What is a Psychologist?

Psychologists are social scientists and/or professional health care providers with training and expertise in the areas of human behavior and psychological health. Exactly what does this mean? Let's examine and clarify each part of this definition. Each of these questions will be answered in detail. You can scroll through the page, or link directly to any of the sections listed: 

How is a psychologist a social scientist?  

Psychology has been around as an academic and research science for over 100 years. Psychology is a social science, and psychologists have contributed a large body of research to our knowledge about human behavior, human development, psychological problems, the measurement and understanding of personality characteristics, and other important areas of knowledge about how people think, feel and behave. For the purposes of this presentation, we will focus more on psychologists as health care providers, rather than as social scientists. Many research psychologists do not provide direct clinical services.

What is a professional health care provider? 

A health care provider is someone who "provides" health care. Physicians, nurses, dentists, chiropractors, physical therapists, psychologists, etc. are all health care providers. Anyone who provides a health care service is a health care provider. Generally, health care providers are licensed in their specialty. What about the word "professional", what does that mean? A professional is an individual who has received formal training in a recognized specialty area, and who follows a set of practice standards in providing services to the public. Psychologists learn about human behavior, human development, psychological problems, the measurement and understanding of personality characteristics, and other important areas of knowledge about how people think, feel and behave. A professional psychologist has broad knowledge about human behavior, and understands how to apply that knowledge to help people change.

What is involved in training a psychologist? 

The minimal acceptable standard of training for a psychologist today is a doctoral degree in psychology or a closely allied field. Psychologists are "Doctors" but they are not physicians. Most psychologists do not prescribe medication, but this is changing, and more than one state has passed legislation to allow psychologists with appropriate training to prescribe medications for the treatment of psychological problems. It is likely that this trend will continue because there is a shortage of qualified psychiatrists, especially in many rural areas of the United States. 

The doctoral degree in psychology typically takes four to five years of full time graduate study beyond a college degree. The degree may be a Ph.D., a Psy.D. or an Ed.D., depending upon the graduate training program. The course work includes training in the science of psychology, with core courses covering the social, developmental, learning and biological bases for human behavior. This typically includes training in personality theory, normal growth and development, and the nature of psychological problems and psychopathology. Specialized training is also provided in diagnostic evaluation techniques, psychological testing, and psychotherapy and/or counseling methods. Psychologists also learn how stress, traumatic events, aging, and cultural background affect human behavior as well. Many courses have practicums, which combine clinical experience and classroom knowledge.

Are psychologists licensed by the government?  

All 50 states in the USA have licensing requirements for psychologists which are designed to protect the public by preventing inexperienced or untrained individuals from offering psychological services. These requirements vary somewhat from state to state, but generally include a doctoral degree in psychology, or a closely related field, from an approved graduate degree program. Some states allow psychologists with training at the Masters level to practice. In other states, Masters level psychologists who were already practicing when the licensing laws were enacted were also licensed if they met the appropriate requirements. 

The licensing requirements also describe the minimum amount of supervised experience, under a licensed psychologist, that is required in each state. The supervised experience is usually either one or two years of full time practice. The licensing laws require certain experience during this supervised practice, and most states require at least part of the experience to be completed after the doctoral degree is obtained. In New Jersey, two years of full time supervised experience are required before an individual become licensed. At least one year of this experience must be completed after the doctoral degree. This experience is in addition to any practicums a psychologist might complete as part of the doctoral degree. 

Finally, licensed psychologists in all 50 states must pass a licensing exam before they are allowed to practice independently, without supervision. Most states, including New Jersey, use The Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP), which was developed by the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards. Some states require a separate exam on the laws governing psychology in their state. Other states, like New Jersey, require an additional oral exam to assess the applicant's practical application of knowledge about the practice of psychology. 

What is human behavior?  

Human behavior is the sum of what people think, feel and do. Most people seek psychological help when they have a problem managing some part of their life. 

Thinking problems might include a disorder in the functioning of the brain, such as a thought process disorder or a memory impairment from an accident, or it can refer to a problem with the way a person thinks about themselves or beliefs held about other people. Our beliefs include our values and our expectations, our perceptions of ourselves and others, and the guidelines we use to assess what is good or bad in our life. If these beliefs, thoughts and ideas result in life management difficulties, then psychological treatment might be indicated. This includes problems of poor self-esteem, being overly critical of yourself or others, setting unrealistic personal goals and expectations, or believing that your life problems are overwhelming and beyond your control. Of course, there are many other possibilities as well.  

Feeling problems are what most people associate with psychological treatment. We regard "emotional" problems such as depression, anxiety, fear, or anger as the primary reason people seek psychological help. As you can see, there are many other reasons as well. Most people seek help when their emotions interfere with life adjustment in some way. 

Behavior is the word psychologists use to describe what we do. Behavioral problems can include conduct disturbances in children, impulse control problems such as substance abuse, gambling, and uncontrolled anger outbursts, or other types of inappropriate behavior, such as extreme social withdrawal. A description of all of the behavioral problems addressed by psychologists would fill several books. In fact, scores of books have been written about different psychological problems, and how psychological treatment works. You can browse through a selection of these books at the Self-Help Bookstore .

What do we mean by psychological health? 

A person is in good psychological health when he/she makes good decisions, manages stress effectively, communicates well in relationships, is an effective parent, treats others properly, and takes care of himself/herself emotionally. 

You do not need to have a "problem" or a "disorder" to benefit from a psychological consultation. Psychologists can help people make plans and decisions, such as career planning, or deciding to have a child. Psychologists also teach people how to manage their life more productively. This includes parenting skills training, stress management, or learning how to communicate more effectively. Psychologists also function as mediators to assist parents in resolving disagreements following divorce. Just as you might visit a physician for assistance in developing an exercise program, or to learn more about family planning or weight management, you can consult with a psychologist about important psychological issues and decisions in your life before a problem develops, rather than waiting until afterwards. Hence, psychologists not only help people with psychological problems, but also help people resolve psychological issues to enhance life satisfaction and personal growth. In this way, psychologists encourage the development of psychological health.