‘The pandemic stole part of my placement… but helped me grow’

Erin Fitzakerley with her experiences of completing a placement year during the pandemic.

My first day of placement, my first time ever entering a prison. I was surrounded by the sound of gates opening and closing, radios, keys clattering, and shouting. It was surreal: it should have been overwhelming, but I was excited. I’d worked so hard, and it was finally paying off. Working in a prison environment is like being in a bubble, and you either love it or you hate it. It was clear to me I loved it. But quickly, the reality of starting a new job in a secure environment in the middle of a pandemic hit…

Determined to succeed

Since submitting my UCAS application in Sixth Form, I knew I wanted to incorporate a placement year into my degree. So, when the opportunity arose in the second year of my BSc Psychology with Neuroscience Degree, of course I jumped for it. Psychology is such a competitive field – to have a year of working in the field before even graduating seemed like a no brainer. 

However, I soon realised that the majority of the placements being offered were unpaid and related to clinical psychology. This was disheartening – I come from a low-income background so an unpaid placement wasn’t really an option. Also, my true passion was forensic psychology. When my mum sent me the job advertisement for a paid year working with HMPPS Psychology Services I was determined to succeed. I worked harder than I had ever worked before to ensure I was successful in securing this placement.

When the applications opened, the UK had just gone into its first Covid-19 lockdown. This meant my entire application process was remote, including having my interview in my mum’s front room via Zoom with a sign on the front door reading “Do Not Knock on the Door, I Have a Very Important Interview”. In some ways, this made me feel quite detached from the entire process. I didn’t meet my interviewers or fellow interviewees, I didn’t have that time to prep and experience all of the pre-interview nerves on the train, I had to rush my interview because Zoom limited the meeting to 40 minutes, all communications were via email or phone, and I didn’t meet anyone until my first day.

Isolation and imposter syndrome

Most first day inductions include being told where the kitchen is and learning your way around. Mine was spent collecting hand sanitiser, being shown where I can collect the cleaning products to clean my desk and being reminded to stay two metres away from everyone. Only two people were allowed in an office at any given time, so I didn’t have many opportunities to meet the people I would be working with for the next year. Within the first few days, I’d collected my keys so I could escort myself around the prison, received my IT details, and discussed what work I may be involved in over the coming weeks. Then I received my encrypted memory stick and the remote working started. 

I felt so isolated, I didn’t think I could relate to anyone. All my friends who had continued into their final year of university were supporting each other through their remote learning experience, and all my new colleagues were somewhat used to working remotely. Asking for help is hard, especially when everyone around you is so developed in their careers. All my colleagues were speaking in acronyms and I was receiving emails from people I had never met, and a month after completing my placement I am still yet to meet. When you’re working from home it can be hard to admit you’re feeling overwhelmed and lonely when the only time to chat with colleagues is in a weekly catch-up meeting on a Friday… especially when you have only known these people a few weeks and barely actually met any of them.

When the feelings of isolation and overwhelming anxiety started to creep up at the beginning, so did the imposter syndrome. This is likely very normal for someone in a placement year – you’re the youngest, least knowledgeable person in the room after all. However, Covid exacerbated all of these feelings and for at least six weeks I was convinced that they had sent me my congratulations email in error, they had picked the wrong person for the job. 

Once I’d voiced these feelings, started going into the office more and seeing people more, the anxiety and isolation started to lessen. The imposter syndrome I was feeling started to reduce when one of my interviewers told me I’d given a great interview in a passing comment. But I’m not sure the imposter syndrome ever truly went away… the feelings persisted right up to the end of my placement.

A reappraisal

I felt that Covid took part of my placement year away from me. I spoke to others from my university who completed a placement year and they had great experiences working with clients and completing hands on clinical work. Due to the restrictions within prisons generally being stricter than those in the community, I unfortunately hadn’t gathered many shadowing opportunities. I had chosen to graduate a year late and I only had a small handful of contact with the women in the prison to show for it. 

