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What Does a Psychologist Do?

Interested in becoming a Psychologist but not sure what the job involves? 

We’ve prodded the minds of two professional Psychologists to explore what being a psychologist is all about in different settings — including its roles, skills and future prospects. 

So, let’s see what they have to say! 

Meet Micah and Rachel
What is a Psychologist?
Steps to Becoming a Psychologist
Future Outlook
Best Thing & Worst Thing
Advice for Aspiring Psychologists

Meet Micah

Micah Boerma is a School Psychologist at an all boys school called Trinity Grammar School.

How did you end up in this role?

“From a young age, I wanted to become a psychologist as I was curious about what makes people tick and seeing the goodness that can come from listening and supporting people. I thought that was phenomenal,” Micah shares.

He adds, “Being a psychologist is the most incredible job that enables me to get alongside people as two imperfect humans and try to improve their lives and output into their communities.”

Meet Rachel 

Rachel Harker is a Clinical Psychologist at headspace Camperdown in the University of Sydney. 

“I love my job so much! What I love most is to be able to sit with someone and for them to trust you by opening up and telling you their story,” Rachel says. “It’s such a privilege to take that person’s story and work with them so they can work towards their goals and a happier life.

Studies and Experience 

Our two psychologists started off with very different degrees to get to where they are today! Micah studied a Bachelor of Science (Honours) and Masters of Clinical Psychology degree at the University of Canberra before doing his Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Southern Queensland.

On the other hand, Rachel actually completed a Bachelor of Arts (major in Psychology) at the University of Sydney before moving to Queensland to study a Postgraduate Diploma and Masters of Psychology. 

What made you want to work in this industry? 

Both our psychologists have a heart for people  especially for young people and they have their own unique reasons for choosing to specialise in youth mental health. 

“Placements do offer a broad range of areas of psychology you can experience,” Micah says. “But for me, I wanted to work with young people, particularly young males. It was pretty easy for me to find a niche and school was the easiest as there was where all the young adults are.” 

Micah adds that he preferred working in a school environment as he is able to follow the progress of students more frequently than a private practice, “I can help a student from Year 7 to Year 12 so I can really see the progression of a student’s mental wellbeing in contrast to doing a few one hour sessions in a private practice.”

Meanwhile, Rachel loves to work with young people because she felt like it was a period of life that she can really relate with. 

Psychologist - Interviewee Quote 1

What is a Psychologist?

A psychologist is a specialist in the study of the human mind and behaviour, along with the treatment for mental, emotional and behavioural disorders. They usually study, assess and deliver treatment and counselling to help others achieve optimal occupational, social, educational and personal goals. 

You gotta use some serious brain juice to become a professional psychologist though, as studying a psychology postgraduate degree is super competitive. They often require completed training and an advanced degree such as a Masters of a PhD in a field of psychology that they are interested in! 

There are 9 Australian Psychology Society Colleges (areas of psychology) that you can choose to specialise in, such as: 

  • Clinical Neuropsychology
  • Clinical Psychology
  • Community Psychology
  • Counselling Psychology 
  • Educational and Developmental Psychology 
  • Forensic Psychology 
  • Health Psychology 
  • Organisational Psychology 
  • Sport and Exercise Psychology 

For more information about the Australian Psychology Society Colleges, check them out here!

What kind of roles and responsibilities do psychologists have? 

It’s hard to pin-point one answer that fully encompasses what a psychologist does. The day-to-day life of a psychologist is incredibly diverse and depends on your specialisation, your workplace environment and the type of client you have. 

Clinical Psychology

For Rachel, being a clinical psychologist at headspace means “on a typical day, I have 5 clients booked in from 9 to 5 then I have one hour to write notes on the measures, scoring and assessments we carry out to keep track on how they are going. Note taking is such an important part to record progress and also for legal and ethical reasons too.” 

Rachel also points out, “Something that people might not know about psychologists is that besides the one-on-one sessions with clients, there are also a lot of things going on behind the scenes such as preparing for sessions, doing research or making sure that your knowledge of therapy and skills are up to date.” 

School Psychology

Meanwhile, Micah’s day to day routine in the school context involves “working with teachers to implement strategies and plans to get a greater chance of success at academics,” besides the regular preparation and sessions.

