Month: August 2022

What Can I do with a BA in Psychology?

David Van Engen, Psy.D.

Nothing! Mwa ha ha ha!

I’m joking, of course, but there was a time when it used to feel that way. There is a lot of work out there for new graduates and this blog entry will focus on psychology-based work opportunities. I remember as I approached graduation during my undergrad, this question was the main topic of discussion among the class (and our parental units). Some of us planned to continue the grind and jump straight into grad school, having set our sights on a masters or a doctorate. Others wanted to take some time off from school to either work a little, gain some life experience, consolidate student debt, or simply figure out what they wanted out of life. I wound up taking a middle path that involved working in the field and attending graduate school at the same time.

But what does it mean to “work in the field” with a bachelor’s in psych? Oddly, this was not a topic covered in-depth during college. The joke among students was that an undergrad degree in psych was good for a ticket into grad school or a straight path into any job unrelated to psychology or human behavior. Thankfully, this assumption is not true as the degree is incredibly versatile and may be applied in multiple career fields. The list below is not all-inclusive and is based on both my experience in these settings and discussions with peers and former students. I will continue to add to this entry over time. I would encourage readers to share their experiences with how they utilized their bachelors degree.

Inpatient Care
This area of work applies primarily to hospital-based settings where individuals in need of acute or immediate care/stabilization are admitted on a [usually] short-term basis. Hospital units like this run 24/7 and are typically divided by need (e.g., high acuity, substance misuse, geriatrics, memory care, pediatric/adolescent, et al.). Job titles in this setting include Psychiatric/Behavioral Technician, Mental Health Tech, or something similar. Your responsibilities in this role include: assisting the Psychiatrist/Nurse Practitioner with the admission process, documentation, monitoring patients on the unit (also known as a milieu), providing support for individuals in emotional or behavioral crisis, behavioral de-escalation, running or supporting group-based interventions, collecting vital signs and other data, and providing 1-to-1 monitoring for the highest risk patients. CPR certification is generally required and/or provided as are behavioral de-escalation/crisis training.

Outpatient Care
This area of work applies mainly to organizations that provide vital mental health services outside the hospital setting. These may include daytime treatment (individuals attend during the day and are free to leave) or residential programs (individuals live on the premises). The work is somewhat similar to inpatient work in terms of administrative and technical responsibilities are similar but the general acuity and physical demands may be lower.

Pros: Inpatient/Outpatient settings provide some of the richest work experience when it comes to serving diverse populations and exposure to mental health issues. Supporting individuals in crisis with empathy and kindness is incredibly rewarding and truly makes a difference. Work experience will serve you well in terms of learning valuable crisis management and group work skills in a higher-stress environment. Graduate programs and future employers view this type of experience as invaluable.

Cons: The work can be incredibly challenging both physically and mentally. There may be a degree of culture shock for people unfamiliar with severe and persistent mental illness. There is some risk when it comes to physical injury. Units and organizations are often short-staffed and shift work can be a grind. Burnout is a genuine concern. Maintaining a good life balance and boundaries (knowing when to say no) are essential. The pay in these roles varies by organization funding/level of experience.

Group Homes

Group homes are semi/permanent residences for at-risk and vulnerable persons. Job titles include Direct Care/Support Professional, Residential Assistant/Tech, among others. These positions may involve shift work, overnight stays, or occasionally a live-in posting. Additional training such as a a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) or Medication Assistant may be required and/or provided. Responsibilities include: assisting with activities of daily living (e.g., hygiene, dressing, preparing/assisting with meals), documentation, organizing/running structured activities and recreation, milieu management, and transportation for appointments.

Pros: Group home workers are in very high demand and the pay can be competitive. The relationships caretakers form with their residents can last a lifetime. These positions provide exposure to a diverse range of disabilities and severe or persistent physical/mental health illness. Similar to inpatient/outpatient work, experience in this field is viewed favorably by future employers and graduate programs.

Cons: The quality, level of organizational support, work environment, and wages for group homes can vary dramatically. Inadequate staffing and turnover may be a persistent concern. The work may be physically and emotionally demanding. There may be a high degree of burnout.

Crisis Intervention
Crisis intervention is an area of psychology that remains in high demand. The individuals who utilize crisis lines and behavioral health emergency care are in dire need of empathy, support, patience, and sometimes emergency intervention. Responsibilities in this line of work include manning phone, text, and online chat lines, documentation, crisis intervention work, and referral to emergency services. Training is provided and levels of certification can vary by locality and organization.

Pros: There is a dire need for qualified, skilled, and empathetic crisis workers. You will save lives. Bringing hope and light to individuals during the worst days of their lives can be transformational. Experience gained in this field will serve you well if you decide to move on to counseling work and is always viewed favorably by future employers and graduate programs.

Cons: Depending on funding and organizational infrastructure, pay, staffing, and employee support can vary widely. Burnout is very high as the emotional strain of the work may be considerable.

Listing off these options has little utility if you don’t know where to look. I would recommend searching the employment pages of healthcare systems, private organizations, and nonprofit agencies that provide mental health services in the state of Minnesota. The Minnesota Council of Nonprofits job board is an excellent place to get started. Those interested in crisis line work can reference the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (SAMHSA) page for crisis work, which includes job and volunteer postings for over 900 organizations nation-wide. If you are offered a position, don’t be afraid to negotiate for higher wages, especially if you have experience (and even if you don’t). If you have additional questions, feel free to reach out to us at the MPA Student Division.

