Ian Florance seeks advice for undergraduates from Dorothy Miell and Darren Van Laar

Back in October 1994 The Psychologist had a ‘Student issue’. Darren Van Laar, who wrote an article for that issue and is interviewed below, alerted us to this fact and commented: ‘I used to give that issue out all the time to undergraduates when I was giving careers advice.’ There have been others over the years: for example, see This month’s issue is being distributed to thousands of new psychology undergraduates, and they are our focus this month – it is never too early to start planning your career in psychology!

The career choices available to undergraduates are wider than ever. Equally, the routes to practising as a psychologist are more varied and, in some cases, more complex than they were 17 years ago. This month we interviewed two experienced psychologists, Darren Van Laar and Dorothy Miell, to draw on their experience in this area. We’ve summarised their key advice overleaf for easy reference.

An interdisciplinary approach
Dorothy Miell is a Professor of Social Psychology, Vice Principal of the University of Edinburgh and Head of the College of Humanities and Social Science there. She is also Chair of the British Psychological Society’s Psychology Education Board (PEB), which advises the Society’s trustees on all levels of psychology education. Her own experience of training in and practising psychology has given her a very strong belief in the discipline’s strengths and how it is developing: a view that may increasingly inform psychology teaching and that students entering universities may well find attractive.

‘I’m a social psychologist by background, interested in patterns of communication in both children’s and adults’ relationships,’ Dorothy says. ‘I worked at the Open University for a long time – as lecturer, Professor, and Dean of Social Sciences, and developed courses in advanced social psychology and introductory psychology, among a number of others. I’ve become interested in collaborative working, and particularly in the way people communicate together when working on creative projects such as music making.’

One of the themes that Dorothy stresses is the importance and richness of interdisciplinary working for psychologists. ‘Psychology sits in the Humanities and Social Science College in Edinburgh and staff’s research links strongly to disciplines not only across this College but also in the other two Colleges as well – that is, in medicine and science. I’m really interested in this type of multidisciplinary working because it helps us address contemporary global challenges – and undergraduates should see such links and developments as exciting opportunities for their future working.’

Getting involved with the Society
‘I’ve been actively involved in the BPS for a long while. I’ve been a member of the Social and Developmental Psychology Sections for many years, and the first thing I did with the Society was help organise a postgraduate conference 30 years ago. I got involved in a number of areas, including being a member of the Books and Special Projects group and the Admissions Committee. After a gap, I joined the Graduate Qualification and Accreditation Committee (GQAC) and really enjoyed learning more about the many degree courses universities around the country were offering. This led on to my application to Chair the Psychology Education Board. I see the Society’s role as working in partnership with departments to help them develop their teaching to offer the best possible experience to students of psychology, and to contribute to improving communication about psychology to the public. This involves, among other things, creating materials for the Society and departments to use at science fairs. We’re focused on supporting psychological education at all levels, including schools. We’re also looking at surveying the employment destinations of graduates over the long term, which will help enhance the advice that we can give to prospective students in the future.’

Psychological literacy
Dorothy was involved in a retreat in late 2010 on the Future of Undergraduate Psychology in the UK which was a joint project of the British Psychological Society, the Higher Education Academy Psychology Network and the Association of Heads of Psychology Departments (see ‘Our discussions were informed in part by a study of American psychology education by Diane Halpern. She stressed the concept of psychological literacy and the idea that students should learn to apply their psychological literacy throughout their lives. Psychology is obviously a specific set of skills, a set of knowledge and range of theoretical approaches as well as an applied practice, but the psychological literacy approach suggests something wider. If you think about the complex world we live in, this is a more helpful way for students to see psychology – as diverse, ethical and socially responsible. I’m not suggesting we move way from knowledge and skills. They’re critical.

But viewing psychology in this way emphasises the wider impact that the study of psychology can have for graduates and how they can offer very sought-after qualities.’

Themes that developed in the retreat inform the recommendations in the box overleaf. ‘We stressed the importance of placements and that we might be more flexible about what counts as a relevant placement for psychology students. We also stressed that psychology is a science. Graduates need to learn that conclusions should be supported by valid evidence. Evidence-based practice is central to most psychological applications and should be more central to other roles It’s important that students and the wider public understand this.’

This is a compelling vision, integrated from Dorothy’s very varied experience. And the subtext is that new undergraduates as much as experienced academics have a role in forwarding it.

In so doing, they’ll learn skills that will make them even more employable…

…and the employability of psychology graduates is something Darren Van Laar, Director of the Graduate School at the University of Portsmouth, knows a lot about. In 2007 he and Julie Udell looked at first destinations of psychology graduates and investigated the career trajectories of year 2000 graduates seven years on. The government requires universities to follow up gradates six months after their graduation: ‘But that’s not that useful. After only six months some people will be backpacking; others working in bars and saving up for further study. If you’re going on to further study you might be doing internships or voluntary work. In the first two or three years graduates change jobs three to four times – by seven years they’ll probably be embarked on a career.’ Darren’s report and presentations based on it provide some descriptive statistics. Psychology was the fastest-growing degree course in the UK in 2006, and employment rates for graduates between 1995 and 2005 rose from 57 per cent to 61 per cent. In this cohort there was a wide range of first jobs from care assistants to roles in marketing, sales and advertising, and 40 per cent were in roles that might lead indirectly to a professional psychology qualification. ‘About 10 per cent of psychology graduates join the Society and are still members after seven years.’ Darren’s research highlighted a further issue of importance to graduates. ‘If you’re looking for a job it’s clear that the three best sources of useful information are, the internet and work colleagues.’

Darren’s views don’t just stem from this quantitative research. He took his first degree at Manchester Polytechnic, then took an MSc in computer sciences at York. ‘My PhD was in the use of colour in computing. It was sponsored by the IT industry and was basically a combination of applied art and design, psychology, economics and engineering, which I went on to use in making recommendations for the huge numbers of screens in power plants.’ This is a perfect example of Dorothy Miell’s point about how interdisciplinary working moves psychology into areas you couldn’t predict!

Moving to Portsmouth he worked as a lecturer and also as director of the graduate school. ‘My first administration role was as careers officer in the department. I held a drop-in surgery.

I did this for 10 years and it grabbed my interest in the whole area. There’s now a requirement for careers and employability to be embedded in undergraduate courses, and at Portsmouth we introduced a 10-credit unit called Occupational Choice, which is obligatory. Most psychology students say they want to be a psychologist – especially clinical or forensic psychologists at the start of their course. By the end they say many other things. Only 5 per cent of graduates end up applying for clinical psychology courses, and the earlier students realise this, the sooner they can either begin to prepare for the rigours of applying for a clinical place or, more often, begin to think concretely about what they need to do to prepare for work in other areas. It allows more time for genuine choice. A good percentage go into teaching or areas like human resource work. New fields like economic, consumer and sports psychology offer new careers. I’d suggest that students need to think more about entrepreneurial skills. A lot of psychologists do set up their own business or become self-employed, even if they’ve started out in public sector employment, so time spent understanding business will be time well spent.’

And Darren emphasises the need to get CVs and applications right. ‘I can’t stress too strongly how counterproductive it is to send out a standard letter and CV. The employer will sift through them and will want to see someone who is interested in a particular job rather than any job. That’s another reason why getting experience is so important. An unusual job, a show of initiative can make you stand out in the crowd.

A comment at the end of one of Darren’s presentations is a useful way to end: ‘…just about every job suitable for a general graduate will be done best by a psychology graduate.’


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