Psychology Calling

“Where your passion meets their need, that is your calling” (Allison Fallon).

February is Psychology Month. One question I often get asked is, “What does it take to become a psychologist”.   The short answer is 10 or more years.  If you say it fast, it doesn’t sound as bad.  The following is the long answer and a brief overview of my journey to become a psychologist.

To begin, I must confess that I would have lost money had I bet on the likelihood of me training for as long as I did.  I was never fond of school.  After working in what is often dubbed the real world, I quit my nice government job with a pension and benefits to study accounting at university.  I had wanted to be a psychologist since I was 13 years old but I thought “Quick 4 years, get out, get a job” sounded like a more prudent plan.  Then I attended my Introductory Psychology class.  That class lit up every synapse in my brain.  I literally sat on the edge of my seat, taking notes like a woman possessed.  So, I readjusted my plan to “Quick 6 years, get a Master’s degree in Psychology, get out, get a job”. 

The first step in the path to becoming a psychologist involves obtaining a four-year undergraduate honors degree in Psychology.  Once you complete the undergraduate degree, the next step is to apply to graduate school to obtain a master’s degree and/or doctoral degree.  In order to be considered for graduate school, you are expected to obtain a certain score on a standardized admissions test called the General Records Exam (GRE).  The GRE measures verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning (measures problem-solving ability using basic concepts of arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and data analysis), and analytical writing (e.g., critical thinking).  Once you clear the GRE hurdle, you hopefully get an interview with a graduate program.  Many programs only admit a limited number of new students each year.  In my year, I was one of 4 new students admitted.   Once accepted, you begin the 2 to 3 year process of completing the Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology.  That requires more classes and the completion of a Master’s thesis.

In addition to classes and research, many first year graduate students need to overcome the “imposter syndrome” (i.e., chronic self-doubt and feelings of intellectual fraudulence that persist even in the face of information that indicates the opposite).  Very simply, you expect that any day someone will tap you on the shoulder to inform you that you are in the program due to some unfortunate error and you can leave now.  Similar to the recent Steve Harvey fail of the year where the wrong Miss Universe contestant was crowned.   But, the tap on the shoulder never comes and you start to fall in love with the work. 

At the end of my first year of the Master’s program, I was sent into the “real world” with training wheels (i.e., close supervision) to start honing my craft.  I completed a full time supervised practicum for 4 months and in my second year I completed a part-time supervised practicum.  It’s like on the job training without pay.  It was during my first year that I started to believe that I had found my “calling”. 

You eventually finish the Master’s degree.  Time to get a job in the “real world”.  “But wait”, as they say in the infomercials, “There’s more”.   In Saskatchewan you can become a psychologist with a Master’s degree but in other provinces the PhD is considered the basic degree for a profession in psychology.  For a variety of reasons, I decided to continue my training and applied for the PhD program.  In for a penny, in for a pound.   The PhD was three more years that included more on the job unpaid supervised training, more classes, and another research project called a dissertation.  Your dissertation research must be original and make a contribution to the field of psychology.  In addition to exams for each class, there is a set of examinations called Comprehensive Exams (“Comps”).  Comps test your knowledge of psychology to determine your eligibility to continue with your program.  By now, no one in your family believes you will ever finish school and you have received the dubious title of “professional student” by most of your non-grad school friends and family.   A few assume that the length of time it is taking to finish reflects a lack of effort on your part and suggest that perhaps you should try harder. 

But you do finish.  OK, so now it’s time to get a job right?  Close.  Now you apply for a full time residency spot.  That process has more applicants than spots so the competition is fierce.  The residency is 12 months and often requires you to move to another province or even another country.   At your residency you are paid a small salary and continue to be closely supervised for the year. 

You pass your residency.  So, now can you call yourself a psychologist?  Again, so close.  You cannot call yourself a psychologist in Saskatchewan until you are registered with the Sask. College of Psychologists.  More exams and another year or two of supervision.  By the time you reach the end, you have received somewhere in the neighborhood of 3 to 4 years of direct supervision on your psychological therapy and assessment work.  But finally you get to the end.  Your reputation with your family is redeemed and you fantasize about making them call you “doctor” for the same amount of time they mocked you about being a professional student. 

My training journey was the epitome of the expression “ignorance is bliss”.  Had I known what was involved, I’m not certain I would have pursued my passion.  But who knows?  The risk of the unknown was worth the rewards and I certainly have no regrets.  Remember Steve Harvey?  He once said, “Your career is what you are paid for and your calling is what you are made for”. 

Cheers everyone
Dr. Lisa Berg-Kolody, PhD

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