The Health Psychologist

Society for Health Psychology

Looking Back to Step Forward: A Reflection on the “Emerging Adulthood” Era of Professional Identity Development

2024 Spring, The creative outlet, The Health Psychologist

Grace S. Kao, Ph.D., ABPP
Pain Psychologist | Board Certified in Clinical Health Psychology
Associate Professor | Department of Pain Medicine
Division of Anesthesiology, Critical Care, and Pain Medicine
The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center

Recently, I made a job transition to an institution where, as a student trainee, I was first inspired to pursue health psychology. Though the care center has expanded and grown, some of the spaces, hallways, and bustle of patients and providers feel surreal in their familiarity. There are times I actively invoke this younger eager practicum student version of myself walking the same hallways in attempts to channel the wonder, energy, and awe that marked those first forays into the field.

The time between then and now seems both short and long. The past decade and a half of post-graduate pursuits have felt lengthy and arduous but at the same time, fleeting and accelerated. They have indeed led me to a career as a health psychologist and now ushered me into what feels to be the “emerging adulthood” era of my professional identity development. Sometimes, it can feel like a strange, confusing place to be.

When I first came across the “emerging adulthood” term, coined by Jeffrey Arnett (Arnett, 2000), I happened to be squarely in this developmental life stage. Arnett proposed “emerging adulthood” as a distinct period of the life course, sandwiched between adolescence and full-fledged adulthood, characterized by change and exploration. At the time of that initial self-reflection, I ticked off many of the characteristics Arnett described, finding assurance with the camaraderie of knowing others are also experiencing this ambiguous stage of in-between. Now, as I reflect upon my own and colleagues’ sentiments around approaching mid-career, similar thoughts have taken shape in what seem to be parallel areas in career growth: 

  • Identity exploration – “Who am I as a professional in the process of becoming more established in my career?”
  • Instability – “Where specifically are my domains of expertise and where do I continue pursuit of depth versus breadth?”
  • Self-focus – “Can and how do I step into a more senior contributing role on my team, in my organization, in my field? Are there professional pivots I want to make?”
  • Being in-between – “I have enough experience to be confident in my expertise but continue to recognize ongoing and formidable limitations of my knowledge and experience.” 
  • Possibility – “I get to decide how to shape the rest of my career. How do I do that well?” 

Just as my “emerging adulthood” life stage was marked with uncertainty and soul-searching, it seems this professional juncture has highlighted many of the same themes. One helpful practice I felt myself returning repeatedly to during the navigation of my early 20s was journaling about past values to ground future aspirations. My childhood love of writing, longstanding value for relationship-building, and tightly held hopes to build a close-knit family served as thankfully stable launching points for considering next steps, decisions, and plans that would somehow lead to full-fledged adulthood. I found myself constantly asking, “When circumstances change, when viewpoints and relationship shift, what do I still find meaningful? What are the common threads in my pursuits that have lasted over time?”

These past exercises and reflection questions have come to mind again lately in my efforts to also navigate my professional transitions well. As I wrestle with the mid-career ambiguity of professional identity, future, and meaning, I am finding it grounding to remember the values of a young, eager student trainee. Perhaps being in the same space, day after day, as that past self also makes it easier to see through her eyes, to recall her early love of finding connection in spaces of healing, longstanding value for finding creativity in work, and affinity towards working in close-knit teams. For me, these assessments of the past have set more stable guideposts in the search for a clearer, more sustainable professional pathway ahead. And perhaps, in another decade and a half, there will be a future me hoping to channel the reflections of this version of my professional self, with even deeper knowledge of what it might mean to look back to step forward. 


Arnett, J. J. (2000). Emerging adulthood: A theory of development from the late teens through the twenties. American Psychologist, 55(5), 469–480.