What is a psychologist?

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There is no shortage of questions about what a psychologist is, what a psychologist does and how a psychologist is different from other professionals. I am commonly asked questions such as:

  • Are psychologists the same as psychiatrists?
  • What is the difference between a psychologist and a clinical psychologist?
  • What is the difference between a psychologist and a counsellor?
  • What is a sports/ health/ forensic/ educational/ organisational/ counselling/ community/ neuro-psychologist?
  • How does a person become a psychologist?
  • Can a psychologist help me with _____?
  • Isn’t psychology all just common sense?
  • Are you analysing me right now?
  • … and, of course …
  • What is a psychologist?

To answer all of these questions would make for a tediously long post. So I would like to start with that final question, and the title of this post – “what is a psychologist?” Perhaps at some point I will expand this to a series of posts addressing the other questions.

What a psychologist is

A psychologist is a person who has been trained in the science of human behaviour.

Psychologists undertake training at a university level that begins with four years of study covering topics such as the history of the study of human behaviour; models of human development, behaviour, personality and mental processes; intelligence and personality assessment; and mental health disorders.

Most importantly, though, the first four years of training teach the methods of rigourous scientific research and statistical data analysis that underpin the science behind everything psychologists do.

The beginnings of psychology grew out of introspection (reflection on one’s own thoughts and emotions) and educated speculation. However, scientific rigour was soon applied to the early theories that developed out of those origins. Theories that did not stand up to scientific evidence were soon abandoned.

It must, sadly, be admitted that there are a few practising psychologists who disregard the value of scientific rigour and practise techniques with no basis in science. However, the code of ethics that every psychologist in Australia is required to adhere to requires that, in whatever field they work, a psychologist practices techniques built upon scientific evidence.

A psychologist applies scientific research to understanding and shaping human behaviour.

What a psychologist is not

A psychologist is not a mystic, a mind-reader or a guru. A psychologist is not, in fact, an “expert at life” and will indeed face the same struggles we all do – just like a mechanic’s car will require servicing just like everybody else’s.

A psychologist is not a doctor of medicine, and cannot prescribe medication.

A psychologist is not your friend – or lover, or business partner. At least, not if you are that psychologist’s client, student, teacher, supervisor, or supervisee. In short, psychologists are prohibited (with very few exceptions) from combining any professional role with any other professional or personal role. This is because the professional role a psychologists has with a client so often creates a vulnerability to exploitation if combined with other roles.

Registration and training

“Psychologist” is a protected title in most countries. Australia is no exception. In Australia, to be able to say, “I am a psychologist”, a person must have at least:

  1. Completed a minimum four year course of university study majoring in psychology. (Confusingly, there are a wide range of qualifying degrees – commonly Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science, Bachelor of Psychology – but also many others: Australian Psychology Accreditation Council provides the definitive list for Australia.)
  2. and
    • Undertaken two years of (intensive) practice in the field supervised by a psychologist with several years experience and supervision training – or
    • Undertaken at least two years of postgraduate psychology training (Masters of Psychology, Doctor of Psychology or PhD in Psychology) that includes supervised practice in the field

The above training pathways are a requirement to be able to register as a psychologist in Australia. Without registration it is illegal to use the label “psychologist” in any context.

In addition to general registration as a psychologist, the above training may be specialised to certain areas of study – such as organisational or forensic psychology. Use of these additional terms in front of the word “psychologist” is restricted to those who have completed the necessary specialised training and supervision.

How can I make sure the psychologist I see is properly trained and registered?

Since the introduction of national registration this is very easy and it is recommended that all clients confirm registration before seeing a person who claims to be a psychologist. The Australian Health Practitioner Registration Agency maintains a searchable national register of psychologists and other health professionals. A person not on this list cannot legally practise as, or even call themselves, a psychologist.

How can I find a psychologist?

You can search for psychologists in your area with the APS Find a Psychologist service. Please note that this is a paid, opt-in service and will not include all practitioners. Yellow pages will have a more complete listing. However, the APS Find a Psychologist service provides the ability to search according to areas of specialty.

Psychologists in Toowoomba

For a quick search for psychologists in the Toowoomba area, you may find the following links helpful:

About Paul McQueen

Dr Paul McQueen is a Clinical Psychologist, holding a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the University of Melbourne. He has experience working in both adult and child mental health services in Queensland and Victoria. Dr McQueen is comitted to providing high quality, evidence-based interventions for a range of mental health conditions. He specialises in the treatment of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder and Depression.

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  1. Pingback: Psychology - What is the difference between a Psychologist and a Psychiatrist? | Thriving

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