Dear Undergraduate me
We asked the keynote speakers to imagine a letter to their first year undergraduate self.
Be curious, creative, confident…
I am writing this letter to you as you are starting the final year of your psychology BSc. I know you are worrying about the future and whether you will have a successful career once you graduate. Clinical psychology as a profession has changed hugely over recent years and services have never been so pressured. However, despite there being a lot of negativity surrounding this, and it will undoubtedly be a challenging road ahead, I still wholeheartedly believe that a career in psychology can be exciting, rewarding and fulfilling.
I know you want to be a good clinical psychologist. My advice to you would be to be curious: about people, about what makes them tick, about how to make people feel more able to cope and be more resilient, and about whatever particular areas of psychology really interest you. There is still so much to learn about humanity, and if you find what you are passionate about, that will propel you forward in your career.
Think creatively about your future career and be open to working in settings outside of the NHS. Explore possibilities with charities as sometimes they can enable more flexibility and opportunities for you to explore your own areas of interest for the benefit of patients. I know that you often have doubts about whether you are ‘good enough’ to be a ‘proper’ psychologist. Like lots of people, you frequently experience ‘impostor syndrome’, where you doubt yourself when you do well and often worry that you will be exposed as a ‘fraud’. Trust me, so many people secretly feel like you do, and you will probably continue to feel like this for a very long time, but the trick is to realise that many people who are high achievers and successful feel like this, and that a thought is not a fact. Learn to be kinder to yourself, and gently remind yourself of your achievements.
And this leads me on to my final piece of advice – to be a good psychologist you will need to learn an awful lot of theory, and theory-practice links, and you will also need to gain as much relevant work experience as you can before you embark on clinical training. But alongside that it is imperative that you develop great reflective skills. You need to learn from all your life experiences, past and present. I passionately believe that every single one of your life experiences, including personal failures, as well as any successes will be useful, and that no pain is ever wasted. When times are tough, ask yourself, ‘What can I learn through this experience of pain?’ This will make you a great psychologist!
Good luck and keep going. You can do this and trust me, you have a lot of fun and fulfilment ahead!
Dr Gemima Fitzgerald
Dr Gemima Fitzgerald studied for her psychology degree as a mature student, followed by a doctorate in clinical psychology. She then worked for a hospice in their Specialist Palliative Care Psychology Service before becoming the lead for the hospice Bereavement Service. She has now founded her own company and works freelance in a diverse range of settings, as well as for the Dementia Carers Count charity as a Resilience Consultant.
Time to participate…
Welcome to your BSc Psychology programme at Brunel University!
A lot’s coming your way over the next few years, so here’s some tips to help you get the most out of your undergraduate experience:
Get curious. Undergraduate psychology courses purposefully give you tasters across the breadth of psychology. You’ll learn about health and clinical psychology, cognitive and animal psychology and loads more. Enjoy exploring new areas of interest. If you’re offered modules from other disciplines, consider taking them! Multidisciplinary thinking helps you get a more rounded appreciation of the world, so don’t restrict yourself! Ask yourself why things are being taught to you if they’re decades old. What is their significance today?
Work it. You’re studying a BSc Psychology with ‘Professional Development’. This means you get two six-month work placements during your course. Use the Placement and Careers Service to get the most out of your choices. Fill your summer break with varied work experience. Go international! Get out of your comfort zone! You don’t know what you like or dislike until you try it.
Be a participant. Join the psychology participant pool (most universities have them) and get credit or payment to participate in as many studies as possible. You’ll get insight into how psychology research works and may stumble across an area of research that really interests you. If you’re lucky, you might even get a scan of your brain to take home too!
Find mentors. Whose work do you admire? Lecturers are (mostly!) always happy to discuss their work and point you in the right direction. Go to office hours, see them after a lecture, email them and get to find out more about their research. It can open up doors for part-time research during your course and for the future.
Download and save all lecture slides. You never know when they will come in useful later in life. Stop printing, think of the trees! Also, get moving! It’s easy to think you can spend your student life on your butt studying, but your body will not thank you for it. Try out some sports and find something you like… yes I know your coordination sucks but you’ll love it, I promise.
