by Sharday Mosurinjohn, July 2012
Something many people may not know is that you can be a doctor of psychology but not be qualified to treat patients; only people trained as clinical psychologists can earn this qualification. For Jenn Bossio, a first year clinical psychology PhD student in Dr. Caroline Pukall’s Sexual Health Research Lab, clinical practice wasn’t the sole reason for choosing this stream over the others (brain behaviour and cognitive science, developmental, and social-personality) but she loves the idea of helping people with her work in any way she can.
It was working in an evolutionary psychology lab during her undergraduate degree that made Bossio aware of sexuality research and sexual psychophysiology, a methodology that involves measuring sexual arousal instead of only asking subjective questions. “In evolutionary psychology,” explains Bossio, “sex is considered to be the driving force behind everything. So we did lots of attractiveness research, which was really fun and applicable to real life. From there, I found out about the idea of clinical psychology.”
Now, Bossio is researching circumcision. “Sexuality research has been male dominated for a long time and many of these researchers have pathologized women’s sexuality. In recent years, however, the balance has shifted and now we are seeing more women researching sexuality than ever before.” These female researchers are using critical feminist perspectives to deconstruct the misogynistic assumptions that have informed many theories of sexuality, Bossio elaborates, “but this focus has now actually resulted in a dearth of studies on men’s sexual functioning.” In fact, although circumcision is one of the most common surgeries worldwide, there is only one other study on sensitivity and sexual arousal in circumcised vs. uncircumcised penises. “So we know almost nothing about the differences in sexual functioning, especially within North American populations.” Bossio’s study will contribute to this understanding with three studies: first, an online study about body image, relationship satisfaction, and sexual functioning among gay and straight biological men and their partners; then, an in-lab arousal study with the help of a laser Doppler imaging machine that can help measure blood flow; and finally, sensitivity testing that involves applying pressure with a calibrated instrument (“basically, a Q-tip on a spring,” describes Bossio).
Designing these studies isn’t the only task on Bossio’s plate. Another factor that defines clinical psychology is an extremely demanding schedule. “I’ve already done four practicum placements,” Bossio tells me. Since MSc students are expected to continue into the PhD program, these placements begin in the second year of the Master’s degree. “My first practicum was in a psychology clinic here at Queen’s doing educational assessments with children. Next was forensic psychology with teenage offenders to assess whether students suffering from anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues were incorrectly placed in a remedial class targeting behavioural issues. The third was with a forensic psychologist doing assessments with sex offenders. And the last was in an interdisciplinary health team, where I helped facilitate a sleep clinic.” (For those of you who are curious, forensic, in this context, means any work with clients where the law is involved.)
In addition to placements, study design, and supporting other projects in her lab, Bossio has been taking a number of courses. “It’s been very top heavy. In first year of the MSc, we had five courses each semester, and then in the second year, three or four. This year I took one, and there are two more electives to complete.” Working this hard is a lot easier when you’re around a lot of positive, motivated people, insists Bossio. “All of us are here because we overwork ourselves, but we’re really good with helping each other find a work/life balance. People have started designating nights where we get together and promise to take a break. It’s a little ironic,” laughs Bossio, “in this program we talk about mental health and quality of life and it’s our job to teach people about it but it’s rarely acknowledged for us as students!”
By the end of this summer, Bossio will defend her PhD project idea and then move onto comprehensive exams next summer. After her thesis is complete, there’s still another full year of internship. “It’s paid clinical work. It doesn’t have to be directly related to your own research but I love sexuality research so I wouldn’t mind continuing.” It’s a ways down the line, but Bossio is considering Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), which is well known for its (sometimes controversial) Gender Identity Clinic as well as its services dealing with anxiety and depression.
After all these years of training, Bossio will be equipped to go into a number of jobs. “There’s academia,” she says, “and that’s what we’re trained for, but jobs are scarce and so there are a number of people looking at three to five years of postdocs before nailing down a full-time position.” Outside of academia, though, the options are endless. Bossio could start a private clinic, but that, she says, “can be isolating and it drives up prices for clients.” Her ideal job is to work in a hospital setting in an interdisciplinary health care team that could offer a comprehensive approach to health care. “I would love to work with doctors, nurses, physical therapists, and occupational therapists, to treat people using an inclusive perspective that helps the whole person.”