‘The scientist/­practitioner divide is nonsense’

Ian Florance meets occupational psychologist Almuth McDowall.

I caught up with Almuth McDowall at the 2015 Division of Occupational Psychology (DOP) conference in Glasgow. Among a number of appearances in the programme she reported on progress in revising the Stage 2 qualification process for the training and accreditation of occupational psychologists. It seemed a good time to pick her brains on occupational psychology as a career.

‘I’m now full-time at Birkbeck University of London, having previously worked at City University and Surrey University, based in the Department of Organisational Psychology, which was the first of its kind in the UK! I am Course Director of the CIPD accredited MSc programme in HR development and consultancy, I lead specialised modules, supervise postgraduate work, do funded research – it’s a full-time academic role. Birkbeck is an interesting place: originally set up as college for the “working men of London” it was also one of the first colleges to admit women as students; curious to think that this shocked the nation at the time. Over the years, it’s been a stronghold of adult and further education. That’s why a lot of teaching is done at weekends and in evening sessions. Sometimes this is challenge for my own work–life balance, not least as I am juggling a large research project which has to remain secret for the moment. But I’ve come to relish the full-day workshops.’

Almuth has been involved in the Society for some time – she was formerly chair of the DOP. I asked her how she’d started contributing to its work.

‘One of my many PhD supervisors suggested I give time to the BPS. I started working in the DOP and grew interested in continuing professional development. Being honest, I got a bit fed up with how long it took to get things done. The membership networks continue to be run by volunteers, and we simply didn’t have the resources to drive things through, and, in any case, in a members’ organisation there are set steps you have to go through to action any initiative. So I took a back seat for a while until the need for urgent action dawned on me when I became an MSc course director.

‘I realised that clients and potential customers don’t understand what we still refer to as “Chartership” (AKA a Stage 2 society-led qualification, which people undertake once they have completed their MSc): we need to shout the benefits of working with a regulated profession from the rooftops. It also became increasingly clear that the master’s curriculum did not fit the reality of occupational psychology work. The world of our work has changed – examples include the growth in coaching, more emphasis on wellbeing and the decline of ergonomics as a specialism. It was also clear that we were not working enough in organisational development and change, leaving this practice area to other professions.’

Almuth is clear that psychologists have so much to give: ‘…specialist knowledge and technical expertise, as well as our ethical stance, an appreciation of the limits to our competence, and drawing from evidence-based practice. Still, at an organisational level you also need the guts to be potentially controversial by suggesting something different, to be courageous and self-confident enough to work with senior teams. Psychologists often lack conviction, and there’s a real tension between what we know and how we package ourselves. In Europe, even MSc training involves more work experience, as students undertake two-year programmes, and I feel that it is vital to integrate such practical components into our UK-based training.’

I felt it was the last-chance saloon for our profession
‘Anyway, I re-involved myself in the DOP. Central to my work is a strong belief that the scientist/practitioner divide is a load of nonsense. Applied psychologists are about evidence-based practice. Simple.’

Hazel Stevenson, then DOP chair, suggested that Almuth step forward as the next chair. ‘I felt it was the last-chance saloon for our training path and therefore the future of our profession. We’d had done a major review of what we do and how we are perceived – OP First, the report published in 2006 – out of which had come the clear recommendation that action was needed, but it hadn’t had any great effect. Then Hazel came along and persuaded some of the best minds in our Division to undertake a review of training and development, which reiterated that not doing anything was far more risky than trying to initiate change. I’m pretty stubborn and thought “I can get things done”. You have to be realistic as a Division chair though and only take on what you can deliver. But the revision of Stage 1 – the MSc curriculum – is now done and dusted, being adopted and getting good feedback. I knew from the start that work on Stage 2 would be more difficult, and as you saw at the conference session there are widely differing ideas about what qualifying training should cover, how long it should take, what stages there would be. The issue of understanding post-MSc qualification routes remains key and we have to promote the value of being registered.’

