What's For Dinner?


Doctoral Training

A counselor friend about my age, which is to say near retirement, offered that he was thinking of going for his Ph.D. I didn’t ask the reason. I didn’t need to. I knew the thought was what inevitably happens to a person who completes a Master’s level program, makes a decent living, and looks at the more educated competition in the mental health field only to realize that the competition doesn’t have anything in the way of brains that the thinker hasn’t got. There is no doubt that that assessment of brain distribution is entirely correct. If that was the only reason to pursue the doctorate, the answer would be, go ahead. There are a number of advantages to the Ph.D. besides the fact that the use of the title ‘doctor’ gets your phone call past secretaries most of the time and that you are eligible for jobs that might not be available to you otherwise. To more fully respond to my friend, I would like to elaborate on how we, those who made it, got here.

There is the tacit assumption that the only thing involved in pursuit of a doctorate is more coursework. If that were the case, then the Ph.D. would be just like its predecessor, the Master’s degree. Indeed, the Master’s is considered, at least in my experience, a technical degree that basically is a how-to training program with some small paper at the end to prove you know something about what you are supposed to be doing as a counselor or therapist. That is not the point at all when you continue toward the doctorate as anyone who has ever been involved in the process will tell you. The problem is that nobody really tells you that up front. (Visualize, please, the new, innocent student discovering all this by stages, walking into walls, looking around with blinking eyes, wondering what happened, then plowing into the next wall.) Think of the time and trouble that could be saved by explaining all this to incoming students, who would then have the opportunity to change their minds or plot strategy. Instead, in our program during the time I was there, we had a large percentage of divorces, including mine, a number of nervous breakdowns, and one person choosing an early sabbatical to pursue alternative training with the promise of returning, although the likelihood of that was extremely poor even though I considered her decision a good one and a sign of sanity. Oh, and there was a suicide by one of my classmates not long after we both left, going in our separate directions? No, I don’t think the program was the cause, although with all the great insights psychology has to offer there was nothing in the training experience to encourage her to do otherwise. Nothing to improve mental health or self-awareness.

So, to the coursework! Here is what I recollect of my training, which, of course, varies depending on a student’s pursuits and interests. Roughly two years of courses to be taken, including history of psychology, physiological psychology, psychopathology, psychopharmacology, theory, technique and practica, and ethics. Am I leaving out anything? Oh, yes, how could I forget? There’s the meat and potatoes of the whole thing, the entire training that is dedicated to turning you from an innocent lummox into a trained researcher. Strangely enough, with my major in Counseling Psych, I chose a minor in Psychological Testing, which had me taking a large number of courses that would train me not only to test, but to develop testing, and, lest I forget, that would require a level of data analysis identical with researching. Frankly, I’m glad I did it! The courses were on psychological research, research design, more than a year of statistics in my case, not to mention seminars preparing us for the biggest mountain of all, the dissertation itself. And we would be mentored by our committee chair or, in my situation, a dissertation advisor.

Of course, the one thing they don’t teach you in programs like this is the one thing that would be considered most important for a PsychSurvivalist, how to deal with them. In the end, the doctorate is not a research degree so much as a political degree, which means if the faculty don’t like you they can make it extremely difficult for you to finish and they could put up obstacles that would make it impossible for you to finish at all. That’s where the true training comes in for someone who enters the hallowed doors with the idea to survive and flourish. It’s an exercise in how to work your way through a system that is intended to set up obstacles and to knock you down, to see if you have either the spine or simple reflexes to get up again. If you are reading courage as a necessary component of this process, you are missing the point. Probably like rising from the mud in the Soviet Gulag, in my case you are not getting up because you have to, but because you get up, because it is the only direction you can go short of simply lying there. But this isn’t the Gulag and you’re not dead, but you are still faced with a problem you have to solve. So, you scratch your head and come up with a new way to respond and continue moving, “one step in front of the other” as we used to say, a saying that was introduced by a student-military veteran. And, if you’re lucky, you are going forward because, unlike the Gulag, nobody has a gun to your head, pointing you in a particular direction.

Oh, did I say there was a suicide among my classmates a couple of years after I left? No, I don’t think the program was the cause, although with all the great insights psychology has to offer there was nothing in the training experience to encourage her to do otherwise. Nothing to improve mental health or self-awareness.