But with little savings and no idea how she would make ends meet while paying back a potential $100,000 in student loans, Abukutsa was skeptical about spending five years in a psychology doctoral program and then logging two postdoctoral years of supervised training to become licensed in her now-home state of Maryland.
"There was never a doubt in my mind that psychology was the path for me to take," she says. "But I was hesitant about my finances."
Eventually, she bit the bullet and decided to enroll--even though she still worries about how she'll maintain an adequate quality of life while making loan payments after graduation.
Her situation is not unique: Many potential psychology students find that although a psychology doctoral degree opens up far more avenues than other similar graduate degrees, it also presents far more barriers in terms of time and cost, says Jeffrey E. Barnett, PsyD, the Maryland Psychological Association representative to APA's Council of Representatives. Indeed, after logging myriad supervised practicum and internship hours, practice-oriented graduates face high student loan debt (see "Student debt still on the rise") and a scramble to find postdoctoral experiences that offer the experience they need while allowing them to start paying down that debt.
As such, last February APA's Council of Representatives adopted a major policy that suggests to licensing bodies that psychology graduates no longer need a postdoc to become a licensed psychologist. Why? Graduate students in clinical, counseling and school psychology today receive an average of 1,800-2,000 hours of supervised clinical experience before entering the internship year-an amount equal to or more than the total experience that trainees earned when APA adopted its previous policy in 1987. Moreover, the change would give the psychology education and training community full reign over the training of psychologists, says APA Board of Directors member Tom DeMaio, PhD. Right now, the postdoc year is typically the least consistent year of training in terms of quality and purpose, he notes.
However, APA's policy change does not alter any state's licensure policies. For the postdoc to be delinked from licensure, states would have to pass new statutes and regulations.
One state has already done just that: In 2004, Washington eliminated the postdoctoral requirement after the state Examining Board of Psychology realized that although clinical, counseling and school psychology program's experiential requirements had increased, the number of required postdoctoral hours hadn't decreased in response, says Liang Tien, PsyD, a member of the Washington board.
But Washington will not serve as the tipping point for change unless students and early-career psychologists voice the impact that the change will have on psychologists' personal, professional and financial futures to policy-makers in their state, says APAGS Chair Kristi Sands Van Sickle, PsyD.
"APA's policy change opens the door for exciting and important changes that would directly impact students' lives," she says. "Students are the key to building momentum at a state level."
Here's how you can get involved.
SPREAD THE WORD
In June, APAGS sent letters supporting the policy change to every state, provincial and territorial psychological association (SPTA). However, unless associations hear from their constituents, it's unlikely they will act quickly, says Barnett. As such, Barnett and APAGS suggest that students:
Write an e-mail or letter to both your SPTA executive director and board members to inform them of your support for APA's policy recommendations and to ask them to work to put them in place. Also, make sure to ask the council representative about his or her vote on the issue. Emphasize your desire to work with the SPTA to help the state move toward a policy change.
Encourage your SPTA leaders to create a special section on the association's Web site, like the Maryland Psychological Association's "Licensure at the receipt of the doctorate for psychologists in Maryland" section, which provides information and data supporting the need for change. The Maryland Web site (www.marylandpsychology.org) also includes statements of support from students and early-career psychologists like Abukutsa to bring alive the message that current policies are problematic for students.
Write guest columns or letters to the editor for your SPTA newsletter to alert psychologists to APA's policy change and why your state should adopt the changes.
APA's policy change is only the first step, notes DeMaio. To achieve tangible results, he says, advocates must next build bridges across all realms of psychology.
"It is critical that we make connections and establish collaborations in the field to make this happen," he says.
As such, DeMaio and others suggest that advocates join existing SPTA groups that represent members who will be affected by the change, as well as any student or career groups that already exist on your campus, within APAGS and at your SPTA.
In doing so, advocates should highlight how current licensure policies cause students like Abukutsa to weigh their ambitions against their financial constraints, as well as how the current situation dissuades many from pursuing a career in psychology, says Van Sickle.
"We're often told that we're the future of psychology," she says. "Removing unnecessary barriers to licensure would demonstrate a genuine commitment to that future."
But advocacy takes time, cautions Van Sickle. She urges advocates to avoid becoming discouraged if SPTA leadership or governance officials are resistant to change.
By sending letters and e-mails and taking time to educate other psychologists about the need for change, the issue will gain momentum. And if a few states initiate change, the issue could tip rather quickly, says Barnett.
For more information about licensure policy is available from APAGS.