'Be curious, be brave'

Ella Rhodes reports from the British Psychological Society’s second 'Careers in Psychology' event, held at the University College London Institute of Education.

Opening the day, President of the Society David Murphy highlighted the fast-changing nature of psychology as well as three psychologists, Artie Konrad, Brooke Rogers and Sabrina Cohen-Hatton, who have had fascinating career paths working in unusual areas. Konrad now works for Facebook on its 'memories' feature, which reminds users of past posts and photos; Rogers, among other things, is Chair of the Cabinet Office National Security Risk Assessment Advisory Group; and after being homeless as a teenager and joining the fire service at 16, Cohen-Hatton has studied psychology alongside her work and won the APA Early Career Award.  

Fraser Smith, founder of the YouTube channel and blog GetPsyched and counselling psychologist in training, also told the audience they should be aware of the changing place of psychology in the world when developing their career paths. He pointed out psychology’s future role in using and researching technological advances including AI, virtual reality, therapeutic apps and even robots.  

Smith started GetPsyched in 2017 and creates videos and writes blogs each week on mental health, psychology and therapeutic principles for the general public and psychology students. He has also created online courses including a free course on developing self esteem. Smith said he faced plenty of naysayers when setting up GetPsyched. He suggested that people be brave and think outside the box when considering their own careers in psychology. 

Forensic Psychologist and Associate Professor Dr Karen Slade (Nottingham Trent University) started working in prisons 25 years ago. Slade grew up in Romford and, after being a 'very average' student at school, reluctantly went to university to study maths before switching to psychology. 

Thanks to general disillusionment with education Slade decided to take a year out of university to complete a placement year at HMP Whitemoor – a high security prison in Cambridgeshire which had recently opened. She described her first day, being let through door after door, gate after gate, before emerging onto the wing and being hit by a wall of noise – music, shouting, and – after the men spotted Slade and her female companion – scores of wolf whistles. 

Slade’s first four months at Whitemoor were more than a little eventful. On that first day six category A prisoners escaped; during her second month there was a major riot on D wing; and in her fourth month a member of staff was taken hostage, an incident that went on for three days. Her placement year had fired Slade up and she realised forensic psychology was the career for her, and so she returned to university for her final year. 

Slade said clients in the forensic world often struggle to engage with services, but she said it was fascinating working with people in prison and that the men often had quite a story to tell. Being a forensic psychologist requires a great deal of confidence in dealing with threat and the high pressure environment, she said. Prisons are not, however, like they are shown on TV – each one has its own community and culture, which forensic psychologists become part of.

Slade said she is often asked about gaining experience prior to forensic psychology training. She said there are many voluntary and paid roles out there including work with the Prison Independent Monitoring Board and the Shannon Trust. She pointed out that psychology is not the only useful experience to have – after university Slade ran bars in boats and pubs. Dealing with the conflict in those places helped her learn how to deescalate situations quickly, and there were many skills people gain through work and other experiences which can be useful in working with offenders. 

After going through the civil service fast track scheme and working in the Additives and Novel Foods Division C, overseeing genetically modified foods, Slade started her forensic master’s degree and stage two training while working in HMP Wellingborough. This work involved carrying out risk assessments for lifers, individual and group interventions, research and consultancy on reducing self-harm, and supporting staff after incidents. Slade later returned to HMP Whitemoor as Head of Psychology.

She said that forensic psychology asks you not to judge and to be neutral and deal with someone in a compassionate and empathic way. She said one offender she had worked with had never engaged with anyone for 34 years but had been watching Slade in her interactions with other men and personally requested to work with her specifically.

When she began work at HMP Brixton the prison had an incredibly high rate of suicide and self-harm, issues Slade realised deserved more consideration in prison settings. She led a team of staff in the prison to help redesign the prison environment with psychological principles in mind, with no funding, and helped to reduce the suicide rate to zero for the four years she was there – there had been eight suicides in the four years prior to that. 

During her time at Brixton Slade undertook a research doctorate, and discovered a love of research which can be applied to practice. Eight years ago she moved to Nottingham Trent University, allowing her to teach, research and practice. Since then Slade has worked with a number of groups on suicide and self-harm reduction including the police, government ministries, Network Rail and the Samaritans.

Dr Annie Scudds (University of Chester) grew up in Bellefeuille near Montreal in Canada, and during her psychology BSc volunteered with brain injured patients, worked with women who had AIDS and as a nursery assistant. Scudds had always wanted to travel and completed the final year of her degree in France, an experience she found challenging but beneficial in terms of the skills she gained.

After returning to Montreal she completed a master’s in cognitive psychology and worked as a research assistant learning about programming, project management, participant recruitment and data collection. Thanks to 'a bit of luck' the professor she worked with as a research assistant was moving to work at the University of Glasgow, and offered Scudds an scholarship to study her PhD on object cognition there. She gained her first academic posts in Glasgow as a postdoc, then lecturer. Then came a fork in the road, deciding between academia and working in a more applied research setting. At this point a former colleague who worked with Unilever suggested that Scudds may enjoy consumer science. 

During her time at the company Scudds was asked some interesting questions in relation to product development and design; for example, she was once asked to design an experiment exploring people’s perceptions of creases in fabric. She also worked on logos, brand names, helped to introduce new products and even carried out research into the perception of stains – very important for clothes detergent adverts. 

After a few years working in industry Scudds decided to do a further master’s degree in occupational psychology, and became an occupational support coach for a government initiative called Pathways to Work. She later moved back into academia as a senior lecturer at the University of Chester where she leads several modules, works in the university’s marketing committee, leads the experimental psychology group and is a careers and employability tutor. 

Scudds suggested that students think about psychology as they would when exploring options in a supermarket, and be open to new opportunities to discover what they like and dislike in the field. ‘Be curious, be brave.’

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