientist to IT, and from international development to nurse practitioner.
Our meeting showed me that I’ve got a discovery profile, and am a healer. you diagnosed my hard-wired cycle of discovery: a problem presents itself in the interpersonal clinic, which is my laboratory. I research and explore to find the solution. I develop and apply a new solution in the clinic. I develop the theoretical implications, and communicate/package it to the world.  
Your assessment: I’m a neuro-psychologist at heart. Build a therapeutic career grounded in the brain so that it employs my spatial skills, yet one oriented towards the spirit so that it draws on my seminary and prayer ministry volunteerism background, as well as my native impulses; find the quickest licensure category best suited to those two criteria to use as a career template. 
Great! I walked out of your office levitating with new clarity and insight. But my feet sank to the ground quickly as I walked through Old Town Alexandria that rainy night. There won’t be any quick career fix given the picture you constructed. 
It may have taken a year and a half to get to the point where I’m ready to actually start at the ground level of my new field, but what I didn’t yet realize that night is that the path that you put me on would glide me along with its own momentum.
Here’s how that happened . . .

[Dear readers, Nathan’s letter is bit long but reveals some important steps along his career change. It reminds me of a Hero’s Journey, he’s like a Harry Potter or Luke Skywalker.]
Because nurse practitioner was on my list, but you were somewhat doubtful about the fit, you suggested I contact a professional nurse practitioner so that I could develop a thicker description based on real experience. I did reach out to a guy.  
While I didn’t hear from him about the nurse practitioner track, I did discover a brand new vista on his website from the custom career that he and his wife are developing: neurofeedback! It was the first time I had heard of this field. I dug into his website.
It opened up a whole new horizon that immediately excited me. Many neurofeedback practitioners, called neurotherapists, create 3-D maps of the brain called Q-EEG’s, which guide treatment planning. It involves tangible hardware, the brain, and yet also provides a potential connection to the mind, body, and spirit. One of the founders of neurofeedback uses it to train meditation states that he learned from yogis in India. As I dug deeper, I started finding other ways that neurofeedback could be used to help people become conscious of mindfulness states, states of centeredness and connection that I had sought to teach others to cultivate in my church volunteer work as a prayer minister, creating a real continuity with previous experience and a promising new field pristine and promising for potential discovery. 
The field is highly entrepreneurial, one that lends itself easily to discovery-packaging by the very nature of its reliance tangible products like high-tech equipment and software. It was a whole new, amazing world that I felt designed to inhabit somehow. 
But I still needed a license, and wasn’t sure which of these mental health licensure categories would be the best fit, and ride the golden mean between earning capacity and training start-up time.
I sent emails to every neurofeedback practitioner I could find in the area for advice, including one in Northern Virginia that turned out to be one of the largest in the country. The director offered to meet with me in her office to talk. 
She recommended some places to start, and suggested that the first thing I do is take a neurofeedback bootcamp: a prerequisite for biofeedback association licensing and a way to get more clarity.
I asked if I could help at her practice as a tech afterwards; but because the neurotherapy field is so sophisticated and encompasses such a wide field of knowledge about the brain, therapy protocols, software, physics of electricity, etc., they needed me to get some more experience before they would let me learn on the job as a tech.
I took that bootcamp at a Maryland neurology practice last July, led by a neurologist with a passion for neurofeedback, and who was on the cutting edge of QEEG methods.
The four-day, full-day bootcamp was amazing. I simply loved everything about what we studied. A diverse array of professionals came, from social workers, licensed professional counselors, (LPC’s) psychologists, and psychiatrists. I loved the practice reading EEG’s and other, extra-curricula materials on head injuries, ADD, and sleep that the neurologist provided from his own clinical expertise as a doctor.
I found most in common with the psychologists, in terms of how the career template fits with one’s natural thinking, and it turns out that most neurotherapists are indeed psychologists. Nevertheless, from this bootcamp I got a further lead from a Johns Hopkins doctor, who paid for me to go to another workshop at Hopkins in Event-Related Potentials, which uses EEG’s to look for mental states and things like visual recognition, used in different ways by cognitive research psychologists and medical practitioners. It was a workshop that helped clarify my path further. 

More on how Nathan’s journey unfolded . . . 

