At a time of increasing demand for psychologists nationwide, Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota’s Psychology Doctorate in Counseling Psychology program (Psy.D.) has been granted accreditation by the American Psychological Association (APA). The accreditation, which was awarded this spring, has a retroactive effective date of November 2015 and extends for an initial period of five years. The program is based at Saint Mary’s Twin Cities campus at 2500 Park Avenue in Minneapolis.
The move comes at a good time for students interested in careers in psychology — and for their future patients, said Kenneth Solberg Ph.D., outgoing director of Saint Mary’s Psy.D. program.
“There is a real move toward integrative health care nationwide,” he said. Integrative care, Solberg explained, is a treatment approach that addresses patients’ physical and mental health needs in one primary care setting, acknowledging the equal importance of both: “Because mental health and physical health are so often linked, psychologists are in high demand in integrative practices.”
But psychologists don’t just work in integrative care clinics, Solberg said. They are also part of the care team at college and university counseling centers, elementary and secondary schools, hospitals, community mental health centers, and in prisons.
Several years ago, seeing a demand in the marketplace, Saint Mary’s administrators made the decision to launch their Psy.D. program. With an eye toward future APA accreditation, they admitted the first cohort of students in the fall of 2010 for an 85-credit program designed to be completed in five years.
In the academic world, this is the gamble a university must make in order to establish a credible program. “APA doesn’t accredit a program until you have students ready to graduate,” Solberg explained. “We had four candidates ready to graduate last fall. And nine will likely graduate this fall.”
Beyond marketplace demand for psychologists, Saint Mary’s had also seen increased demand for a Psy.D. program from students.
“We had a long-established master’s program in counseling psychology,” Solberg said. “There was interest among graduates in going on and earning a Psy.D. We thought the school was well positioned to offer the degree and knew we could provide good quality students for the practice of psychology in this state.”
Once the program was well established, APA representatives began their assessment.
“The American Psychological Association has a very demanding accreditation process,” Solberg said. “They take a close look at you program. They want outcomes and they want to make sure you have a curriculum that meets their standards. They review syllabi and faculty background. It was a very demanding process. We had to do a very comprehensive self-study. There was also a three-member site visit last November. The final decision was made this spring. We were every pleased with the outcome.”
Achieving accreditation was a feather in the cap for the university’s psychology department, said Brother William Mann, FSC, Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota president. The program was already strong, but this achievement is an official acknowledgement of its success.
“APA accreditation is the premier distinction in the field of psychology and an additional mark of excellence for our already outstanding psychology doctoral program,” he said. “Through this program, students not only have a transformational experience, but they leave Saint Mary’s as alumni prepared to transform other people’s lives and serve society as ethical leaders in the field of counseling psychology.”
Psy.D. vs. Ph.D.
Students interested in seeking a doctoral degree in psychology can pursue either a Psy.D. or a Ph.D. What’s the difference between the courses of study? Solberg explained that while both degrees qualify their graduates for licensure to treat patients in Minnesota, Ph.D. programs tend to focus on research, while Psy.D. programs focus on practical experience. And Ph.D. programs are usually housed at major research universities.
“A Psy.D. graduate is more of a practitioner than a researcher,” Solberg said, adding that in order to complete a Psy.D., students must complete a one-year internship working with patients. “Graduates of the Saint Mary’s University program will be going into applied work.”
In Minnesota psychologists do not have the ability to prescribe medication to their patients. That is left to M.D.s — a distinction that includes psychiatrists.
Acknowledging a shortage of psychiatrists, some states, including Iowa, have extended prescription privileges to psychologists, with the hopes that they may be better trained to understand and observe patient need for and reaction to medications.
“Most of psychotropic medications are prescribed by family practice doctors and other physicians,” Solberg said. “Especially in rural areas where they are particularly underserved.”
At a good size
The Saint Mary’s Psy.D. program is small, with no plans for major growth.
“We can admit to 20 students a year,” Solberg said. “We don’t see that changing. That’s a nice size for the cohort model for the program.” The program is home to 70 students at various points in the degree completion process.
While program graduates thus far have been successful at finding employment, the university doesn’t want to saturate the market. Several schools in the state already offer the degree.
“The area wouldn’t support a much larger Psy.D. program,” Solberg said. “There wouldn’t be enough training sites or students who would be interested.” But, he added, a degree from Saint Mary’s carries a weight of reputation and institutional experience.
“Our accreditation speaks for itself. We know we are not the only program in town. Prospective students have choices — and it is good for them to have choices — but our history sets us apart. And our graduates are already well regarded in the field.”