Selecting a Doctoral Program: Ph.D. versus Psy.D.

David Van Engen, Psy.D.
Student Perspective Article

I recently sat on some informational panels for the Graduate School of Professional Psychology (GSPP) at the University of St. Thomas. Among the usual questions regarding pathways to a doctoral degree, a couple questions recurred between groups:

1) “What’s the difference between a Ph.D. and Psy.D.?”

2)“I’ve heard that a Psy.D. is not as ‘good’ as a Ph.D. program.” (Myth)

3) “Is selecting a Psy.D. over a Ph.D. program going to harm my future job or credentialing prospects? (Short answer: No)

I remember agonizing over the same questions back in 2015 when was in the process of researching and applying for psychology graduate programs. At the time, it felt like selecting any pathway into mental health would send me hurtling down an irrevocable route that would close off all the others and limit my future prospects. Now in 2022, having recently completed my Psy.D. (my program included an MA along the way), it turned out that those fears were never realized and the things that caused the most stress didn’t matter at all. I would like to reflect on those questions again, attempt to dispel some misconceptions, and hopefully make the program selection process a little less ambiguous for anyone interested in pursuing a doctoral degree in psychology.

Ph.D. versus Psy.D. What’s the difference? Put simply, the difference between degree types comes down to training emphasis. The majority of Psy.D. programs are centered on the scientist/practitioner model, which prioritizes learning and practicing clinical skillsets with the end goal of clinical practice. Ph.D. programs historically emphasizes theory and methodological learning pertaining to research and academic pursuits; however, clinical skills are still taught. Over the last decade, the differences between the two types of degree have and continue to narrow due partly to competency-based APA accreditation requirements for training programs. The curriculum for both degrees meet the requirements for licensure as a psychologist. However, it is important to examine each doctoral program as the differences between them may be considerable in terms of quality (e.g., student-to-full-time faculty ratio, labs, availability of practicum options, resources, etcetera).

It is important to note one significant difference between program types. Since Psy.D. programs are relatively younger, there is some disparity when it comes to the availability of tuition remission, assistance, grants, and scholarships. While this gap is narrowing, Ph.D. programs may have more opportunities for tuition remission via teaching opportunities at the college or in the community. For example, I was accepted to a graduate program in Boston that offered up to 98% tuition remission. I wound up going with a Psy.D. program in Minnesota that offered no tuition remission but did offer some graduate assistant positions to defray some costs. At the time of this writing, I am aware of initiatives within graduate programs across the U.S. and the APA to provide greater opportunities for tuition assistance.

Myths about the Psy.D. Contrary to what you may have heard, the Psy.D. is not a “lesser” degree, nor is it a barrier to securing practicum/internship/postdoc placement or employment upon graduation. While some bias has historically existed, it is not based on empirical evidence and reflects prejudicial attitudes that thankfully have eroded over time. During your journey you may still encounter some of this bias but you may rest assured that those individuals do not represent the evolving and increasingly diverse field of psychology.

A useful historic comparison would be the attitudes surrounding the incredibly outdated MD (medical doctor) versus DO (doctor of osteopathy) debate. Again, the key difference is more philosophical than practical. Generally speaking, osteopathic programs are more holistic in their conceptualization of patients, pathology, and the mind. Both pathways will produce a highly trained, licensed physician who is held to the same standards of medical care in order to obtain licensure. During my former medical career, I worked in the emergency center with physicians of both backgrounds and the type of degree did not matter a whit. Also, I’ve had multiple surgeries over the years provided by both MDs and DOs and my internal organs couldn’t tell the difference. Just like these professionals, the comparison of Ph.D. and Psy.D. programs comes down to how the quality of education, supervision, and practica opportunities prepare doctoral-level professionals to enter the field.

Licensure. Students that successfully complete a Ph.D. or Psy.D. doctoral program and internship accredited by the APA can take the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP) as an entry-level licensed psychologist. Concerns and known issues surrounding non-APA-accredited programs and internships are not a topic that I can speak to adequately here but will address in a future article.

Career Prospects. Examining the modern workforce, psychologists with a Psy.D. can be found working alongside their Ph.D. colleagues with total parity. Specific settings that were initially synonymous with the Ph.D. such as the VA, academia, research, or neuropsychology no longer take the type of degree into consideration and instead focus on relevant experiences such as practica, internship/postdoc, research, and program evaluation. This is a significant change from when I first started graduate school in 2015.

Final Thoughts. Ultimately, graduate school is a lengthy process of learning, practicing new skills, failing (sometimes spectacularly), and self-reflection. Those 5-6 years are going to challenge and change you. At the end, the aspects of psychology that initially drew you toward this field may continue to inspire or they may disillusion you. You may find yourself in a vastly different setting than you first envisioned… and that’s okay. In fact, it’s one of the saving graces of this profession. It is not hyperbole to say that there are nearly limitless ways to practice psychology and retain your values (e.g., work/life balance, family, sanity, minimal criminal record). In fact, I would argue that the type of degree (Ph.D./PsyD) will have considerably less bearing on your future than the quality of training, clinical experiences, and supervision that you picked up along the way. When evaluating which program is right for you, deemphasize the degree and attend to the qualities of the program (e.g., philosophy, resources, diversity, faculty, rates of graduation). The importance of the goodness of fit (i.e., how well the program aligns with your values) cannot be overemphasized.