Pathways to Psychology, Part one: Why psychology?

Madeleine Pownall and Ian Florance introduce stories from the next generation.

When you’re 18 years old and faced with the task of choosing a career path, the business of deciding what to study at university is a tricky one. Psychology, as we know, is a wonderfully accommodating subject at undergraduate level, which typically attracts everyone from aspiring clinical psychologists, to wannabe teachers, to the ‘not-sure-what-I-want-to-do’ students. To dig deeper into the future of our discipline, we spoke to nine final-year Psychology students who are (possibly) currently teetering on the edge of a psychology career.

We recruited a pool of diverse interviewers who got to work discussing the experience of finding, exploring, and journeying through psychology with them. The interviews, which occurred in the early days of Covid-19 in 2020, provide useful, fascinating, and often unexpected insights into how and why psychology attracts so many undergraduates every year. We will revisit these final-year students in one year’s time and discover what the journey to and through psychology may look like for this new cohort of our discipline – the impact of Covid, students’ perceptions of the graduate job market, and the life shifts that occur during this time.

To kick off the series, we share stories and insights on perhaps the most challenging and important question of all: ‘Why did you decide to study psychology?’

Job focus
Perhaps unsurprisingly, a common answer throughout our interviews was, quite simply, ‘to be a psychologist!’. Several of the students who we talked to were drawn to psychology with relatively specific psychology career goals in mind, including final-year student Jonathan Fancett. For Jonathan, the interest in psychology as a degree subject was sparked by a keen interest in becoming a social worker. ‘My parents were foster carers at the time,’ he explained, and a degree in psychology helped to put him firmly ‘on the path to becoming a social worker’. Similarly, for final-year psychology undergraduate student Daniela Marinova, the journey was also inspired by a specific interest in one career path. Daniela said she ‘always saw myself as going into the clinical psychology field after university, but that kind of changed.’

This experience of deciding to study psychology to become a clinical psychologist or mental health expert echoed throughout our interviews. Interviewees described at some length the process of being drawn to psychology with the preconception that a ‘career in psychology’ leads to a career as a clinical psychologist, before learning more about diverse career options. Bairavi Selvarajah also described the lure of clinical psychology: ‘if you’re not interested or you don’t want a career in clinical psychology, then you’re kind of lost, which is what happened to me. I knew I wanted to study psychology. I didn’t know where it was going to take me, so I didn’t think that far’.

Despite her new-found open mindedness for her career, Daniela explained how being drawn to psychology originates from a desire to be a clinical psychologist, perceiving it as a ‘necessary component of that career path’. This idea of associating ‘studying psychology’ with ‘being a psychologist’ (whatever ‘being a psychologist’ may mean) was echoed throughout the interviews. Eve Smyth, a final-year Cambridge student, shone some more light on this. She explained ‘when I first started studying, I think I definitely wanted to become a psychologist. I wasn’t really sure which one but probably something quite clinical. But as I studied it more throughout my degree, I don’t think I want to go down the route of becoming an “actual psychologist”.’ This idea that there are people who work in psychology as well as actual psychologists is an interesting concept. Eve went on to explain that her future dream graduate job ‘doesn’t need to be explicitly psychologist but something related to people and about human behaviour’.

Open goals
Whilst some of the students we spoke to had relatively clear-cut career goals, at least in the early days of their journey, others had a less clear vision. For many of the interviewees, the decision to study psychology at university wasn’t necessarily motivated by the lure of a specific career. As psychologists, we often think that attraction to the discipline must be motivated by lofty promises of ‘changing the world’ or ‘doing some good’. In fact, our interviews demonstrated how the open, transferable, applicability of psychology as a subject often lured students in, during those early days. For example, Oyindasola Famodou, a final-year undergraduate, reflected on their decision. ‘I didn’t really have an end-goal in mind,’ they explained, ‘I just don’t know what I want to do with my life’. This featured in an interview with a final-year MSc Health Psychology student, who explained how she perceived health psychology to be ‘…like a stepping-stone’. They explained that the decision to study a Master’s was motivated by a desire to have the ‘the skills, recognised qualifications’ to be able to ‘make changes that I want to make within healthcare’.

The transferable nature of a psychology degree certainly has wide appeal. For example, Hannah Paish, a final-year student, described her experiences of shifting interests throughout the degree after arriving to the subject with an open mind. ‘When I chose the subject, I chose it because I was interested, not because I had any future goals,’ she described. During the course of her studies, Hannah became interested in going into a career in mental health, but now she doesn’t see herself becoming ‘a psychologist’. She explained ‘I used to think I wanted to be one.

I used to want to go into mental health’ but ’can’t really remember why’ she changed her mind along the way. She now hopes to work in project management or data analysis. Hannah went on to describe how ‘people really underestimate the availability of jobs for psychology graduates… I think there are way more jobs available than people realise. It’s just realising what skills you’ve got and how you can utilise them in different areas.’

