How I got my job: Santa Cruz therapist David Schulkin switched from teaching surf lessons to mental health

David Schulkin.
(Thomas Sawano / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout is launching a regular feature talking to people in Santa Cruz County about their jobs and offering advice to those looking to get into the field. Here, we speak with Santa Cruz therapist David Schulkin about his motivations for becoming a therapist, his perspective on the field and what advice he would give to recent college graduates and career-switchers interested in therapy work.

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David Schulkin isn’t your granddaddy’s therapist. A surfing instructor for more than 25 years, his switch to being a professional therapist was, by his own admission, unconventional — though he says his background was instrumental to motivating him to pursue mental health work.

Schulkin runs his own psychotherapy practice on top of teaching an annual surfing course through UC Santa Cruz’s Recreation department. He holds about half of his sessions outdoors in a given week, calling the style “walking therapy.”

For the first installment of a series on how Santa Cruz County professionals got their career starts, Lookout asked Schulkin about his motivations for becoming a therapist, his perspective on the field and what advice he would give to recent college graduates and career-switchers interested in therapy work.


  • UC Santa Cruz, bachelor’s degree in psychology
  • The Institute of Transpersonal Psychology (now Sofia University), master’s degree in counseling psychology

Lookout: How did you become a therapist?

David Schulkin: Well, I majored in psychology at UCSC. But at the time, I didn’t really know who I was or where I fit in the world — and so after I graduated, I just surfed and traveled the world for like five years. I’d teach surfing at these surf camps, so I didn’t have to pay for food or rent for three months in the fall, and then I’d help with these surf trips to Baja in the winter, and then come back here and pick up some odd job in the spring.

Then I came back one year, and I was right here at Steamer Lane, and I was like, “What am I doing?” And almost that instant, this guy came up to me — my friend — and he told me about the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology. And I was like, “Oh yeah, that. I want that.” My purpose was kind of drawn out of me.

By the way, that same day, I interviewed for a room [for rent], and this beautiful woman opened the door — and that’s who I’m married to. The stars just aligned.

Lookout: It sounds like you still carry that sense of purpose. That “this-is-what-I-need-to-be-doing.”

Schulkin: Yes. I feel so lucky that I get to be paid to become wiser. It’s so amazing! But besides that, it’s such an honor. I feel so honored to play a role in someone’s life in this really intimate way, and witness people grow. It’s really beautiful.

Lookout: What do your work days generally look like?

Schulkin: Part of my day is walking in the woods: I meet clients back-to-back, have our sessions [outdoors] — and it’s lovely, being out in the woods and moving my body.

But there’s also a really nice aspect of being in the office. Several of my clients are couples, and I see them there. There’s a containment and degree of privacy you get there that you can’t get outdoors.

So I generally work three days a week, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and on Wednesday mornings I teach a surfing class at UCSC. So I only see clients in the afternoon on Wednesdays. But on Mondays and Fridays, I’ll see clients from 10 a.m. or as early as 9 a.m. until around 5 p.m. or 6 p.m., with about a client an hour.

Is that typical for a therapist? Not completely, but it’s not completely atypical either. Several of my colleagues do four days a week, with one day off to catch up with correspondence and other administrative work.

Lookout: What advice would you give to somebody who’s interested in becoming a therapist, like a recent college graduate or somebody who’s looking to switch career tracks?

Schulkin: I think therapy is the most profound and amazing thing to do — and that’s me. But it’s not necessarily for everybody.

If you’re interested in it at all, interview a therapist about it. It’s a long track: You have to do grad school, and then do 3,000 hours at an internship. And if you think about that, 2,000 hours is a 40-hour workweek for a year — and you typically can’t get those kinds of hours at an internship. So interning typically takes about three years, and you might get a paid one, and you might get an unpaid one. Then you have to take this huge test, which is really annoying. And then, if you want to be in private practice, it takes a long time to become established.

Lookout: What’s a good way for someone to get their feet wet without committing to a long educational track?

