Like many therapists, I’ve always been intrigued by human behavior and I’ve always enjoyed helping others. From an early age, I was captivated by this question:
“How do we become who we are?”
This type of existential query is one that therapists like me are always trying to answer.
My mom wanted me to go to medical school or pharmacy school, but I knew that wasn’t my true calling. As a teenager, I had seen enough episodes of “ER” to know that most doctors are math and science superstars. My superpower, on the other hand, was decoding people’s feelings.
While some kids are lauded for their athleticism or musical abilities, I was praised for my good listening skills, intuition, and empathy. “You’re so insightful!” my 8th-grade teacher told me. When I was in high school, my best friend called me a “feeling psychic.” Psychology seemed like a field that welcomed my strengths: empathy and interpersonal skills.
In addition, my family never had very much money, and I wanted a job that would provide:
- High earning potential
- Financial stability
- Job opportunities
In college, I took my first psychology class. I was hooked! I loved learning about various aspects of behavior, such as attachment theory, classical conditioning, etc. During my first semester of college, I began helping two professors with their research because I knew I wanted to pursue graduate school.
When Did You Decide You Wanted To Become A Psychologist?
After my first semester of college, I was in love with psychology! I also wanted to get a sense of how psychologists help people, so I started seeing a therapist. I told my therapist about my parent’s high conflict divorce, college stress, and my tumultuous relationship with my boyfriend.
While many people assume psychologists are advice-givers, that’s far from the truth. My therapist commented on my feelings and made interpretations, such as, “You had a lot of strife in your home, and because of this, I think you have a high tolerance for conflict. This might be why you don’t stand up to your boyfriend.”
Therapy gave me new insight into my thoughts and behaviors, which fostered empowerment and self-growth. After my positive experience, I knew I wanted to help people in similar ways.
What Does A Psychologist Do?
When you think of a psychologist, you may picture Lucy from the Peanuts or Dr. Orna Guralnik from the Showtime series “Couples Therapy.” However, not all psychologists practice psychotherapy.
Psychologists can also:
- Teach and conduct research
- Perform psychological testing and neuropsychological evaluations
- Supervise therapists
- Consult with businesses
- Conduct forensic evaluations for court cases
- Work in a school setting
What Is A Typical Day in the Life of a Psychologist Like?
I have my own private practice, which means I run my own business. I block off a couple of hours each morning to complete administrative tasks, such as answering emails, interviewing prospective new patients, and sending out invoices.
Then, I start my clinical day. I see 4 to 5 patients each day. Before each session, I review my notes from the patient’s previous session and review the patient’s therapy goals. If I’m working with someone new, I look over their intake information before our first session.
I tailor therapy to meet each patient’s needs, which means each session looks a little different. I’m familiar with several types of therapy, including:
- Psychodynamic therapy
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy
- Mindfulness-based therapy
Some patients want to explore their family dynamics, while others want tools to cope with anxious thoughts or symptoms of depression. Amid the pandemic, many patients want someone to validate their pain and empathize with their anguish.
I also supervise therapists in training and early-career psychologists who want to sharpen their counseling skills. With my supervisees, we review one of their patient’s therapy sessions and develop a case formulation and treatment plan. I also run a support group for new moms and lead webinars for schools and corporations.
In addition to my clinical work, I devote time to writing projects. As a psychologist, I write a lot about mental health. I’m usually working on a story that highlights new research that can benefit the general public. For instance, I recently co-authored a story for the Washington Post about creativity and how it helps tweens develop their problem-solving skills. I also wrote a story about financial infidelity for InStyle magazine.
Some psychologists write for scholarly journals, but you don’t need to be a scientist to combine psychology with writing. There are plenty of opportunities to write for newspapers, blogs, and magazines. Overall, I love wearing various professional hats. In my opinion, there are myriad ways psychologists can share mental health information and help others.
What Unique Skills Do Psychologists Need?
Psychologists need good listening skills, empathy, and intuition. The ability to receive feedback is also a must. In addition, most successful therapists can embrace the unknown and approach problem-solving in novel ways. They are also self-reflective and don’t shy away from continuing their own self-care.
Many psychologists, myself included, also see a psychologist regularly. Our work is intense, and processing our own feelings is essential for our well-being.