He also adds that, “You may work with the principal or deputy principal if it is a behavioural issue. You might also work with family members who need some help and advice in regards to their child’s schooling.” 

To put it generally, psychologists: 

  • Formulate and deliver treatment plans 
  • Prepare interviews, surveys and assessments 
  • Take notes on the client’s information, progress and more
  • Assesses client’s progress with treatment
  • Work with other professionals on treatment plans
  • Keep updated on recent research 

Which industries can this career be found in? 

There are loads of industries that involve psychologists! According to Job Outlook, the four most popular industries are: 

    • Healthcare and social assistance 
    • Education and training 
    • Public Administration and Safety
    • Professional, Scientific and Technical Services 

As one of the fastest growing industries, the healthcare and social assistance sector tops it off at 70.7% of industry share! It consists of various healthcare facilities such as hospitals, childcare and aged care.

You may find yourself working with other health professionals such as psychiatrists, doctors, nurses and more.  

Ultimately, no matter where you are, there’s always going to be somebody who wants and/or needs to be heard and that’s when a psychologist comes in! 

Psychologist, Psychiatrist, Psychotherapist or Counsellor? 

You’re not the only one, I get confused too. The words psychologist, psychiatrist, counsellor and therapists have been used interchangeably so much to the point where we don’t even know its differences. 

Lucky for you, I researched it’s differences so you don’t have to! The main differences can be found in training, treatments provided and the types of conditions they treat. 

Psychologists

Psychologist practices are highly regulated in Australia, requiring candidates to complete at least 6 years of education and training before being accredited under the Psychology Board of Australia. 

While Psychologists do deliver mental health treatment, they often do so with psychological treatments such as talk therapy, interviews and surveys but cannot prescribe medication. Psychologists deal with the more common psychological disorders such as behavioural issues, depression, anxiety and ADHD that can be treated effectively with psychological treatment. 

To see a psychologist, you don’t really need a referral from your GP, but you can as part of a Mental Health Treatment Plan. 

Psychiatrists

Psychiatrists kick it up a notch. While they also study the human mind and behaviour and provide psychological treatment, they are essentially medical doctors.

This means that a psychiatrist will need to complete 11 years of training or more, comprising of: 

    • 3 year medical degree 
    • 1 or 2 years as general doctor 
    • 5 years or more in specialised training in diagnosis and treatment of mental illness 

As a medical doctor, you have higher knowledge and skills in linking symptoms of the mind to the body  allowing you to do more!

Unlike psychologists, psychiatrists can deliver treatment beyond just psychological treatment, including prescribing medication, physical health care and brain stimulation therapy. As such, psychiatrists often treat people with more complex conditions such as severe depression, bipolar disorders and schizophrenia. 

Psychiatrists are medical specialists so you will need a referral from a GP. 

Learn about a role as a Psychiatrist here!

Counsellors

The pathway to being a counsellor is a little more relaxed as they only require 350 hours of in person training and 50 supervised hours for 3 years under the Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia (PACFA). 

Unlike long-term treatment plans by psychologists, counselling services are often short-term and treat the immediate issues such as relationship conflict, processing grief and anger. 

As such, counsellors work in more common fields such as family counselling, drug and alcohol rehabilitation or as vocational counsellors.

Their workplaces are limited to health clinics, age-care centres and guidance services, as they do not have the same research background and skills as psychologists that open up work opportunities in education, forensics and more. 

Psychotherapist

A psychotherapist is essentially an umbrella term for any professional that works in psychology and delivers psychological therapy treatments to clients. Psychiatrists, psychologists and counsellors can call themselves psychotherapists.

The main difference between psychologists and other psychotherapists is that psychologists engage in research so they can take up jobs in academic and clinical settings. Psychotherapists do not do research so they are often found in more community based facilities such as schools, community centres and more. 

Characteristics and Qualities 

Psychologist - Characteristics

As listed by Job Outlook, these are the main skills that psychologists develop:

    • Social perceptiveness
    • Active listening 
    • Reading comprehension
    • Speaking 
    • Active learning 

As a psychologist, social perceptiveness in understanding the motivations behind one’s behaviour is highly important in investigating, assessing and designing effective treatments for your clients. Active listening where you listen without interrupting and ask questions from time to time is highly encouraged to build rapport and trust with your clients. 

