Q&A with Laura Kirby ‘11, Child Clinical Psychologist & Author

Major: Psychology / Minor: English

What are 2-3 ways your Duke experience helped prepare you for your current career role and/or previous roles?

Duke helped me prepare for becoming a clinical psychologist and author in many ways. One of the most impactful ways Duke helped prepare me was by giving me the opportunity to complete a senior thesis project in a research lab. Under the supervision of Dr. Makeba Wilbourn in the Wilbourn Infant Lab at Duke (WILD), I conducted a language-learning study with fifty 18-month-olds and presented the findings at an international conference in Montreal.

Being a part of the WILD lab and being mentored by Dr. Wilbourn was one of the highlights of my time at Duke. I learned to work collaboratively in a team, learned how to mentor other students, and Dr. Wilbourn helped me appreciate strengths and my potential. This experience inspired me to pursue a career in child clinical psychology to better understand atypical child development. My experience in English classes at Duke helped me improve my writing, which prepared me for my new role as a children’s book author. My goal is to combine my passion for child development with my love of writing in order to write enjoyable books for kids that help them with their social-emotional development.

How did you make the transition from Duke to your career? What are a few helpful takeaways from your first years out of Duke?

After I graduated from Duke, I spent two years as a research fellow at the Yale Child Study Center prior to pursuing graduate school. During these two years, I learned more about child clinical psychology and realized that this career path was a good fit for me. I then spent five years in a clinical psychology Ph.D. program at the University of Maryland. One takeaway was that I was very happy to have taken two years off in between undergrad and graduate school, because this helped solidify my goals. I’ve seen too many people rush into graduate school, only to end up in careers that are not the best fit for them.

How did you decide what you wanted to do after Duke? And how did you make transition(s) to different fields?

I have always known I wanted to work with children in some capacity, but it was not until my post-baccalaureate fellowship at Yale that I really got to see what child clinical psychologists do on a daily basis. It was so helpful to have an “inside look” at someone’s career path that I could aspire to emulate.

In graduate school, I was involved in several research projects in addition to clinical work, and I realized after a couple of years that I was most passionate about the clinical work and conducting evaluations and therapy directly with children and families. This experience helped shape my path after graduate school, which was to pursue a heavily clinical internship and postdoctoral fellowship at the Yale Child Study Center. Currently, I am in a role as a clinical psychologist at the Duke Center for Autism but will be transitioning to private practice this August.

What is your favorite thing about working in your profession? Most challenging?

I love conducting psychological evaluations and helping children and families better understand a child’s strengths and areas of weakness as well as providing the family with recommendations to help support the child at home and at school. I also love working collaboratively with children and families on a weekly basis in therapy. It is so rewarding to see a child’s symptoms improve after weeks of hard work.

The most rewarding part of being an author is getting positive feedback from parents about a child’s reaction to my book. One parent recently told me that the book opened up a conversation with her son that she didn’t even know she needed to have. This meant so much to me, because one of the goals of my book is to help children talk about challenging situations and emotions.

The most challenging aspect of my job is giving difficult news to families about a child’s diagnosis. This has become much easier over time with more experience. The most challenging aspect of being an author so far has been learning all the ins and outs of the publishing process and learning how to market the book.

What are 2-3 pieces of advice you would offer to a student interested in your field(s)?

I would recommend that students interested in pursuing clinical psychology should speak to a clinical psychologist about their day-to-day experience and observe several different psychologists with different areas of expertise before deciding to go to graduate school for clinical psychology. I am happy to talk with any students who are interested in learning more about this field! For students interested in writing children’s books, I would recommend that they 1) read lots of children’s books, 2) choose an editor and illustrator wisely, and 3) take the time to learn about the publishing process before beginning to write.

Anything else to add?

My book is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target, and Bookshop!

Here is a synopsis: Every night before going to bed, Henrietta dances bare-pawed in her front yard, packs her backpack for the morning, brushes her teeth, and tucks her stuffed animals into bed. But when poisonous thistleberries start falling in the forest and Henrietta is forced to stay home from school for a whole year, many of her beloved routines are disrupted. Henrietta must learn how to wear boots to protect her from the thistleberries, a challenging task since she hates anything touching her paws. And she must learn how to be flexible when confronted with change. Henrietta’s Thistleberry Boots is a picture book meant to share at home or in the classroom. Henrietta is a unique, spirited, and determined character who struggles with not knowing. Children, parents, and teachers will all relate to the powerful emotions evoked by change and the unknown. The themes in this story — adjustment, patience, and courage — will inspire children to be resilient when confronted with life’s challenges.

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