Beyond a baptism of fire – becoming an applied psychologist

Dr Amanda Mwale introduces a collection of archive links on getting on to clinical training, being an assistant psychologist and more.

In the warm summer of June 2013, my friend Steve Mayers and I were bright-eyed, excited but exhausted assistant psychologists on our way to grab lunch at our favourite jacket potato place in central London. We were elated that day, but also felt like we had been through a ‘baptism of fire’ after having finally obtained places on the clinical psychology doctorate. 

One of the things we reflected on was being fortunate enough to be surrounded by many other assistant, trainee and qualified psychologists in our jobs that year. These others helped us along with our applications and interview preparations, and we felt privileged to have had that support. That afternoon, Steve and I decided we should write a book bringing together all the information and resources that an aspiring clinical psychologist would need. We understood that not everyone had the same access to professional support, resources and role models. The book titled Becoming a clinical psychologist: Everything you need to know, was published in the summer of 2018.

In this edition, a variety of experiences and reflections are put forward by four assistant psychologists in different NHS services. They share their discoveries about the people they help, the technical psychological skills they learned through supervised experience and their hopes for the future. 

Whilst I share some overlapping clinical experience when I was an assistant psychologist, looking back, I would have valued the opportunity to reflect on the experience of being a black woman on a predominantly white career path. For more on this, in addition to other rich and thought-provoking articles, I would encourage you to explore the links to other pieces below. I would also call for more articles written from the diverse lens of assistant psychologists representing the global majority.

Learning from difference

So, here you are, pursuing a career in applied psychology. I wanted to offer some of my thoughts about how one can prepare themselves for a career in the psychological professions today. Firstly, I wanted to ask you, why have you chosen this career, and why now? When I say ‘now’, I mean, consider your own life story as well as the stories we hear and see in our wider world right now. How can your observations, reflections and core values assist in answering those questions? 

One of the most important things that I keep learning in this profession is how humility can go a long way. Yes, I know, you’re told ‘it’s a competitive field’ and you have to ‘speak out’ and ‘sell yourself’. Nevertheless, the way you do that and successfully get other people’s attention (e.g. in an interview or team meeting) is through your genuineness and ability to really connect with others. In one of those online pieces, ‘Stories of Hope and Growth’, the authors highlight valuing other people’s stories and perspectives that differ from our own. In your reflections, can you think about what the ‘other’ has taught you? The assistant psychologist authors in this edition highlight the value of working side by side with those that they help. There is humility in approaching what we call ‘collaborative practice’ as an opportunity to learn from and be changed by the ‘patient’, ‘client’, ‘service user’ or colleagues. We often strive to challenge ‘the client’ in their thought patterns and introduce alternatives. Can we also challenge ourselves to be inspired and altered in the way that we think and feel about others who differ from us and the way we view the world? 


Connected to this idea of honouring and learning from our differences, is the issue of diversity and inequalities in the profession. Do have a read of Ella Rhodes’ online piece ‘Systemic disadvantage can accumulate, and prevent access to the profession’, and Charity Kibathi’s ‘Reflections of a prospective Black psychologist’. I can personally connect with the courage it takes to speak out about racial discrimination as someone who was considered ‘junior’ in the profession. This process takes a significant emotional toll. 

I also connect with Charity’s honesty regarding pessimism about change within the establishments we currently have. Therefore, my hope lies with you, the reader, among the new generation of budding psychologists. I encourage you to show willingness to engage with difficult and uncomfortable conversations respectfully for the greater good, whether you are black, brown or white. To the prospective aspiring psychologists from the global majority, who are finding it difficult to navigate their way into this profession due to structural inequalities, please know that support is out there. I strongly recommend mentorship, which differs a whole lot from what even the best supervision can offer. To anyone considering getting a mentor, think of it as professional self-care – important in different stages of your career.

More generally speaking, our society often talks about #selfcare as if it’s a simple switch that will make us feel better, instantly. In fact, the enduring type of self-care takes some considerable self-awareness and can be challenging to achieve. As an aspiring psychologist (and beyond), the perceived expectation from others around you, personally and/or professionally, might be about meeting the needs and wishes of others, and deprioritising your own. Remember, you are human and have mental health needs like everybody else. Therefore, put the necessary boundaries in place in your working and personal life, so that you can heal, rest, play and thrive. I also strongly recommend having trusted peers with which you can share the highs and lows of your professional journey. 

The road ahead

Finally, this piece would be grossly incomplete without mentioning the road ahead, as we continue to navigate the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, ongoing inequalities and global unrest. The pandemic demonstrated how vulnerable and interdependent we all are. As a psychologist, I have connected with the people I help even more through our shared fears, loss, uncertainty and disappointments. Therefore, there is a great need to navigate the future with compassion for ourselves and others.

