Misconceptions and more

Caprice Lantz and Peter Reddy on how students can develop a ‘career focus’ in psychology

Misconceptions around psychology abound. Psychology is often thought to be just common sense, to teach you to read minds, or to not be a real science, and as Jarrett argues in the September 2008 issue (see www.bps.org.uk/studentgift), some widely known older studies in psychology are poorly reported, misunderstood or just plain wrong.

The misconception that we are focusing on here, however, is that a bachelor’s degree in psychology confers direct entry to the psychology professions. Unlike some undergraduate ’ologies (e.g. meteorology), a first degree in psychology does not lead directly or automatically to a career as a psychologist. Many students study psychology to become psychologists without realising that this typically requires two or three years of postgraduate study and supervised experience. This time commitment discourages many students, and while some continue undaunted to apply for further study, many find the competition for places on postgraduate courses tough. For example, about one in four applicants who meet minimum entry requirements are accepted on to clinical courses. In the end just about 20 per cent of all UK psychology graduates go on to become psychologists.

Highlighting these facts is important. Students planning on a career as a psychologist need to be aware of the commitment involved in attaining the necessary degree classification and gaining experience that will position them to obtain entry to postgraduate courses. They also need to understand that, for most students in most subjects, there is not a simple progression from chosen degree subject to profession; there are choices to be made and actions to be taken. Lecturers too, although often excellent at encouraging students to pursue postgraduate psychology, may benefit from being more aware that no matter how passionate they are about psychology, the majority of their students won’t be going on to careers in psychology.

If most psychology students don’t become psychologists, what is the point of studying it? Psychology, like the majority of undergraduate courses, is non-vocational; but this does not mean that it lacks vocational relevance. Like history, economics, biology and many other subjects, it offers high-level general education, training of the mind, the development of mature judgement and reflection, graduate skills and competencies and general employability. To succeed in their chosen career, students need to develop their graduate skills and competencies through the opportunities offered in their degree and reflect on their interests, preferences, strengths and weaknesses. Psychology offers a rich diet of such opportunities,as made clear in the Higher Education Academy’s Psychology Student Employability Guide (see tinyurl.com/heapsyguide).

Students who are not sure about becoming psychologists need to be made aware of the value of a degree in psychology and how it can be used in a variety of occupations. They also need to know that being an excellent student, having potential for professional psychology and being highly employable interconnect. The ability to reflect on and analyse a problem will make you an excellent student and make you more employable in a range of occupations and a stronger candidate for professional psychology training.

The breadth of usefulness of psychology degrees often escapes students and they graduate uncertain of what they can do with their degrees. Psychology teaches students not only how to do science, but also to take a critical view of its limitations, how to use statistics to get meaning out of data and how to analyse text, and how to weigh evidence where there is no clear right answer. Undergraduate psychology helps students to learn how to learn, develops critical thinking faculties, and helps them to see the world from other perspectives. In this way they can jump into roles where they may have little or no experience but learn what’s required; they can see things as they are, get to the point, discard what is irrelevant, and detect sophistry. Psychological theories around learning, motivation and personality can help students to better understand themselves and others, which can contribute to working more effectively alone or in groups – and the ability to work effectively in teams is one of employers’ most sought-after skills. Additionally, because of the independent research project that all psychology students undertake, you will have the opportunity to develop skills in research, analysis, problem solving and reasoning, ethical considerations, and so on. These competencies that psychology students can develop will certainly interest employers.

Becoming a registered psychologist
Students whose ultimate goal it is to become a psychologist and who have the motivation and resources to pursue it, should not be dissuaded by the somewhat low percentage of graduates who eventually do so. The requirements mostly suggest the importance of planning and preparation; and many manage it, with nearly 5000 UK students gaining doctorates or other postgraduate qualifications in psychology each year.

For those pursuing a career as a psychologist, another misconception is that all psychologists become therapists – hence the popularity of clinical psychology. Actually, a variety of career paths exist within psychology (see also Sutton’s ‘What do psychologists do?’ at www.bps.org.uk/studentgift). The Health Professions Council (HPC) (the body that ensures that allied health professionals meet regulatory standards) lists seven distinct areas of psychology: Clinical, Counselling, Educational, Forensic, Health, Occupational, and Sport and Exercise. Psychologists who work in these areas work in very different environments and in different ways. For example, health psychologists use psychology to promote changes in peoples’ attitudes or behaviours around such issues as smoking, diet and exercise. They often work in hospitals, research units or in health authorities. Being an educational psychologist, however, is much different. It often involves working in schools and colleges with parents and teachers in an effort to develop awareness and effective practice in those who work with young people with learning and other difficulties. Even students who think they are sure about their chosen subdiscipline will find it educational to investigate all the possibilities.

