A Career As a Neuropsychologist: Your Questions Answered

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Question 3. I am passionate about neuropsychology but I am worried that I might not be able to cope with the emotions working with brain-damaged patients will bring up.

Answer: This is a good question and one that shouldn’t be taken lightly. However, good clinical psychologists and clinical neuropsychologists do feel empathy for their clients and patients, and this is the characteristic that allows them to connect with their clients. If you can gain experience in a voluntary capacity before applying for a training programme, this is advantageous. Working for a telephone counselling service, assisting in a rehabilitation center, psychiatric institution, hospice or nursing home, will give you an indication of whether you can control your emotions enough to work constructively with clients and patients. Sometimes you will have to lock yourself in the bathroom and have a good cry, and sometimes you will lie awake all night, upset by a patient you helped that day. This is perfectly normal at first and not a reason to believe you could never work in these areas.

If you view clients primarily as an interesting problem to solve, you might be better to seek a research career in cognitive neuropsychology. This is also a wonderful and exciting career, and there is no shame in realizing that hands-on clinical practice is not for you. Indeed, neuropsychology progresses because both clinical neuropsychologists and cognitive neuropsychologists are working in concert. There is also considerable overlap, and whichever path you take, you will need to have some skills in the other area.

But if you want to work with people in a clinical setting, whether in a hospital, rehabilitation unit, or private clinic, then you need to be able to take control of your feelings. The balance you are trying to achieve is to be calm, insightful, and empathetic, without losing your objectivity and without making your and your family’s lives a misery when you go home at night! An “entry” requirement of most training programmes is that students have dealt with stressful personal issues before they enter the programme. For example, students who have suffered from an eating disorder, clinical depression, or have been a victim of abuse, need to heal themselves first before beginning the rigorous and stressful training required to become a clinical psychologist or neuropsychologist. It is essential that you are honest with yourself and with the training programme you are applying to, about these issues. If you have overcome a personal problem, this can make you a better psychologist.

Training programmes in clinical psychology and neuropsychology include courses, workshops, and work with clients under close supervision throughout your training to show you how to cope positively with the emotional aspects of the work. Throughout your career, you should always have your own clinical supervisor with whom you meet regularly to discuss your emotional responses to your clients and their problems, and how you are addressing these. Your supervisor is the person you should off-load onto, not your family and friends!

As you become more experienced, you will find it is easier to deal with emotional situations, and this is how it should be. You will no longer choke up when you meet a young mother whose five-year-old is in your ward waiting for an operation to remove a brain tumor. You will feel for them, of course, but you won’t find yourself thinking about mother and child all weekend. And even the most experienced clinicians can occasionally find themselves more emotional than is healthy over a client. If it is only occasionally, that is OK. When this happens, talk it through with you supervisor.

If you ever get to the point where you find yourself regularly irritated by the client’s tears or their need to talk about how they are feeling, or you are bored by your work, then it is definitely time to talk seriously to your own supervisor. This may signal the beginning of burnout, and that is not good for your clients or you. (Becoming frequently and excessively emotional over clients after years of working as a clinician, is another sign of burnout).

The Rewards: So prepare well, and if, after you understand what lies ahead you still feel passionate about neuropsychology, I can confirm from my own experience that you are about to embark on an amazing and fulfilling career that will offer you new and fascinating things to learn every day of your life, opportunities to meet and connect with courageous patients and stimulating and wise professionals, the chance to contribute to future discoveries in neuroscience, and the satisfaction of knowing you are helping to make a difference in the lives of your clients.

Dr. Jenni Ogden is the author of Fractured Minds: A Case-Study Approach to Clinical Neuropsychology and Trouble In Mind: Stories from a Neuropsychologist's Casebook. Her recently published debut novel A Drop in the Ocean touches on Huntington’s Disease (and marine turtle conservation!) Visit her at www.jenniogden.com and read her Psychology Today blog.

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