Meeting the Minds—Interviews with AU’s Educators

Doctor Jeff Chang, Ph.D., R.Psych., is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Health Disciplines at Athabasca University.  He is the Program Director of the Master of Counselling Psychology program at AU.  He joined the AU community in 2007.  Here we explore his life and work with AU.

What is your personal and family background? How does this build into postsecondary experience getting education and certification in psychology?

I thought that I would be in a helping profession.  I had a lot of teachers in my family.  Then I went to Trinity Western University in 1977.  I was doing work in a youth ministry.  I thought, “Maybe, ministry is where I could end up.”

Then I got married young and ended up needing to work and slow down on school.  I have done all my school full-time plus.  School or work full-time while doing the other.  This is not necessarily a good thing when you end up in a profession where self-care is important.

I ended up getting a job at a residential treatment centre for adolescents.  I thought, “I do not know anything about this.” So, I was fortunate to get into a master’s program in counselling psychology at Simon Fraser University.

I did that from 1982 to 1985.  In 1986, I moved to Alberta.  There were a lot of interesting things going on in the family therapy community in Calgary.  It was a bit of a hotbed of family therapy at that point.

In Alberta, you can be licensed as a psychologist with a master’s degree, which I did.  For fifteen years, I worked in children’s mental health, employee assistance programs, and in private practice.

So what brought you to AU?

There is a bit of a fast forward there.  I ended up in a Ph.D.  program starting in 2001.  When I was to close to finishing my Ph.D., a faculty position was posted.  I had not considered a career as a full-time academic up to that point.

I worked as an instructor or tutor in several institutions.  I was briefly an undergrad tutor at AU from 1989 to 1991, teaching PSYC 289 (Psychology as a Natural Science).  After that I taught mostly in counselling-related graduate programs.  Then this job appeared, I applied for it, and was successful.

I think my broad practice experience made me attractive.  I had a bit of a publication track record as I occasionally found opportunities to write while working full-time in practice.  Also, I had had some leadership experience, having run a large practice and a children’s mental health program, so I think that helped.

But mainly, I had had a 20-year practice career.

What was the last non-AU book that you read?

The last non-AU book that I read….  I must remember the title: The Devil’s Bargain.  It’s about how Steve Bannon planned the election of Donald Trump.  I generally read history and biographies.  The last novel I read was Crazy Rich Asians, and I think it’s kind of cool that the movie is now out.  The book came out about four years ago, so that’s how often I read fiction.

If you could have a meal with one person dead or alive, who would that person be? What meal would you have with them?

This is a bit trite, but Barack Obama, because he has a nuanced view of so many things.  He has an idea of how the world fits together.  There are so many moving parts in what he had to do, and I think he gets it.

Also, when you see him on TV, he seems like a down to earth guy.  I like the fact that he apparently has a great family life.  I would be so curious about how he managed to do that while being president of the United States.  I think he is an intriguing person for those reasons.

The meal, solely for myself, because I have no idea what he would enjoy eating.  I would want prime rib, Yorkshire pudding, a baked potato, and asparagus.  How would I look to your readers if I did not include a vegetable? Also, some good horseradish would be necessary.

What is your position now? What tasks and responsibilities come along with this position?

I am an Associate Professor, and I am currently the Program Director of the Master of Counselling Program.  A typical academic position is 40% teaching, 40% research and publication, and 20% service.

Service includes university service (committees and administrative work), and external service (sitting on boards, consulting in the community, and in the case of counselling professors, some kind of practice).

In an administrative job, it shifts – teaching and research and publication are reduced.  So it’s more like 50% administration and 25% the other two.  I have been the Program Director for 2 years.

There are many responsibilities related to being Program Director.  The responsibilities are pretty wide-ranging.  One is general program quality.  For example, every program at every university in Alberta does a 5-year program review.

With the help of the Office of Institutional Studies, we collected data from students, alumni, instructors, faculty, and practicum supervisors, faculty and administrative staff, and so on.  We did focus groups with our students when they attended in-person 4-day practicum seminars in March.

My job as Program Director was to compile all this data and make sense of it all, to figure what we are doing well and not so well, and create a plan for improving what we do.

As Program Director, I also deal with some unpleasant issues, such as plagiarism and other academic integrity issues.  I also deal with grade appeals.

I make final decisions about admissions to our program when an applicant is marginal, review course evaluations and give feedback to instructors, do performance reviews of faculty, and make sure our course revision schedule stays on track.