Psychologists also need to be on top of their research and data collection too, so they need to have refined skills in reading and comprehension to develop an up-to-date, evidence-based practice. Good communication and speaking definitely comes to play in one-on-one sessions where sensitive topics are discussed. 

On top of it all, a professional psychologist is one who is always striving for self improvement with a burning curiosity and openness to learn more in the ever-evolving field of psychology. 

Steps to Becoming a Psychologist 

To say that pursuing psychology is a no-brainer… that’s a lie. Studying psychology revolves highly around marks so get ready to dive into lots of readings, research and training! 

What should you study? 

To put it simply, while academic pathways are diverse, there are some requirements that must be completed to become a professional psychologist.

Previously, the Psychology Board of Australia only required you to complete one option of 4 years of undergraduate study and 2 years of internships to be accredited. Now, you have three options to gain registration: 

    • 4 years of Bachelors and Honours and 2 years of Masters or Combined Doctorate in Psychology 
    • 4 years of Bachelors and Honours, 1 year of Masters and 1 year of internship 
    • 4 years of Bachelors and Honours and 2 years of internship 

Most psychologists also study advanced degrees such as PhDs to further specialise. 

Psychologist Studies

Image sourced from the Psychology Board of Australia 

We’ve summarised the process in 5 steps  check it out!

#1: Complete your Bachelors 

In whichever path you choose, you must complete a 3 year undergraduate course which involves a Bachelor in psychology. 

A common pathway is getting directly into a Bachelor of Psychology (Honours) degree, which requires quite a high ATAR to be accepted (around 90). There are number of universities in NSW that offer this degree: 

But the grind doesn’t stop there — studying psychology is incredibly competitive! Most programs require you to maintain a distinction average of 75 in order to advance into Honours.

#2: Complete your Honours

Alongside with your Bachelors, you must complete an accredited fourth year in psychology as either an Honours or a Diploma. The Honours counterpart is vital for you to progress into your Masters which will lead to your accreditation. 

If you got into any of the Bachelor of Psychology (Honours) courses, your Honours will already be embedded in the final year of your four year degree. If your Bachelor course is only 3 years without the Honours degree, you can apply for either an Honours or a Diploma. 

Your Honours and Diploma period is where you start to really specialise in which areas, fields or populations you want to work with!

#3: Provisional Accreditation 

Once you have completed your four-year degree, you can apply to become a provisional psychologist under the Psychology Board of Australia, which is required for full registration later on.

You can sneak a peek at the accreditation processes here!

#4: Decide and complete your postgraduate qualifications 

As discussed above, you have three options to complete your postgraduate qualifications that will allow you to obtain full registration as a professional psychologist. It ultimately provides you with the flexibility to pursue a more research-based pathway or a practical route, or even a balance of both! 

Some of the accredited postgraduate degrees can be found in the following universities: 

#5: Ace the National Psychology Exam for Full accreditation 

If you chose to do the two-year Masters of Psychology and no internships, you do not need to do the National Psychology Exam once you completed your study. 

However, if you decide to do the other options with internships in your postgraduate period, you will need to pass the National Psychology Exam to become a fully registered psychologist.

The National Psychology Exam is 3 and a half hours long with 150 multiple choice questions and a passing mark of 70%. The exam tests your postgraduate knowledge, so make sure to study the curriculum! 

More information about the National Psychology exam can be found here!

Once you pass the exam, you can finally register as a fully accredited psychologist under the Psychology Board of Australia and start diving into work!

How long does it take to become a Psychologist?

It takes a total of 6 years of more to become a fully registered psychologist. 

Industry Knowledge 

Like other careers, industry knowledge comes with experience. It varies depending on what field you are in, which companies you work with and who you are working with. 

The softwares that psychologists use also varies according to where they work.

“At headspace, we use internal systems such as Bluetooth and Medical Director which is essentially a diary and note-taking system,” Rachel informs us. “When you start in the company, they do teach you how to use these softwares, but it might be unique to headspace where other companies might use other systems.” 

What will this career look like in the future?

How in-demand is this career?

Mental health is always going to be important to us all, so the job prospects of being a psychologist are very promising. Especially with COVID-19 and its implications on mental health, the demand for psychologists has skyrocketed. 

