Pathways to Psychology Part Two: What next?

Madeleine Pownall and Ian Florance with follow-up stories from the next generation.

In our first article, published in last month’s issue, nine student psychologists described how they initially got interested in the subject, and how that fed in to their school and university education. Here we move on to the next stage in their journey: do the students who we interviewed now feel prepared to join the world of work; what work experience do they have; what (if any) are their goals, and how do they want their first job and careers to shape up?

We initially asked about their practical experience of psychology roles and what insights they had gained from this. Bairavi Selvarajah’s goal to move into research was aided by work in ‘a summer intern job with the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development at Birkbeck... an ASD intervention as part of their Babylab... managing infant data, putting them into the system. I think it’s important to get hands-on experience in a research centre. Academic writing and theory are very important, but so are understanding how to work alongside other people and the natural demands of a research assistant. These are things like: how do I cope if I conduct a study and things don’t go to plan or new problems arise? These things that can’t be taught; you need to experience them.’

Like other interviewees, Hakan Sahin admitted that ‘when I started my programme, I had a naïve idea of what therapy involved. My work experiences have shown me how therapy requires separating my emotions from the clients’ ones. However… experience working with suicidal ideation and self-harm have shown me that I have the skills.’

Clare Wakenshaw emphasised points learnt during her doctorate in counselling psychology that apply whatever course someone is studying; or whether they, like Clare, have earlier experience in a related profession (Clare had been a teacher). ‘I concentrated throughout the doctorate on getting as wide a range of experience as I could: placements in a third sector organisation, a private occupational health organisation, an NHS inpatient forensic mental health and NHS health psychology team and trying to get experience with patients and clients across the whole lifespan. I’ve worked hard to get work published... I had worked with people with learning disabilities and in older adult settings... A limitation of the counselling psychology doctorate is that only therapeutic work counts as clinical experience and I worked hard to develop my experience beyond that.’

Across our interviews, the NHS was a major learning site for many would-be psychologists. Oyindasola Famodou, for example, recalled how she worked in oncology ‘and I think that’s where my interest in health psychology came from. You see a lot of things that are just not right and think “if I could change that I would do this, like this, I would do this this way”. Working with sickle cell patients I started to think about more than just behaviours. This helps you relate to people because you search for explanations of why they do what they do’.

Any sort of work experience can help. Jonathan Fancett is currently ‘working in retail. I thought getting a psychology degree might get me on to the graduate programme of a supermarket where I was working… right now, I’m just a supervisor in a Farmfoods shop.’ For Eve Smyth, ‘tutoring psychology students, working on summer camps, a lot of educational roles’ all offered insights. ‘I did a role where I was teaching psychology in China for a few weeks, so teaching students who haven’t studied psychology before and going back to basics definitely did help.’

‘You need such a massive passion for it’
What soon became apparent was how many of our interviewees were applying for further courses or looking to do further research. Hakan Sahin wanted ‘to do research which combines Neuroscience and Psychology and Counselling. I have an idea about developing a new therapeutic method to reduce treatment time for PTSD from years to months. I could conduct this research in a PhD or PsyD doctoral programme.’ Alice Wharton was excited to be in the process of applying for her Master’s. She described how she was having difficulties choosing between several interesting specialties from neuropsychology and research methods to applied positive psychology and coaching. She feels this short-term study will influence her later career. Bairavi Selvarajah was also planning to start a Master’s in developmental and cognitive neuroscience. ‘From there, I’d like to get a job within that field. Working as a research assistant full time for a baby lab or working with a team in a research centre.

Eve Smyth was already committed to her Master’s and had some specific jobs in mind. ‘I would like either to be in a behavioural science consultancy firm or it would be an ultimate goal to be accepted into the Civil Service Fast Stream working on policy. But I’ll apply to a range of things...’ She believes first jobs should give you ‘experience in how to communicate with clients, in the world of work in a professional way. When contributing to team meetings, I can draw on things that I know from psychology to benefit a certain goal or something like that.’

But in several cases, some of the students we spoke to were coming to the end of their degree with no clear-cut idea of their graduate destination. Daniela Marinova admitted to not being too sure. ‘I’ve been offered an internship at the European Parliament in Brussels, so maybe I’ll go and do that in September... Then the other thing is moving to China and eventually starting to work as an English teacher there. A friend’s mum has got a company that’s related to pet product manufacturing, so they need people to either do advertising or some sort of data science or evaluation on how their marketing is going, because it’s quite a big company in China.’

The impact of Covid-19 on the graduate job market featured throughout the interviews too. Hannah Paish emphasised this overarching, critical point: ‘given the current situation, people aren’t hiring in the way that they would, so you’ve just got to apply for everything and see what happens. I’m looking for things that I think I’ll be able to do, not necessarily stuff that related to what I’ve studied.’

The relative lack of jobs meant that the job market for ‘psychology jobs’ was increasingly competitive, as Oyindasola Famodou explained: ‘I initially thought of training in clinical psychology, but the competition is just ridiculous. You need such a massive passion for it. Do I have that passion? You have to be truthful to yourself. I am very passionate about making a difference in health care and patient experience...
I need to find out more about how I could fit into the NHS in real life.’

When these interviews took place, the Covid outbreak was regularly mentioned; it was reducing the number of jobs available, increasing the need for psychological help and making some of our interviewees even more concerned to get involved. Alice Wharton: ‘What I hear at the moment is that lockdown is having a huge effect on people’s mental health... it makes me think I want to help these people who are struggling.’

