'The answers lay in applying Psychology to the workforce'

Mya Kirkwood on discovering Occupational Psychology and developing that interest through internships.

I remember the seeds of awareness that occupational psychology (OP) existed. It was my own introduction to the workplace, as a young Retail employee within a theme park. I should have been pushing LEGO sales, but I was far more interested in understanding how, and why, the unique organisational culture succeeded as it did. How did the young managers consistently select and hire such high-performing seasonal staff? And how did the organisation keep such an impressively high retention-rate among their seasonal employees? Most importantly, how did they achieve all of this while upholding the legacy and value of multiple owners and investors? It was clear that the answers lay in applying Psychology to the workforce, and I wanted to learn more.

When I applied to study Psychology at university, my teenage-self was amazed by the kaleidoscope of potential careers and specialisms that a BPS-accredited degree would afford me. However, as Occupational Psychology (OP) is not a core topic required for BPS-accreditation, my interest didn’t really take root until towards the end of my undergraduate psychology education. Was it too late now, I worried, to pursue OPHow could I break into the field

The academic side

The freedom of elective modules in the third year of my degree allowed me to explore my new OP interests. I made the most of it and focused my final-year research project on social-cognitive influences behind women’s willingness to lead in gender-imbalanced work teams. I also gained lots of complementary knowledge and insight by exploring modules laterally related to OP. For example, studying ‘French for Professional Purposes’ modules throughout my French minor allowed me the unique opportunity to explore work life and culture in France.

My studies gave me a structured introduction to psychological theories and experiences related to the workplace and confirmed my interest in the theoretical basis of the field. They also made me realise how expansive the field is – it is another kaleidoscope within itself which truly covers all aspects of employee and organisational experiences. I finally felt that I had discovered an exciting and viable professional application for myself, in which I could unite my interests and have a fulfilling and successful positive impact on people's daily lives.

Practical experience

Upon graduating, I resolved to gain some practical experience before pursuing an accredited MSc, to make sure that I was also committed to the practical side of OP. I cannot recommend this enough. Since graduating in the first lockdown of 2020, my internships and professional experiences have guided my practical interest and suitability for pursuing OP professionally and opened opportunities.

I first spent a brief period supporting candidate assessment within a law firm. Gaining first-hand experience and insight into the application of virtual and in-person assessments (including psychometrics, assessment centres and interviews) showed me the unparalleled value that evidence-based psychology can bring to organisations.

The most influential step in my journey to OP so far has undoubtedly been my insightful internship with The Occupational Psychology Practice International (TOPPI). As an intern Assistant Psychologist, I have been generously supported to achieve the BPS Test User Qualification, which has opened opportunities for me to support recruitment and candidate assessment within the practice and empower students’ knowledge and confidence with psychometric testing within The Psychometric and Occupational Testing Lab (POTL) at the University of Roehampton. 

Throughout my internship, I have been fortunate to work closely with Dr Michelle Hunter-Hill (Practice Director; Chartered Principal Psychologist & Behavioural Scientist) who has supported my development by providing me with a wealth of varied and challenging opportunities to gain more exposure to the applications of psychology to the workplace, within practice and academia. Here are just a few examples of what I’ve been up to:

  • Co-organised the Happy and Well @ Work 2021 conference aimed to showcase the professional practice projects of Occupational and Business Psychologists
  • Wrote job descriptions and person specifications for two roles: Assessment Manager, and Practice Administrator
  • Created three psychometric profiles for a university-based module assessment for use by Occupational and Psychometric Testing students
  • Given feedback to clients on their psychometric profiles 
  • Literature reviewing publication records for research and practice reports
  • Designing infographics and posters on selection strategies and elements of psychometric test administration, and test use
  • Sourcing assessments/tests for a Psychometric Testing Lab
  • Writing blog articles on the History of OP, and empirical research findings

Dr Hunter-Hill has shared discussions and insights with me to nurture my growing interests in selection and assessment, wellbeing, diversity, and inclusion. Members of the Division of Occupational Psychology always mention how supportive professionals are of aspiring OPs, and TOPPI and Dr Hunter-Hill are prime examples of this generosity. 

Next steps

In the next step of my journey, I will be starting the MSc in Occupational and Organizational Psychology at the University of Liverpool in September, on a fully-funded ‘future Leaders’ scholarship. This will be the first official step to becoming a Chartered Occupational Psychologist. I cannot wait to deepen my knowledge and make recognised progress towards a career in OP. The future of OP and the workplace is at a critical crossroad and, looking ahead, I am excited by the role I will play in shaping workplace experiences in this new environment.

My journey into OP is only just beginning but if I could share any advice with my younger self and other psychology undergraduates, it would be this…

Firstly, remain open to a variety of professional experiences, even those not directly in the field of psychology, and reflect on the role of psychology in each experience or environment you enjoy working in. You could discover your field in this way and all experiences in the workplace are insightful, especially within OP. Similarly, discovering what fulfils you or makes your work feel meaningful is an active process; do not feel rushed to pursue a certain path straight out of university. Reflect on what you do and do not enjoy doing, or learning about, at each stage, as this awareness will allow you to seek out experiences to explore potential interests further. Thirdly, I highly recommend getting involved with the student psychology community, by attending BPS conferences and joining virtual communities through sites such as LinkedIn. Being an aspiring psychologist can often feel daunting and connecting with other students allows us to share experiences and thoughts, providing a reassuring and encouraging sense of community. 

And finally, don’t forget to check out Occupational Psychology!

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

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