on first choices

I haven’t always gotten what I’ve wanted. Indeed, some of the best things in my life have happened because I didn’t get my first choice.

After graduating from Northwestern College with a degree in psychology, I wanted to get a PhD in psychology. I applied to several doctoral programs and one master’s program as a fall back. I didn’t get in to the doctoral programs, so I went to Mankato State University 27 years ago, which is where I met my wife.

After finishing my master’s degree at MSU, I again applied to a number of counseling psychology doctoral programs, but I really wanted to go to the University of Notre Dame or Virginia Commonwealth University. My undergraduate mentor had gone to Notre Dame and I had seen the movie Rudy, so it was one of my two top choices. VCU was my other top choice because Ev Worthington, a renowned forgiveness researcher, was a professor there and I wanted to continue my work studying forgiveness. I was admitted to neither. However, I did get into the University of Iowa, which is one of the top counseling psychology programs in the United States. It wasn’t my first choice, but my training was top notch. More importantly, I was exposed to, and then immersed in, neuropsychology, which became my chosen field. At the other two places, I would not have had that opportunity, but at the University of Iowa, the neuropsychology tradition was among the best.

When I applied for internship, my first choice was the University of Florida. I even bought a Gators hat because I was sure that I would get in, but UF chose other people. Instead I went to the Ann Arbor VAMC/University of Michigan, and again the training was top notch. I was able to work with a number of great mentors, but I was especially grateful for Kenneth Adams, who was not only a top notch neuropsychologist, he was an exceptional clinical psychologist and was board certified in both. He taught me the importance of a broader psychological understanding in my work as a neuropsychologist.

Finally, my first choice for residency was a functional imaging fellowship at the University of Michigan. It would have allowed me to pursue a research career in functional imaging, and to stay in the Ann Arbor area, which I loved. But I didn’t get it. Instead, I was accepted into the neuropsychology residency at the Medical College of Wisconsin, and I cannot imagine having had better training. The strength of the faculty, the breadth of opportunity, and the friendships developed were second to none.

Looking back, I am grateful for each and every “second choice.” I cannot imagine what my life would be like if I had always gotten my first choice. My life is proof that the Stones were onto something when they sang, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need.”

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