A view from the outside

Ian Florance, the journalist responsible for many of the articles on these pages, on the picture they paint of psychology

n March 2007 the Society revised the Appointments Memorandum and introduced a section of articles on psychology as a career. This has included interviews with practising psychologists; accounts of students’ experiences; discussion pieces on major policy initiatives; and more in-depth looks at specific job vacancies. These articles have grown into a more than 100,000-word anthology, dealing with every branch of psychology as it is practised – and one or two areas I didn’t know existed. So what picture does this collection paint of psychology, and what important recurring themes have I noticed?

Three general issues underpin many of the articles we’ve published:  The profession’s variety – I’ve interviewed psychologists in coffee bars, hospitals, Georgian town houses, corporate HQs, the Royal Opera House and a disadvantaged inner-city estate. Psychologists who’ve been featured in the articles work with executives, Olympic skiers, opera singers, aspiring rap artists, hospice patients, offenders, prisoners, defendants, other psychologists, government ministers and robots! As a non-psychologist who has, however, worked for many years in one corner of the discipline – psychometrics – this sheer variety has impressed me hugely.
I    The amount of change sweeping through the profession – ranging from issues that touch everyone (such as statutory regulation) to aspects that affect specific applications (New Ways of Working, for instance).
I    Training – both initial training, which, in some areas, seems to be in a state of constant revolution, and continuing professional development (CPD), which comes up in every interview as a key issue in professional practice.

Against this backdrop a number of specific themes have developed, often raised by practitioners from very different psychological applications.

One profession
Many contributors commented that while the divisional structure of the Society, practice and training is entirely necessary, it does inhibit conversations between various applied psychology practitioners.

Interviewees have recounted how revelatory it has been to talk to a member of another Division, or bemoaned the lack of opportunity to do this at conferences or special events. In particular, knowledge of developmental issues across the lifespan and of recent developments in neuropsychology were seen as critical for psychologists working in any area. Of course, there are structures in place to foster this sort of dialogue – not least The Psychologist – but people want more.

This theme is also reflected in many comments that all psychologists share a base body of skills and knowledge which they then adapt to treat specific client groups – a model perhaps reflected in the structure of initial training (a general degree followed by a more specialist postgraduate course). Whereas a decade or so ago there was a real divide between research/academic psychologists and practitioners, the growth of evidence-based practice has further pulled different areas together. Few people exclusively ‘research’ or ‘do’: the line is so blurred  as to be nearly non-existent.

Many cultures
But there are centrifugal forces to balance these centripetal ones. Individual psychologists usually have strong views about whether their discipline is a ‘science’ or an ‘art’ and which of these models is most useful in their practice. This division is expressed in many ways: nomothetic vs. idiographic; evidence-based practice vs. human-centred practice; normative vs. ipsative; numbers vs. words; populations vs. individuals; helping people vs. studying behaviour  or cognition. But it sometimes seems as though psychology is revisiting the C.P. Snow thesis of ‘two cultures’ which was first published 50 years ago. Certain practitioners tend to favour one approach; as a fairly obvious example, counselling psychologists tend to utilise idiographic approaches informed by human-centred and analytical disciplines.

The structure of psychological applications also emphasises differences. Areas such as sport, exercise, coaching and consumer psychology are trying to get more independent recognition. Forensic, because of the extent to which it’s been featured in films, novels and other media, wants to emphasise the often unrecognised variety of its activities. There seem to be some concerns about the perceived differential status of applications: counselling psychology and clinical psychology for instance.

Another force divides the approach of practitioners within the same application: the importance of role models, mentors or inspirational teachers in developing new psychologists. This phenomenon surprised and intrigued me but seems to exert a huge influence on how people do psychology long into their careers.

‘We should be everywhere’
Perhaps I asked some rather leading questions influenced by my role as a journalist. Whether this is the case or not, psychologists have expressed a huge confidence in the necessity of psychology contributing to policy and debates in many aspects of social and public life. Lawyers and economists sit on committees everywhere: why not psychologists? Of course, this happens: we’ve interviewed people working in senior policy making, and others have given evidence in, for instance, House of Commons Select Committees. Recent interest among economists and media pundits in the psychological aspects of the economic down-turn (both causes and effects) and in the role of leadership in both corporate and political life have only amplified this view. But psychologists feel they should inform more debates.

Media exposure for psychological research and activity in general has also come up again and again, but here a strong wish for more coverage has been tempered by concerns about how media will twist or misrepresent what the profession does or has to say.

Perhaps it’s the nature of initial training or the extent to which public policy has focused on tertiary education, but there seemed to be a lot of concern about training – and not a lot of consensus about what should be done. The two recurring themes have been:
I    undergraduate students must be exposed to the full range of psychological applications; and
I    postgraduates need to meet and work with practitioners – wherever possible on real-life issues.
Students themselves agreed with these. They also raised the issue that, as qualification routes change, existing practitioners need to understand how and why trainees don’t necessarily have the experience they would have required in previous years.

CPD provides new knowledge, up-to-date research and honed skills. But more generally, supervision and peer discussion is valued by practitioners. Psychologists increasingly work in multidisciplinary teams or in isolation and having someone to talk to about ethical and professional issues is critical.

A personal view
These are some of the issues that have featured in articles over the last two and a bit years. While we’ve tried to represent every aspect of psychology, certain Divisions and applications have been underrepresented. We’ll try to rectify these omissions, and no doubt fresh interviews and articles will set up further themes that could be discussed both in future careers sections and more widely. What, in particular, has struck me?
I    I simply didn’t know that psychologists were involved in the rehabilitation of injured ballet dancers, designing aircraft cockpits, working with the dying and those in persistent vegetative states, to give just a few examples. What other profession is useful in so many different arenas?
I    I’ve been impressed by the commitment and thoughtfulness of many interviewees and writers to their clients. Is psychology a science or an art? Whatever the answer, practising psychologists understand that their work affects real human beings and take that responsibility seriously. Individuals raised issues of power and personal responsibility in therapeutic, coaching and assessment relations, to give just three examples.
I    Should clients go to psychologists or vice versa? This issue came up in a soon-to-be-published interview and, in my view, is a key concern for certain Divisions. If psychology is to influence a wider range of people and policies it must continue to think about where it takes place and how far psychological skills must be passed on to other professionals, and how far reserved for psychologists. ‘Giving psychology away’, a key theme in the 1980s, is still alive.
I    Different Divisions are more or less prepared to be interviewed or to write for the section. This obviously reflects the personalities of the small sample of practitioners we’ve approached, the policy framework within which they work and previous experiences of media coverage. If your Division has been underrepresented or there’s an issue you want to air, then do contact us.

Without consulting past articles I can think of 10 interviews that profoundly affected my thinking and that I insisted on talking about to non-psychologist friends at parties! This may suggest an impoverished social life or undeveloped interpersonal skills, but to me it represents the intrinsic importance of what psychology does and what it should say more loudly. These pages are your chance to inspire the next generation!

If you wish to contribute to the Careers section of The Psychologist, either by writing an article or being interviewed, contact the Editor on [email protected] for an initial discussion. To read past articles, view and search the archive via www.thepsychologist.org.uk.To discuss the ‘Featured job’ spot or any other advertising requirement, contact [email protected].



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