Power and payment in Psychology mentoring

Hetashi Bawa and Sharon-Lin Harwood write.

In 2017, we met while working as unpaid Honorary Assistant Psychologists. Our fresh-faced selves had very little knowledge on how to progress into a career in Psychology. This year, we reconnected as Assistant Psychologists and recognised how little support was available in an Aspiring Psychologist’s journey. From this came The Psychology Platform, a mentoring scheme that aims to provide aspiring Psychologists with free information and advice [see News, November]. As Trainee Clinical Psychologists, we now advocate for the support that we did not have at the beginning of our journey.

While our mentoring focus is primarily on Clinical Psychology, it is evident that there is a need to extend this support to other branches such as Education, Forensic, and Health Psychology. Although mentoring is not new, it is growing in the aspiring psychology world and does not come without debate on its progressiveness and sustainability. Power and payment can interact with the support available, in ways we feel are worthy of discussion.

Mentee and mentor perspectives
Year on year, the number of students choosing to study Psychology in the UK rises. According to UCAS figures, in 2020, almost 27,000 students were placed in a UK university to study Psychology and in 2021, there were 146,630 applicants for a place on an undergraduate course. Whilst Psychology is a popular choice, recent research from one of us [Hetashi] and colleagues highlights the many barriers to the profession after completing a degree, particularly for those who identify as having a minority background. Aspiring psychologists with minority backgrounds often find themselves in unpaid or lower paid roles for longer than their White counterparts. In response to this, individuals and groups have created mentoring opportunities for people entering the field of Psychology.

Such schemes can be useful for both mentors and mentees. In our mentoring scheme, aspiring, trainee and qualified Psychologists may take on the role of mentor. This means that mentees can be matched with a mentor who is one step ahead in their career journey, rather than a qualified mentor who may not remember those barriers felt at earlier stages of their career. Ultimately, a mentoring scheme is set up to benefit the mentee.

Our mentees informed us that by having a mentor, they hope to have ‘direction, support and understanding’ from someone who has been in a similar position. In 2018, Shvilla Rasheem and colleagues found that mentorship experiences contributed to the mentee’s visibility within their chosen field, by way of scholarly research, career opportunities, and attendance at conferences. Participants also reported that the ‘transformational growth’ they experienced could be described as ‘life changing’. They highlighted the importance of having a network of encouragement and relationships with people who promote success in their journeys.

Being a mentor can yield benefits personally and professionally. In 2014, François Grima and colleagues found that mentoring is a rewarding and rejuvenating experience and it improves job performance. Our mentors engaged in mentoring to ‘be able to provide advice and use their experience of difficulties to help others’. We also believe that encouraging pre-qualified individuals to mentor allows them to grow their leadership skills and engage with peer support.

From our experience of trying to find mentors, there can be a desire to have a qualified mentor. But who is the best mentor at what stage? And what purpose do qualified mentors serve? These are important factors when considering the demands on mentors who give their free time, and may define their availability and type of support they can provide. There is a polarising debate on whether mentees should pay for a mentor and the power dynamics that can be tricky to navigate. Other potential risks to consider, but not limited to, in mentoring include risk of dependency, lack of training and hardship when goals or expectations are not met.

Should you pay for mentoring?
Despite the good intention behind the mentoring relationship, there are risks and a (potentially) darker side. One debate is whether a mentee should pay the mentor for the advice and time that they are providing.

The salary for roles in Psychology begin at £22,549. But mentoring schemes are also available to those in support worker roles where pay is less and much more variable. Is it ethical to financially profit from supporting those who are struggling to get into the profession? It appears unethical to add further rungs to a ladder that already feels so hard to climb. But is it exploitative to ask mentors to offer their time and expertise for free?