One of the unexpected pleasures is dealing with students who need support.  Sometimes students have health problems, including mental health issues, or they have family crises.  At times they end up going MIA in a course, and they think they are in trouble.

As a program, we’re not interested in washing them out.  Since we are a professional training program, we try to teach students that they are learning is much more than academic content, but skills and attitudes for professional practice.

As professionals, it is an ethical imperative to care for ourselves so we can care for our clients.  When we cannot, we must learn to ask for support.  Some students think that, if they express weakness or distress we will consider them unsuitable for the profession.

Quite the opposite; they need to learn to recognize their limits and ask for support when they need it.  They may need to take time off or to slow down their studies to make sure they can attend to their health or family needs.

Some students who are distressed are quite surprised that they are welcome in the program, and we want to support them to attain the competencies they need to become professional counsellors.  I ask them to check in with me to let me know how they are doing, and tell me about the changes they’ve made.

I did not anticipate that this would be become a part of the job that I enjoy as much as I do.  It’s allowed me to connect with students at a vulnerable point in their lives, and I have a sense of satisfaction that they learn the value of self-care.

On the other hand, sometimes I have to be the person to tell a student that, despite our best efforts and theirs, they are not going to be successful acquiring the competencies necessary to be a professional counsellor.  That’s not pleasant, but it’s necessary to protect the public.

Another part of my gig is dealing with regulatory bodies.  Because we train students from across Canada, we want to keep on top of the licensing requirements in each province and territory.  Recently, I met with the College of Alberta Psychologists.

They’ve been trying to streamline their process for evaluating applicants; to make this happen, we need to change some of the things we do, but this will make it much easier for our grads to start the process of being Registered Psychologists in Alberta.

Also, I am working on an application to the Registered Psychotherapists of Ontario to preapprove our program so our Ontario grads can be fast-tracked.

I have a pretty active research agenda.  I research, write, and present on high-conflict divorce, clinical supervision, school-based mental health services, and family therapy.  I have a couple of books out – one on working with children, and anther on family therapy.

Is it a problem that counsellors take on the issues of their clients?

That is a great question.  Because our program is a professional training program, students need to learn more than theoretical approaches to counselling.  They must learn to manage their own behaviour and emotional reactions to clients’ stories and difficulties.

In their practicum placements, our students hear about depression, suicidal ideation, trauma, sexual victimization and exploitation, family violence, marital conflict, affairs, substance misuse, and many other problems.

In our program, we work hard to teach students to reflect on their own biases and be self-aware about client issues, or the way clients present, that might be issues for them.  We try to model that too.

I share about times when I have had to consult another professional to make sure I can maintain good judgement with clients and deal with them constructively.

Is there any such thing as a ‘typical’ student in your program?

We have many working students who are established in their career as teachers, social workers, and in other helping professions, who want to stay working in the same field and take our program to advance their careers.

We also have people who are looking for a career change.  We’ve had a military officer, or people who have worked in government at a high level, who want to be therapists as a second career.

The average student age in our program is about 34, but the most striking thing about our student body is that it is 85-90% female.  This is the case with counsellor education programs all over Canada and the US.  I have had entire classes – sections of 20 students – with not a single man in the class.  This has been the case since the beginning of our program in the early 2000s.

This has implications for the supply of counsellors and therapists.  If the pool of available counsellors is over 80% female, it might be tougher to engage male clients in therapy.  This is not to say that the female therapists cannot be effective with men or with heterosexual couples.

But I think that it would probably a good thing to have more men in the field.  When I was doing on a full-time practice, I did a lot of couples’ therapy with heterosexual couples.

When I was doing full-time private practice, I think I got a lot of business because I am male because a man might have a certain comfort in knowing, or at least believing, that he is not going to be ganged up on by a female therapist and his female partner.

So a lot fewer men. Do you know why men have been self-jettisoning from psychology?

I don’t know.  It is possible to make a good income as a counsellor or as a psychologist.  But there are certain professions that make better money, right? I think universities have a higher proportion of female students.

Women are more attracted by the helping professions and men are more inclined to be in trades or in technical fields.  So if the proportion of men in undergrad programs is smaller, it makes the applicant pool for graduate programs smaller.  One can make a decent living as a counsellor or therapist, but it is certainly not a profession in which one will get rich

Why would income be the main reason for men?

I am speculating here.  There is still a very strong cultural belief that men are to be providers.  But it would be an interesting research study to explore what attracts men the field of counselling, why they stay in the field, and what their career paths look like.