Under the umbrella of psychology

Madeleine Pownall reports from the British Psychological Society's Psychology4Graduates event in London.

Psych4Graduates celebrated the vastness of our discipline, and heard stories from a multitude of careers that fall under the umbrella of psychology. The event featured professionals from an array of psychological careers, including clinical, sport, health, and forensic. As a final-year psychology student, I left feeling refreshed and excited about the career paths I could find myself on. The speakers all noted the nonlinear aspect of their career, and spoke about the unforeseen twists and turns throughout their journey. It would appear that success in psychology, however that may be defined, is rooted in attitude, open-mindedness, and (often) a bit of good luck.

From a ‘solid C student’ at GCSEs to Head of Research at The Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime, Dr Paul Dawson attributes his career success to relationship building. Dawson details his journey from a naïve and inquisitive forensic healthcare assistant (‘I was attacked on my first day of work’) to part-time PhD student, assistant psychologist, and finally, researcher. Following his ‘itch for wider influence’, Dawson joined the Metropolitan Police as a researcher, later moving to City Hall. His work now involves delving daily into a ‘goldmine of data’ (and, he adds, a lot of meetings). He offers both encouraging advice and words of warnings to aspiring researchers. Good research is evidence-based, contextual, and rooted in strategy. It is not, or rather it should not be, knee-jerk analyse-everything-and-see-what-comes-out.

Dawson explains that good research, particularly in forensic settings, must be anchored in policies and plans. As he puts it, we must ‘embed the research and embed the learning’ in order to make meaningful organisational change. Without this, we are left with disjointed and disconnected research. This approach, coupled with a pragmatic and proportional way of managing research teams, means that not everything needs analysing. For Dawson, that is the key to his job. Find the bits that matter, find research allies, and stay focused, he advises. But, this comes with a health warning. Research that is high-impact and highly analytical does not always make you popular. This is particularly true if your research outputs challenge the assumptions of cultures and organisations. So, how can psychologists overcome this? Be thick-skinned and know that people conceptualise success in different ways. Dawson advises to ask yourself what success looks like (Is it publications? Meeting targets? Hitting deadlines?) and work to this picture of success when making career decisions. Importantly, when it comes to recruiting the next generation of budding psychologists, he urges that whilst statistics and practical skills can be learned, attitude, inquisition, and drive cannot.

The next speaker was The Psychologist’s own journalist Ella Rhodes, who spoke of her varied career from psychology to the newsroom and back again. After graduating from a psychology degree, she describes feeling confused and overwhelmed at the plethora of potential career paths she was faced with. Empathy rippled through the crowd of current third-year undergraduates. Following an enthusiastic conversation with a journalist friend, she enrolled on a postgraduate journalism course and later joined the Derby Telegraph as a qualified journalist. Starting her journalistic career with the rather envious title of 'beer and animal correspondent', she describes the wide array of topics and news stories that she covered during her time as a reporter. This included features on diverse topics, including alien species, dying moth populations in Derby, folk music, and a blind cat called George (whom she promptly adopted). Journalism, in the traditional sense, involves talking to people and uncovering stories, so it comes as no surprise to learn that a degree in psychology was fitting preparation for this career.

So, after submerging herself in the camaraderie of the newsroom, what prompted the move back to psychology? The right person at the right time and a little bit of good luck, it would seem. Journalists are, according to Rhodes, jacks of all trades, who are constantly learning and evolving as both writers and people. After explaining the benefits of writing for such a wide and diverse audience, Rhodes offers some advice to aspiring writers. Ask questions, be brave, question authority, she urges. Find a niche, start a blog, be prepared to learn and to be challenged. Her final words particularly resonated: ‘don’t be afraid of looking incredibly stupid’.

From the newsroom to the fatigue clinic, Dr Vincent Deary of Northumbria University talks about his career in health psychology. Our life trajectory is like a theatrical play with three acts, says Deary. It starts with a warm up, then the action happens, and some kind of resolution or conclusion usually follows. Act two is where the magic happens. It’s the dramatic, occasionally uncomfortable, challenging, interesting bit of the play. Sticking with the theatrical metaphor, it’s this messy middle bit that makes the ‘story’ entertaining, and the same can be said for our life. However, this period of discomfort challenges the habitual nature of our routine-driven way of life; how we generally like to live. Challenge and drama forces us to reconsider our ‘way of working’, and prompts us to make adjustments. Every system has a capacity of comfortable functioning and is able to survive if only one parameter veers out of this level of comfort. When two or more parameters venture into uncomfortable territory, our capacity is passed. Or rather, it is at this stage that we ‘get through the clinical door’ and require intervention.

Deary tells a story of 'Anne', a fictional client based on an amalgamation of real client’s experiences who has experienced entering the fatigue clinic. Anne, in her early thirties, is a single mother working in the NHS. She brands herself a ‘stoic coper’ and has been developing symptoms of chronic fatigue for several months. How can psychology help Anne?, Deary asks. Fatigue is trans-diagnostic, bio-psychosocial, and is best treated in a multidisciplinary and holistic way. This means finding therapies which acknowledge not only Anne’s presentation of fatigue, but also her mind, body, and overall health. As a health psychologist, Deary prefers a holistic way of working, which draws upon different disciplines. In other to ensure these different domains are working in harmony, he proposes an overriding therapeutic theme that aims to ‘make sense of narratives’. If we can understand how Anne constructs her own story, we can then attempt to make adjustments. This is all in keeping with the concept of allostasis, or adjusting to a new set-point. The fatigue clinic is based on the concept of making sense of change, learning to adjust, and – crucially, Dreary points out – believing in people. Psychology, in its various forms, can help Anne to re-orient values, re-evaluate her sense of identity, and affirm her position back into the system.

Evidencing Deary’s three act concept of life, Sophie Carrigill’s path to psychology has been a journey of several acts. Her journey into sport psychology was fuelled by a near-fatal car accident which left her paraplegic. Following the 2010 accident, she completed her psychology A-level and degree in sport psychology. Her story is one of resilience, coping, turbulent identity, and grappling with control. Since the accident, ‘my life has been taken over by psychology’, she laughs. She describes calling on principles of psychology to see her through the trauma of the accident; mindfulness, reflection, and self-development have been cornerstones of her journey. As her acceptance for her new-found disability grew, her interest in sport was reignited. Since then, she competed in wheelchair basketball at the 2016 Rio Paralympics and now is co-captain of the GB team. She trained for Rio alongside writing her third-year dissertation, obtained a first-class degree, and is now looking to a Masters in sport psychology. It’s good news for psychology students, as Cargill attributes her sporting success partly to her study of psychology. ‘It’s about learning about people’ she explains. Her accident prompted her to rethink her perceptions of help-seeking, grit, and resilience.

This talk concluded Psych4Graduates, and Carrigill left the event with words of motivation and inspiration. After listening to the various talks, the Pre-Qualification group of the BPS Division of Clinical Psychology discuss routes in applied psychology, and the vast showcase of exhibitors, I left with a newfound excitement for my degree. The road to psychology is rarely linear but, as the speakers proved, something will muddle through in the end.

Madeleine Pownall is an undergraduate at the University of Lincoln. She blogs at http://thoughtbubblesblog.co.uk

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December 2017

This month's issue, archive, digital editions and more: Your Psychologist, your way...