One of my pet psychology related peeves is (are?) psychology students who feel like they are entitled to become psychologists and deserve an easy ride through to the top, simply because they want to become psychologists. NOW.
There appear to be a large number of them around. I am not sure whether this is illustrative of the type of people attracted to psychology, or the landscape of my current university. Perhaps it is cultural – fast food, gimme gimme gimme generation(s)?
The reality of psychology education in Australia currently is that it is incredibly competitive and that there is a large bottleneck between undergraduate and Honours and again, between Honours and postgraduate courses. As it is a seller’s market, universities can afford to be very choosy about the candidates they allow into their own courses. Universities often demand ‘extra’ of candidates, i.e. not just solid grades, but an excellent interview, good references, work history, references, publications and relevant volunteer experience. Some of the students I have communicated with have great difficulties accepting these criteria. I have been (reluctantly) subject to many impassioned arguments against the bottleneck in psychology and the non-work-readiness of undergraduate psychology degrees, especially when contrasted with other service professions such as OT or social work.
Personally, I sigh a few breaths of relief, knowing that there are a few strong hurdles between wanting to become a psychologist and ACTUALLY being unleashed on the public as a psychologist. I have seen the aftermath of bad, or unethical psychologists and am grateful that entry into postgraduate courses is so selective.
My view is that becoming a psychologist is a privilege that is earned, not one that is demanded. It entails working with extremely vulnerable people in very intimate, closed environments and making decisions that impact on the foundation of people’s lives. It is one of the rare professions that are strongly associated with a practitioner’s personal qualities and character. You may be able to wear a facade and play act a professional role from 9-5 as a banker, however, this is almost impossible to do as a psychologist.
Becoming a psychologist requires a large number of personal virtues. Certainly, academic ability is paramount in order to understand research, learn appropriate interventions and ensure that you possess the cognitive capacities to incorporate these into your personal repertoire. However, more importantly, there are certain personal qualities that psychologists must possess if they are to work effectively with clients without doing any harm. In my view, these are: humility (the ability to critically engage with your shortcomings and successes without a sense of grandiosity about your place in the world or your role in people’s lives), a lack of arrogance, curiousity about the world and people, openness and non-judgment (we all have our blind spots and soapboxes, more important is an insight into how these affect you), a lack of defensiveness, ability to be open to critique and incorporate feedback into your daily life and practice, strong interpersonal and communication skills, empathy, respect, an unimpeachable work ethic and INSIGHT.
I cannot reiterate the importance of insight and self-reflection enough. How do you present to people? How do your actions impact upon people? What is your role in your daily interactions? How are you influencing your interpersonal relationships? What dynamics do you bring to an interaction? How much time do you spend reflecting on your actions and interactions? Are you able to own your mistakes? I think that this is the single most important quality a psychologist can bring to the therapy room and ironically, one that a significant proportion of people lack.
It is incredibly difficult to strip away our armour, defenses and need to see ourselves as a wondrous being and instead look at ourselves as we really are and as we appear to others. I learned just how difficult it was last year, when I made a mistake at work and was pulled up on it. Instead of apologizing for it and fixing it, I retreated into defensiveness mode. Many tears and some very hard learning later, I gained some valuable insight into approaching mistakes, my need for perfection and my sense of self-importance.
Do yourself and your future clients a favour and spend some time developing this skill now. It will likely go a long way towards ensuring you entry into and success at a postgraduate course, as well as successful relationships with clients, friends, partners and colleagues in the future. (How? Stay tuned…)
Personally, the students I consider most likely to succeed and make superb clinicians are not those with the highest grades. I place a very small handful of my compatriots into this category and ironically, this includes some people who have decided they don’t want to become psychologists (here’s looking at you S.A.S.)! The defining factors they all appear to have in common are genuine care and regard for people, excellent insight into their own intra-psychic processes, strong self-reflective abilities, a desire to explore their own interests and passions through their work, a lack of competitiveness, a desire to make a difference and wonderful work ethics. No matter what they do, I know they will be fulfilled, follow their passions and make a difference to the world. I will be following their career trajectories with interest
What are your thoughts on this?