When Sharon-ann Gopaul-McNicol, PhD, was 18, she left her home in Trinidad and Tobago for the United States, aspiring to become a psychologist. Family and friends warned her that if she did, she would probably never be able to return and work in her country, where psychologists were held in such low esteem that they could practice only under the supervision of medical doctors.
Still, Gopaul-McNicol was determined. She felt then, as she does now, that being part of a discipline that touches as many corners of the human experience as psychology does was worth the possible exile.
"Psychology is the greatest discipline in the world, to me," says Gopaul-McNicol. "We work with lawyers, with politicians, with aerospace engineers, with spiritual leaders, with teachers, with athletes. Psychology is needed in practically every profession."
Gopaul-McNicol's enthusiasm for psychology's promise, she says, is what has driven her excitement for improving psychologists' training. Now, Gopaul-McNicol brings that excitement to APA. On Jan. 2, she joined the association's staff as assistant director of the Office of Program Consultation and Accreditation. The office accredits more than 800 doctoral training programs, internships and postdoctoral residency programs in clinical, counseling and school psychology.
Working with Susan Zlotlow, PhD, the office's director, Gopaul-McNicol oversees communications between APA's Committee on Accreditation and accredited programs and consults with programs seeking to improve their curricula. Gopaul-McNicol is a much-welcomed addition, says Zlotlow, noting that in the past 20 years, the number of programs that APA accredits has nearly tripled, straining the accreditation office's resources.
Gopaul-McNicol comes to her new position from Howard University, where she was director/coordinator of the school psychology program. On the side, she has also worked with a small group of professional psychologists in Trinidad and Tobago and with the country's lawmakers to boost the discipline's status. Those efforts recently resulted in psychologists' being allowed, for the first time, to practice without the supervision of a medical doctor.
Gopaul-McNicol, who has authored several books that address cultural diversity in psychological practice, says she especially looks forward to continuing APA's effort to globalize psychology. APA-accredited programs are required, among other things, to train students in understanding cultural diversity.
"I believe that APA-accredited programs have always been mindful of representing cultural diversity in their training," Gopaul-McNicol says. She hopes to encourage schools to take that aspect of their curricula even further--for example, by integrating more discussion of cultural diversity in classes, offering more practica in urban areas and stepping up recruitment of faculty and students who are culturally, ethnically and linguistically diverse.
In addition, Gopaul-McNicol says, she is eager to expand APA's role in assisting accredited programs assess how their students fare after their training ends. Such assessment, a requirement for accreditation, includes conducting research on training outcomes such as students' professional skills, performance on licensing exams and success in the job market.
In these efforts and others, Gopaul-McNicol believes, her background as a practicing psychologist and her experience in setting policies for training will allow her to maintain high expectations and help accreditors understand the challenges that professional psychologists face.
"Psychologists are supposed to be trailblazers," she says, "and the best way to make great psychologists is to train them well from the beginning."