As noted above, there is competition for places on postgraduate courses; however, this competition varies with the course and the institution. Those considering particular courses would do well to check on what makes for a strong applicant and then strive to do what is necessary to become competitive. Educational psychology courses, for instance, prefer applicants with experience with children and young people in roles such as teacher, learning support assistant, or care worker. Applicants who plan ahead may be able to acquire such experience during undergraduate studies, or have experience as a volunteer in a school or as a mentor or tutor that makes them a stronger candidate for paid work. Checking the applicant requirements at different institutions can also be helpful. Whilst some departments may require a degree at 2:1 or above, others might accept 2:2s with relevant experience. Of note, however, is that not all courses are approved by the HPC and those who complete unapproved courses may not be able to become registered psychologists.

Other options

In the subdisciplinary areas described above, becoming a ‘registered’ psychologist is important as it is legally required for professional practice. However, many areas of psychology are not strictly regulated and are often of interest to psychology students. Research psychology, neuropsychology, consumer psychology, environmental psychology, and coaching psychology are just some psychology-related career areas to consider. Whilst some find postgraduate qualifications necessary to enter or advance in these fields, others put their undergraduate degrees to work by choosing related dissertation topics, taking relevant modules, or gaining the related experience.

Beyond career areas labelled as ‘psychology’ are many jobs that are related to various degrees to psychology. For instance, careers advisers are employed by almost every university and by private companies to assist people in making career decisions and in developing job search related skills. Psychology graduates may be able to find jobs in careers advising with related experience only; however, many go on to complete a one-year postgraduate diploma in careers advising before securing a post.

Likewise a relatively new initiative called Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) has attracted a lot of attention among psychology students who would like therapy-type positions but are not prepared to pursue the full postgraduate qualification. In an effort to provide better public access to mental health care, IAPT has created additional roles such as Low Intensity Therapist and High Intensity Therapist. Psychology students are well placed to pursue such roles, although they do require some additional training beyond a first degree.

Developing a career focus
Although undergraduate study in psychology is valuable in helping students to develop skills and competencies useful in the job market, and many graduates are currently using their degrees in a variety of fields, some students and employers perceive psychology somewhat negatively. One obvious reason is the lack of understanding amongst both about how psychology can be useful in a variety of careers. Another is that whilst the study of psychology can be valuable in terms of its broad applicability and keeping options open, there are so many options open to students that they struggle to decide or are so engrossed in meeting course requirements they don’t make careers a priority. As a result, career decisions get put off and students graduate without direction and struggle to find it and jobs. Indeed there is evidence to support this. Employers have noted psychology graduates in particular can lack of career focus making them less desirable job candidates – see Siobhan Hugh-Jones and Ed Sutherland’s report
at tinyurl.com/27l4o4c).

So for students who pursue non-psychologist career paths, what is the remedy for misinformation and lack of career focus? Misinformation can be corrected by students gaining a better understanding of what makes their degrees valuable and then articulating this to employers through well-written CVs and well-done interviews.

In terms of developing a career focus, research suggests that it often takes graduates up to five years to settle into careers. Indeed, many take time off to travel or take up non-graduate jobs for a time until they decide what they would like to do. For graduates who have the resources to do this, that is absolutely fine. Some people’s careers evolve over time or occur by happenstance. However, graduates who want to develop a focus and land in a job soon after graduation are advised not to procrastinate about making career decisions. To develop a career focus, take stock of job possibilities, consider personal strengths and weaknesses, access interests and test out career areas through work experiences, volunteering or part-time work. Indeed, students can use their degree course both to help them make career decisions and to gain entry into particular career areas. Interested in international relations? Opt for a semester abroad. Keen on business management? Consider an occupational psychology module. Thinking of becoming a teacher? A dissertation topic on childhood learning disabilities could evidence interest on applications. Want to work in not-for-profit community development organisation? Find a work placement or opt for a sandwich year to develop experience, or if you are unsure and just want to explore it, do a short work experience over the holidays to simply try it out.

In conclusion, psychology offers some fascinating professional specialisms, but it is a misconception to assume that these are available to all psychology graduates or that entry to them does not require further training. A psychology degree is in the great tradition of high level non-vocational education, but students need to use their time at university to develop their employability, identify their interests, strengths and abilities, and gain voluntary or work experience.


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