We talk to Peter Mitchell about teaching psychology in Malaysia; and to Lucy Standing on the working options for occupational psychologists, and on her role as a social entrepreneur

Out in the tropics

Peter Mitchell has been working on the University of Nottingham’s Malaysia campus since 2009.

I talked with Peter via Skype to see what it’s like to move from the UK to teach psychology in the tropics.

‘I was head of psychology at the University of Nottingham, UK from 2005 to 2009. Nottingham has two international campuses – China and Malaysia. Malaysia offered quite a comprehensive set of courses, and we began to plan to introduce psychology into the mix, so I started to search for someone to lead the Malaysian course.

A number of things came together to make it seem attractive to do it myself! My tenure as head of school in Nottingham ended, and it’s fairly common for the departing person to get out of the way to allow the new head of school some space. And the idea of living in and discovering a new culture is, in itself, exciting. I found myself on a three-year tenure in Malaysia, which was extended to five… hence, I’ve got one year left. In 2010 I became Dean of Science on the Malaysian campus, did both jobs till October 2012 and now I’m just Dean of Science.’

I asked Peter about the challenges he encountered in developing the course. ‘We started with next to nothing in 2009, so these years have been about proactive building. We’re 10 staff and we’ll have an intake of more than 50 students this year, compared with 16 in 2009. But the biggest, most interesting challenge has been the way the profession is viewed in Malaysia and how this affects student recruitment.

‘Psychology has become a popular subject to study in the developed world. In the UK parents tend to ask their children “What do you want to study?” and allow them a fair amount of freedom. In the developing world, by contrast, parents have much more influence over their children’s’ choices and they want them to do something vocational, subjects like pharmacy, business or engineering. Parents want children to qualify and to be in a position to practise what they’ve learnt, and of course that’s not necessarily the case with psychology.

‘There’s another interesting difference in attitude between, say, the UK and Malaysia. My degree was a BA but over the past few decades in the UK psychology has gone through a fascinating transition. Most degrees are now BScs, and the huge developments in cognitive neuroscience, partly driven by the development of sophisticated imaging techniques, means that psychology is seen as more a science than an art. In Malaysia, and many developing countries, this transition hasn’t always happened. Psychology is still seen as being linked more firmly to counselling. So, when you start talking to prospective students and their parents about statistical aspects of psychology and experimental approaches they often don’t know what you’re talking about.’

Peter draws a number of implications from this. ‘Whereas in Nottingham we were very much a selection university – selecting the right candidates from the much larger number that applied for a course – in Malaysia we have to go out and recruit. This means going to careers fairs, holding open days; being in general more proactive and aiming our messages as much at parents as at prospective students. We have to stress how a psychology degree fits into job prospects through bestowing transferable skills.’

This leads to another issue for any psychological professional. ‘Given all these differences, how far should we adapt our programme to local views? How far should the individual psychologist adapt his or her views and practice to local expectations? Nottingham has a particular interest and concern with imaging and the scientific approach to psychology. Other courses in Malaysia don’t take as scientific a view. We stuck to our guns and more than 50 per cent of our students will follow the psychology and cognitive neuroscience course. Our mission is quite specifically to provide a British education, so we are challenged slightly less than, say, practitioners, who probably do have
to adapt more to be accepted.’

Peter is at pains to point out that he is not criticising Malaysian practice for being out of date. ‘Malaysia doesn’t have a chartership or similar structure, there aren’t published codes of practice and there aren’t, for instance, nationally recognised educational psychologists. But it is developing structures, and key people in PSIMA – the Malaysian Psychological Society – see the British Psychological Society as a model for their development. And I can see why. Perhaps it takes living abroad to realise what a great infrastructure UK psychology has. The Society is an internationally respected organisation.’

Peter also points out that ‘it’s difficult to recruit people with the right sort of training and experience, so we recruit staff internationally from the UK, USA, New Zealand and Japan. We have to work hard to get them to relocate.’

I asked Peter how much of an upheaval it was to move to Malaysia. ‘My wife is Japanese and it’s easier to visit Japan from Malaysia, so it suited us from that point of view. And there are huge positives about living here. It’s always summer. It has a great cultural history and people are very happy and welcoming. Its cheap to live here – you don’t have to pay much to get a superb meal. Malaysia has a rich mix of cuisines. I love music and the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra is world class. The quality of health care is spectacularly good, as I know from personal experience. In 2010 we had a baby boy who suffered some neonatal problems. He was wonderfully well looked after and is just going into pre-school. So I love it here, and I can see why many people who move here on a short-term contract end up staying here for ever. But it’s made me appreciate the UK more. I miss the seasons. I love the UK’s organisational structures, its health care, support services, even its local government. I think British people are naturally
helpful (with one or two geographical exceptions!). I’m looking forward to going back to see Nottingham Forest, though top clubs like Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United and City have come over to play exhibition games against the national team outside the UK season.’

