Careers: To volunteer or not to volunteer, that is the question

Samara Aziz, Sahdia Parveen and Jan R. Oyebode give three perspectives.

Psychology graduates, particularly those aspiring to become clinical psychologists, are entering an increasingly competitive field. A good degree is not enough: relevant work experience is essential. To develop their personal, clinical and research potential, an increasing number of prospective applicants to further training are seeking voluntary research positions. In this article we present our experience from three sides of the triangle. Samara is a graduate who sought voluntary research experience to strengthen her application for clinical psychology training, Sahdia is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Bradford who supervised Samara during her research placement, and Jan is Professor of Dementia Care at the University of Bradford, whom Samara approached for research experience.

Samara’s perspective
Whilst I had been successful in gaining clinical experience within mental health services, I wanted to develop my research skills further. I had gained some experience of conducting research during my undergraduate and master’s degrees but wanted to expand my knowledge. With the recent policy drive to raise awareness of dementia and a push for early diagnosis, I became interested in the ways that we could raise awareness of dementia, particularly within minority ethnic communities. After reading research by clinical psychologist Professor Jan Oyebode at the Bradford Dementia Group (BDG), University of Bradford, I contacted her to see if there were any opportunities for me to become involved with ongoing projects as a volunteer research assistant.

I was able to gain practical research experience by conducting thematic analysis on data collected during dementia awareness events that Jan and Sahdia had been involved with. This was a great starting point for me, developing my qualitative data analysis skills. Putting together the ‘findings’ section of the presentation for an international conference helped me to summarise my understanding of the data and organise how to present this for a conference. Speaking on a public platform was a very daunting prospect, but after support and advice from Sahdia I was able to work through my nerves.

Although data input and analysis is a vital part of research, I was conscious that I also wanted to gain as much practical experience as I could. After discussing with Sahdia my goals for volunteering and what I hoped to gain, I was presented with the opportunity to lead on a small research project that fitted with the research group’s interests. Initially, I held back in group discussions and my lack of confidence led me to become frustrated and disappointed in myself for not working to my full potential. However, my initial reservations were soon a distant memory as I progressed with the project. Once I had found my feet, I started to realise how great this opportunity was. This project allowed me to develop many key research skills including study design, ethical considerations, recruitment, data collection and analysis, as well as literature review, developing my critical reading and critical thinking skills.

I am currently in the process of preparing this work for publication and aim to publish a report in a peer-reviewed journal. I am extremely grateful to both Jan and Sahdia for giving me the opportunity and their time to work on this project.

It exceeded my expectations of what I could achieve as a volunteer research assistant.  

Sahdia’s perspective
Due to Samara’s research interests and my wish to develop mentoring skills, it was decided it would be mutually beneficial if I provided the day-to-day support for Samara. Whilst I had supervised undergraduate and postgraduate research projects in my previous posts, I had limited experience of managing research assistants. Managing someone of a similar age to myself was an anxiety-provoking thought! Initially Samara supported my ongoing projects, particularly around awareness of dementia in the community.

Although her contributions were valued, I soon felt Samara’s motivation to be slipping. I surmised this might be because this work was mainly office-based, with Samara collecting information from local community partners, typing up notes and conducting thematic analysis of the data. I set up a meeting with Samara and we revisited her main motivations for volunteering, what she hoped to gain and what her current skills were. We both felt that she would benefit from taking ownership of her own research project, but this would need to complement the work of the group. As all busy researchers will relate to, I had several research ideas on my ‘things to do’ list that I had not been able to explore. I presented Samara with a research question: ‘What are the barriers and facilitators to engaging minority ethnic communities in health research?’ From there Samara designed and conducted the research study.

Along the way we’ve experienced a few challenges and learned a lot. For example, as researchers we develop thick skins dealing with negative feedback from reviewers, funders and each other. I was very conscious that Samara had yet to develop this thick skin and may be sensitive to negative feedback. Perhaps due to my lack of managerial experience I always felt anxious about providing feedback. I eventually implemented the ‘sandwich approach’ – presenting negative feedback inbetween two positive comments. I tried to ensure any criticism was constructive.

I was very mindful of ensuring Samara had as many opportunities as possible to develop her skills and suggested she present some of her data analysis at a conference. I had to deal with my feelings of guilt for putting her through such a frightening experience! Despite sleepless nights, the conference was a great experience for both of us.

Overall my experience of working with a voluntary research assistant has been very beneficial. I have gained valuable experience in mentoring a peer and have had the pleasure of watching her confidence as a researcher grow. Samara’s contributions to our projects have been very valuable. On a more personal level, it was nice to have moral support whilst I recruited participants at the community groups, plus her ability to drive us there was a major bonus!

Jan’s perspective
I have spent my career in clinical psychology with older people and moved, after 11 years as Director of the Clinical Psychology Doctorate at the University of Birmingham, to my current research professorial post in 2013. As BDG is well known, we get a steady stream of requests for help of one sort or another, and often feel hard pushed to respond. However, when Samara contacted us, the efforts of good psychology graduates to get places on clinical psychology training courses were fresh in my mind, and I felt that I would like to be helpful to her if possible. I was also motivated by the fact that clinical psychology work with older people tends to be low on the list of priorities of trainees, who cannot help but imbibe society’s ageist prejudices… whenever someone shows a spark of interest I always feel I’d like to fan the flame.

It felt important to approach the process formally, obtaining Samara’s CV, interviewing her, asking about references, obtaining appropriate checks and finding out what was expected from the university in terms of formal process. Realising that, if we took her on, I would not have enough direct time to spend with Samara myself, asking Sahdia to take her under her wing seemed to be a possible way forward.

One of the anxieties for me was about letting go sufficiently to allow Sahdia to take forward her ideas with Samara. If I had tried to control matters or be too involved, it would have held up progress, which would have been frustrating for everyone. On the other hand, not being involved would have made me feel guilty of neglecting my responsibilities. I dealt with this by making sure I took time to discuss with Sahdia the direction she was taking with Samara. I also needed to make sure Samara was able to work to a standard that was appropriate. In this respect, I volunteered to be a pilot research participant, letting Samara try out her qualitative interview with me. This provided her with a trial run and allowed me to offer her feedback on her interviewing skills. Finally, we put some three-way meetings in our diaries to keep the arrangement under review.

We were all able to benefit from this tiered arrangement: Samara gained research experience; Sahdia supported and supervised a colleague; and my group received both general help and Samara’s additional study. So graduates, seek voluntary research positions; research groups, provide them. It’s a win-win situation!

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber