Who do we think we are?

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.
May 15th, 2011

You would think by now I would know what to expect when a room full of psychologists meets to discuss issues bearing on our professional identity. Then why do I still come away from these gatherings surprised and impressed by our diversity? Earlier this spring, the Massachusetts Psychological Association hosted a conference that brought together psychologists and graduate students from all over New England to discuss contemporary challenges in psychology training. Featured speakers included representatives at the national level from APA, APPIC and ASPPB, the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards. Regional interests were represented by directors of clinical training at universities, professional schools and field placements covering the entire spectrum of practicum, internship and postdoctoral training sites. Graduate students were on hand both as scheduled speakers and participants in afternoon discussion groups to keep us focused on the realities behind declining training resources, on the one hand, and new opportunities for psychologists in the workforce on the other.

Predictably discussion turned to the competencies we aim to develop in new psychologists, how they will be taught, and how they will be measured. We considered the balance between generalist and specialist training, the opportunities and funding sources for both and the value of our skills in the marketplace. I had a scary moment when one participant began a review of the history of our profession by reminding us of the early days when psychology was more aligned with philosophy. Uh oh, you mean psychology isn’t related to philosophy? All that meaning of life stuff that I find so compelling is someone else’s bailiwick? Well, maybe I had just wandered into the wrong room and not, after 35 years, the wrong profession. Of course, my colleague was talking about the preempirically supported treatment era and we certainly wouldn’t want to go back to that.

The good news is that we don’t have to choose. As psychologists we know intuitively that psychology is both a hard science and a mode of philosophical inquiry. So what is it that we psychologists have in common and is it something we can teach in professional schools? Or do our students seek us out because they already have it? When we speak of “thinking like a psychologist,” what exactly are we talking about?

This question generated some interesting answers. One participant shared the results of a study showing that psychologists and psychiatrists in a hospital setting are motivated by similar considerations that are different from those of social workers when deciding whether or not to learn a new treatment method. Another colleague recalled how one of his supervisors would direct students to the literature when faced with real world decisions about how to respond to a patient in an interview being observed behind a two-way mirror. There is a wealth of information out there and psychologists know how to find, evaluate and use it to meet the challenges of our work.

This is not to say that we are guaranteed of success if only we read the right texts, use the right words and apply the right techniques. Nothing is more sterile, lifeless and counterproductive than empty knowledge, mechanical communication and rigidly applied technique. As another conference participant reminded me, we psychologists are, by and large, intuitive, “big picture” thinkers. We practice in the space where different aspects of life come together and recognize the importance of many different factors alone and in their complex interrelationships. While it follows that comprehensive preparation for a career in professional psychology must include a thorough generalist education, there is no a priori superiority of general or specialist practice. That decision is an individual, personal choice that each new psychologist will make as he or she finds the most comfortable balance among issues of preference, aptitude, and opportunity.

In closing it may be useful to distinguish among work, job, career and preference. Add a sense of purpose to our attraction to psychology and we may even have a calling. We decide to study psychology and then to practice it professionally because we are drawn to what we think psychologists do. We think we have a preference for working with people, thinking about the meaning of life or solving human problems through scholarship and research. At some point, we focus our interests and define our work as, for example, when we decide to spend our time helping children and families, adults with major mental illness or people coping with health problems. Our job is the setting where we do our work and our career is built on our succession of jobs and the work we have accomplished.

Our challenge now is to prepare new graduates to do the work of psychology in ways that are sufficiently practical and demonstrably useful to meet the requirements of whatever jobs are available in a struggling economy. At the same time, we have to find ways to expand overly narrow definitions of jobs to provide space for our work to flourish. Now there’s a dialectic worthy of our best psychological thinking.

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