Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The decision to become a "Professional"

A Bachelor of Science in Psychology...what can one really do with that?!  Well, let me tell you.  When you make the decision to major in psychology in college, you have to be committed to the idea that your education will not end with undergrad.  Instead you must know that a Masters Degree or Doctorate will follow shortly after in order to have some input into your career.  Unfortunately, with a BA or BS in Psych you are qualified to do about the same kinds of jobs as someone with or without a high school diploma.  This does not mean that these jobs are invaluable, however, the pay is often minimum wage.  Your job could include work in a residential home with "at-risk" adolescents either orphaned or involved with the courts.  When I began graduate school I spent about 20 hours a week doing psychological assessments with  adolescent boys and girls.  Men and women that worked as "house parents" dealt daily with pat downs, screaming matches, and restraint holds.  The employee retention rate was low because their job was extremely difficult and underpaid.  However, it was the dedicated "house parents" that ensured me I was in the right field.  I knew that the therapy and psychological assessments I was able to provide helped implement much needed therapeutic interventions.  While a Masters degree allows someone to provide therapy, a doctorate allows a therapist to also provide psychological assessments of personality and intelligence.  The route to that doctorate is a long, challenging one. 

This decision is one that should not be taken lightly.  Though I am content with my decision, I made it quite naively as many do.  While some enter this field as a second career or after being in the field for several years, the trend is to begin right out of college.   Many graduates sign financial aid papers that will put them six figures into debt upon graduation.  The logic behind the decision is that as a Professional, we will be able to one day afford to pay back that debt.  The route also includes several years of unpaid work, long hours, stress, competition, and at the end...a quest for a pre-doctoral internship space.  I will address the internship process at a later date, but it's a big deal in the world of a graduate student and another stressor.  I will only state now, that this year alone, nearly 1000 graduate students seeking an internship position did not "Match".  This adds complications to ones career aspirations, finances, and mental health.  So, I suppose I didn't make graduate school sounds all that great.  Why in the world would anyone put themselves through all of that?  Well, let me tell you.  The big cliche answer (which really is true) is that I do it for the clients.  Working with a child, family, man or woman through whatever obstacle they may be facing is ultimately very challenging, but incredibly rewarding.  Having said that, there is also something spectacular about having the ability to focus your career around areas of interest that motivate and inspire.  It has been said that approximately 1% of the US population holds a doctoral degree.  For me, the title is not what it is all about.  The title allows me to constantly explore the world, help others explore themselves, and hopefully provide therapeutic support in various populations and communities.  

So...what kind of doctorate could a graduate student potentially have after four years of undergrad, followed by four years of graduate school and one year of internship?  Well, the most well known and highly confused are the Doctorate of Psychology (Psy. D) and the Doctorate of Philosophy (Ph. D).  These two degrees would make the graduate a Psychologist.  The major difference is that, often, a Psy. D will focus their graduate school education on clinical training, while a Ph. D will likely focus their education on academia/research.  At one time the divide between a doctor with a Psy. D and a doctor with a Ph. D was very distinct.  The Ph. D was considered the more coveted and esteemed degree in the past.  It has been my observation that though there are still distinctions, the respect for the Psy. D has grown significantly.  Professionals with Psy. Ds are active in the American Psychological Association (APA) as well as state professional organizations such as the Illinois Psychological Association (IPA).  In my opinion, the Psy. D. route allows graduate students excellent clinical training while opening doors in various other areas of the mental health field.  

The decision to become a Professional in the field of psychology is a personal one.  I advocate for Clinical Psychologists to share their journeys and help young adults make informed decisions about their career paths.  Over the past four years of graduate school I have witnessed many peers make the decision to withdraw from the Psy. D program to practice as a Masters level clinician and find great success and happiness.  While this decision should not be made solely for financial reasons, there is merit in exploring the option.  While the journey is long, the rewards are great.  

A role model of mine once gave me this advice:  People, now a days, do not have the luxury to retire at 65.  Therefore, when you decide the career that would make you happiest, go for it.  Even if you change your mind at 30 or still have 30 to 35 years left in the workforce.  Over the life span, spending a few extra years on your education can be tremendously worth it.  Think of your education as one of the greatest investments you can make.  Be passionate about your career.  In the mental health field, your success contributes to the wellness of others. 

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