The Psychology, Counseling and Therapy School Guide

by W. Randy Hoffman
The Psychology, Counseling and Therapy School Guide

An Introduction to Educational Options and Opportunities for Psychology Majors

- The phone rings. It's one of your friends and he's still upset over his recent breakup. You listen to him go on about it for twenty minutes. It doesn't sound to you as though anything is resolved, but he tells you that he feels better before he hangs up.

- An alert goes off; it's an incoming text message from your cousin. She's desperate to go out clubbing for some reason. After you exchange a few messages, it becomes pretty clear that she only wants to go out because she's trying to avoid studying for a test tomorrow. After a few more messages, she decides to stay home and study -- with the music playing at high volume.

- The phone rings again. It's another friend. He's looking for suggestions about how to motivate his 10-year-old to put more effort into soccer practice. He's also looking for ways to reinforce the soccer coach's messages about teamwork: How can they get the kids more excited about working together for a common goal ("no pun intended")? The two of you chat for a while; he likes your ideas and can't wait to try them at tomorrow's practice.

- Your phone alerts you that you have mail. It's from the director of the camp you've been going to for years. She says that she knows you're good at "working out personal problems" and she wants you to be a camp counselor this year.

Maybe these scenarios sound familiar; maybe not. But if you have a real desire to help people resolve the kinds of difficulties that arise from the way they think, feel, and relate to themselves and others, studying psychology -- the theory and science of mind -- is a good way to prepare yourself for a job and a life that can make that wish come true. Even if you don't want to go into a therapeutic career, an education in psychology gives you a good idea of "how people tick" and can be a great foundation for many other types of occupations, from business to criminal justice.

Types of Schools and Degrees

You can get an education or degree in psychology, counseling or therapy at many, many different places:

If you go for your doctorate in clinical psychology, be aware that some schools and programs will confer a Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) and some will confer a Psy.D. (Doctor of Psychology). Both types of doctorate share a great deal of clinical training in common, but typically the Ph.D. is the traditional medical-science-type degree with an emphasis on research, while the Psy.D. is slanted more toward practicing psychology as a professional discipline. (New York University nicely explains the difference between the two degrees, as awarded by their school-psychology program, here.)

Psychology Scholarships and Financial Aid

Maybe this type of education sounds interesting but you could use some help paying for it (who couldn't?). Consider that in addition to the standard loans and grants that almost anyone who begins a higher education can get, a wide range of scholarships and other types of need- and merit-based financial aid are available to psychology students. The University of Minnesota's Department of Psychology maintains a helpful list of places on the Web where you can find general scholarships, while the American Psychological Association maintains a list of links to mainly psychology-specific financial aid. Many schools give special scholarships and fellowships to their own students; look into this possibility as you research which institutions you might want to attend.

Choosing a School

Speaking of choosing a school, there are other factors to consider besides such fairly visible ones as cost/financial aid, location, and facilities. In what kinds of jobs are their graduates working? What have their faculty and alumni achieved, academically and professionally -- do they have doctorates, have they published papers, have they had successful real-world careers, etc.?

Something even more subtle: Is a school's psychology faculty diverse, not only in gender and ethnic terms, but in terms of their philosophy? To investigate this, look for "mission statements" and other philosophical descriptions in the website and promotional material of the school or its psychology department; find out where the faculty members graduated from; and talk to the faculty members and listen to what they say about themselves and each other. If a school's faculty is not philosophically diverse -- that is, if they mostly tend to take the same approach to psychology, especially when it comes to therapy -- you probably don't want to apply to the school if its "prevailing view" is one you don't agree with. For example, you might want to avoid situations like these:

  • A school's faculty is materialist and you are religious (or vice versa);
  • A faculty is heavily Western/clinical but you favor alternative Eastern methods (or vice versa);
  • A faculty favors "client-driven" approaches but a "therapist-driven" approach makes more sense to you (or vice versa). To explain: There are numerous "schools of thought" about psychological therapy. Some, such as existential or Rogerian therapy, minimize the role of the therapist and, rather than try to change clients, seek to help them to feel better about themselves or reconcile themselves with the world. Others, including some types of rational behaviorism, give the therapist a major role in pushing clients to change. (Naturally enough, Dr. Phil and most other "celebrity psychologists" gravitate toward this approach.) At the extremes, these philosphies aren't very compatible with each other.

