Got Brains?—Part 2

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Answering the Question: How a Psychologist Is Trained?

Read my biographical statement and you will understand the effort I went to to become the professional I now am. To very briefly summarize, with little actual experience, a master’s degree in Clinical Counseling, and a quick wit, I was accepted into a program in the Midwest, which was looking for diversity. Given its location, isolated from the major metropolitan hubbub, I had to be considered diversity itself.  I could speak with a number of accents anyway, including Brooklynese. For the same reason, it was recommended as a good place to study, having little else in the way of diversion, unless you consider the seemingly endless hoops that you were made to jump through to reach your goal.

At its root, the doctoral program in Counseling Psychology I attended had a fundamental schism, actually at Ball State there were two or three schisms in the Psychology Department itself before I ever got there. The history of what had once been a single department was explained to me by one of my professors who lived through the events with a mere hint at the grudges that these rifts had generated. This resulted in some four different departments, doing similar, but slightly different things. The Counseling Psych Department appeared to have some primacy, despite the community counseling center having been separated from the student counseling center which were both associated with that department, the Educational Psych Department which had its own doctoral program and control over teaching all of us statistics, the mother’s milk of research without which we would never graduate and would never be able to produce a publishable paper, and a Clinical Psych program that topped out at the master’s level at that time. The latter department was our source for physiological psychology and history of psychology courses. If the reader takes nothing else from this discussion of academic topography, it is how well psychologists get along with each other in an academic environment, experts in the mind that can’t get along with each other and even hate each other and we had to take classes in all these departments and practice in the two counseling centers for a truly diverse experience.

But there was a final bit of confusion within our department that most directly affected our studies, that created all the schisms, the Schism of all Schisms as it were, that created the rock and hard place, the Scylla and Charybis of our journey, that is the schism between research and practice. A lame attempt to resolve this division came in the form of a textbook, the Research Practitioner, to which we studiously applied ourselves so as to avoid any problems in our academic pursuits as we progressed through the program and our dissertations. I quickly encountered the problem with this book, which had nothing to do with the book itself, but with  the academic department that offered it for our edification. Like any good student, I approached my committee chair to discuss my dissertation ideas and how they might be applied in the context of this model to psychology, to which he replied, “I don’t believe in the research practitioner model.” “Well, that’s that,” thought I. What were we actually studying anyway?

Then, we were off to the races. At this point, it became clear that the goal was to complete the program and, to that end, anything goes. I won’t discuss efforts to sabotage students or a faculty member’s attempts to steal a student’s research. After all, that was decades ago and anything I write about it would sound like sour grapes. As I write, 24 years after completing my degree, I feel comfortable expressing my appreciation for my experience, which, although testing my patience, intelligence, flexibility, and mettle, was a positive one. I would imagine it being similar to learning maturity in combat, if it doesn’t crush you or cause mental illness, as all too frequently happened there, you will find yourself better for it.

But why this harangue, so similar to my uncle’s years ago? Because of what it means to those seeking psychological services. If the treatment you receive from your therapist is inconsistent in its outcome, if methods vary markedly from practitioner to practitioner, if it sometimes seems that your therapist/psychologist isn’t listening at all, there’s a reason for that. Given the patchwork state of the psychological arts, there is no reason to expect any consistency, at least not in my experience. (We are not talking physics, although I’ve heard that even that field can be patchwork. Math, however, seems to be the most rigorous and the most consistent.) My advice to get what you want out of mental health treatment is to demand more. Try to get what you want.  Even if you can’t get it from one practitioner, try another. But, beware! The latest bit of advertising to convince people that a form of treatment is real is to present it as research based. To assess these claims I would advise everyone to get copies of the research studies on which the claims are based and find someone savvy to first interpret the numbers, then its external validity. External validity means to what extent the research can be applied in the real world and to whom it applies, to what kinds of people, in short, how it applies to you. And if that doesn’t work, find a psychologist or counselor who makes some sense and, hopefully challenges you; then work hard to make the treatment work.