- By Ian Bradley
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It’s letter-writing season for a lot of university professors. Although actual letter-writing seems like an all but forgotten activity in this email universe, writing letters of reference for undergraduates aspiring to enter doctoral programs. In my field of clinical psychology, is serious business from December until March. I acquiesce to most requests but with a certain scepticism about the whole evaluation-acceptance process.
My letters are always positive and attempt to say something unique about each candidate. The “unique” part is the tough part because most of final year undergraduate students have very similar backgrounds in terms of research and clinical experience. In most cases, translate “similar” into limited.
It’s limited because they’re young and most of them have been doing the same thing, namely, studying like crazy to get good grades and cramming in as much research and volunteer clinical experience they can find. In the pursuit of a professional degree in my field, the only viable currencies to get accepted into most graduate programs are grades, research and clinical experience- with the latter often ignored in most name schools.
As I was finishing my last letter for the season, I happened to be in the middle of a continuing education seminar – a mandatory number of such courses are required by clinical psychologists to maintain their practice status. The seminar was interesting because it was arguing that the effectiveness of what we actual do – our therapy or counselling- greatly varies from one psychologist to another.
This should not come as earth-shattering were it not for the fact that we educate most graduate students to think that our effectiveness is purely related to the type of therapy or intervention that is delivered. Psychology has promulgated this thinking for forty years as it advocates for the delivery of so-called “empirically-validated” therapies. In other words, let’s do things that science has shown to actually help. Who could argue with that! However, what’s lost in the rush to scientific validation is the statistical reality that just as there are good and bad plumbers, good and bad cooks, there are varying degrees of competency among psychologists delivering that empirically-validated therapy.
After stating what should have been obvious, the seminar leader then went on to opine about what qualities might actually differentiate good versus bad psychologists. The ability to generate shared goals between therapist and client, or the therapist’s display of genuine concern and warmth were some of the variables trotted out to account for those therapist differences. However, I thought about another, and that’s life experience. I believe that it helps, if the psychologist you are seeing, has participated in a wide swarth of life.
Whether you’re a fan or not, here’s a section from the personal biography of a famous Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson that illustrates the idea of a rich background:
Raised and toughened in the frigid wastelands of Northern Alberta, Dr. Peterson has flown a hammer-head roll in a carbon-fiber stuntplane, piloted a mahogany racing sailboat around Alcatraz Island, explored an Arizona meteorite crater with a group of astronauts, built a Native American Long-House on the upper floor of his Toronto home, and been inducted into a Pacific Kwakwaka’wakw family (see charlesjoseph.ca). He’s been a dishwasher, gas jockey, bartender, short-order cook, beekeeper, oil derrick bit re-tipper, plywood mill laborer and railway line worker. He’s taught mythology to physicians, lawyers, and businessmen; worked with Jim Balsillie, former CEO of Blackberry’s Research in Motion, on Resilient People, Resilient Planet, the report of the UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel on Global Sustainability; helped his clinical clients manage the triumphs and catastrophes of life; served as an advisor to senior partners of major Canadian law firms; penned the forward for the 50th anniversary edition of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago; lectured to more than 250,000 people across North America, Europe and Australia in one of the most-well attended book tours ever mounted; and, for The Founder Institute, identified thousands of promising entrepreneurs, in 60 different countries.
I am not comparing myself to Jordan, nonetheless, I know that when I’m talking to a person struggling with a demanding boss that my twenty-five years as Chief Psychologist in a large hospital has exposed me to a variety of managerial styles and ways of coping with those styles. Or, when someone talks about competition, I’ve been through something similar in my amateur tennis career. It’s not only the good but also the bad experiences – having been through a divorce, losing friends through illness or having a business venture go south- that help as well. The point is that when a psychologist enters the room, he or she brings not only a bag of formal therapy techniques and theories but also a ton of life experiences. I would maintain that the more of them, the merrier.
What we need to do is emphasize this message to the young people entering our field. In fact, our current emphasis on selecting only those with the best academic and research backgrounds might minimize those ingredients that might make someone a better therapist when they finally graduate.