Fulfillment at Any Age

How to remain productive and healthy into your later years

An Insider’s Guide to Psychology

Psychology’s secrets, from the inside out

Psychology holds the key to understanding virtually every aspect of behavior. There is perhaps no other field of study with such widespread applicability to so many different areas, which is perhaps why psychology has become the largest major on many college campuses. In fact, according to Newsweek’s 2012 college rankings, approximately 6% of all college students in the U.S. currently are psychology majors. Considering that some campuses may have as many as 100 departments, this is an impressive statistic indeed.

Even if you’re not now, nor were, a psychology student, you’ve arrived at the Psychology Today website for a reason. Perhaps it was to gain insight into a relationship that’s on the rocks or to learn about how you can become happier. If you’re used to navigating our website, you’ve probably already figured out which topics interest you the most and you automatically turn to the blogs on that topic. However, if you’re new here or are just interested in learning about psychology in general, this guide can help you put the information we have here to the best possible use.

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This Insider’s Guide will help you navigate not only our website, but will also give you an understanding of the field of psychology as a discipline. By the end, you should have a pretty good grasp of where to look for whatever psychological knowledge you may need. If you’re a college or high school student, this Guide will also give you some ideas about what you can do with psychological knowledge if you’re one of those 6 percent of college majors, or even how to build on what you learn if you’re just planning to take one or two courses.  At the end, after showing you where to find more resources, I’ll share a few true secrets with you that took me a while to learn.

Psychology Today

Let’s start right here with the Psychology Today website. You’ve probably already noticed that the website includes “Personal Perspectives” as well as topics organized by specific areas such as “Addictions,” “Relationships,” or “Self-Help.” The site also features topical themes organized around issues ranging from a psychological take on the news to handling life’s stresses. The Psychology Today editors have recruited a large number of writers to share both their personal or clinical experiences as well as their expertise in particular areas of research and teaching.  If you want to be sure to stay up-to-date in one of these areas, it’s easy just to identify them by their heading using the main entry page or the sidebar.

So far this was pretty simple, and it didn’t really take much of an “insider” to help you navigate this website. Once we leave the comfort of the Psychology Today home base, though, things start to become considerably more complicated.  If you just Google “Psychology,” you may end up in all sorts of places. Rather than leave yourself to the whims of a search engine, however, you can save yourself a great deal of time and misinformation by heading deliberately to the sources you can trust. Later, I’ll tell you exactly where to go for the type of knowledge you’re seeking. Before we can do that, you need to know more about the actual field of psychology and how people become psychologists.

The Discipline of Psychology

Psychology as a discipline reflects a mixture of basic science and applied knowledge. The field spans every possible topic from the workings of the nervous system to the interactions of people in large groups. We speak, then, of the “Subfields” of psychology.  Psychology is organized into a surprisingly large number of subfields ranging from neuroscience (the study of the brain) to social psychology (the behavior of groups). Within any one of these fields, a psychologist may be working in an applied setting (such as a school or business) or as a basic researcher (in a lab or university).  Psychologists who focus on research may be doing so with the goal of providing knowledge that can be used in applied settings. Conversely, practitioners depend heavily on the discoveries of scientists in labs. However, most people specialize in one or the other type of work. This is perhaps one of psychology’s best-kept secrets. Clinicians and researchers are very dependent on each other. Without its evidence base, clinical psychology would not have reached the high level of acceptability it now has in as part of integrated health care.

The Training of a Psychologist

Most psychologists have a graduate degree. The Ph.D. (doctor of philosophy) is typically earned at a research-based educational institution (almost always non-profit); to receive the Ph.D., the individual has to complete a doctoral thesis which is an original contribution to the field. The Ph.D. as a degree has been around for centuries, and is offered in a large variety of academic disciplines. The Ed.D. is a doctorate of education, and people with this degree may go into counseling. The Psy.D. (doctor of psychology) is a more recent category of degree, and is granted either by a research-based private or public institution, but may be granted by a free-standing for-profit educational institution as well. While in graduate school, both clinical or counseling Ph.D. and Psy.D. students must not only take coursework, but do research and complete a number of practicums in which they are supervised in providing psychological services.

To become a practicing psychologist, most states require that you complete an internship, which you do prior to receiving your doctoral degree. The internship typically takes one year, after which you go on to complete a one- or two-year postdoctoral fellowship. You are then eligible to take your state’s licensing examination. It is only after passing your licensing exam that you can (in most states) call yourself a “psychologist.” Most people who complete this sequence of training do so in programs that meet a set of strict criteria in which they are officially “accredited.” These criteria are in place to protect the public from poorly-trained practitioners.