I asked Peter if he had any other comments. He thought a while, then said ‘I suppose that because the Malaysian campus is smaller than the UK one there’s more communication between different departments and disciplines, allowing wonderful opportunities to connect with, and learn from colleagues in disciplines other than psychology. This particularly helped me as Dean of Science and I think it will affect what I do when I come back to the UK.’


Ups and downs in occupational psychology

Lucy Standing on the working options of occupational psychologists, and on her role as a social entrepreneur 

For the purpose of this piece, I’m assuming you have a fairly good idea of what an occupational psychologist (OP) does. I currently work freelance but I’ve also worked in consultancy and in-house. As these are the three main ways in which occupational psychologists work, I’ll use this article to describe the main benefits and downsides associated with each.

I also work as a social entrepreneur, which I’ll briefly explain towards the end of this article because it’s relevant to our field. 

Freelancing/associate work

I’ve noticed more and more people working freelance: the unrivalled flexibility and tax advantages are no doubt significant, but as occupational psychologists, we can’t overlook theories of motivation – I believe the increase in freelance workers is down to the fact that it allows you more chance to pursue work you find more meaningful – Maslow’s stage of self-actualisation.

As the money side of things is always the burning question most people considering a freelance career want to know, I’ll get it out of the way. I charge £1000 a day. This varies – I’ll do interesting work on a pro-bono basis too. When I do associate work (which is when I work for another firm under their name), I usually get between £600 and £950. The last time I worked full time (eight years ago) my salary was £50,000 p.a.  In my first freelance year, I earned £54,000, but paid less tax and worked around 80 days as opposed to the 200 days plus a year I had been working previously.

Running your own freelance business requires that you run a company – it might be small, but you still need to complete annual tax returns and company returns. You’ll need plenty of administrative time to do these things. Even if you choose to hire an accountant or other experts, you’ll need to still spend this time researching your options.

I do largely the same sort of work I did when I worked full time. I run lots of training courses, development interventions and I do a lot of assessment work. The longer you do it, the more you build up your own name and brand.

The main benefits

I    Flexibility – I get to take as much holiday as I like. My main reason for freelancing was because I started a family. I have three children, who will only be young once. I want to be around as much as possible and never worry about my promotion prospects suffering.I    Autonomy – I never work until 10 or 11pm unless I want to. If I want to take a taxi home, I don’t have a company policy saying it’s unacceptable. I make my own decisions.
I    Portfolio career – I have a fairly entrepreneurial streak. I used to also run a hotel, which I enjoyed turning around to become a successful business. Working freelance allows you to indulge other passions, which can enrich what you can bring to the table as a psychologist.
I    Research – I do more research now than ever before. I read more books and articles and engage much more in the ‘psychology’ of what we do.
I would like to thank the BPS for their provision of PsychSource and the Occupational Digest – I use them a lot.

Main downsides
I    Isolation – I miss the banter of the office and the muffin mornings. I miss working with other bright, intelligent people I respect. I still meet people but it’s not the same as working with them daily.
I    Unpredictability – Money isn’t guaranteed. The best freelancers will be busy during the slowest and quietest recession. It’s all down to relationships. If you have good clients, the transition is easier. If you have no clients, you’ll need to go through the associate route where you’ll not know much about the pipeline of work coming in. For some this is unsettling.
I    Extra tasks – Working for a larger organisation brings the benefits that other people worry about your IT network and company tax returns. Work on your own and this all falls in your lap.

I’ve worked for two consultancies – both of whom had different styles, but the need for business development was common to both. I personally find this empowering, but some find this threatening: failing to bring in any business month after month can make people feel very exposed.

The main part of the job is around working with clients to understand an issue, propose and develop an intervention and hopefully, to evaluate what impact you’ve had. When I worked full time, a typical week would look like this:

Sunday: Depart late afternoon to Durham to deliver a coaching workshop on Monday morning. Travel home and arrive back at 10pm. Tuesday: Meeting in London with a client. You are developing an assessment centre for their graduate interns and you are meeting to discuss issues and update them on progress. Tuesday afternoon is spent following up the meeting and responding to other e-mails. Wednesday: You’ve been booked in to run some focus groups in Leicester. You get up at 6am to be there for a 10am start. You spend the afternoon writing up the results. Thursday: You get to work from home: you have some reports from a development centre to assess. Friday: You go into the office and catch up on admin, meet up with your team members, get briefed on an assessment and workshop you’ve been booked in to run next week.

