From faltering first steps to long journeys

Ella Rhodes reports from a British Psychological Society ‘Careers in Psychology’ event.

Held at the beautiful Cutlers’ Hall in Sheffield, the first Careers in Psychology day of 2019 brought together keen psychology students, and others with an interest in the field, to hear from psychologists about their sometimes unlikely career paths. President of the Society David Murphy welcomed the audience with a story of his own slightly faltering start at school followed by multiple fascinating roles in clinical psychology, training and leadership.

Murphy also emphasised that, despite comments to the contrary by then-Education Secretary Damien Hinds, there was huge value in a psychology degree. Murphy said that 67 per cent of psychology graduates report that their degree was relevant to obtaining their current job five years after graduation.

Professor Carolyn Mair, a psychologist working in the fashion world, was up next to convince us that psychology is integral to understanding the fashion industry, its ethics and sustainability, as well as the effects of fashion on individual psychology. Just like Murphy, Mair was not keen on school – despite being a bright student, she was told that ‘girls like her’ did not go to university.

After working as a graphic designer and window dresser who enjoyed making clothes in her spare time, Mair also worked teaching English as a Foreign Language, did some interior design and even made birthday cakes. Later she studied psychology and computing at undergraduate level, did a masters degree in research methods and a PhD in cognitive neuroscience.

After a chance meeting with someone who worked at the London College of Fashion, and giving a talk at the college about bringing psychology there, Mair set up their psychology department and wrote the first masters course on psychology in fashion. Since leaving the College in 2017 Mair has set up a consultancy, published a book The Psychology of Fashion, and works with the media on a regular basis. She now has a role as H&M’s Behavioural Psychologist, helping senior staff to make their company more ethical and sustainable. ‘I had no idea this path would be the one I take. The world is your oyster, without a doubt.’

Dr Beth Bell, Senior Lecturer (York St John University), Health Psychologist Professor Jo Hart (University of Manchester), Senior Lecturer Ian Bushnell (University of Glasgow), and Senior Lecturer Dr Mark Sergeant (Nottingham Trent University) next gathered to answer career questions from the audience. Bushnell and Hart pointed out that students should not feel pressured to choose their area of interest in psychology straight away, given the flexibility and openness of the field.

Bell was asked where psychology is headed over the next two decades. She replied that the digital age, and the changes and challenges that brings, is already of deep interest to many psychologists and is a field that will only continue to grow. Sergeant, when asked how easy it was to move between areas in psychology, pointed out that he has changed the focus of his research several times thanks to collaborations which have drawn him into different areas of interest.

Senior Clinical Psychology lecturer and trained Clinical Psychologist Dr Peter Taylor (University of Manchester) shared his journey through two of the most popular professional career paths in psychology. Taylor first carried out a clinical psychology PhD on predictors of suicide at the University of Manchester before staying for his clinical psychology doctorate. After a lectureship at the University of Liverpool, Taylor returned to Manchester in 2016 as a clinical lecturer working on the clinical doctoral training course and clinical and health masters.

Recently Taylor’s research has covered psychotherapy for self-harm: he received funding for a trial of a brief therapy for self-harm delivered in GP practices. He also works with Mind’s reflective practice groups, has developed guidelines for NHS staff on self-harm, supervises trainee clinical psychologists and also compiled a book on personal experiences of psychological therapy for psychosis.

Taylor outlined some of the pros and cons of life as an academic psychologist. He pointed out that his day-to-day work in research and teaching is very varied, offers opportunities for creativity, and he works with many valued colleagues and students. However, he said some aspects of research can be somewhat boring, including applying for funding. Academia, he warned, is filled with rejection and a pressure to publish.

For those interested in the clinical route, Taylor said Laura Golding and Judith Moss’ book How to Become a Clinical Psychologist was incredibly useful. Those interested in becoming a clinical psychologist should aim for a 2:1 or first in their undergraduate degree and gain as much clinical experience as possible before applying for a place on a clinical psychology doctorate. In terms of gaining experience, Taylor said there were other ways than becoming an assistant psychologist… working as a support worker, in the third-sector or in health advisor roles, can also provide valuable experience.

Taylor compared the academic and clinical psychology routes. Both are competitive, and PhDs often involve more autonomy while a clinical psychology doctorate may be more structured. Working as a PhD student also involves more lone-working, while doctorate candidates go through the training with a cohort of colleagues.

Deputy head of the University of Chester’s School of Psychology, Dr Mandy Urquhart, took a slightly different approach in her talk – pointing out some of the non-psychology roles which may be open to psychology graduates. She said that while only around 15 to 20 per cent of psychology graduates become professional psychologists a psychology degree sets students up with valuable skills for alternative careers.

Urquhart set out on her career in psychology after a career in the travel industry, initially thinking she would become a clinical psychologist. However, after her degree she realised that this route was not for her. After a mild panic, having given up a career which allowed her to travel across the world to do a psychology degree, Urquhart realised that all she wanted was a job which allowed her to read all the research she wanted, teach and drink coffee. She became an academic psychologist.

These days going to university has become relatively standard, so Urquhart asked the audience what would make them stand out in future job applications. The University of Chester has created the Chester Difference Award which rewards students with points for carrying out extra-curricular activities, aiming to enhance their employability.

Urquhart highlighted some of Chester students who have moved into careers outside of psychology. Urquhart said it was difficult to speak about the first of these, Mattias, without getting a lump in her throat – not out of emotion, but jealousy. After working as a bartender Mattias realised he was a pseudo-therapist, chatting to many patrons about their problems. He studied this as an undergraduate and now works as US Brand Ambassador for Hendrick’s Gin. Mona, who carried out a psychology masters conversion, volunteered with Samaritan’s and later for Childline. She realised she enjoyed the systems and management sides of those jobs and now works for a nationwide peer-support network. All of the students, Urquhart said, drew on many of the skills gained through studying psychology to gain fascinating careers in myriad areas.

Coming to university, Urquhart said, gave students the opportunity to start afresh and to not follow the crowd. ‘Please yourself before others, understand what makes you happy and embrace it no matter what it is. Be resilient, there are so many peaks and troughs ahead of you. There will be occasions you don’t get the mark you think you deserve… put it behind you and carry on. Life is a very long journey.’ 

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