As aspiring psychologists who began our journeys together as unpaid Honorary Assistant Psychologists, paying a mentor to support us in our careers has been out of reach. Rather, we have valued those who have shared their time, knowledge and experience, and we shared this with others on the same journey. This has felt reciprocated with mentors joining to support our free mentoring scheme because they acknowledged the ‘bottleneck profession’, ‘understood the financial burdens that are placed on individuals’ and, as working class mentors, recognised that ‘charging people makes the gap between groups further’. This matched our mentee’s needs such as ‘not being financially stable’, ‘coming from a low income background’ and ‘not being satisfied with the service quality of a paid mentor’.

What about power?
Another important consideration is the power position that is held when one assumes the role of a mentor. As mentors, are we aware when our mentoring is no longer collaborative and when we maintain hierarchies and power structures? Do mentors step into the knowledge-giver role, or are they put on a pedestal by mentees?

Theoretically speaking, anyone can be a mentor despite not holding all the answers. If this is the case, why should mentors be able to use their power position to charge for a service that may not benefit people? It can be argued that the exploitative nature of paid mentorship is born from the inherent power imbalance. Aspiring Psychologists are encouraged to participate in a culture that perpetuates competition. When thinking about the doctorate in Clinical Psychology, the success rate for applicants was 22 per cent in the 2021 intake. As such, the business strategy of paid mentors heavily relies on the desperation of Aspiring Psychologists. Important questions for the profession include what is gained when mentoring others, who is monitoring the paid services and safeguarding for exploitation, and will the vicious cycle of power ever stop?

Painting a bigger picture
The interplay between payment and power is also seen in organisations when aspiring psychologists have to consider taking up unpaid roles to gain experience. This not only happens for those who wish to get into clinical psychology, but also other areas. Some NHS Trusts are beginning to understand the barriers faced and implementing scholarships to reduce some of these barriers. We can only imagine what the profession will look like with further funding for those underrepresented in the profession, and how this will change people’s access to paid roles and progression in psychology careers. What if funding could be invested to pay for full-time roles for those under-represented in the profession, where mentoring is part of the role?

To end on a positive, many amazing individuals and groups have come together over the past year or so to support aspiring psychologists: our Psychology Platform, but also Amplify Trainee, Breaking Through, Clinical Psychology Community UK, The Art of Wellbeing, Third Wave Psychologist, Widening Access Mentoring Scheme Yorkshire and Humber, and Valued Voices, to name a few. Our early experiences of the field are why we are keen to continue to support aspiring psychologists for free. Change is coming to the profession, and we are keen to see where things will be by the time we complete our training. We foresee the needs of aspiring psychologists changing as funding hopefully becomes available and schemes to support those facing barriers increase. However, we urge people to consider their role in power dynamics and think twice when asking for payment.

- Hetashi Bawa and Sharon-Lin Harwood
The Psychology Platform

References

Bawa, H., Cudmore, K., Ong, L., & Knott, K. (2021). Barriers and improvements to the clinical psychology doctorate selection process. Clinical Psychology Forum, (339).

Bawa, H., Gooden, S., Maleque, F. et al. (2019). The journey of BME aspiring psychologists into clinical psychology training: barriers and ideas for inclusive change. Clinical Psychology Forum, 333, 8–13.

Grima, F., Paillé, P., H. Mejia, J. and Prud'homme, L., 2014. Exploring the benefits of mentoring activities for the mentor. Career Development International, 19(4), pp.469-490.

Rasheem, S., Alleman, A., Mushonga, D., Anderson, D., & Ofahengaue Vakalahi, H. (2018). Mentor-shape: exploring the mentoring relationships of Black women in doctoral programs. Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership In Learning, 26(1), 50-69. https://doi.org/10.1080/13611267.2018.1445443

Rachel Scudamore, Head of Quality Assurance and Standards for the British Psychological Society, comments: I’m currently working with a group of members on a new BPS Mentoring Service which will provide an infrastructure for the various individual mentoring schemes that our members are running. Each scheme has its own intended audience and purpose, and the overarching Service will offer a home for these schemes with support for scheme leaders and a technology platform to make administration easier and secure. When the Service is up and running and tested with some existing schemes, we’ll be calling to members for new schemes to meet the varied mentoring requirements of our members.

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