As Rachel explains it, “Somebody told me that “psychology is a recession for business” — which means that no matter where the world is going, there is always a need for psychology. Especially in the past year with COVID and how the world has changed so dramatically, I think the demand for psychologists have definitely increased so much even just in the past few months.” 

Influential Trends 

#1: Early detection 

As society is getting more open with talking about mental health, Rachel notices that, “Mental health is becoming more normalised where schools and universities are putting early intervention and prevention strategies for young people.”

Rachel says that it’s a really great opportunity to start mental healthcare from young to prevent further worsening of conditions in adulthood. “I’m really hopeful that we will start targeting that early intervention phase where we can teach people from a young age with the skills and techniques to set them up for life.” 

She adds that these shifts toward early intervention may even “change the role of psychologists in terms of working more in early treatment as opposed to now where we are treating more developed mental health symptoms.”  

#2: Mental health apps 

Meanwhile, Micah notices that with “a massive increase in the gap between the supply of psychologists and demand of psychological treatment, a lot of research for youth adults has gone into the use of mental health apps for seeing a psychologist.” 

“I don’t think psychologist work can be readily replaced as human connection is key,” Micah explains. “But at the same time, a lot of the homework and task and psychological assessments as part of the treatment will be incorporated into mental health apps.” 

With all these apps encouraging a more independent take on your own psychological health, Micah thinks that “psychologists would need to refine their skills to speak to the self-help resources that come out and also go above that as well in supporting people.” 

Are there opportunities to grow or specialise? 

There are tons of opportunities for specialisation as a psychologist. One of the great ways to find out what you want to specialise in is fully immersing yourself in your clinical placements. 

Psychologist - Interviewee Quote 2

As Micah explains, “With myself, I did a lot of training in ADHD and anger issues in boys and what depression may look like in teenagers. You may not orientate yourself with these kinds of training if you want to work with older couples or elderly people. Even having a plan earlier on of what you enjoy doing might lead to a better job prospect into the field.” 

Salary 

According to Job Outlook, the annual salary for a fully registered psychologist is $96,000+ with a very strong future growth and very high skill level rating. 

Annual SalaryFuture GrowthSkill Level Rating
$96,000+Very strong over the next 5 yearsVery high skill

Best Thing & Worst Thing

What do you enjoy the most about this job?

Both our psychologists agree that their favourite thing about this job is their interaction with their clients.

“You have an incredible privilege to be let into some of the most important and impactful parts of people’s lives and that comes with incredibly interesting stories and experiences that are just bizarre,” Micah points out. 

Rachel also highlights, “It’s such a privilege to sit with someone and for them to tell you something that no one in the world knows and never been comfortable to talk about before, so it’s such an amazing and honourable position to be put in. Then, to work with them and provide them with the tools and strategies to work towards their goals to lead healthier lives — it’s amazing how such a brief interaction can have such a lasting impact.” 

What do you enjoy the least? 

Our psychologists have different views on what’s not the best thing about being a psychologist. 

Micah highlights the logical obstacles that come with diagnosing and treating patients, “If you like specific answers, it can be challenging because the experience of an individual is constantly changing and there are many related factors to their certain issues. So, there is a lot of detective work in it and trying different things like communication and treatment.”

Micah also emphasises the need to constantly keep up to date with the latest psychology research in order to find effective treatment for such complex conditions. 

Meanwhile, Rachel points out the social challenges that may result from constant one-on-one work, “It can be quite isolating at times. You have to be really proactive at networking and staying in contact with other people because for the most part it’s one-on-one. Whilst you’re talkative and engaging during private sessions with clients, sometimes you do not have that interaction with other employees and psychologists.”

The isolation usually depends on which area of psychology you work in. As Rachel explains, “I find working at headspace really amazing as they have a team-based approach with daily multidisciplinary meetings but others might be in private practice where I used to work in and I found that very isolating.” 

Advice for Aspiring Psychologists

#1: Gain experience! 

Our psychologist Micah cannot emphasise enough on the importance of gaining community experience. “Gain as much community experience as you can in anything involving health professions!” Micah says. “A lot of my peers worked for Lifeline on the phone and they got excellent training and experience in what it means to counsel someone in a brief session.” 