As we move forward into the future, I encourage you to reflect on what is important to you, humbly asking yourself again the questions I posed at the start – why this career and why now? I would also encourage openness to change and flexibility in the midst of rapid changes to the structures and processes of our working lives, including the NHS. From the therapy room, to virtual working, we have had to be incredibly adaptable. I recommend finding safe spaces to reflect on where you are, personally and professionally (e.g. journaling, peer support, supervision, mentoring, personal therapy) to ensure you have the support and head space you need to carry on or pause if needed. Perhaps you and your generation will be entering professional training courses with special skills in adapting to crisis and finding creative ways of putting one foot in front of the other through the unknown…

Dr Amanda Mwale, DClinpsy, CPsychol
Co-author of Becoming a Clinical Psychologist: Everything you need to know. London: Routledge.

Securing an assistant psychologist or clinical research assistant post
Samantha Hartley with reflections and practical tips from an interviewer.

Preparing for clinical doctorate interviews
Briony Brownless responds to Dr Hartley's piece, reflecting on her own experiences.

‘What may seem like chaos from the outside is in fact a deep well of knowledge and wisdom from the inside’
Working in a Crisis Team was life-changing for Assistant Psychologist Adriana Lisowski. She reflects on her experience.

‘The continuity of my role has given me the chance to grow’ 
Lucy Freemantle with the reflections of a Senior Assistant Psychologist, a decade on...

Spinal injury – finding strength for an unplanned future 
Melissa Potter on working as an Assistant Psychologist at a Spinal Cord Injuries unit.

When misplaced glances turn into the sharing of smiles
Laura Waring on working as an Assistant Psychologist at a specialist perinatal mental health service.

Katie Voss and Alice McNamara reflect on the unrelenting standards for Assistant Psychologists

Stories of hope and growth
Four very different Assistant Psychologists find a common thread through peer supervision – the inspirational power of people’s stories, and working in a way that allows them to be shared

Out of the fog of uncertainty
Holly Edwards and Sarah Cassidy with advice for new Assistant Psychologists

'You can never fully prepare for what might happen on an inpatient unit'
Sian Carr with a reflective account of running psychology groups

Redefining the clinical workspace
Joan Idowu on her experiences as an Assistant Psychologist in a newly developed service for offenders accessing mental health support as an alternative to a custodial sentence

‘I didn’t see criminals, I saw potential’
Ruth Corkett on working in a young offenders institute

ACTing my way through a pandemic
Samantha Ross on Imposter Syndrome, working from home and being an Assistant Psychologist during Covid-19

‘Systematic disadvantage can accumulate, and prevent access to the profession’
Ella Rhodes reports on changes to clinical psychology training

Cultural identity on the journey to clinical psychology
Cheryl Francis on access to training

Reflections of a prospective Black Psychologist
Charity Kibathi on internal biases and systemic racism in psychology

Time to rewrite the rules
Rachel Holt on the clinical psychology training process, and inclusion

Thank you, baptism of fire…
Assistant Psychologist Hannah Smith on the value of front-line work in preparation for a therapeutic role

‘Can I sympathise with mothers who have hurt their children?’
Lauren Mountain never imagined this would be one of the first groups she worked with as an assistant psychologist…

'There is no normal journey'
Rebecca Fellows reports from Division of Clinical Psychology Prequalification Group conference ‘Thriving in Clinical Psychology: Working Through Challenges in Different Contexts’

Early relationships matter
Rebecca Fellows is an Assistant Psychologist in a busy and expanding Infant Mental Health Service in Leeds

An alternative route
Faiza Ahmed on her journey from office admin to rekindling a passion for psychology

‘Immerse yourself in a psychological environment’
Hetashi Bawa on volunteering and serving as an Honorary Assistant Psychologist

To volunteer or not to volunteer, that is the question
Samara Aziz, Sahdia Parveen and Jan R. Oyebode give three perspectives

Human trafficking
Christina MacDonald shares her experiences as an assistant psychologist working on a pilot project supporting victims of human trafficking


From the BPS:

Let’s Get to Clinical – a podcast for aspiring clinical psychologists from the Division of Clinical Psychology’s Pre-Qualification Group

Watch Gemima Fitzgerald’s talk on getting into psychology as a mature student

Is Access to Clinical Psychology Training fair? A blog post from Dr Katrina Scior on social privilege in access to clinical psychology training



Applying for Clinical Psychology Training videos – part 1 and part 2David Murphy

Application tips for the professional Doctorate in Clinical PsychologyUniversity of Bath

Ten tips for aspiring Clinical PsychologistsDr Judith Johnson

I want to train as a psychologist… Dr Reena Vohora, PsyPAG

Reflections on Diverse Pathways to a Paid Assistant Psychologist RoleClinical Psychology Today

Hannah’s Psych Journey – Being an Assistant PsychologistThe Psych Journey

A day in the life as an Assistant Psychologist in the NHSThe Psych Journey

Becoming a Clinical or Counselling psychologistProfessor Neil Frude, OUPS

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