"None of you understand. I’m not locked up in here with YOU. You’re locked up in here with ME.”
—Rorschach from Watchmen
Can a psychologist read your mind? Some people used to think so. I’ve been in close quarters with a few psychologists in my time, and they weren’t reading minds. Like the rest of us, they were reading Facebook. The supernatural skills of psychologists are non-existent. Sometimes, the natural skills aren’t that good either. I’ll get to that.
As with most professions, the invention of modern clinical (applied) psychology didn’t arrive whole. It trickled in from experimental psychology and other domains to help in areas it’s still identified with: learning disabilities, IQ and personality testing, and counseling for emotional problems. In the United States, the chief catalyst for its current status arrived during World War II. Because psychiatrists were busy playing real doctor (treating war injuries), psychologists took over the treatment of war-generated emotional afflictions—specifically, “shell shock” (now known as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD). With their couch in the door, psychologists could parlay their newfound clinical status into state licensing laws, and they eventually became the first non-MDs to be reimbursed by medical insurance.
To become a psychologist, you must first earn a doctorate in psychology, either a PhD or a PsyD. PhDs are most appropriate for those who envision a career as a professor at a research-oriented university—running a mini-fiefdom, with research grants and grad students to service it. Because of significant competition, the maze to that kind of career has increasing twists and turns, and the cheese at the end is less likely to be Roquefort and more likely to be Cheese Whiz.
In recent years, the more direct path to becoming a clinical psychologist is to go for the PsyD. PsyD programs were created in the late 60s and early 70s to produce psychologists with a stronger background in clinical work. In a PsyD program, you spend less time devoted to pure research and more time devoted to research that’s directly related to counseling and psychotherapy. You spend less time reading dusty old classics that are trying to retain some dignity, though Half-Price Books won’t pay a dime for a shelf’s worth, and more time reading articles and books on evidenced-based practices. Finally, you spend less time with professors who have never done counseling and more time with those who have a clinical practice.
A PsyD is the practical path to train as a clinical psychologist, except for one drawback—you are more likely to get significant financial help (grants, not loans) in a PhD program than in a PsyD program. Servicing the professor’s fiefdom has its rewards.
The Special Theory of Psychologists
In theory, clinical psychologists should be the most capable of all psychotherapists. They’re the doctorate-level clinicians whose many years in school are oriented towards the study of people problems rather than studying chemistry and cutting up cadavers. They engage in original research on human behavior, write a book-length paper in double-secret jargon (the dissertation) on that research, and serve an internship that includes learning to do extensive psychological evaluations as well as the training to be a psychotherapist.
Are the so-called “scientist/practitioners” of the counseling field the most capable of all psychotherapists? Not necessarily. Some academic hoops, especially ones that school geeks excel in, are irrelevant or even antithetical to the primary goal of counseling people. Not every clinician wannabe can combine the nose-to-the-grindstone focus of completing a doctoral program with the resourcefulness and creativity necessary to help human beings deal with problems in living. Being good at school is not the same as being good with people.
Students in four-year colleges are primarily taught by cheaply paid instructors and grad students, while tenure-track professors engage in research and write papers, in partnership with their grad students. If you wish to get that Ph.D, you’ll be one of those grad students who is teaching and working on the professors’ research. Along with assisting your professors, you must do research for your own Ph.D dissertation. In other words, to get a Ph.D, you’ll have to enlist in geeky academia for a duration longer than the U.S. involvement in World War II.
The General Theory of Psychologists
On the other hand, being good at school means that psychologists are at least good at something. There are masters-level programs (primarily, in professional schools) where the sole admittance criterion is whether you can pay the tuition. In my brief (and uncelebrated) time teaching masters-level grad students, I had some who belonged and some who must have received their baccalaureates from Santa Claus. At least the ones who weren’t naughty.
On the whole, for the aspiring clinician, becoming a licensed psychologist—if you want to put in the time and money—is the most reliable route to a successful and interesting career in clinical work. Psychologists enjoy vocational and income opportunities well beyond masters-level therapists. A doctorate in psychology can be the path to numerous professions: college professor, organizational or educational consultant, technology researcher in user interface design, forensics to assist law-enforcement or lawyers, advertising (which was invented by the nephew of Sigmund Freud), or any field that uses knowledge of human behavior.