Professional Identity Crisis


When I meet people for the first time, I am often asked what I do for a living.  I hate to admit it, but the question almost always makes me feel uncomfortable.  Not because I’m embarrassed about what I do.  To the contrary, I love my job and I am proud of the work that I do.

Here’s the problem: I am a psychologist. More specifically, I am a social psychologist.  Unfortunately, hardly anyone seems to have any idea what I actually do!  Within the general population, the image of a “psychologist” includes an individual who provides therapy for clients with psychological disorders.  This prototypical image of “therapy” usually involves one person (the client) lying on a couch while the other person (the therapist) sits in a chair with a pen and notepad.  By the way, to complete the picture, the therapist is usually male (preferably with a beard).

When I was growing up, the popular image of a psychologist was the fictional character Dr. Robert Hartley (from the Bob Newhart Show). More current images of psychologists in the popular media include Dr. Frazier Crane (fictional character from the show “Frazier”) and Dr. Phil McGraw (from the “Dr. Phil” show—not fictional).  Asked to name a “real” psychologist, the vast majority of people will mention Sigmund Freud.

Unfortunately, none of these images even remotely reflects what I do professionally.  I am not a therapist (also, I am not male and I do not have a beard). I am a scientist.  I study human behavior, specifically how individuals interact with and influence one another in social settings.  My research interests are in the areas of physical health (physician-patient communication and treatment compliance); the scientific measurement of religious beliefs and behavior; and political decision-making (social influence on voting behavior).  The most rewarding part of my job is that, as a college professor, I get to spend much of my time teaching psychological science to my students.

Truly, I am excited every day to do the work that I do!  I have interesting, engaging conversations with students who (for the most part) are intrinsically interested in the subject matter of human interaction.  I spend my time thinking, reading, talking, and writing about what I believe to be one of the most fascinating areas of scientific study.

Yet still, I cringe at the question, “So, what do you do?”  I know if I give the simplest response: “I’m a psychologist,” the very next question will be “Are you analyzing me right now?” (Seriously, this is the second question almost 100% of the time) followed closely by “Can you interpret my dreams?” (or alternatively, the individual will just launch into a detailed description of his/her latest nocturnal story line and ask me what I think it means).

I have tried to circumvent this problem by changing my answer to “I am a teacher.”  Here’s what happens with that approach:

Person: So, what do you do?

Me: I’m a teacher.

Person: What grade do you teach?

Me: College-level, some graduate-level

Person: Oh, what subject do you teach?

Me: Psychology

Person: Hey, are you analyzing me right now?

Me: No, I’m not that kind of psychologist. I’m a social psychologist. I study… [get interrupted]

Person: Let me tell you about the dream I had last night….

About Susan Sheffer

Professor of Psychology at Lewis University Areas of expertise include Psychology of Religion (relationship between science and faith); Health Psychology (physician-patient relationships/treatment compliance); Social Psychology (relationships); Psychology in the Workplace (Industrial/Organizational Psychology); Statistics; and pedagogy.

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