But there were several fundamental responses to the issue of job availability. One was that, given the need to finish a course, students hadn’t got time to research jobs. There were also financial implications. Jonathan Fancett finds himself in very specific circumstances. ‘Now, my partner is the chief earner, but at some point we’re thinking of children. And one of the things we considered was, well maybe I should complete a Master’s alongside being a stay-at-home parent.’

Others already had jobs, like Clare Wakenshaw: ‘It’s a maternity contract as a specialist psychologist in an NHS cancer health psychology service where I did my final placement. But it certainly looks like two to four of us have jobs. The majority of people in my cohort have already secured jobs So, it feels like actually the jobs stuff is broadly quite positive.’

‘Not an ideal environment’
A more common response, perhaps unsurprisingly, is that there are either too few jobs, or none at all around; Eve Smyth commented ‘I think for most graduates, given the circumstances, it’s not an ideal environment in the world of work. Sometimes compared to my friends doing medicine or economics, I feel there’s less certainty about whether you’ll get a job related to your degree.’ Oyindasola Famodou pointed out that the job that usually comes up is ‘teaching assistant’. For Bairavi Selvarajah a key issue is that ‘finding relevant experience to increase your chances is hard’.

Hakan Sahin and Oyindasola Famodou also raised important points about their particular situation: Hakan: ‘I don’t want to generalise too much, but I feel they (employers) can be looking for a person who is born in the UK, maybe a member of a white, middle class family and of female gender. I think a person who fits these criteria has a better chance of getting a job…. My personal experience is such attitudes exist. The discriminatory barriers can be demotivating.’ Oyindasola commented: ‘Friends of mine are struggling to get into psychology, they are what you would term BAME. Maybe we don’t have the same knowledge and opportunity. I think when we know people who have these connections that are maybe a bit more established, and they have a bit more knowledge, you’re in a better position to find opportunities.’

Daniela Marinova sounded more positive, commenting, ‘the skills that you develop with the degree, especially in terms of research and statistics, are relevant to a lot of fields. A lot of employers are looking for soft more than hard skills. I think a lot of fields are open to psychology graduates. I don’t think it’s that difficult to find a job. I think university is actually making it quite easy for us, always sending job offers and saying sign up to this and that website.’

Similarly, Hannah Paish emphasises, ‘I’ve known from the beginning that psychology is ranked quite far down the list of jobs with high employability rates, but I think that’s because employers just don’t really understand what sort of skills psychology graduates have. If you do something like law or medicine, then people know exactly what skills you’ve got. But there are so many that you have: data analysis, project writing, and reviewing literature.’

End goals
We finally asked each interviewee what their end goal was. It is easiest to give their answers.

Oyindasola Famodou: I’m interested in like change management as well as using research to influence health policy, specifically in the NHS.

Jonathan Fancett: The two main ones are probably educational psychologist for long-term, very long-term planning or research. I don’t know enough about them to say for certain, but that’s likely at the moment.

Daniela Marinova: I always saw myself as going into the clinical psychology field after university, but I think that changed throughout my experience. Life coaching resonates with my personality a bit more because it’s more future focused.

Hannah Paish: I don’t see myself becoming a psychologist. I used to think I wanted to be one. My current goal is more to use the skills that I’ve gained from my degree in whatever I want to go into really. I’m looking for things to do with project management or around that area. I’m applying for a data analysis programme. What I’d quite like to do is to find a career area that I really like or a job that I really like and then work my way up to a higher position, but I haven’t really thought as far ahead as ten years. I’d like to be in a stable career.

Hakan Sahin: Academically, my ambition now is to work in research projects combining neuroscience and psychotherapy, but I recognise I have to be realistic about this challenge. Drawing from both disciplines I want to help clients to the best of my ability.

Bairavi Selvarajah: I want to stay in research so everything I do now, the things I’ve applied for and the experience I’ve had within psychology, it’s all a lead up to eventually having a career in academia within child development. In 10 to 15 years’ time, I hope I’m working as a postdoc or as part of a project in child development.

Eve Smyth: I would love it if I was part of a team working on policy and doing research to determine how policy might work best in different areas, definitely psychology-related.

Clare Wakenshaw: I’m really interested in cancer psychology and palliative care more broadly, particularly the overlap between end of life care and bereavement as that has been the focus of my research. In the longer term, I’m really keen to consider how I might be able to contribute to policy and practice development.

Alice Wharton: I do see myself becoming a counselling psychologist, but whether that’s with five years of life experience after university or a 30-year period and then you come back to it, I don’t know.

Some thoughts
A key message we drew from these interviews is that whether students apply their learning practically or advance research they, as Bairavi points out, find there are some things that can’t be taught and must be experienced. On the other hand, with the right psychologically-minded attitude any job experience teaches something about psychology: but will future employers or educators recognise this fact? How experience is gained and then factored into a person’s qualification for a role or training needs further thought, as does employers’ understanding of what a psychology education offers in addition to specific knowledge. Given the lack of jobs and the consequent competition to get them, flexibility is key. Students have to have a Plan B (and C and D) if their first idea proves impossible.

These two articles are not formal research findings, but contributions to what we feel is an important and hopefully ongoing conversation.

Laura Oxley (University of York)
Hannah Evans
Lucy Atkinson (University of Roehampton)
Elizabeth James (Counselling Psychologist in Training, Teesside University)
Tom Bichard (Chartered Counselling Psychologist)

Eve Smyth (University of Cambridge)
Hannah Paish (University of York)
Daniela Marinova (University of York)
Jonathan Fancett
Clare Wakenshaw (Teesside University)
Bairavi Selvarajah (University of York)
Hakan Sahin (University of Rohehampton)
Alice Wharton (Oxford Brookes University)
Oyindasola Famodou (UCL)

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