Let me diverge a bit into that decision making process, before returning to November 2012, when the momentum of this path really propelled me to today.
I realized that the nurse practitioner track was too circuitous. Getting an LPC license requires only a two-year degree, but then required two years of supervision afterwards and promised a meager financial pay-off after it all. To gain PhD program entrance for the highly competitive clinical Psychology field, I needed coursework and experience, along with the willingness to relinquish 5 years’ worth of income. A PsyD promised not only no income for five years, but mountains of debt afterwards. Finally, there’s another downside to the field, too. A neuropsychologist has his practice across the hall at my office building, and we’ve struck up a friendship through chance meetings in the hall and restroom over the past year. He told me that because the psychology field is becoming saturated with new, mass-production PsyD programs, it is increasingly more difficult every year to run a profitable practice and/or pay off burgeoning grad debt. 
Then, an idea came from nowhere to my wife and I as we–unknown to one another–were praying simultaneously in different places: psychiatric/neurology physician assistant (PA).
So far, so good. While PA’s usually earn their keep by writing scripts for pills, the neurologist who taught the bootcamp proposed a clinical business model based not on pills, but on ordering and billing for EEG’s, which either a neurologist/psychiatrist or a PA with EEG Technology board certification is uniquely authorized to do. Also, PA’s spend just two years in school, just like MSW’s or LPC’s. Yet their scope of practice is broader even than psychologists, who would not be able to treat people with head injuries, seizure disorders, and other neurological problems with neurofeedback.
The problem was, physician assistant programs assume that you are already working in the medical world; people who apply to these programs have an average of 5,000 hours as nurses, EMT’s, and other front-line healthcare workers. 
Since I knew I could take my EEG knowledge and credentials with me into PA practice, the answer, though a far reach, seemed to be to learn about EEG’s on the ground as an EEG Tech to get those hours, learn as much as I can, and sit for my  EEG board exam next May
These two 2012 workshops were resume starters for the EEG Tech field. In the months that followed, I actually went cold calling with resumes. I dropped them off at a local neurology practices in my area. I went to the Neuroscience Center at Inova Fairfax, and called them to follow up. 
Though I had minimal experience, my enthusiasm and persistence impressed Inova. They actually decided to custom-design a paid apprenticeship position for me! 
From November until just now, they’ve created the first part-time, paid apprenticeship position at the hospital called a Neurodiagnostic Assistant. I’m going to be one of several now in a cohort to join and complete a simultaneous one-year course of study that they will help fund. Next May, I’ll sit for my board exams in EEG Technology. 
Don’t get me wrong, this will still be a major financial leap of faith. But It turns out that being EEG Tech carries a higher salary after 5 years of experience than I make in my current career. EEG Tech’s actually make more than nurses, because their expertise reading complex brain readouts often become unparalleled among any other healthcare roles, including neurologists themselves.  
But that’s not where it ends. Remember the N.Va neurofeedback clinic? The apprenticeship in turn opened a door there. 
When I emailed the director to thank her for her advice and tell her about the apprenticeship, she asked that I come to their office again. Yesterday, I met with her along with the clinic director, and they offered to bring me on as an EEG Tech part time. It turns out that the experience in a medical context learning to read EEG’s for pathology is really valuable to them when deciding to make referrals. In turn, they’ll throw me into the deep end of the pool to learn all the many aspects of neurofeedback in their bustling practice.
I resigned today, and resisted my supervisor’s teary appeals to stay. (though there’s more to come on Monday at a meeting with the executive director about my resignation) Instead, I’ll start both positions two weeks from now. 
With the uncertainties that the future brings, I’m now well positioned to learn into this new career adventure with maximum flexibility as our family and economic situation allows. Meanwhile, neurofeedback provides a frontier of knowledge ripe for discoveries, and a very wide potential for mastery as an introverted specialist/maestro. It’s deeply spatial. And it provides points of contact with the spiritual practices of Eastern/Oriental Orthodox Christianity, my tradition. 
I never thought things would finally begin to bear fruit a year and a half after I sat in your office, and I’m glad I didn’t at that time. But now, the hard-won fruit is all the sweeter.
Thank you, Anthony, for setting me on the right course.