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What Does a Psychologist Do in Australia?

Psychologists are mental health professionals who study human behaviour and the mind. In all kinds of ways, they work with people to promote well-being.

Child pointing to happy emoji with psychologist

Psychologists help individuals, families, and communities overcome mental health challenges and achieve optimal wellbeing. But what exactly do psychologists do, and how do they differ from therapists and other professionals?

Let's explore the daily activities of psychologists in Australia, as well as their main role and key responsibilities. We'll examine different types of careers and areas of expertise. Along the way, we'll provide insight what makes this line of work unique, interesting and rewarding.

Table Of Contents

Main Role of a Psychologist

Woman with pen and clipboard in conversation with a client

The main job of a psychologist is to provide individual assessment and therapy. In this role, psychologists talk with clients or patients to learn about their needs. They also explore treatment options, and may administer forms of talk therapy.

When you think of what psychologists do on a daily basis, you may have the mental images of them doing assessment and therapy. Let's explore this further. But bear in mind that some psychologists do other jobs that are very different, such as research or developing community policies.

Example: Your patient has anxiety issues

Suppose a woman is referred to you by her GP for anxiety issues related to work. The first step for you as a clinical psychologist is to conduct an initial assessment. You'll gather information about her symptoms, work-related stressors, medical history, and other relevant details.

Based on your assessment, you may determine if medication is necessary and refer her to a psychiatrist who can prescribe medication.

If you accept the patient as an ongoing client, you will make follow-up appointments to provide treatment and monitor her progress. You may provide personal therapy using evidence-based approaches, such as cognitive-behavioural therapy or mindfulness techniques, to teach coping skills.

Collaborating with other professionals involved in the client's care, such as the prescribing psychiatrist or her medical doctor, is essential. In this case, with the patient's permission, you could consult with the HR manager at her place of employment. The goal is simply to improve her well-being and life quality.

Other Roles Psychologists Perform

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While assessment and therapy are important aspects of their work, psychologists have a range of other jobs in research, teaching, community work, staff development, and more.

Each of these positions requires specific skills, and you may choose to specialise in one or more areas. Let's explore some of the other roles a psychologist may perform.

Four Key Things Psychologists Do

Silhouettes of four head cut-outs highlighting the human brain

If you wanted to sum up what a psychologist does in terms of four defining activities, they are: (1) psychological assessment and testing, (2) diagnosing and developing treatment plans, (3) providing individual patient therapy, and (4) conducting psychological research. These are all core elements of clinical psychology training.

While only a minority of psychologists focus solely on research, all psychology professionals are expected to use research to inform their practice. The other three elements could be considered the three fundamental steps in clinical practice. They're the main duties of a practising psychologist.

For their work, psychologists are fairly well remunerated in Australia. The average psychologist salary is $102,039 (base pay) according to Indeed. In terms of what they earn per hour, that corresponds with $52.15 an hour.

1. Assessment and psychological testing

We think of psychologists as people who assess individual patients by talking to them and learning about their experiences, emotions and problems. But assessment is an activity that every psychologist does on some level, even if they aren't a clinical practitioner.

Psychological testing is part of the assessment process for most psychology professionals. Clinical psychologists, researchers and organisational psychologists, for example, all measure and evaluate individual mental functioning. Tests can provide insight into a person's abilities, personality traits, and health status.

  • Organisations may use psychological testing as part of their employee selection process, trying to weed out people unsuited to a role. It can also be used to assess employee well-being, motivation, and job satisfaction.
  • Patients, such as children with special learning needs or adults with declining memory, are tested as well. The results help to better understand their needs and develop effective interventions.
  • Family psychologists provide professional opinions to the courts on parenting matters. They may use psychological testing to assess the mental health and well-being of parents and children involved in these cases.

Some of the more popular psychological tests are the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI), Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), Rorschach Inkblot Test, Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale, and Thematic Apperception Test (TAT).

2. Diagnose and make a treatment plan

Psychologists in Australia may diagnose mental health conditions and develop treatment plans based on their findings.

Standardised diagnostic tools and criteria are available to help guide the diagnosis, such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Treatment plans may also be made without a formal diagnosis of a mental health condition.

The process of making a diagnosis is an important part of psychologist training, as it is a fundamental aspect of clinical practice. Psychology programs typically include courses on psychopathology and diagnosis, where students learn about different conditions and the diagnostic criteria used to identify them.

Treatment plans are tailored to the client's specific needs and goals. Evidence-based interventions may include psychotherapy, medication, or behavioural strategies. Other healthcare professionals may be involved, such as psychiatrists or general practitioners, to ensure clients receive integrated care.

