By Kuo Pei Yu and Janice Chrysilla
Geraldine Tan is the Director and Principal Registered Psychologist of The Therapy Room, With almost 2 decades of experience working with individuals with a multitude of psychological problems as of 2018, a Master’s in Applied Psychology, Geraldine’s passion for the field and for helping people through her skills has kept her going. She offers advice, in keeping with this spirit, to youth who want to be psychologists: “Have fun in your whole journey – even while studying – and throughout your entire work experience. Being a psychologist is not just a job, but an adventure as well”. Geraldine’s latest adventure of 2018 has been to return to her studies as a Doctorate Candidate of Clinical Psychology, true to her own advice to have fun, even while studying.
I am a registered psychologist. My work is mostly related to educational psychology and counselling. I can do psychology tests such as Intelligence Quotient tests, and tests for autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and the like. The counselling part is mostly behavioural work for the little ones. I work with stressed teens and children – those who have ideas about committing suicide, those who are facing existential crises, those with no motivation, and so on. Sometimes I also work with the older ones – their issues are mostly related to work, life transitions, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, personality disorders, and so on. On the whole, I deal with fundamental lifespan issues, and mostly the diagnostic and the testing parts.
Today, for instance, I came in early and had to make a call to one of the school counsellors – we often work with school counsellors, speech therapists, occupational therapists, psychiatrists and quite a number of other people. We usually work with them for various reasons which could be quite specific. For instance, I had to check with the school counsellors because earlier on, they called in to request help for a student who showed self-injurious behaviour. After I made some calls in the morning, the first client who had made an appointment for today came in, and time just flew by from then on. From listening to clients’ stories to attending to their cases, its like work just went on non-stop. Sometimes, I supervise master’s students writing their theses and dissertations as well. This line of work can be hectic at times, but it’s fun! My daily work typically follows this pattern, and then once a month we have a team meeting.
The more fun things that we do would be giving talks and workshops as well as conducting camps. The camps are organised for our clients. We organise five camps a year. Some are paid camps and some are done as voluntary work by the team. Most of the camps are for the little ones, although there are selected ones for teens as well. One example of a camp that we do voluntarily is the 100-student camp, which is one of the major programmes that we conduct. For the kids, there are a few things that we do when they come here: art therapy, music therapy, and so on. These are all incorporated into the camp for them.
When I was in secondary school and a teenager myself, I realised that many teenagers my age were going through much angst and existential issues – a lot of emotional turmoil, and ups and downs. One particular moment that I can still remember today is of me sitting down at a fast food restaurant eating with my friends after school, and we encountered a group of other students squatting outside the restaurant – in full makeup and tight clothing – smoking. I realised that that group of people was very different from the group of friends that I knew, and even at that time, I wondered how their lives were different from ours: what informs what they do? What would inform me in what I do: for instance, why would I study so hard and why would I continue studying despite finding it tough? What informs my behaviour? These are the questions that led me to study psychology and eventually pursue the path that I am on today.
I think nowadays it is a lot tougher as compared to during my time. There are a few pathways to become a psychologist. One way is to pursue psychological studies at the polytechnic level after secondary school. Another path is to complete junior college first and then take an undergraduate course at university. Minimally, you would need a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. Psychology is a very broad subject – it has a lot of branches such as clinical, educational, forensic, sports science, industrial-organisational, and so on. You will learn the general subject at the undergraduate level and then specialise in a branch or a few at the postgraduate level.
However, it is getting more competitive nowadays; everyone has a master’s degree, so you may need to continue to doing your doctoral studies and getting a PhD. It is hard to get into a master’s degree programme after your undergraduate degree, but it is easier to get into a PhD programme after you finish your master’s degree. After some people finish their master’s degree, though, they may have a change in mind and be unsure of whether they should continue doing a PhD course or not. Some overseas universities such as those in Australia offer a direct master’s and PhD programme so you need not apply twice.
In secondary school, I knew that I wanted to study psychology but I did not decide to specialize then. It was only in university when I learnt more about behavioural psychology and pursued some opportunities that are more specific in that area that, eventually, I realised that behavioural work is something which I like and could see myself doing in the future. It was these experiences that eventually led me to decide on specialising in clinical-behavioural psychology.
There are instances when my clients send me nice messages or notes to thank me. I remember this parent who came to thank me for helping her son, and said that she was very grateful for it – these moments and memories encourage me.
Although, sometimes, we may not get anything back – and it can feel like a bit of a thankless job – you will feel very fulfilled when you get affirmation from your clients every now. It’s then that you will really know that you’re on the right track. It is a nice thing to get, but I didn’t expect that when I first started out, and we don’t get that all the time as well.
The obstacle that I face changes over time. When I was younger it was more of self-management and trying to calibrate my own emotions. Sometimes we don’t know what we’re feeling. For example, I remember a day when all the patients that came to me were crying. After my work ended at 6pm, I sat in the office and tears just rolled down my eyes. I was confused as to why I was crying, even though I was not the one to whom all those things had happened. This is a challenge: as psychologists, we need to learn how to cope with our own emotions, especially when dealing with different clients.
Another obstacle I faced more at the start of my career was the doubt of my clients. For instance, some couples or parents came to me saying, “You are so young, and neither do you have kids. How can you tell us what to do?” Even though you could understand their actions and words coming from a place of insecurity at requiring assistance but wanting to maintain ‘face’, I found it a bit hard to swallow initially. Sometimes, you may be confused as to why the clients react or speak in a certain way, but from experience, I have learnt to probe and learn more about them. This helps you to understand why they say something and the reasons for. So, it’s a fun but tough journey.
Firstly, it is important for you to know yourself. Psychology is an industry that is very emotionally provoking, hence it is important for you to be aware of your own emotions – there is no need to do anything about it but it’s important to just be aware of it, so that you are better able to deal with it afterwards. Secondly, once you get there, have fun in your whole journey – even while studying – and throughout your entire work experience. Being a psychologist is not just a job, but an adventure as well.