Personal motivations
It was notable that throughout the interviews, the students we spoke to often discussed the end-goal of their psychology degree almost implicitly when asked why they chose to study the subject at university. However, some, particularly those who arrived at Higher Education on a less linear trajectory, were drawn to the subject for more personal reasons.

For example, Hakan Sahin, who started his Psychology and Counselling degree later in life, had a more specific interest in pursuing psychology. Hakan explained how his main motivation was inspired by his disabled daughter: ‘by studying Psychology and Counselling I wanted to be able to understand my daughter better and thereby help her, and children like her with their psychological struggles through my possible future research projects.’ Hakan elaborated on this, then related this experience to other people: ‘I have noticed that other people come to study psychology and counselling because of their own issues, thinking they will heal themselves by gaining psychological knowledge.’

Similarly, Alice Wharton described her unique journey into psychology, which too was prompted by personal events. She initially planned to study medicine but, after a horse-riding accident, had to retake her exams. During this time, she began to notice changes in her cognition and mind. She explained how experiencing these changes sparked a fascination with ‘what might actually be happening. And quite how powerful the brain seemed to be.’ She then decided to change her planned career path and started ‘searching for new degree to pursue’. She explained: ‘I was looking around for something similar to medicine – in the sense of a scientific study about people. And then I came across psychology and really started to become very interested in the fact that essentially, as they say, it is the study of mind and behaviour.’

Sparking an interest
The provision of psychology education at pre-tertiary level was, also perhaps unsurprisingly, a key factor in the decision to pursue a career in psychology. After all, how do students know to look for a psychology degree if they’ve never been introduced to the subject? Given that psychology is typically taught at A-level, but rarely before, the window of opportunity to engage students with the subject is relatively narrow. Bairavi Selvarajah, a final-year student, described this experience: ‘when I was at school, it was only taken for A-level, and you only learnt it for two years. So, it was quite limited in terms of what they can teach you in two years. I think I realised I want to carry on studying this even more…That’s probably what sparked my interest’. This resonated with Hannah’s story; she explained how ‘they didn’t do psychology GCSE at my school. They only did A-level and I can’t really remember why I chose it. I think I just had some internal instinct that I was going to enjoy it, and I did.’ Alice also described how her school was ‘very helpful with encouraging an understanding of what psychology really was’. She explained that, without this encouragement and information, her perception of psychology was previously misguided: ‘In my mind, it was quite similar to, maybe, yoga! I really didn’t know that much about it. And then I started looking into it more. I found a talk by Elizabeth Loftus on false memory, and I really started to understand that this subject was actually so different to what I thought it was.’

For others, the lack of psychology representation at pre-tertiary level meant that their journey had to ‘find its own way there’. For example, Daniela explained her experiences of schooling in Bulgaria: ‘psychology is not something that is advertised or promoted there as a degree, but it always struck me as something interesting since I was quite young. At some point I just decided that I wanted to study it and I thought that would be a really interesting course with a lot of transferable skills’. To add to this, Daniela shared her story of being implicitly discouraged to pursue psychology. She described her experience of expressing an interest in a psychology degree at school: ‘when you would say that you want to go and study psychology, people would… look down on you. It’s not something that’s as well praised as doing a law or a medical degree.’

Our interviews also captured more nuanced journeys into psychology. For example, Clare Wakenshaw, a first-year trainee counselling psychologist, worked for 20 years as a secondary school teacher before deciding to make the switch to psychology with a conversion degree. ‘I was always kind of in awe of nurses and doctors and occupational therapists and everyone in health really… I always thought “Oh wow, I wish I could work with those people”, but I didn’t believe that that was ever an option for me. I thought it was too late.’ Clare was then predominantly motivated by a desire to be a clinician, fuelled by an interest in developing the ‘person skills’ that she had fostered during her time as a teacher. She explained: ‘I really wanted to be a clinician and the primary goal was to learn specific skills and models and ways of working… I think that I felt that in my personal experiences and previous work I had developed some of the necessary skills and values… But I didn’t have the option to do more because there wasn’t enough time in the school system to really be able to engage those skills in the depth I wanted to. And I really felt strongly that I wanted more of an evidence base behind what I did.’

Many of the students we spoke to came to psychology due to a personal investment, a specific and well-defined career path, or, quite simply, a lack of other ideas. However, what united many of these stories was a fascination with people. For example, when Jonathan left education early he did not plan on engaging with any further study, but, to use his words ‘I felt like I had somewhat of an interest in people and I always had an interest in why they behaved the way that they behaved later on in my life’ and, therefore, this ‘burning interest in learning about why people behave the way they do’ made him decide to give psychology a try. Alice also echoed this sentiment: ‘I’m very interested in people; I love helping people, essentially. But also, I am very interested in what is actually happening in the individual and between individuals.’ Throughout our interviews, students spoke about ‘wanting to help people’, mental health, a desire to influence ‘policy and real change’, which were all influenced by a fascination with human behaviour.

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)

The next instalment in this interview series will uncover students’ thoughts of the future, and perceptions of the graduate job market.

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