Join the BPS. Get connected to the wider psychology community across the UK by joining the BPS as a Student member. For less than £30 you get access to The Psychologist and PsychTalk magazines, events, discounts and networking opportunities. Look forward to joining Psychology Postgraduate Affairs Group (PsyPAG) as a postgrad – it’s awesome!
Enjoy the next few years. I’m not jealous at all….. Future Emma
Dr Emma Norris is a Research Associate on the Human Behaviour-Change Project at University College London
Psychology can be a fascinating subject to undertake at university, but it can also be complex. You might wonder what to do with a psychology undergraduate degree; if you want to be a professional psychologist, you’re looking at many more years of studying into masters and doctorates. Perhaps that’s why only a small percentage of psychology graduates go down that route.
But there are such great opportunities available to students who decide to pursue a career in psychology – if you’re willing to invest. Make an effort to partake in extra roles and activities: positions such as ‘class representative’ should allow you to get to know your tutors better and take on a leadership role in the university. It also gets your face out there, and you never know where showing enthusiasm and passion for your subject may lead.
One of the great things about psychology is that there are opportunities everywhere. Think outside the box by contacting some local services that provide therapy or psychological services: what might you be able to provide them with whilst you study? A volunteer, or even a paid position? A researcher role perhaps? Why not also start thinking about developing an online presence?
For anyone willing to work hard, show passion and think in new and exciting ways, a career in psychology can be full of endless possibilities and incredible prospects.
Fraser Smith is a counselling psychologist in training.
He has a YouTube channel called ‘GetPsyched’, and a blog at frasersmithcounsellingpsy.com
So, now that you’ve started your psychology degree I thought it might be helpful to give you some advice on how to make the most out of it and what you can do to support your future… that is, after all, the reason you’re doing this degree isn’t it? Psychology is a really versatile subject: if you do these things I am confident that you will really enjoy the experience.
My first piece of advice is to say ‘yes’ to opportunities that come your way! A small part of your degree is the subject that you are learning: of course it’s important that you put in the effort, attend lectures and get interested in your discipline, but keep an eye on what’s next. Employers are keen not just on you achieving that 2:1 that you aspire to, but also that you have learned some other skills and challenged yourself outside of your degree. The only way to boost your confidence is to have experiences – some of these will be positive, others will be difficult and challenging, but all of them will be learning experiences.
Secondly, think about your career story. What differentiates you from the hundreds of others in the same position as you? What got you to this point and what will get you to the next career stage? Document this, draw your career journey… your significant moments, your key achievements and your future goals. Not only is this helpful for you, but when it comes to applying for jobs you will have some fantastic information to use in application forms and interviews.
Thirdly, use the support that is available to you while you are studying – your lecturers, your fellow students, the careers and employment service just to name a few. Use these individuals as the start of your network, they will be the key to your future. Your lecturers will be well connected: they have been where you are, they will be aware of opportunities that you could get involved in. Make a good impression, be professional, ask questions. This holds true for your fellow students – they could be your future colleagues or employers!
Finally, enjoy your degree! Get interested in the subject – you might not enjoy every module, but trust me, some of the things you hate (probably giving presentations!) will be really useful in your future career. Be open to this and you will learn much more than psychology.
You’ve got this!
Dr Vicki Elsey
Dr Vicki Elsey is a Chartered Psychologist, HCPC Registered Occupational Psychologist and Principal Lecturer at Northumbria University
The careers events are sponsored by SLV.Global. They commented:
‘These letters, penned by such esteemed professionals, were interesting and encouraging for us to read. Our organisation has undergraduates at its core and was created, back in 2010, to provide psychology students with the opportunity to gain hands-on work experience in the mental health sector.
We know how important it is for students to be able to put theory into practice, which is why our psychology-focused placements and programs abroad are so necessary. We provide global mental health experience for an increasingly global society and help today’s undergraduates become tomorrow’s BPS keynote speakers.’
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