What Psychologists Do
I frequently find myself misunderstood. More accurately, I find my role as a psychologist misunderstood. “Oh, you’re a psychologist – I hope you’re not going to read my mind.” I wish! To my certain knowledge nobody can actually read minds so that rules out all psychologists. “I suppose anything I say will relate to a fear of my genitalia dropping off.” Well, you said it! However, I think you are confusing me with a Freudian psychoanalyst, because I know nothing about the impending disappearance of genitals.
Quite why the role of psychologist remains such a mystery baffles me – well, up to a point. Unlike the medical profession who are protected by statute, the term ‘psychologist’ is still prone to misuse and this is why pretty much anyone with a mind to can call themselves a psychologist. However, psychology is one of the single most popular degree courses in the Western hemisphere and has been for years, so why hasn’t the message filtered through?
Now here is something bizarre. It crossed my mind that, at some point, my psychology undergrads would have picked up the message about psychology. After all they want to be psychologists, so how did they get to learn about psychology. So I asked the question to a class of around 40 students, ‘what is psychology’? For the non-psychologist reading this the answer is invariably on page one in any introductory book on psychology. The stock answer to the question is along the lines of, ‘psychology is the scientific study of behavior and mental processes’.
At first the group looked stunned, like rabbits trapped in the headlights. My first thought was that the question was too simple – they were looking for the catch – maybe wondering if this was part of some social experiment. So I reassured them on both counts and I waited quietly for the answer. There are times when silence is deafening, and this was one of those times. I scanned the room for signs of eye contact but by now everyone seemed to have developed a fascination for organizing their notes, checking their pens or looking at the posters on the wall. Only then did it strike me that nobody could answer the question. Maybe I should have pressed the point, but I didn’t. With hindsight I guess it was one of those embarrassing moments when students can be caught out by the most obvious of questions. I know it has happened to me, usually in the form of being asked ‘why’, so I share the pain of those in similar situations.
But back to what psychologists do. A common area for confusion is the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist – and the term ‘doctor’. These days most psychologists hold a doctorate but unlike psychiatrists they cannot prescribe medication. A psychiatrist is someone with medical training who specializes in psychiatry. To some extent there is overlap with the roles but the differences are probably most apparent our views about the causes of certain psychological problems and the most appropriate approaches to treatment. These days the different roles tend to be complementary rather than antagonistic, with both professions seeing the strengths of the other and working together for the mutual benefit of patients.
So what exactly is a psychologist? Well, let’s start with what psychology is. Psychology is both and academic subject and a profession. As an academic subject it contributes greatly to undergraduate degree courses. Undergraduate courses provide a solid foundation of knowledge that is pooled from various branches of psychology. Graduates will then invariably select their post-graduate training, leading to a job as a professional psychologist, on the basis of the interests they developed during their years as an undergraduate.
Psychology as a profession is actually a number of things. Like the medical profession who go on to specialize in areas like pediatrics, oncology, and so on, psychologists will specialize in, for example, clinical, educational, forensic or other branches of psychology. Although the focus is different a common thread exists which often relates to assessments, interventions, and evaluations in ways that seek to help people. Therefore, a clinical psychologist will focus on disruptions to normal everyday living in people that may be due to anxiety, depression, and other problems. They will carefully assess the patient, intervene with techniques that are proven to provide effective treatments and evaluate the effectiveness of these within an ethical code of practice that governs and guides professional standards.