Psychologists who do not wish to practice complete their formal education with the Ph.D. and then go on to teach, conduct research, or work in industry. Increasingly, research Ph.D.’s in psychology (and other sciences) are taking postdoctoral fellowships to receive additional training before they completely step out on their own.

Now you know how the graduate sequence of training works. You may be wondering if, as you may have heard, it’s impossible to get a job in psychology without a doctoral degree. This is not entirely the case, depending on what you want to do. There are an increasing number of mental health specialists who have a master’s degree requiring that they complete one or two years of training, with or without a thesis.  There are also jobs available for people who have graduated with a bachelor’s (four-year) degree. They can work in research labs (often as a way-station before applying to graduate school), in schools for special needs children, in mental health clinics, or in business and industry.

The road to a Ph.D. or Psy.D. in clinical psychology has gotten much rockier in the past several years. The major hurdle to a student’s completing the program is not, surprisingly, the coursework. It’s being admitted to an accredited internship. The number of students seeking internships has grown exponentially, far greater than the number of available internship slots. As a result, even highly qualified students who are ready to go out and complete the internship simply can’t match up with a site. They may have to wait a year or even two before they get that internship offer, at which point they then will have one, two, or three years before they are ready to branch out on their own entirely. The irony is that there is no lack of need for mental health practitioners with a doctorate degree. However, there is a lack of funding for internship spots.

Because the clinical psychology specialty is, at the present time, becoming so bottlenecked at the internship level, I am constantly advising my own undergraduates to think long and hard before they decide to pursue the clinical degree. “But I want to help people,” they protest.  “Surely, by the time I’m looking for an internship I’ll find one,” they proclaim. I would never discourage students from pursuing their dream. However, what many students don’t recognize is that there are many ways to help people. Furthermore, with psychology’s many subfields and career pathways, they may be surprised to find that they can “help people” in ways other than the clinical degree.

Professional Associations in Psychology

Wherever you live, you’re probably not very far from one or another psychological association. There are associations in every state and territory of the U.S. and every province in Canada. Many countries have psychological associations as well. There are regional associations in the U.S. that encompass a grouping of nearby states. There are also specialty associations that bring together psychologists with similar interests regardless of where they live. There is, for example, an entire association whose members focus on infancy research and another for personality and social psychologists.  Some of these associations expand beyond psychology and may include people who got their degree in a related area.

The American Psychological Association (APA) is the largest psychological association in the world with approximately 150,000 total members, almost half of whom are graduate and undergraduate students. There are over 50 “Divisions” of APA, ranging from sport psychology to family psychology, and everything in between. APA holds a yearly four-day convention at a major U.S. city (with at least 12-15,000 attendees), publishes a vast array of journals and books, and supports psychology’s growth in the four areas of science, practice, education, and policy. It has a governing body of 165 members who represent states/provinces and divisions. Another large set serve on boards and committees develops policies in their specific areas of expertise.  None of the APA governance members are paid for the time they serve in these positions.

APA has a number of related functions, one of which is to design model curriculums for education from high school through internship. It also is affiliated with related groups that actually provide training and certification in psychology.  With headquarters located in Washington, D.C., APA also participates in lobbying Congress to help keep mental health issues in the forefront of lawmakers.  Currently, it is also putting together solutions to the internship crisis I talked about above.

The second major organization in psychology is the Association for Psychological Science (APS). Focused more specifically, as the name implies, on “science,” APS has a much smaller membership and tends to draw academic and research psychologists who work in university settings.

Affiliated with, but not officially part of, APA is Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology. Psi Chi has chapters in several hundred colleges and universities, and allows undergraduate and graduate students to get the opportunity to learn about the field outside of the classroom. Psi Chi makes it possible for students to attend regional conferences under the auspices of their chapter advisors. Psi Chi also sponsors a number of scholarships and fellowships that help students pay for their research and travel to these conferences.

This complex web of associations, conferences, and activities benefits the profession but, ultimately, the consumer as well.  By constantly providing educational and training opportunities, these psychological associations mean that we are producing better-trained clinicians and researchers. Their existence makes it much more feasible for all those psych majors to have a way to fulfill their desire to move on in the field.

