EVERYDAY LIFE presents us with different challenges and dilemmas that some of us may not be able to deal with alone. Many of us choose to visit a psychotherapist who helps us with professional analysis and recuperation. What most of us don’t see from the therapy sessions is the tremendous amount of work that comes from being a psychotherapist. The Yonsei Annals sat down with Song Hyun-joo, a licensed clinical psychologist and current Professor at Seoul Women’s University’s Graduate School of Professional Therapeutic Technology, to uncover the work that goes on behind the scenes as a psychotherapist.
The career of a licensed psychotherapist
Like all professionals in the medical field, psychotherapists need a license. To specifically become a licensed clinical psychologist, students looking into the field would first need to acquire a Bachelor’s degree in psychology. Those who are interested in the more scientific aspects of therapy, like Song, choose clinical psychology for their graduate degree. The minimum requirement for this job is a Master’s degree or higher. After completing education, graduates must undergo a period of training determined by the Korean Clinical Psychology Association. The culmination of the years of hard work leads to the last step of the process which involves an exam and an interview that comes after. Passing the examinations will earn a Clinical Psychologist license with which psychologists can start working at various hospitals and private clinics. After graduating the Graduate School of Yonsei University with a degree in clinical psychology, Song interned at the Inje University Sanggye Paik Hospital for a year, then became a resident clinical psychologist at the department of psychiatry of the Seoul Asan Medical Center for three years to fulfill the qualifications required for the Clinical Psychologist license.
Song said, “There are 3000 licenses related to psychotherapy in Korea. However, out of these 3000 licenses, the Clinical Psychologist license and the Counseling Psychologist license are the ones that are acknowledged and highly regarded in academic societies.” Song added, “The training for these two certifications is extremely strict; certified professionals are highly respected in the field. A career in clinical or counseling psychology is one to be proud of.”
Career growth for psychotherapists is full of potential. Along with many of her colleagues, Song is currently conducting research on the validity of mobile games as an assessment method. She explained, “Like treatment methods, the assessment methods must also be scientifically verified before they are used in practice. Although a game can never entirely replace a comprehensive psychological assessment, I hope that developing this mobile game could introduce a new form of psychological evaluation and therapy, especially for children. In the next five years, I will most likely be continuing my research on mobile games. After that, I hope to develop innovative treatment methods for children and adolescents with specific disorders, such as early onset schizophrenia or functioning autism.”
The daily life of a psychotherapist
When asked about her typical day as a psychotherapist, Song recounted, “I go to work at 9:30 a.m. and begin my day with checking my schedule. From 10 a.m. I start one-on-one sessions with my clients. Each session is 50 minutes long with 10-minute breaks in between. After lunch, I continue my work. It is usually the same routine every day.”
A psychotherapy session begins with case conceptualization, which Song described as “navigating through the mind of client to create a map that will guide you through the rest of the process.” Case conceptualization is constructed through an in-depth interview and a psychological assessment*, in which psychotherapists aim to fully understand comprehensive psychology and history of the patient. After the assessment, psychotherapists analyze the data, which can take from hours to even several days if the case is particularly challenging. The interpretation allows the psychotherapists to design an appropriate method of treatment for each patient. Most psychotherapists choose to combine various treatment methods for a more holistic approach. After interpretation, psychotherapists explain their analysis and suggest options for treatment to the patient. Therapy starts once the patients gives informed consent.
It is hard to imagine being flooded everyday with conversations that often spiral into difficult and dark topics, such as abuse and depression. Song continued, “The sessions are conducted only through prior appointments to ensure that I do not become too overwhelmed by the workload. I am limited to receiving a maximum of 35 clients per week, so I typically have two appointments before lunch and five in the afternoon in a day. Seven per day may not seem like a lot, but the sessions require a lot of energy and effort.” She explained that psychotherapists can be unconsciously affected by listening and sympathizing with the patients, so relieving stress is an essential part of the routine for therapists as well.
She described the various ways psychotherapists build resiliency: “After a hard day at work, most therapists choose to take up hobbies as a way of taking care of themselves. Another option involves their communion with co-workers. During the three years of training, clinical psychologists receive emotional guidance to learn how to handle the stress and burden their job entails. Supervisors are appointed to treat the psychotherapists who are unconsciously impacted throughout the sessions. The supervision doesn’t end with the training process. When you become too experienced to have a supervisor, you typically talk to a peer. I used to work in an office with 6 to 7 other psychologists with whom I would discuss the cases I am working on and share emotional support during a conference. Comforting each other is very crucial in our work place to reduce exhaustion.”
Is becoming a psychotherapist the right career for you?
With the arrival of the 4th Industrial Revolution, a path in psychotherapy is viewed as a career with a promising future. Psychotherapists cannot be easily replaced by technology, since quality therapy requires building a personal relationship through face-to-face interactions and emotional bonding. With the prospects looking as good as they are now, this begs the question: how does one know if they would make a good psychologist?
Song described her profession as a suitable choice for people who wish to achieve a balance between logic and emotion. Psychotherapy involves scientific methodology for studying behavior and cognition, but it also requires emotional connection to the patient in order for the treatment to be effective. Upon recounting the beginning of her career in psychotherapy, she said, “I originally studied in a major that had nothing to do with psychotherapy. I was forced to pursue college education as a necessity, so, like many students, I did not know what I liked, or was capable of. After thinking long and hard, I realized that I liked people; I enjoyed talking with friends about their problems and issues as a student. I chose to transfer to the Department of Psychology in Yonsei University in my junior year. For me, clinical psychology was a way to merge logic and emotion. What I’m studying right now is the fusion of neuroscience and traditional psychotherapy which shows that you can fuse logic and emotion throughout your career.”
According to Song, extensive knowledge in the field is not the only qualities that make a good psychotherapist. One needs to be affectionate, trustworthy, empathetic, and introspective. She especially stressed empathy as a virtue by explaining that, “Including the dedication to the patients, psychotherapists must also be able to take care of themselves. Psychotherapy is all about forming a healthy relationship between the therapist and the client. No one is perfect, and the psychotherapist must be able to accept that, in order to treat others.”
She continued that passion and devotion to help people is the key to a cure: “A heart-to-heart commitment to each and every one of the patients is most vital. I have even joked to my graduate students in training that there are higher chances of rookie psychotherapists curing patients due to their passionate drive to help people at the beginning of their career. Even with all the mistakes and miscommunications in the early stages, their commitment becomes a catalyst to patient recovery.”
The path of a psychotherapist is rewarding, but certainly not easy. Song cautioned, “Taking care of patients who come to the office to meet you is achievable: the fact that they are seeking help means they acknowledge their problems and are willing to accept treatment. What I found difficult as a psychotherapist was working with people who reject the idea of psychotherapy.”
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“Many people tell me that if I had put in this much work to another career, I would already have become financially successful. Pursuing psychotherapy as a career may not always financially compensate all of your hard work. As the years go by, you will even find yourself working harder than before. However, the satisfaction you receive from this work makes it all worth it. Closely watching someone change for the better—like a student with conduct disorder beginning to study after many therapy sessions—is a beautiful privilege that comes with my career.”
*Psychology assessment: A process of tests that combines various techniques in order to hypothesize about an individual’s behavior and personality (Psych Central)