Interview with a Psychology Graduate Professor

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Interview with a Psychology Graduate Professor

Christoph Leonhard, PsyD, is a professor of clinical psychology at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology in Chicago, Illinois. He is also a psychologist at the Anxiety Treatment Center in Schaumburg, Illinois. In addition to teaching graduate psychology classes at the Chicago School, Dr. Leonhard is deeply dedicated to diversity in psychology and plays a prominent role in an international exchange program at the school.

The Chicago School offers professional degree and terminal degree graduate programs in psychology. Dr. Leonhard sat down with to speak about psychology graduate programs and the state of the field today.

Q: What are your expectations of students as far as skills and outcomes? 

A: The expectation develops over the years. Initially, we expect a strong background in theory and practice. Many students have work experience in the mental health field and prior practical knowledge. We emphasize the learning of clinical skills and information, as well as the development of their own personhood.

Commitment to diversity and multiculturalism are extremely important and are built into the coursework. By the end, we expect students to have the ability to function as junior professionals in the field. They should have developed independent personal integrity, good ethics, interpersonal skills and should be open to personal development.

Q: What are the hot research fields/topics in psychology?

A: Diversity is a major issue now, and there has been a lot of research in multiculturalism and diversity. Other hot research topics are needs analysis and program evaluation, and how to make them impactful in a clinical setting.

Q: Are there some concentrations that are more popular than others?

A: Child and adolescent concentrations are the most popular pyschology concentrations because of the nature of our program, but we get a lot of students very interested in diversity. We offer a special concentration in diversity. Other popular concentrations are health psychology, art therapy and expressive therapies.

Q: How much of a resource is the Internet and other technology in your field?

A: It’s really invaluable. I couldn’t imagine doing international networking without the Internet. It is really globalizing psychology. We are a little behind in comparison to business, but probably because psychology is more culture-specific.

Q: I understand that you have been involved in obtaining grants for foreign exchange visit programs. What are the international contexts of your discipline?

A: Chicago is a very diverse city, and there is good international collaboration in research fields like psychotherapy. But as far as the training and work of professional psychologists, there is very little global exchange. There is a good amount of back-and-forth between the United States and Canada.

Q: How important is foreign language to the field of clinical psychology?

A: Knowing a foreign language is really key if you want to have contacts in the countries in which it is spoken. Clinical psychology is very developed in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Even when we go to Japan, the younger generation has receptive English language skills because they read scientific papers and textbooks in English.

We do have Hispanic mental-health projects here at school, and we offer some of our therapy and assessment seminars in Spanish. Language is the key to the culture of any country if you are to move beyond the surface of the society. If you have clinically functional language skills, it is a premium. They are literally head-hunting students with foreign language abilities.

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Q: What is the most difficult aspect of the program/field? Most rewarding?

A: In psychology, we largely serve the disadvantaged and downtrodden of society who usually do not get attention. It is hugely rewarding to make a difference, but unless they can retain a warm-hearted, professional way of interacting with them, a lot of students struggle. Finding that happy medium between being professional and knowledgeable, and remaining empathetic and feeling what it’s like is the biggest challenge. It’s a very real thing and it can just break your heart. You need to pace yourself or you will burn out.

Q: What can students do outside of the classroom/program to augment learning or prepare them for a career?

A: I certainly encourage them to go out and do some service learning. There are many opportunities in the city of Chicago for students to participate in service learning throughout—to get to know different populations, to experience different cultures and sets of problems. Students should be expanding their horizons and getting real experience with diversity on every level.

In my experience, it’s about gaining life experiences. Students who have lived a little and experienced more are better able to relate to different people on different levels. I also encourage students to find balance in their lives overall. It is a very demanding program and profession, and it can be very easy to neglect your physical health and relationships.

Q: Psychology is an evolving discipline. How do you suggest students keep up with all of the new developments?

A: Lifelong learning is certainly a requirement in this field. When you think about the half-life of a program, you ask, “How long before knowledge is stale?” All of my classes always have a project that models lifelong learning—not just to use what they have learned. We take a dual-pronged approach—to teach a solid foundation, but with opportunities for individualized learning. It is a matter of getting in the habit of lifelong learning and using the best information available at the time.

Q: What do you see as the future of the discipline?

A: There’s a number of rocks in the road. I’d start with needs analysis, and the need for psychological services in all segments of society. These are core issues of humanity. But there’s an excellence gap in terms of the best available knowledge versus what you get from the common general practitioner. Presumably, there is an excellence gap between the Mayo clinic and your local general practitioner. Psychological research says we can do a lot of work on problems of living, but knowledge does not always trickle down.

The science of psychology is teaching us a lot about how to do that, but the field is not all scientific. I see danger and opportunity. The danger is, we are stuck in old knowledge. But our services are needed increasingly, not just in human adjustment but in business and industry.

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