Psychologists who conduct psychological testing are incredibly astute at details and have strong writing skills. If you’re a professor, you need a solid background in research design and statistics.
How Did You Become A Psychologist?
If you’re considering graduate school, it’s important to know that good grades aren’t enough to get into a graduate program. Most programs look at your
- GRE (graduate record examination) scores
- Research experience
- Volunteer/work experience
- Letters of recommendation from professors
In college, I majored in psychology and helped two professors with their research. I also completed an honors thesis, volunteered at a psychiatric hospital, and worked at a residential treatment center for youth.
During my senior year, I took the GRE, but my scores weren’t high enough to get into a doctoral program right away. I decided to pursue my master’s degree in counseling, which takes two years to complete. You can become a licensed counselor or therapist with a master’s degree! You don’t need a doctorate to practice psychotherapy. However, unless you open your own private practice, the salary for a master’s level therapist is lower than it is for psychologists.
After completing my master’s degree, I taught at a community college for one year. I really enjoyed teaching and interacting with college students. My master’s degree and additional work experience made me a stronger applicant, so I reapplied to doctoral programs in counseling psychology.
Doctoral (either PhD or PsyD) programs in clinical and counseling psychology include three years of coursework, one year of internship, one year of a postdoctoral fellowship, and a dissertation. My doctoral program allowed me to further develop my therapy skills, conduct research, and decide which career path I wanted to pursue. I completed my internship and post-doctoral fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley.
After graduation, I was a staff psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley student health center. After I left UC Berkeley, I worked with medical students for a couple of years. When my daughter was born, I decided to focus on private practice, and I’ve worked in private practice for over a decade.
What Is One Thing You Wish You Knew Before You Started Your Psychology Degree?
I wish I had known how long it takes to pay off student loans! I graduated in 2004, and I’m still paying off piles of debt! I also wish someone had taught me how to run a small business! In private practice, you’re running your own business, which takes more than therapy skills. You need to market your practice and network with colleagues, mental health organizations, and hospitals for patient referrals.
I also wish I knew how isolating private practice can be. For instance, if an emergency arises (i.e., a patient needs to be hospitalized), you’re entirely on your own. Therefore, it’s essential to have a solid group of colleagues you can turn to. Clinical work can be overwhelming at times, and it’s helpful to debrief at the end of a hard day.
What Is The Most Rewarding Thing About Being A Psychologist?
For me, the most rewarding aspect of my job is witnessing people’s stories. It takes tremendous courage to tell a therapist your darkest secrets and trust someone to help you with your pain. I don’t take this lightly. I often tell my patients that I’m honored to work with them.
Patient-therapist relationships are deeply intimate, and I learn as much from my patients as they learn from me. It’s rewarding to see people grow and change. However, I never take credit for their success. I see therapy as a journey. I may be the guide, but the patient takes their own steps and is responsible for their healing.
What Advice Would You Give Prospective Psychology Students?
Keep an open mind
Psychology is a broad field, and there are many things you can do with a psychology degree. With a bachelor’s degree, you can’t conduct therapy, but you can work at residential treatment centers and group homes. You can also work in sales or pretty much any field that requires solid people skills.
Do you really need a doctorate?
If you want to become a therapist, ask yourself if you really need a doctorate. You can practice psychotherapy with a master’s degree in counseling or social work. Consider the cost of graduate education. For instance, I paid over $60,000 for my doctorate (and that was over 15-years ago). Had I known how much debt I’d accumulate, I may have pursued a master’s degree in social work for a fraction of the price.
Find a mentor
In college, volunteer to help professors with their research. Ask what they like about their jobs and what advice they give their students. You might also consider volunteering at a psychiatric hospital or a non-profit. Expose yourself to many different aspects of the field. Doing so will help you decide what you like best.
Find a therapist
I truly think all therapists should pursue their own therapy. In almost every other profession, you’ve stood in your client’s shoes. For instance, doctors have been patients, and teachers have been students. If you want to become a therapist, know what it’s like to be a patient. Experience what it’s like to be emotionally vulnerable with a stranger. Not only will you benefit from the experience, but you’ll also build empathic skills that will help you become a better psychologist.