What does the future of occupational psychology look like? ‘We need something dramatic to trigger change and a process of self-organisation. If that doesn’t happen I suspect that occupational psychology will not exist as a major identifiable profession in 10 years’ time. But this is not just an issue for the Division. Psychology has huge opportunities given the thirst for psychological knowledge, particularly in the media. A question I often hear is “What is behavioural science?” Shouldn’t we as psychologists be in the forefront of that debate? Increased public promotion of psychology is written into the Society’s strategic plan but we need concrete and tangible action.’

I grew up surrounded by British squaddies
Where does this huge commitment toher profession as well as her strong views on the future of psychology come from? Almuth described her route into psychology, and I suspect it explains, in part at least, her unique perspective.

‘I grew up in Westphalia which is a lovely but also very boring part of Germany! My home town housed the now last remaining British army base in Germany, so I grew up surrounded by British squaddies. I originally came to England to complete my classical dance training but fell out of love with dance here. In the UK you repeat endless drills. The Russian school, which I’d grown up with, stressed a more mentally challenging and creative approach. I suppose that’s where I learnt internal discipline, but also to put on a show, even when you don’t feel like it. These are core skills which have stood me in good stead, as working with clients, but also working in education, is often about performance. Our clients and our students deserve to get the best, and it’s not only what you know but also how you deliver this that makes the difference. I also discovered that I was less interested in teaching children, but I loved teaching dance to adults as I could be as creative as I wanted, rather than stick to set instructions. So I trained as a fitness instructor and really enjoyed being a personal trainer to some high-profile people. But I began to realise that some were becoming over-dependent on me and expecting to be sure of the results of fitness training. And, of course, you can’t change physically unless you change mentally. As my workload had been growing but I was also having thought about how best to look into the future, I had two choices – start up a company to service my growing client base or retrain. I did the latter.’

It’s interesting that, in interviewing practitioners for The Psychologist, training in dance has cropped up more than you would expect. Almuth suggests the link between mind and body (which is central, particularly to classical dance) and the need for (staggering amounts of) discipline feeds into success as a psychologist

Did psychology surprise you? ‘I’d been warned about the statistics and “science bit”’, so no. I’d already done a course in systemic therapy at Birkbeck and was initially interested in counselling psychology, but psychologists have an absolute responsibility to call a spade a spade and be honest about what we are good at. I was not suited to working with individuals day in day out. But I’ve kept up my interest in the area and am a very active member of the Special Group in Coaching Psychology. I did my own MSc at Goldsmiths where there was a wonderful faculty that inspired me. Clive Fletcher convinced me to do a PhD and I stayed at Goldsmiths for a few years.  My supervisors changed a lot and I ended up finishing my PhD at City University where John Rust’s Psychometrics Centre was at the time. Then I moved to Surrey.’

Work as we know it is changing as we speak
You’ve mentioned some internal issues for occupational psychology as a profession. Given your experiences, what are the key issues for it as a practice? ‘Change and complexity. If you want to make a difference in any organisation, you have to address these. Slowly but surely organisations are beginning to take the diversity agenda on board, and this has positive implications for the work–life balance issue, which is very dear to my heart. But there’s lots to do. Work as we know it is changing as we speak, as we work more connected, more virtual, and often also with more ambiguity. Plus, we seem to lose sight of the necessity of switching off – young peoples’ work penetrates every aspect of their life, as they are often connected 24/7.’

Almuth practises what she preaches ensuring she balances her work with a wide range of external interests. But she is passionate, though clear-sighted, about occupational psychology, drawing on her work experience, her training and the views developed through her roles in the Society. ‘I’d encourage anyone to go in for it, even though I’ve suggested the future is uncertain. Most practitioners I know do what they do because they see it as a way to make a genuine difference to people’s lives. Work is so important to our life satisfaction, to our happiness, to our mental health and wellbeing. We have an important and satisfying role; the beauty about occupational psychology is that you can apply it anytime and anywhere.’

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