How to Become a Psychologist

Dr. Jon Sutton has embodied the thrill and curiosity of psychology for years now. Having won awards for his research and writing, as well as helming the acclaimed The Psychologist blog, Dr. Sutton proved an revelatory resource for investigating the seemingly impossible task of fostering a career in this discipline. (Be sure to see his breathtaking exploration of Bullies: Thugs or Thinkers?)

Can you recall the moment that you decided to pursue psychology as a formal career?

No! As I suspect is common with many people in all sorts of walks of life, the decisions I made earlier in life weren’t necessarily driven by a desire for a formal career. The honest truth is that I discovered psychology as a degree option in the course of chatting up a girl. I decided to stay on to do a PhD primarily because I loved the city and couldn’t think of what else to do, and I went for my current job as editor of The Psychologist because I thought it would be an interesting challenge for a couple of years. That was 12 years ago.

Many people believe that careers in psychology and academia involve nothing but massive bouts of reading and isolation — rather a misconception. What other fallacies on psychology as a profession do you often have to dispel?

That it’s common sense. Drill down into the questions being asked and you start to realize how many variables are at play in our everyday lives, and how difficult it is to throw a net over them. Also, the misconception that it’s all about what part of the brain lights up … psychology as a discipline is so incredibly diverse. Any situation, behavior or phenomenon that you come across, in the news or your everyday lives, the chances are there’s a psychologist studying it. If there isn’t, you have yourself a niche.

Your magazine and website, The Psychologist, is the official monthly publication of the British Psychological Society. Our students stateside greatly value opinions as to the primary differences, in culture and practice, between Britain and the US regarding psychology. What perspective on this conversation do you take?

We’ve published articles on this before, but personally I think there are less differences than 10, 20 years ago. Perhaps that’s inevitable in the “global community,” as more academics publish internationally and in open access online journals. There are perhaps still some differences — the fact that in some US states psychologists have prescription rights perhaps leads to, or reflects, a different approach to diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. The funding situation is different, in that I think it is easier for researchers in the US to build large labs with numerous doctoral students and long term programms of research.

Also, in my line of work, I tend to find that US academics are surprisingly keen to write about their work for a nonspecialist audience, and they are very good at it too. Perhaps there’s greater emphasis placed on science communication in the training of US academics?

For the benefit of our students, could you outline a typical day you might experience on the job?

Since leaving academia for the job of editing the British Psychological Society’s monthly publication, I tend to joke that it involves moving apostrophes about! But in reality it involves all aspects of the production of a monthly magazine and associated websites: sourcing material, editing, layout, promotion, etc. Really it involves immersing myself in the world of psychology — from the moment I come in, I am checking Twitter feeds and blogs for possible topics and authors, interviewing psychologists, writing about it, etc. If I ever get down about the constant grind of certain aspects of my job, I just have to remind myself how lucky I am to be part of such an amazing subject, with such a huge and knowledgeable pool of willing individuals to call on.

As a “60 Minutes” feature on face blindness demonstrated, the sometimes esoteric field of psychology remains culturally provocative and nourishing. Which moments in your career do you feel have affirmed or challenged the relevance of contemporary psychology?

It’s all around you, every day. A common way of demonstrating that is to visit a favorite news site, and just look at some of the stories on there. I’m on the BBC website now. “Why the North Korea missile launch raises tensions” — social psychology of inter-group relations. “Review of ‘plain’ cigarette packs” — health psychology and the impact of advertising on behavior. “Monkeys recognize words on screen” — comparative psychology. “‘Why do some people propose in public?” — with comment from a psychologist. I could go on.

What personality traits would help someone achieve success in psychology as a profession? Conversely, what qualities or habits would hinder progress in the discipline?

I think an inquisitive mind has to be the main thing. If you want to get to the bottom of behavior, psychology can give you the tools. Beyond that, it will really depend what area you go into. I don’t think I would have ever made a great academic in the long term, because I wasn’t that good at statistics — so you could do with numeracy skills as well as literacy. And I would have thought if you’re going to practice directly with people, it helps to have a bit of empathy!

What advice or warnings would you have for a student contemplating psychology as a career?

There’s loads of advice available from your professional organisations. (See The British Psychological Society and The American Psychological Association.) My main advice would be to read widely at an early stage, within psychology and beyond, and to find an area that combines a personal interest with a professional one. That way, [as] they say, you never work another day in your life.