3. Individual patient therapy

Therapy is an important service that psychologists are trained to perform. After the assessment stage, a psychologist will collaborate with the patient to develop a treatment plan. This plan will include the short and long-term goals of therapy and methods to be used. Some common techniques include:

  • Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT): Identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviours.
  • Psychodynamic therapy: Explore unconscious thoughts and emotions, and how they may be affecting behaviour and relationships. Specific methods include free association, dream analysis, and exploring past experiences.
  • Interpersonal therapy (IPT): Improve the patient's interpersonal relationships, and address problems related to grief, role transitions, and interpersonal conflicts. IPT may involve role-playing, problem-solving, and communication skills training.
  • Mindfulness-based therapy: Develop mindfulness skills, such as non-judgmental awareness and acceptance of the present moment. Techniques include meditation, breathing exercises, and body awareness.

In between therapy sessions, the therapist may assign homework or encourage the patient to practice new skills. For example, if the patient is learning CBT to manage anxiety, they may be asked to perform relaxation techniques, identify negative thoughts, or challenge negative self-talk.

4. Conduct research and contribute to the field

The fourth main thing that psychologists do is conduct research, which is a crucial aspect of this scientific field. Research drives clinical practice and enhances our comprehension of human behaviour and mental processes.

Psychologists examine subjects such as cognitive processes, social behaviour, personality, developmental psychology, and neuropsychology. They collect data using methods such as experiments, surveys, observations, and interviews.

One of the key objectives of psychological research is to design and evaluate treatments. For example, researchers may investigate the effectiveness of a specific psychotherapy approach for treating depression, or examine how well a community-based program reduces anxiety in children.

Psychological research is typically carried out in academic or research settings, such as universities or research institutions. Researchers may also work in government or industry positions, where they apply their skills to inform policy or develop new products.

How to Become a Psychologist

Three steps to becoming a registered psychologist in Australia

To become a psychologist in Australia, you need to first complete an education and training sequence that takes at least six years. Become a psychologist is very hard, especially with competition for postgraduate places and the need for honours-level grades.

Step 1 is to obtain a Bachelor of Psychology degree, which takes 3 years. However, if you already hold a (non-psychology) bachelor degree, you can instead study for a Graduate Diploma in Psychology (equivalent to a Bachelor's degree).

Step 2 is to complete an honours year for a Bachelor of Psychology (Honours). The alternative is a Graduate Diploma in Psychology (Advanced), which is equivalent to an honours year. This completes a four-year sequence towards becoming a psychologist. Two years still to go.

Step 3 is to choose one of two pathways, the Higher Degree pathway or the 5+1 Internship Pathway. Either option completes the six-year sequence.

For the higher degree option, you complete an Australian Psychology Accreditation Council (APAC) accredited postgraduate degree such as a Master's or Doctorate. This will be in one of the nine approved areas of practice endorsement. Programs include coursework, placements and a thesis.

For the internship pathway, you'll need to complete a Graduate Diploma of Professional Psychology, gain provisional registration with the Psychology Board of Australia (PsyBA), undertake a PsyBA-regulated one-year internship of supervised practice, and successfully complete the National Psychology Exam.

Following the higher degree or internship, you can apply for general registration as a psychologist.

Job Duties by Specialisation

Woman in a therapy or counselling session

What a psychologist does on a daily basis depends a great deal on their specialisation. The Psychology Board of Australia (PsyBA) has a list of nine areas in which a psychologist can obtain specialised training and recognition. Here's an outline of the goals and activities involved with each practice area.

  • Clinical neuropsychology.¬†Assess and treat patients with neurological disorders affecting cognitive and emotional functioning.
  • Clinical psychology. Diagnose and treat mental illnesses and disorders.
  • Community psychology. Improve the overall well-being of individuals in communities, addressing social issues and promoting social change.
  • Counselling psychology. Help individuals deal with everyday issues, such as stress, relationships, and work-life balance.
  • Educational and developmental psychology. Assess and treat learning difficulties, behavioural problems, and developmental disorders in children and adolescents.
  • Forensic psychology. Apply psychological knowledge to legal and criminal justice contexts.
  • Health psychology. Promote and maintain good health and well-being, and assist those with medical conditions to cope with their illness.
  • Organisational psychology. Apply psychological principles to workplace settings, such as improving employee performance, team building, and management.
  • Sport and exercise psychology. Help athletes and individuals improve their performance, motivation, and mental well-being in relation to sport and exercise.

As you can see from the list, the work often involves helping people who don't necessarily have psychiatric disorders. Psychologists are active where expertise on the mind and behaviour is either necessary or may improve human performance.