An Interview with Mona Cardell
“I would advise any aspiring psychologist to take time away from school to gain real-world knowledge.”
Mona Cardell is a feminist psychologist with a private practice in Havertown, Pennsylvania. She also works at the Women’s Therapy Center in Philadelphia. She has been a feminist psychologist for 30 years.
Dr. Cardell has a Doctor of Philosophy in Counseling Psychology from University of Pennsylvania and a Master of Science in Psychological Services, also from University of Pennsylvania. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Bryn Mawr College. Dr. Cardell specializes in feminist therapy, which incorporates the history, culture and issues of gender into psychological analysis.
In your own words, what is a feminist psychologist?
Feminist psychologists consider the issues that result from people’s experience of gender while they are performing psychological evaluations and supporting their clients. In the past, traditional approaches to therapy usually focused on telling a woman what was wrong with her and what she needed to change. Psychologists, who were usually male, often told women to simply adjust to their roles of wife and mother, and if a woman was depressed or unfulfilled she was often medicated. Additionally, traditional therapy tried to “cure” people with same-sex attractions.
The attitudes of therapists in the old days reflected the traditional ideas of the overall society. As society itself has gradually come around to the realization that women are people too, some of the more progressive ideas of feminism have influenced other mental health professionals as well.
As a feminist psychologist, I help my clients create empowering relationships outside of the constraints of traditional gender roles. I also look at how women are impacted by societal structures and patriarchal institutions, as well as class, race and sexual orientation. During therapy, I do a lot of listening and I help people to explore and articulate their feelings. I determine if clients have specific goals and then help them work toward their goals. I mostly work with individuals, but sometimes I will work with couples as well.
If a student said to you, “I am interested in becoming a feminist psychologist,” what would your response be?
Working in feminist psychology is not necessarily right for everyone. Feminist psychology is for people who believe in the importance of looking at social context and social structure. Feminist psychology is for people who understand that traditionally, women have been oppressed and society has limited women’s possibilities. To work in feminist psychology, a person must be committed to helping women open up those possibilities.
I would also caution a prospective student of psychology that graduate school is very expensive. Someone should only become a psychologist because he or she loves the work, not simply to make money.
What level of education is necessary to become a feminist psychologist?
A doctoral degree and field training are required to work as a psychologist in any specialty. It is not necessary to have an undergraduate degree in psychology, but having a psychology major will help. Once a student enters graduate school, it takes anywhere from 4 to 7 years to earn a doctoral degree in psychology. After graduate school, aspiring psychologists must complete additional supervised experience and training in the field of psychology.
Are there any licensing or certification requirements to become a feminist psychologist?
Yes, all psychologists are required to pass a licensing exam in order to practice psychology. The exam takes 3 hours and covers general psychology knowledge. It includes questions on statistics, human development, clinical issues and research. Some states also require additional exams. For example, I also had to pass a 1-hour exam on mental health law in order to practice psychology in the state of Pennsylvania.
Many different specialties within the field of psychology require additional certifications. However, I did not have to obtain specific certification to specialize in feminist psychology once I was qualified to practice as a psychologist.
Why did you decide to become a feminist psychologist?
Although I did not plan my career trajectory, once I became interested in psychology, I was motivated to continue studying psychology by my desire to help people. When I had personal problems as a young college student, the “help” I received from professionals was lousy. I wanted to learn how to provide better support than I had received myself.
As an undergraduate, I held summer jobs at psychiatric hospitals, which initially developed my interest in psychology. After graduating with my bachelors degree in psychology, I was not ready to enter graduate school, so I continued working as a psychiatric aide at a private psychiatric hospital. Eventually, I entered a masters degree program for psychological services at University of Pennsylvania. The encouragement I found in that program inspired me to go on to obtain a PhD in counseling psychology.
What do you enjoy most and least about being a feminist psychologist?
I genuinely enjoy the work I am currently doing, both at the Women’s Therapy Center and in my private practice. As a feminist psychologist practicing independently, I enjoy being able to work for myself. I can set my own hours and fees, and I am in charge of selecting which clients I see. I also enjoy being able to interact with other psychologists in the community.
However, one of the negative aspects of my way of working is income. Because I work for myself, my income is variable and based on the business I generate. If people are not coming to see me, I am not making money.
What is a typical day like for you?
During a typical day, I see clients, attend staff meetings and work on billing. Because I can set my own hours, I choose to work fewer hours than most psychologists.
I normally see anywhere from 3 to 5 clients a day. These sessions last between 50 and 60 minutes. At the Women’s Therapy Center, I also participate in a consultation group, supervise other therapists in the center’s training program, and attend staff meetings. Other tasks I might do during a typical day include documenting my work, making phone calls, or billing.
How do you balance your work and your personal life?
It requires discipline to separate my work life from my home life. One of the occupational hazards of being a psychologist is the tendency to bring the work home. After an entire day spent talking and listening to other people, sometimes when I come home I do not feel like talking or listening anymore. At times, that can create challenges in my own relationship.
My personal strategies for balancing my work life with my home life include literally scheduling time for myself. I schedule time in my appointment book for socializing, hobbies and personal activities, such as working out at the gym. It is important to me to make time for exercise because psychology is stressful and physical activity is important for my overall well-being.
I am also sure to leave enough time each week to connect with my friends, family and partner. Balance is key. If I work during the evenings, I do not work on the weekend, and vice versa.
In addition to carving out personal time, I find that it is important to say no sometimes. I do not take on work that I do not want or that I will not enjoy.
What personality traits do you think would help someone succeed as a feminist psychologist and what traits would hinder success?
There are three traits that are most important for a psychologist. First, a psychologist needs to be a good listener. Second, a psychologist should be able to reserve judgment and have an open mind. Third, a psychologist should have an attitude of openness and self-awareness.
A trait that would hinder someone’s success is thinking he or she has all the answers. There are many instances when a psychologist does not have the answer and may need to seek guidance from others.
Looking back at your formal education, is there anything you would have done differently?
No, there is nothing that I wish I had done differently during my formal education. Although I did not plan my educational path, everything worked out, and I don’t think I could have planned it any better.
Are there any extra-curricular experiences that you think a student interested in becoming a feminist psychologist should pursue?
I highly recommend that anyone interested in becoming a psychologist take time away from school to work in the field of psychology. I took a year off after I completed my undergraduate degree and worked as a psychiatric aide in a hospital. That gave me invaluable experience both in the field of psychology, as well as experience in the real world.
What classes did you take during your schooling that you have found to be the most and least valuable for the work you do today?
The most valuable classes I took during my schooling were on topics such as adolescent and young adult development, basic counseling theory and psychology of women. I also participated in field placements and internships that were very important to my education.
The least valuable classes that I took were advanced statistics courses. A thorough understanding of statistics is necessary for someone wishing to do research or enter academia. However, as a full-time clinician, I haven’t really needed to use advanced statistics.
What words of advice or caution would you share with a student who is interested in becoming a feminist psychologist?
If you are considering entering the field of psychology, I suggest that you participate in as many fieldwork opportunities as possible. Expose yourself to a wide assortment of work settings while you are in graduate school. That will help you to get a sense of what type of work you will eventually want to do.
I would also advise an aspiring psychologist to focus less on getting ahead and making money. It is more important to focus on doing good work and enjoying the rest of your life.