Specialties Within the Field

Psychology is a vast field with many different niches that you can explore. This is just a small sampling of the academic and career specialties you can choose:

  • Do you have a heart for kids and want to see them reach their full mental and social potential? Think about child, adolescent, and developmental psychology.
  • If you want to help people whose mental problems make it difficult or impossible for them to function in normal society, clinical psychology and psychiatry could be for you.
  • The physical and mental processes by which people perceive, recognize, and process information are the domain of cognitive science and psychology. You can be part of the continuing research on, and day-to-day challenges of, treating and rehabilitating the victims of stroke, Alzheimer's, brain injury, and other illnesses that interfere with their cognitive abilities.
  • Community counseling can help entire towns cope with changed circumstances when natural disasters and other tragedies (or even unexpected windfalls) come upon many residents at once.
  • Educational counseling and psychology can make a big difference for people young and old that have learning problems or learning disabilities, or just don't do well in educational settings.
  • Forensic psychology is the science of the "profilers" that work for the FBI and other agencies: What are the mental characteristics of the criminal who committed a certain crime? What psychological motivations did they have for doing it? A job in this field won't be as glamorous as certain TV shows, but it will help to solve crime and increase public safety.
  • It's much easier to do the tasks of human resources -- hiring employees, letting them go, helping them to be happy and to perform at their best, keeping personal issues from affecting the business, and so on -- if you have a good grasp of psychology. In particular, industrial/organizational psychology will prepare you to handle all kinds of business and management situations that involve the way people interact, think, and feel.
  • Marriage and family counseling gets a bad rap, but it keeps many homes intact, many relationships from ending in divorce, and many divorces from becoming hurtful and devastating.
  • If you want to provide good psychological and relationship advice in a spiritual context, you might want to study pastoral counseling. It was once taken for granted that ministers and other religious professionals could not be held liable if people receiving their advice didn't do well, but our litigious society is changing that. Psychological education can buttress your theological knowledge, improve your outcomes, and reduce your liabilities
  • As the number of available therapeutic drugs continues to rise, an understanding of they can best be used to treat mental illness in conjunction with other therapies -- as well as how various other drugs and drug interactions may affect people's mental states -- can be critical. This is the province of psychopharmacology. (Note that while only a handful of states and nations currently allow psychologists to prescribe drugs, this number will probably rise, and as a psychology professional you might want to be prepared to write prescriptions safely and responsibly.)
  • Rehabilitation counseling helps people to deal with the pain and struggle of coming back from addictions and injuries. It can be tough work, because people in rehab are often uncooperative, ungrateful, and unhappy, but seeing them through to recovery despite themselves can be tremendously rewarding.
  • It's pointless to try to do social work with dysfunctional families, the elderly, foster homes, etc. with a thorough grounding in psychology, especially family-systems therapy.
  • Even with substance-abuse counseling, lots of abusers don't recover and lots of them relapse. But for many others, having a person there, not just to be accountable to, but to be their coach and encourager, can help them break through and kick the habit for good.

Other Resources

Both before and after you graduate with a psychology degree, there are many online resources and professional associations that can help you in school and in your career. Be sure to avail yourself of the information linked to in Net-based psychology clearinghouses such as AmoebaWeb, PsychScholar, and PsychWeb. If you do well in your studies, you might qualify to become a member of Psi Chi, the National Honor Society in Psychology. (As with many other national academic and professional fraternities, a Psi Chi membership is a good "resume boost" and provides an automatic network of professional contacts and references.) Other associations you might think about joining, depending on your specializations, inlude the American Psychological Association (APA), American Psychological Society (APS), American Counseling Association (ACA), Canadian Psychology Association/Societe canadienne de psychologie (CPA/SCP), and International School Psychology Association (ISPA); a large list of links to professional associations is maintained here.

Regardless of what professional use (if any) you make of it, an education in psychology will stand you in good stead for the rest of your life -- not just when you answer the phone or your email, but also when you answer those internal "wake-up calls" that we all get from time to time. If you are open and honest with yourself, learning about psychology will tend to make you aware of what's going on in your own mind, as much as in anyone else's; that sort of revelation is one we can all profit by.

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