Main benefits
I    Variety – I never knew weeks could fly like this until I worked in consulting.
It was engaging and enjoyable, and if you didn’t like something you weren’t doing it for long.
I    Interest – Different clients, different projects, different experiences. You can’t fail to find something of interest.
I    The people – You work with like-minded people doing similar roles
who share an interest in the field. It’s brilliant to have the free resources of your colleagues’ brains with whom to push ideas around.

Main downsides
I    Business development– I love doing business development and can network well. But if you don’t bring in work, expect to be in the firing line.
I    Politics – You get politics everywhere you go, so let me clarify. Who gets the credit for a sale, when one person was called by a client, but someone else did the proposal and then someone more senior accompanies you to a presentation? You’ll sometimes find you’ve done most of the work and yet everyone wants credit. It’s not surprising that on occasion this can leave bad feeling.
I    The hours – I’ve sacrificed evenings and weekends travelling or working until
3  or 4am simply because a project might not have been scoped properly. Fine if it’s your project, but when it’s someone else’s you can feel short-changed.

Working in-house
My first role in OP was working for a US investment bank. I designed graduate recruitment processes and eventually moved into managing the function and then moved to head up recruitment globally at a strategy consulting firm. Your ‘clients’ tend to be the managers who work for the organisation and your colleagues in HR who come to you as a specialist.

A typical day would look something like this: Get to your desk and catch up on a few e-mails. Briefly catch up with a colleague who has prepared an interview schedule for a round of hires they are doing and they want your input to give it the ‘thumbs up’. Get back to three voicemails – mainly from external vendors wanting to get on to a preferred supplier list or wanting you to advertise in their HR magazine. Grab a sandwich and eat it at your desk. Meet an external vendor – you’ve commissioned a new training programme on presentation skills and need to check progress. You need to follow up by sending over some files and templates. The diversity manager asks you to meet next week to discuss how to address institutional racism; you agree a time to meet. You’ve been asked to run an interview next week for a new HR hire. You spend 15 minutes trying to find a suitable room you can book! The e-mails have kept arriving so you go through a few of those before you get down to trying to finish off the new appraisal form you are designing.

You do this five times over to get a typical week.

Main benefits
I    The long-term impact – I loved working where I could see the impact of my work year on year. I could see the graduates I hired turning into great traders or consultants, I could see my company climbing the top 100 graduate employers, I could assess the validity of my assessment centres. Because I could see the results I knew I was having a positive and meaningful impact.
I    The money and power –  This really applies only to working in investment banking or strategy consulting. Both pay well. I literally took a 50 per cent pay cut to move into consultancy. I also had a very decent budget with which to hire and manage external vendors. If you are in this position it is a privilege.
I    Being a specialist – As one of the only ‘psychologists’ in the bank I would be asked to consult with others and feed into their meetings. I enjoyed having that identity.

Main downsides
I    Being a ‘cost centre’ – Because you are a ‘cost centre’ you need to justify your existence on an almost daily basis.
I    Isolation –  Working as an OP within
a larger HR department, you can feel isolated. Because others don’t know your role, you have to manage their expectations more constructively.
I    Politics – Because of the ‘cost centre’ point above and people needing to justify their existence, HR business partners don’t always like it if people in ‘the line’ come to you directly; it cuts them out of the equation. They prefer it if you provide them with a service they can then provide to their line managers. The ability to tread carefully and not upset anyone is important.
I    The hours – I used to get to work for 7.30am latest and if I got home before 9.00pm it was a bonus. I also had to give up the odd weekend.
Finally, I’ll say something about being  a social entrepreneur – I say social because I refer to myself as ‘volunteer’. I do what I do through choice. My goal is to make the training world more efficient and to help OPs who get involved in training work.  We share our training materials free online. I don’t ask people to register (I’m not list-building). There are no adverts on the site – it’s purely about helping the OP and the wider training & L&D community to get smarter about sharing and building on each other’s knowledge. This isn’t pure OP, so I won’t elaborate here, but if you’d like to learn more, look at the website (, where plenty of other brilliant occupational psychologists have published their content so you don’t need to waste time reinventing it all.

Overall, the main thing I’d say about occupational psychology is how lucky we are to have this qualification in our bags. It enables you to work in almost any way you’d like and you can apply it to anything, provided you step outside our fairly insular (sorry) world. Information is now free – so it has very little value. The value we provide is how we apply what we know and make it interesting and relevant to others.

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