The only way is clinical?

Emma Nielsen (right) and Kavita Solder (left) remove the blinkers and experience the career peaks and troughs together.

Apple-flavoured crisps, the limited diet of fellow interviewees and many hours spent watching Strictly Come Dancing; perhaps not your typical memories of any assessment process, but nearly nine years later these are some of the things that seem to have stuck most prominently in our minds.

We had made it through to the interview stage for undergraduate experimental psychology, which meant visiting the university for a few days and a lot of ‘firsts’. Boarding for the first time brought new challenges of organisation and navigation; not only finding our way around the unfamiliar corridors (was interpreting a slightly cryptic map a stage in the selection process?), but also navigating new social dynamics and finding common ground with candidates from very different backgrounds from all over the world. Of course there was also a myriad of necessary formalities, not least the small matter of answering some interview questions and completing a written paper. Amidst the fun of the process we met each other. What started as conversation over our unusually formal attire ended up as perhaps the most important first of all; meeting a fellow psychology enthusiast with a strongly held ambition to pursue a career in psychology.

So who are we and what have we achieved since that early interview experience? We aim to share a little about ourselves to inspire others to enter the world of psychology and to reassure others that are on the same voyage as us that it can be a turbulent journey, but one that in the most part is rewarding and fulfilling.

Emma’s story
At interview, aged 16, I was adamant that I didn’t want to be an academic. I, like many a psychology applicant before me, was determined to be a clinical psychologist. I knew that health and wellbeing interested me, I was fascinated by psychology and I wanted to do something that would make a difference in helping people. I’m not sure I knew of any other role at the centre of that Venn diagram. Just like that, the DClinPsy became the goal and I embarked on a head-down, single-minded pursuit of that dream, always thinking forwards to the next work experience placement, that potential internship, the next job application. Then a serious accident stopped me in my tracks, and for the first time I was forced to stop and take stock. I needed to find something new to throw myself into during the latter part of my recovery. Fortunately, I was taken on as a part-time research intern. During this time I realised that I had found a way to answer some of the questions that really bothered me in clinical placements. Perhaps more than that, I had found something that was so genuinely ‘me’, that for a moment I had forgotten to worry about what was next.

The problem was, as a self-confessed perfectionist, I don’t really do ‘quitting’ and don’t pull off goal flexibility with ease. Even though I knew I loved research, it took a long time to admit to myself that I wanted to set aside the clinical blinkers for good, and even more encouragement to believe I had what it took to apply for a PhD.

Now, aged nearly 26, I am adamant that I want to be an academic. I’m just past the half-way mark of my PhD and honestly can’t think of anything I would prefer to be doing. I work in a self-harm research group, primarily looking at coping functions and behaviour change. Undoubtedly influenced by earlier clinical experiences, I am also really interested in conceptualisations of recovery; what we mean by ‘recovery’ and how we measure it. Research never ceases to surprise me. It is a privilege to be entrusted with someone’s experiences and opinions, and I am continually humbled by participants’ generosity with their time, enthusiasm and willingness to share their expertise. As someone who is relentlessly curious, academia does now seem an obvious fit and a role that falls exactly at the centre of my original Venn diagram. For me, it was a blessing in disguise to be forced out of the comfort of the known and to look up for long enough to realise that other options were there.

Kavita’s story
I too saw clinical psychology as the only route to becoming that atypical stereotypical practising psychologist; however, my illusions were somewhat quickly, and thankfully, shattered as my undergraduate course in social psychology had a very different focus. I remember clearly having a visiting speaker inform us about educational psychology, and from that day I knew that was exactly what I wanted to do. I have always wanted to help people, apply my psychological knowledge, and education is something which I value very highly, so I felt I had almost found a career fitting for me, rather than trying to fit myself into a career.

Being a naive teenager, I was blissfully unaware just how competitive the course is to get onto. I went through a punishing PGCE course and went on to teach for two years in Greater London, encountering some truly endearing and lovely, yet at times challenging children, before being accepted onto the Doctoral Educational Psychology programme. I had almost been so blinkered by my goal of getting on the course for such a long period of time that I had not really contemplated life beyond the point of acceptance.

Now, only a year into the course, I find myself in a whirlwind of reflection, thoughts and state of fluidity. I find myself questioning beliefs and assumptions I held prior to the course. I look back on my short teaching career and wonder what would have been if only I had dealt with a situation in a different way, what morale would have been like if the staff structure had been altered, and so on. I also find myself reflecting on my own schooling experience and wonder how that has impacted on my value systems and constructs. It is with optimism and excitement, although perhaps slight trepidation, that I wait to see what the next two years of training has to offer me and how it compares to the life of an academic that my fellow psychology enthusiast is carving for herself.

One of my current research interests is home education and, more specifically, the possible impact of this on family dynamics and parent–child relationships: a relatively untapped area and under-represented demographic, which I feel could benefit from extensive research and support.

So, from beginning our journey as ambitious but inexperienced applicants, we have now reached a point when we can pause to consider how, why and where we are currently. While there is much further to travel before we can claim that we have accomplished our dreams (or indeed determined the extent of our ambitions) we have made inroads and are beginning to establish ourselves in our respective fields. Despite the changes in direction along the route we have remained undeterred; our enthusiasm and passion for our chosen paths has only strengthened with experience. Whilst we both reflect on the interview process with fond memories, we are also looking to the future with renewed vigour. I feel privileged to have connected and made friends with someone so early on in my psychological pursuit. The career peaks and troughs always seem more bearable when you have an understanding peer to share them with! Be it those early memories of interviews and formalities, undergraduate dissertation concerns, postgraduate application or thesis ideas; each ‘first’ we encounter is made easier in the company of a fellow psychology enthusiast and friend. As our career paths continue, we welcome a wealth of new experiences and hope that we can inspire others to enter the challenging, competitive, but highly rewarding field of psychology.

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As a home educator for 24 years and a recent psychology graduate I'd be happy to help in any way with kavita's current research interest.

I am currently undertaking a research project on Home education and the creation of self / identity for my psychology degree. I don't know who can read this post, but would be very interested to be able to contact Imogen Jackson, Emma Nielsen or Kavita Solder. Thank you.

Hi, I am a trainee clinical psychologist and was home educated from the age of 4 to 18. I'm very interested in Kavita's research ideas - do get in touch if I can be of help.