For as long as I have thought seriously about a career, I thought of being a psychologist. I have always been interested in understanding the brain and behaviour. My curiosity has led me down many spiritual, philosophical and scientific roads, searching for what it means to be human. However, the initial spark to be a psychologist was the movie The Silence of Lambs. Watching Jodie Foster in those scenes with Sir Anthony Hopkins became my mental go to as to what I wanted as a career; a clinical forensic psychologist. Little did I know when those career etchings were being made in my brain how varied and enriching my career journey as a psychologist was to become.
Exploring the human condition has always been something that has held an intense fascination for me. Raised as a practising Catholic, my religious education growing up gave prominence to the mystery of life. The transition from believer to atheist is something that I found incredibly rewarding and was central to me embracing a more scientific stance on my approach to psychology.
There are many lessons that I attribute to my experience as a psychologist. Attempting to condense the learnings I attribute to psychology down to five is difficult. Nevertheless, below are five critical lessons from my journey as a psychologist.
Lesson 1: The myth of psychology is a lot more fun than the science
I remember when I was living in Gisborne, reading the prospectus for Victoria University and thinking about studying for a degree. Having taken a gap year, I did not have others to bounce my thoughts off, and my only impression of psychology was from reading pioneers in the field: Jung, Adler, Freud. Post my introductory course, I soon realised that my vision of psychology was more myth than reality. While I was quickly exposed to Humanistic and Cognitive psychological writers, I soon learnt that psychology was also reductionist and mechanistic. Ironically, while initially dismissive of these schools of thought as time marches on, it is the deterministic and biological schools of psychology that ground my thinking and much of my work as a psychologist.
Nevertheless, learning the old theories of psychology was incredibly enriching and mind-expanding. The science of psychology can, at times, be far drier than the expansive world of the mind portrayed by the psychoanalytical writers. In many ways, the myth of psychology, uncovering the mysteries of the mind, is still a lot more fun than dealing with the complex science of the brain. However, I now see the former as more fiction than science, and it is the science of psychology that has my full attention.
Lesson 2: Maths is not the foundation of psychology, no matter how hard people want to make it so
Attempts to mathematically model humans as if individuals conform to a group average are futile attempts at best. Human variance is such that any confirmation of a norm is likely to be a poor representation of an individual.
Psychology remains both science and philosophy. We are still a discipline in its infancy. We are making progress, but we realise that many of our findings do not replicate. The field has discarded or archived much of the work, a reminder of a time before science.
There is no doubt that mathematics will continue to play an essential role in psychology. The need for valid, reliable and well-spread scales is necessary. However, solving human problems requires more than a focus on mathematics. Psychology is an imperfect science. Understanding human behaviour is about understanding systems, causal relationships between a seemingly infinite number of variables. Science and mathematics are central to understanding how to make inferences about how and why people behave in the way they do. However, they are only part of the story.
Without sound logic and problem-solving skills, one is unlikely to be a good psychologist, no matter how many sophisticated Mathematical modelling techniques they master. More importantly, without appreciation for the experience of living and the developed philosophies that aim to help people navigate the mystery of life, one will never be able to apply the learnings from psychology to help people through life’s trials and tribulations.
Lesson 3: Clinical/counselling work is rewarding but draining
I started my career as a psychologist working with youth. My initial training in counselling led me to volunteer as a telephone counsellor. Working at Youthline was a gratifying period of my life, and the skills that I acquired through their training, mentorship, and work continue to be a core part of my coaching approach. Post working in youth counselling, I began working in outreach, running youth programmes for troubled youth. Working in family group conferences, advocating for young people initiated me into handling adversarial situations when the negotiation power was not on my side.
Providing young people with a safe place to relax and also to talk was equally rewarding. Setting up and running a youth centre was perhaps one of the best jobs that I ever had in that the work was rewarding, and I was connected to the community, creating a sense of belonging. Working as a psychologist with youth was highly satisfying.
However, while youth work was rewarding, it was not without its challenges. The missed meetings, recidivism and families that hindered rather than helped progress were all aspects of the job that I had to learn to take in my stride. In the end, leaving youth work to move into Industrial and Organisational Psychology was an easy shift. While I had intended to pursue a career working with youth, matching my science degree with an Arts degree in Criminology, the opportunity to study I/O psychology was ultimately a Godsend. The continual struggle of working with troubled youth, as they made two steps forward, one back, was something that at the time began to grate on me. I was losing my passion, and it would only be a matter of time before that would affect my ability to give the job my all. When that feeling comes, it is time for a career change.
Lesson 4: Industrial and Organisational Psychology is the best of all worlds
Working as an Industrial/Organisational (I/O) psychologist is a dream job. Firstly, I have the opportunity to work in my area of passion; psychology. Secondly, I have a job that has meaning. Work is a significant part of people’s lives. A vocation that positively impacts people’s working lives is a highly fortunate position and one that I never take for granted. Finally, I/O psychology is a well-paid field compared to other areas of psychology and the one that provides the most significant opportunity for financial return. Being an I/O psychologist, I don’t feel I have to make any trade-offs between my career and other areas of life. I/O psychology also has allowed me to travel and work globally. I have also had flexibility in my work life.
There are very few carers with all of the advantages that I/O psychology offers, and I have tried my best to take up all of the opportunities provided. I/O psychology has been my ticket to a life that I could have only imagined when I first started down this road as a psychologist.
Lesson 5: Psychology is more than a career- Psychology ios my community
Psychology is not surprisingly one of the disciplines that are big on creating community. Most countries will have a psychological society. Within those countries, the societies will also have divisions such as the institute of chartered organisational psychologists in New Zealand.
I was honoured to be recognised by both the Singapore and New Zealand Societies for contributions to the discipline. I was instrumental in getting the two Societies to sign an MOU to work closely together. I involve myself with the Society for the sheer enjoyment; it is not an obligation. Psychology and psychologists are my community, and contributing and involving myself in that community is inherently enriching.
When one looks back on their career, a question is whether one choose their profession or whether their career chooses them. As someone who favours the scientific from the mystical, I naturally tend toward the former. Still, it is hard to say I made any choices given a deterministic universe! Whatever the causal relationship, Psychology is a career that has indeed served me well over the years. In many ways, I feel that my career as a psychologist is only at its mid-point. There is a lot more that I would like to achieve as a psychologist if given the time. There are ideas, such as my work on Futureselves, that are only starting to come to fruition. Psychology is a career that keeps on giving, and I feel very fortunate to have found my passion at such an early stage in my career.