From time to time, we all fancy ourselves at being expert in how other people think, feel and behave. Human behaviour has fascinated people for years and the quest to know more about what makes people tick leads many to consider studying psychology. Undergraduate psychology courses are amongst the most popular university courses chosen by high school graduates as well as mature age students every year.
The pathway to becoming a registered psychologist in Australia is long and windy. There are a number of challenges or obstacles and there are various key players or gate keepers that are involved.
The pathway starts with entry into an undergraduate psychology course. The gate keepers at this level are, of course, the university or institution of higher education that determine the entry level for their courses. Also, there is another very important key player that is often invisible but strikes a powerful influence, APAC – The Australian Psychology Accreditation Council Limited. APAC have the power (and responsibility) under Health Practitioner Regulation National Law Act 2009 to make sure that courses offered are up to standard and produce graduates with the knowledge, skills and ethics necessary for practice. Most APAC-approved courses need to offer certain key subject usually across three full time years of study and they need to do so to a certain standard, or APAC will withdraw approval and those on the path may need to go back to the beginning and start again in another approved undergraduate psychology course.
If you are interested in studying psychology and may want to be a psychologist one day, you need to ask whether the course you are interested in is APAC accredited.
Once you have completed an undergraduate course in psychology, you reach a fork in the pathway. You can decide to leave the road towards becoming a registered psychologist and enjoy the knowledge that you have gained, or enjoy joking with people at parties who think that you can read minds (or who just plain avoid you because they think you can read minds) or you may decide that you would like to work in one of the many areas that employ people with an undergraduate psychology degree – welfare, child protection, case management, justice or the like.
If you chose to proceed along the pathway towards becoming a psychologist, you will need to enter an APAC approved fourth year. Sometimes this is an honours year or it may be an APAC approved graduate diploma. To gain entry into a fourth year, you will need to have done well in your undergraduate studies.
The number of places offered in fourth year courses and beyond is much, much smaller than the intake numbers for undergraduate course. So, clearly, if you are following the pathway to become a registered psychologist, you may not make it if you are looking forward to your university years as mega-party, low-responsibility-type years.
Once you are through the fourth year, there are a number of options at the pathway fork.
- You can stop there and get a job in the human services sector, but you cannot work as a psychologist.
- You can leave the university program, find a job as a provisional psychologist (like a psychologist on P plates) and seek out a supervisor. In the trade, this pathway is called “the 4 plus 2” pathway, although in my experience the “plus 2” part can take much longer than the two years. All of the arrangements for “4 plus 2” need to be approved by another very important key player – The Psychology Board of Australia (PBA).
- The PBA is responsible for making sure the public are in safe hands when they utilise psychological services. The PBA oversee and approve which people can be registered psychologists, which psychologists can supervise other psychologists in the registration process, and they watch whether psychologists are staying professional and up to date. The PBA watches provisionals and their supervisors very closely and there is much reporting and monitoring during the process. To date, this pathway has proven treacherous and we have lost many would –be psychologists through this pathway. However, in my opinion, those that survive and complete this pathway have much to offer. At the end of this pathway they can apply to become registered psychologists, but they will not be eligible for any endorsements (more on endorsements below).
- You can apply for entry into a post graduate Masters or Doctoral program in psychology (APAC approved of course). Again, the number of places is few and you need to have really good marks to open the gate to this pathway. The post graduate programs require undertaking placements in the field and some universities have struggled to secure sufficient placements so be sure to ask about this before you sign up for post grad. If you are successful in your APAC-approved post graduate course, you can apply for general registration with the PBA.
- Some higher education institutions offer a fifth year program for psychology. This pathway is newer than most other pathways and requires “5 plus 1”. Once you complete five years you need to have a supervised year that is approved and monitored by the PBA.
