For many, a psychologist is the person you see when you need help with your emotional problems. You know, the person who sits in a big stuffy chair and asks you questions about your mother–a therapist. A shrink.
That picture isn’t quite so accurate. Sure, many of the people you visit to talk about your emotional difficulties are psychologists, but, as it turns out, most of those people (and this is becoming increasingly true) aren’t psychologists at all. A good many are social workers, while others are marriage and family therapists, mental health counselors, nurse practitioners, and psychiatrists, with a few other professions and titles thrown in. The activity that comes to mind when we think of psychologists is most accurately termed psychotherapy, and it’s practiced by members of a great variety of professions.
So what do psychologists do?
For one thing, many of them do practice psychotherapy. Others administer psychological testing (commonly testing related to cognitive functioning and those activities related to learning and development). Many psychologists engage in research at universities, hospitals and clinics. Others work as consultants in such fields as organizational development, advertising and public relations.
How are psychologists trained?
Just about every university offers an undergraduate major in psychology, but few would consider someone with a BA or BS in psychology a psychologist (any more than someone with a BA in philosophy would be considered a philosopher). The most common degree for the practice of clinical psychology (the practice of psychotherapy or psychological testing) is a PhD or PsyD (doctorate of psychology) in that discipline. There are a variety of masters degrees (MA, MEd, EdM, MS) in psychology, but only some of these are qualifiers for clinical practice in psychology. Nearly always, if you’re visiting a psychologist for therapy (and he or she is, in fact, a psychologist) you’ll find they have a PhD or PsyD in psychology (and can therefore call themselves “doctor”).
What does this mean for my therapy?
Because psychologists with a doctoral degree have typically spent more time in school than psychotherapists from other disciplines, they may be more expensive option for psychotherapy. However, this is not nearly always the case (fees, while a complex matter, are set based, at least in part, on demand, for which academic training is only one factor).
Because there is a broad diversity of training programs in clinical psychology, a psychotherapist’s status as a psychologist does not necessarily give clues as to the manner in which he or she will practice, nor his or her level of competence. I have worked with excellent psychologists and terrible ones as well. Your best bet for choosing a good therapist (psychologist or not) is to do your research–get recommendations from friends, find out about post-graduate training, inquire about matters like years of experience, and shop around.