What is a Psychologist?

Should I Choose a Psychologist for My Child or Adolescent?

Parents routinely ask what a psychologist is, usually to try to understand what skills such a professional has, and what procedures that they are capable of providing.

Many people are confused and want to know about the difference from a psychiatrist.  Probably the main differences are that psychiatrists go to medical school, then a residency in psychiatry, and as physicians they prescribe medications as a primary intervention for mental health problems.  Psychologists, on the other hand, go to graduate school.  In some states, they are able to prescribe psychotropic medications, after further specialized education, training, and passing a qualifying exam.  However, this is rare, and Massachusetts does not allow this under regulation.

Graduate school can also encompass many types of psychology, including Counseling, Educational, Industrial/Organizational, Research, and Clinical Psychology.  Admission to graduate school is highly competative, much like medical school.  Application to graduate school is lengthy, and requires an undergraduate degree to be completed.  Most people with intentions of practicing the delivery of psychological services, will apply for a graduate program accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA).  This accreditation assures that professors, classes, practicums and examinations meet standards set by this national professional association.

Individuals obtaining a master's degree are able to deliver clinical services, but only under the supervision of a licensed person with a doctoral degree.  This is in contrast to a social worker, who usually has a Master's degree and can be licensed to provide services, even independently (LICSW).  A scholarly research project, with accompanying paper and defense of the project to faculty, is required for both a master's degree and a doctoral degree.  Some graduate students complete their Master's at one graduate school, then apply for a doctoral program at another institution, but most graduate programs do not offer a terminal Master's degree.

Most graduate programs offer a doctoral degree formally called a Doctor of Philosophy, with initials Ph.D.  Some graduate programs offer a professional degree called a Doctor of Psychology, with initials Psy.D.  This is a graduate program with less requirements for research, and more applied clinical training and experience.  Oral and written examinations are required for completion of a doctoral program.

The American Psychological Association (APA) accredited graduate programs require a year of internship.  This is supervised training and experience in an applied clinical setting, which also has to be accredited.  There are graduate school programs and internships that are not APA accredited.

A doctoral degree indicates that a person has demonstrated learning and applied skill necessary to provide psychological services to adults.  This includes testing, diagnostic evaluations, individual psychotherapy, and group therapy.  They are qualified to offer services in settings such as hospitals, clinics, industrial settings, schools, college counseling centers, and private practices after they pass a licensing examination.  Each of these settings also has a specialized type of psychology training in addition to a routine doctoral degree.  These are identified as School, Educational, Counseling, Medical, or Industrial/Organizational, with specialized training in their graduate school.  Individuals may also specialize in fields of practice, such as Child and Adolescent, Family Therapy, or Group Therapy.  These specializations require additional training and experience above and beyond regular graduate training.  Some individuals obtain specialized training and experience in certain types of intervention or theories.

Once a person has obtained their doctoral degree, they are required to practice service delivery under the supervision of a more senior psychologist for the period of a year.  After successful completion of this supervised experience, the individual is required to pass a written state licensing exam.  These exams differ from state to state, with some requiring more extensive oral parts.  If the individual demonstrates proficiency on this exam, they are issued a license to deliver services as a Psychologist, a type of Health Service Provider.  This licensing is required by health insurance companies in order for reimbursement (payment) for their services.

Every two years after obtaining a license, every practitioner must attend continuing education classes (in a wide variety of topics of the individual's choice) of a certain number of hours set by their state licensing board.

Every licensed practitioner that delivers clinical services is required to have malpractice insurance, either of their own or through the agency they work at.  Every practitioner is required to comply with ethical standards, established by APA.

Individuals must therefore spend at least 4 years in graduate school, a year of internship, a year of supervised clincal experience, and pass a licensing exam in order to be able to call themself a Psychologist.  This is an extensive period of leaning and applied experience, required for delivery of services.  Clients (not called patients unless in a medical setting) are free to inquire about a person's training and experience when selecting a provider.  Professionals are happy to share their education and discuss skills they possess with potential clients.

Many psychologists become members of APA, as well as their state association (Mass. Psychological Assoc.).  In addition, many psychologists, and other professionals, are members of the National Register of Health Service Providers of Psychology.