If you want to continue even further on the pathway you may want to be endorsed in certain areas of psychology (Clinical Psychology, Clinical Neuropsychology, Counselling Psychology, Organisational Psychology, Forensic Psychology, Community Psychology, Sports Psychology, Education and Developmental Psychology, and Health Psychology), then you need to have completed the appropriate post graduate course and then seek a further period of supervision that is approved by the PBA. You need to have a supervisor who is endorsed in the area in which you are seeking endorsement and then, on completion, you can apply to the PBA for an endorsement on your registration.
Wait! Before you embark on the start of the pathway, you also should know that the effort does not end in registration with the PBA. Once you have negotiated the pathway and followed it to its end, the journey does not stop there.
Psychologists are required to continue to keep their knowledge and skills up to date and their practice above board. As a profession, psychologists are mandated to continue to develop themselves professionally, including spending time consulting with peers about their client work and self care. The PBA does random audits on psychologists to check for this and members of the public can also ask the PBA to investigate a psychologist if they think the psychologist has acted unprofessionally.
Also, before you embark on the pathway to being a psychologist, perhaps have a think about the type of person you are.
- Do you like science and maths? Psychology is a science. The work that psychologists do is based on evidence and research. A big part of a psychology requires being able to take a critical eye to someone else’s research to know whether it is robust enough to apply the findings to improve someone’s well being. People’s well being can be a fragile and precious thing. It’s not something to be stomped on clumsily, especially when people may be seeking help at a time that they are most vulnerable. Psychologists need to be able to pick the right techniques and not just randomly go with something that looks, smells or feels like it might work. This means that you need to ability to critically review someone’s research and understand the numbers they crunched and how they crunched them on their way to reaching their conclusion. So, it helps a lot if you enjoy science and you are not afraid of maths. If you really love research, then many psychologists continue to have lengthy careers as researchers and academics. If the idea of psychology excites you, but you really struggle to enjoy or understand maths or a scientific approach, you may be happier exploring some of the other social support or counselling options.
- Can you write a logical essay or report? Psychologists are called upon to write reports – for Courts, updates to doctors and often need to be able to do this with a really short time frame.
- Do you need or want to earn lots of money? Most psychologists earn a comfortable living, but they are certainly not the big earners that many others think that they are. After six years of study/internship, the average psychologist earns around $60 000, but not many would start out at that level. There are annual insurance and registration fees to pay as well as any ongoing professional development psychologist undertake.
- Are you able to take good care of yourself whilst you take care of others? Are you tolerant, fair and law-abiding? You may well be the one that friends come to for help, but are you able to say “no” if you are genuinely unable to help them? Do you keep healthy boundaries and not try to fix everything for everyone all of the time? Do you have a high standard of ethics in the way you deal with and relate to others?
Another important player, off to the side of the registration pathway, but working hard to influence and support psychology as a discipline, is the Australian Psychological Society (APS). Psychologists do not need to belong to the APS to practice psychology, but the APS does have entry requirements. The APS is a professional body that works to advance psychology as a discipline. The APS promotes psychology and provides psychologists with advocacy, training and support. The APS website contains some useful information for students.
Not many years ago, in some states and territories in Australia, the practice of psychology went unregulated. Anybody could call themselves a psychologist.
Currently, the profession of psychology in Australia has psychologists who were registered under the new system and still many that were registered when things were much “looser”. This means that we currently have a really heterogeneous group of people in the profession, but it is clear that there is no room for sloppiness. If you want to be a psychologist in Australia, you need to be committed to continuing to seek knowledge, revise skills and practice ethically.
So, if you do want to be a psychologist, you can sure that Psychology is an amazingly interesting and rewarding discipline. The work that psychologists do is very important and often with very fragile people or communities. People need to be able to put their utmost faith in their psychologist so it’s important that psychologists are able to meet the rigorous requirement for knowledge, skills and ethical practice. It’s a long closely regulated path, but it jolly well should be!
Best wishes for safe and fulfilling adventures to those who chose to take the important pathway.