“If you can gain that experience by community work or camps, that’s invaluable experience not only to apply in your Masters or a job but it gives you the skills to talk to people from wide ranges of backgrounds!” Micah explains. 

#2: Stick it out for a while!

Rachel encourages future psychologists to stick with their undergraduate degree even though its subjects may seem a bit irrelevant. “The undergraduate degree is very different to working as a psychologist — it’s very theory based with statistics. So, you don’t really learn much about the day-to-day role of a psychologist in the first few years of study,” Rachel explains. 

Even so, Rachel advises students to “ask around or stick with it or try to get an internship to try and experience what working as a psychologist is really like. It wasn’t until my Masters when I get to see my first experience and truly see what the day-to-day routine of a psychologist looks like.” 

#3: Practice self-care

Sometimes psychologist work can be quite heavy, so Rachel advises future psychologists to “learn how to switch off at the end of the day. It can be really intense and emotional work throughout the day and I think it’s really important to prevent burnout and vicarious trauma.” 

As Rachel explains, Vicarious trauma is when you’re working with clients who have experienced trauma, you can experience trauma symptoms when you have not experienced the trauma itself. So, prioritising your own mental health and learning how to switch off after work is very important.” 

Why should people consider taking on this career? 

#1: One of the fastest growing professions 

“I think it’s one of the fastest growing professions, especially in a post-pandemic world where people’s certainty about their safety has rocked a bit. In Australia, depression and anxiety is increasing through the roof so there is definitely a high need and demand for psychologists,” Micah notes from a practical standpoint. 

#2: Never-ending learning 

From a career prospects perspective, Micah talks about how “there is never an end point to your learning and development. You gain so many skills with your learning that you can bounce between many things such as research to working with communities, from couples to adolescents… it is so incredibly broad that you never get bored or disinterested in it!”

#3: Make a difference in someone’s life

“If you’re someone who enjoys talking to people and want to make a difference in their lives through helping them learn tools and techniques to work towards their goals and improve their mental health and well-being, psychology can definitely be a career that you are interested in!” Rachel says. 

Job Flexibility 

Job flexibility ultimately depends on what type of client, environment and work you have! 

However, with recent circumstances such as COVID-19 and its social distancing measures, there have been shifts in the way consultation work is conducted either online or in person.

“Flexibility has changed a lot over the past 12 months,” Rachel says. “Prior to COVID, everything was face-to-face for the majority of the time. With COVID, everything changed and we had to move to telehealth and last year all sessions were conducted over Zoom for young people.” 

“This year, we are returning to face-to-face sessions but we still give people the flexibility to choose either in person or online sessions. Zoom is still an option but face-to-face is still preferable,” Rachel says. 

As for jobs in education, hospitals or forensics that demand more face-to-face work, Micah says that “even with COVID, it’s not the type of work that you can do too much at home.” He says that he still needed to travel to school to perform administration work with teachers, students and parents despite COVID-19 restrictions.  

What’s the workplace culture like? 

Again, it really depends on where you work! Unlike the typical one-on-one work a lot of psychology professions do, our psychologists work in environments that are very multidisciplinary and team-based.

Previously, they worked in private practice where “it’s literally just with 5 to 6 clients per day,” Micah says. “Of course, that’s one extreme but you gradually start working with more colleagues. My workplace at school is massive and it’s such a culture! You have the school culture and the culture of your specific counselling team — and how these different cultures interact changes how you work too.” 

Meanwhile, Rachel works at the headspace organisation where a team-based environment is practiced and encouraged. “There is a daily meeting for an hour for case review and intake meeting where whoever who works on the day attends this meeting such as psychologists, psychiatrists and even students come together to discuss cases that require attention.” 

These meetings such as the intake meeting also involve the contribution of professions outside of psychology to devise a proper treatment plan for clients. So really, you’re not really alone when you’re working at a collective organisation such as headspace!

“At headspace, it’s such a welcoming environment where everyone loves working with young people and loves supporting each other!” Rachel says. 


Kate Lynn Law graduated in 2017 with an all rounders HSC award and an ATAR of 97.65. Passionate about mentoring, she enjoys working with high school students to improve their academic, work and life skills in preparation for the HSC and what comes next. An avid blogger, Kate had administered a creative writing page for over 2000 people since 2013, writing to an international audience since her early teenage years. 

 

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