Alumni Profile: Maureen D. Rickman ’84, PhD’97

Alumni Profile: Maureen D. Rickman ’84, PhD’97
Degree(s): BA Neuroscience, UW–Madison; PhD Clinical Psychology with a minor in Developmental Psychology, UW–Madison
Current Occupation: Clinical Psychologist in private practice at Psychiatric Services, SC; Consultant to National Council of Bar Examiners

What are some of the benefits of your psychology degree?
I originally pursued a doctorate in psychology to continue my path as a neuroscience researcher. By obtaining a degree in clinical psychology, I was able to study the neurobiological correlates of psychological phenomena that mattered most to me – personality, mental illness, temperament, and behavior.

I came into the field at a time when psychology was shifting from a humanities-based field to one where psychological science was coming into its own. While it might seem odd to current students, back then it was reasonable to present the notion that one’s sense of ‘self’ or a person’s ‘archetype’ could be studied as if they arose independent of brain physiology.

What psychology taught me more than anything is that it is possible to study the seemingly ineffable and ephemeral psychological phenomenon that matter most to us. Yes, we have to work hard to hone our investigative tools so that psychological science doesn’t get lost in statistical variance and fuzzy concepts. But psychologists are uniquely positioned to provide meaningful insight into what it means to be human.

How did you find your way to your current profession?
With my strong investment in psychological science, it might seem odd that I now spend most of my days in face-to-face exchange with real people, doing psychotherapy and psychological evaluation. That’s because midway through graduate school, I discovered how satisfying it was to connect with patients. That passion guided me to where I am now and I love it. Having been trained as a scientist-practitioner, I never let my patients get past the second therapy session without discussing a model of the brain. When I prepare a protocol for a psychological evaluation, no test is included without being scrutinized for its statistical validity.

In addition to private practice, I work as a consultant for an organization that does national testing for lawyers. They need to determine which of the applicants actually need to have testing accommodations and which of them would be given an advantage over peers if they were given extra time unfairly. This is exactly the kind of work where psychological science can provide helpful insight into big questions about social justice and equitable treatment of individuals with disabilities.

What advice would you give to students graduating with a psychology degree?
Students entering the field of psychology today are embarking on an exciting adventure that asks more of them than students in the past. They need to understand the basic workings of the brain. They need to understand the complex interaction of ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ and ‘self-determination’ in the development of psychological phenomena across the lifespan. They need to be able to discern the statistical and theoretical overlap between individual differences in ‘typical’ human characteristics and psychopathology or ‘atypicality’. Because of the broad-based knowledge needed to graduate with a psychology degree, they are probably the smartest students in the whole university. So, advising them to “Be Smart!” is probably not needed.

Instead, my advice is to “Be curious and never stop learning.” As the university launches a whole new generation of psychological scientists into the world, it will be their passion for understanding the ‘big questions’ and their ability to understand scientific data that will make all the difference.