Now I can reflect on this afresh. Actually, without Covid, I wouldn’t have received some of the more niche, incredible opportunities that now make me stand out against my peers. Whilst I might have missed out on a couple of shadowing opportunities, I was involved in a piece of research that has been accepted for publication. That makes me a published author before I’ve even graduated. I was also involved in several pieces of consultancy work and administrative work. Whilst this may not have always been quite as exciting as watching a HCR-20 risk assessment take place – something which I was lucky enough to witness – it gave me such a fascinating insight into the real world of forensic psychology and what it’s actually like to be a forensic psychologist. Not what they show you in documentaries. 

In hindsight, understanding what psychology is actually like as a career on a day-to-day basis was the main reason I wanted to pursue a placement year all those years ago. Without these opportunities, I may not have received nominations for awards at the National HMPPS Psychology Awards, or received the Reward and Recognition Award. 

Bigger issues

The consultancy projects I was involved in also gave me such an incredible insight into the real-life problems being faced by forensic psychologists and how they impact the women in prison. I understood how politics and prison work together to make change. I understood that every single woman in the prison had a story to tell, and I understood that there are bigger problems than what you see on the surface. I saw how rife self-harm and mental health issues were within prisons, particularly closed-category women’s prisons. Many of the women were primary carers of children prior to coming to prison; several of those women are now hundreds of miles away from their children and some may not have known where their children were. 

It became very apparent to me that physically being in prison wasn’t the only punishment for some of these women. They were also tormented by mental health problems, progression problems, lack of space, and of course, the horrors of Covid restrictions. One of the consultancy projects I was involved in surrounded the lack of progression for women serving Imprisonment for Public Protection, or IPP, sentences. This sentence was abolished in 2012, yet there are still so many women serving under the sentence. They are stuck in the system, and due to a lack of resources and arguably a lack of empathy, they may be stuck for a long time. I found this very difficult to research. It was so evident there are problems in the system, particularly for women who are distressed enough before being forced into this secure environment. 

A career is not a race

Changes in the system take time, but my experiences made me all the more sure this was a path I wanted to take. I got to know my colleagues’ careers, as my supervisor arranged for me to have phone calls with the team to ask them about their journeys thus far. I understood that a career in psychology is not a race. Every one of my colleagues had a different route. Before my placement I was keen to get qualified as soon as possible, but now I’d like to take my time and enjoy my own journey. 

Going back to university has been something I have felt anxious about throughout the year. Watching all my friends hand in their dissertations and graduate, albeit remotely, was difficult and definitely brought back many of those feelings of isolation I felt at the beginning of the year. There is also the uncertainty regarding remote learning; most people have had a year to become accustomed to the world of online university, but I haven’t and that is quite daunting. I keep reminding myself that the skills and the confidence I have gained throughout the year will help me to overcome any hurdles. In some ways, I feel more prepared than ever. For example, I’m so excited to start my dissertation having been involved in real-life professional research and I’m now incredibly keen to produce a dissertation worthy of publication. 

In conclusion, my year with the Women’s Estate Psychology Service (WEPS) has been the most eye-opening year of my life. I have met some amazing people, seen some sights. The experience will stay with me forever. Despite its challenges and hardships, I could not have asked for a better year. There were times when I wanted more from it, but in retrospect I achieved more than my fair share of success. 

The year has helped me understand my strengths and my weaknesses, grow in confidence and appreciate how to better myself. I realise where I want to be and how I want to get there. The placement lit a passion for research which I didn’t know I had: I even have plans to complete a PhD one day. 

Walking across the prison for a PCR test once a week was not something I had planned for my placement year, but I will forever be grateful that Covid shaped opportunities and development I will now take forward into the rest of my psychology career. 

Erin Lucy Fitzakerley

Current BSc Psychology with Neuroscience Student at Middlesex University

[email protected]

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