The Latest Information

It was important for you to learn about the profession of psychology for you to know where to turn for psychological knowledge. Obviously, the Psychology Today website is an excellent source! However, APA and APS, as well as your regional psychological associations, have elaborate websites designed to provide consumers with the latest developments in the field as well as indexes to where to find therapists in your area, self-help assistance, and information about education and careers in psychology. 

If you’d like to do some of your own investigations into specific questions that interest you about psychology, you can take your search one step further. Online databases such as Pub Med (from the National Library of Medicine) can allow you to do your own sleuthing by reading abstracts of articles published in the scientific literature. Though intended to index medical journals, it also includes APA journals as well. You may even be able to read whole articles (should you want to) if the publication is in an open-access format. For example, the American Journal of Psychiatry allows complete access to anyone to all of its articles.  APA allows you to read its Monitor for free, as does APS for its counterpart, the Observer.

The National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) contains important information for families coping with mental illness among their loved ones. It also offers extensive support for people with psychological disorders trying to live independently.

Finally, governmental websites offer a host of factual as well as practical information oriented toward non-professionals. These include the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). These are two of my favorite sources to turn to for information to supplement my writing and teaching.

Your public library may also allow you to have online access to databases that index psychological journals. Services such as EBSCO include the same indexing resources used by most academic institutions. You can then get lists of journal articles that particularly interest you by simply typing in general search terms such as “depression,” “anxiety,” or “relationships.” After reading the abstract, you can then decide whether to go further and read the full text of the article. 

A cautionary note: Some websites seem to be “science” oriented but really are not. I am sorry to say that I am not a big fan of Science Daily. I feel that their news stories exaggerate the importance of the findings of the studies they report. On the other hand, Science Magazine the website of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, does an excellent job in digesting the latest findings in a way that is understandable, interesting and- most importantly- accurate. This is not the same“Science.org,” which is a medical listing marketplace. There’s good information there, but the “marketplace” angle means that it may not be 100% objective in its reporting.

Finally, there’s Twitter. Among the clutter of ads, celebrity ramblings, and just plain nonsensical hashtags and “@” signs, you can find some excellent links to good, solid sources. You can look for terms such as #psych, #psychology, or #depression, for example, and many great links will pop up. I’ve created a little newsletter, called the Psychnews Daily, which is a synopsis of stories from sources that I follow throughout the psychology Twitterverse.

Insider Secrets

You’ve made it through this brief tour of psychology—now it’s time for you to learn a few more helpful tricks of the trade:

  1. Experts may be willing to send you resources. If you have a very specific question about an abstract or you’ve read online, and the author’s email address is listed, you can try asking the author directly.  You may also contact the author to obtain a copy of an article for which you can only find an online abstract. Be careful in the way that you word your request, and make your request a reasonable one that the expert can easily fulfill.
  2. Most colleges or graduate programs publicize their research online.  Whether you’re interested in attending a psychology program, or just want to learn more about a particular topic, you can find extensive resources on the websites of all reputable educational institutions. Some researchers allow you to download their articles from these websites, so if you couldn’t get them for free through another source you can get them there.
  3. Many conferences, colleges, and universities sponsor talks for the public, including high school students.  Many psychologists are heavily involved in reaching out to their communities. You may be surprised to learn just how many talks are being sponsored in your local area where the lay public is not only invited, but highly desired, in the audience. This opportunity will also allow you to engage in face-to-face dialogue with an expert who can lead you to further resources or even opportunities for college or graduate study in psychology
  4.  Volunteer opportunities can give you a chance to take as well as give. If you can spare the time to work in a local shelter, hospital, halfway house, charity, or community center, you may find that the connections you make there can give you greater exposure to the field. Volunteers may also be given invitations to invited talks that are not open to the public as a way to say “thanks.” Through these talks, you can greatly expand your knowledge about specific areas of psychology.
  5. Put a psychology student to work for you.  Their broad background in behavioral science gives psychology students, even undergraduates, knowledge that can be useful in many settings. They can be excellent baby sitters, interns, trainees, and – of course- employees.  Even if you don’t have a job to offer, by giving students a chance to get practical experience through volunteering, you’re helping them establish themselves in the field.

I hope this Insider’s Guide has given you helpful insights and useful practical information. 

And, of course, if you have further questions, feel free to contact me, follow me on Twitter @swhitbo, and join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age." 

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, 2012

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her latest book is The Search for Fulfillment.

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