Psychology Graduate Program Specializes in Rural Mental Health Care

Gradschoolmatch sat down to hold a Skype chat recently with Dr. Mike Nielsen, Ph.D, Professor and Chairman of the Department of Psychology at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, Georgia. His department uses Gradschoolmatch to identify and guide prospects who might be interested in their MS and Psy.D. human psychology graduate programs.

The Georgia Southern University Psy.D. program, in particular, caught our eye because the niche it fulfills struck us as one that is very unique in the overall space of psychology graduate programs. Georgia Southern University offers many graduate programs but the Psy.D. has a strong focus on mental health care problems and needs in a rural setting.

If you’re anything like us, as soon as you read that you’re struck by how obvious the need must be for psychology graduate programs specializing in that niche. But until now, like us, you may never before have considered the possibility a university department exists to offer graduate programs that ensure the specialization is fulfilled.

Finding the right graduate program is a path of discovery. Many people often don’t quite know what they are looking for until they see it for the first time. If you’re looking for psychology graduate programs and like the idea of living and working in rural areas, this just may be your match.

What follows is the transcript of our chat session.

TJ Murphy: Hi Michael. Thank you for joining us. As we’re chatting, the mid-Atlantic is getting slammed by the blizzard of the century. How is the weather in Statesboro?

Mike Nielsen: We are getting rain at the moment, with a 50% chance of snow tonight.  In the 23 years I’ve lived here we have had snow only twice, so this is a rare event!

TJ Murphy: We’ve had a bit more than that in Atlanta but not by much. I think the (relative) absence of winter weather in the south is one of the best reasons to live here.

Mike Nielsen: Yes, I prefer to watch pictures of people shoveling snow, rather than shovel snow myself.

TJ Murphy: Indeed. So how about beginning with a my big question. Psychology is one of the largest undergraduate majors that we see on Gradschoolmatch, #3 behind business and education majors. There is a ton of interest in psychology graduate programs, too.  Why are so many people attracted to the field?

Mike Nielsen: I think that there are many reasons but at the core is the fact that we are self-reflective beings.  We wonder why we ourselves do things, and we wonder why other people do things.  Psychology offers tools or methods that help us begin to understand these kinds of basic questions about ourselves.  Plus, psychology is a useful area of study.  Psychology helps us understand what motivates people, and gives us pointers on how best to interact with family, friends, and coworkers.

TJ Murphy: That’s interesting. So what I think you are saying is that students of psychology are students of other people. They are people persons. It seems to me a good people person could go in a lot of directions.

Mike Nielsen: Yes, absolutely!  Of course, psychologists study many different species, but the great majority of our work at Georgia Southern is with people. What we are really interested in is, Why do we do, think, or feel what  we do?  And there are many different perspectives from which we can answer that question. With that knowledge of why we do/think/feel what  we do, then we can begin to work with people to modify their actions, thoughts, and feelings so that they accomplish their goals, increase their happiness, and so on.

TJ Murphy: Where do Georgia Southern’s psychology graduate programs fit into that point of view? You seem to say that generating new knowledge about psychology through research and applying knowledge are both important. Is that what you’re trying to accomplish in your department?

Mike Nielsen, PhD. Professor and Chairman, Department of Psychology, Georgia Southern University
Mike Nielsen, PhD. Professor and Chairman, Department of Psychology, Georgia Southern University

Mike Nielsen: Yes, it is.  Our faculty believes that we have a responsibility to better understand people, and to use that knowledge in an ethical, responsible way to improve people’s lives.  So, in our two graduate programs we take this to heart.  Our Master’s of Science program focuses on generating a better understanding of people. We connect students with faculty members and together work to answer the question of why people do/think/feel as they do.  In order to do this, students pursue research projects to answer basic questions about people. This culminates in a thesis showing the student’s independent investigation using psychological science.

Our Doctor of Psychology program does this as well, as each student conducts a dissertation that pursues a basic question. In addition, Psy.D. students study how to assess problems and use therapy to try to address the problems people encounter in their lives.

Because Georgia is a relatively rural state, our Psy.D. program focuses on training students to be therapists in rural and under-served areas.  This is one of the unique things about our psychology department.  In a rural area, access to resources such as transportation can be very limited. Factors like this can pose challenges, and make mental health care a scarce resource. We hope to help address this, so that all people can have access to good mental health care.

TJ Murphy: Obviously, graduate school is where specialization happens, and there are many specialties people can pursue at the graduate level. But frankly, I had never thought before of the need to train people to specialize rural mental health care delivery. That’s strikes me as a real niche in a world of niches. What are some of the challenges you face in finding students who might be interested in that?

Mike Nielsen: Good question!  Many people are interested in psychology, as you noted, but most of them are in cities.  So, one of the challenges we face is simply the fact that people in recent history have moved from rural areas to cities. If we are going to address the mental health shortage in rural areas, we need to find people who want to be a psychologist and want to live in small towns.  Small towns have a lot of positive traits, even if they might not have a huge shopping district or cultural center.  Finding students who are interested in that is the key.

But each year our Psy.D. program has existed, we have had more and more applicants.  This year we have had nearly double the number of applicants, and we will be able to accept only about 10% of them. So, as part of our application process, we ask students about their interest in serving rural areas and under-served people.  We take this part of the program very seriously at admissions, and it continues throughout the entire program.  Even students’ dissertations address rural living in some way.

TJ Murphy: Your recruiting successes sound great, I hope Gradschoolmatch helped to contribute a little bit to your application pool. Students out there reading this will be wise to understand how important “the fit” is in making admissions decisions. Programs need to make sure they are training the right people, whether there are many or just a few applicants.

Mike Nielsen: Yes, we really do believe in finding the right fit between the student and the program.  A tremendous student can be in a great program but, if their goals don’t align well, the student won’t be getting the education or training that s/he wants.  And by finding the right fit, you will be on track for a more productive and fulfilling career!

Because we have been using Gradschoolmatch for just two months, it is hard to say how much of the increase in our applicant pool is due to the website, vs. how much is due to our recent accreditation from the American Psychological Association.  I have corresponded with several people as a result of Gradschoolmatch, but most of them are anticipating applying for admission in 2017.  🙂  I can say that the people I’ve corresponded with have been very articulate and have asked good questions.  I expect that we will be seeing some strong applications from them next year!

TJ Murphy: The more we look at the data the more impressed I am in how much work prospects put into exploring their graduate school options. For many, it begins years in advance of the application deadline. I think they know very well this is the biggest career decision they’ll make in their lives. It changes their trajectory.

Mike Nielsen: Yes, absolutely. People with a bachelor’s degree are not as focused in a single trajectory as are graduate degree holders. It is a big decision!

TJ Murphy: What people may not realize reading this is that it takes a bit of work to get to this point in the conversation, since we’re both typing in a chat function. This whole session has been very informative. I’ve stolen enough of your time for one day, and I thank you very much for it and all of your insights.

Mike Nielsen: Thanks!  Have a great evening– stay warm!

TJ Murphy: You too, Michael. Best!!



Author: TJ Murphy

Gradschoolmatch Founder