Schulkin: When I was a high school student, I did this thing, Community Helpline, which was a call service that people would dial and we’d walk them through their problems. There are still services like that, though I believe many require you to have at least some kind of license or certification.

But typically, if you’re leaning in the direction of becoming a therapist, you’ll kind of play that role in your friends’ lives. Of course, when you become a professional therapist, it’s very important to make the distinction between friends and clients. Like, you can’t be a therapist all the time.

Lookout: Do you think therapy has to be a calling?

Schulkin: Yes. I think you have to want it — just like with being a teacher, you have to want it. Because teachers — they should get paid so much more, but nobody sets out to become a teacher thinking, “Ooh, I’m going in it for the money.” No, you go into it because you get to have a profound impact on people’s lives.

Therapist David Schulkin gazes at the waves at Steamer Lane
David Schulkin, who has been a practicing therapist for nearly 20 years, gazes at the waves at Steamer Lane — the place where he decided pursue a career in mental health.
(Thomas Sawano / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: What are some of the (other) perks of being a therapist?

Schulkin: I was just talking to my wife about this: One of the great parts of this gig is you’re your own boss. Like, we just took two weeks off to go to Hawaii. We get to work two, three days a week. It’s a pretty privileged perspective, but in this capitalistic society, if you can pull off not having to work the standard 40 hours a week, you should.

Lookout: How much money do you make?

Schulkin: A year? I don’t really know. It varies. My standard fee is $165 per session. And the number of sessions I do varies. Right now it’s 15 to 20 per week. That’s the thing: My wife has a steady gig, so I’m sort of insulated from having to work a certain number of days per week to make ends meet.

Lookout: Is there anything about that or the work in general which stresses you out or keeps you up at night?

Schulkin: It depends. Sometimes, a little bit. But mostly, I’m aware of my limited influence. I have an hour a week typically, or less than that. That’s it. That’s all I’ve got. If I assign homework, I can’t make my client do it. So I have to let it go.

I don’t do this so much anymore, but I had this ritual where I would wear different shoes and a different shirt to work, and then I’d come home Mr. Rogers-style and take those off — to literally put down work and be like, “OK, now I’m with my family.”

But I do that more symbolically now. I’ll usually blast some music and take what I call a “sonic shower” on my drive home. And then I’m like, “OK. I’m here now.”

Lookout: Have you had any experiences which inform that perspective?

Schulkin: Oh … I think it’s just life philosophy. I mean, shoot, look at waves: You take off on the wave, your mark on the wave is temporary, the wave itself is temporary. You are temporary. It’s just a given of existence.

Lookout: Do you think professional therapy attracts a certain type of personality?

Schulkin: Yeah, of course, people who want to help other people. But — and it kind of tracks — also people who want to help themselves. It attracts a lot of weirdos. I may be included in that. But you do need to have a softer, more sensitive side, because you need that for the work.

One thing, especially in private practice, is that I had to learn a lot of the business stuff on the fly. I wasn’t taught any of that in school, and it was not in my wheelhouse. So you asked, “Does it attract a certain person?” Most therapists I know are not business-minded entrepreneurs. But you have to end up having to be that. It’s been an interesting journey, for sure.

Lookout: Where do you see the mental health industry going as time goes on?

Schulkin: There’s lots of online therapy. But I’m so not into it. I tried Zoom during the pandemic and was like, “Nope!” So while I did some remote stuff, 90% of my practice was walking therapy. I still do it — I’ve always offered it, though now it’s about 40%. And it’s exactly what it sounds like: walking in the woods. Telehealth is more accessible and cheaper — and those are really good things — but it doesn’t have the same feel, in my opinion.

One thing that’s been encouraging is that therapy is less stigmatized than it was 50 years ago or 20, 30. But there’s still some stigma to it: you know, “You’re going to therapy, what’s wrong with you?” So I hope it’ll continue to become less stigmatized.

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