'Who knows where the journey will take you'

Ella Rhodes reports from the British Psychological Society's Careers in Psychology events.

A non-linear, messy and confused career path, dotted with failure, may very well become a successful career path. This was the message spoken loud and clear by each of the speakers at two recent British Psychological Society Careers in Psychology events in Newcastle and London.

CEO of the Society, Sarb Bajwa, welcomed delegates in London pointing to his own background in academia and later work with membership organisations. David Murphy, the Society’s President Elect, shared his journey from a tricky time during A-levels – his physics report read ‘David’s major weakness appears to be the failure to learn and apply basic facts’ – through a Zoology and Psychology degree, to his work at Imperial College London, the University of Oxford, and more recently the Centre for Strategic Leadership at the University of Edinburgh.

Clinical Psychologist Dr Gemima Fitzgerald, who gave inspiring talks at both events, came to academia as a mature student and a single mum after leaving an abusive relationship. She worked as a cleaner throughout her undergraduate degree, during which an academic at a careers fair told her he could tell just by looking at her she was ‘not the type’ to be pursuing a career in clinical psychology.

Fitzgerald, having now worked as a clinical psychologist in many different settings for five years, has recently set up her own business and works with private patients, the NHS, hospices, elite athletes, and staff working in homelessness services. Clinical psychology doesn’t have a ‘type’, she said, and diversity in the psychology workforce is very much a good thing.

Given her own experiences it is no surprise that much of Fitzgerald’s work involves resilience-building. She said this would be vital in work, and training, as a clinical psychologist. ‘There is potentially a long road ahead – be process focused rather than destination focused, enjoy the fact that every day you’re learning something, who knows where the journey will take you. Reframing failure is so important, people often ask me how to be more confident but the way I think of confidence is it isn’t a personality trait – I think it’s about letting go of a fear of failure.’

Speaking at the Newcastle event was Counselling Psychologist in-training, Fraser Smith, who set up the YouTube channel, podcast and blog GetPsyched almost two years ago to help make contacts and spread the word about psychology, therapy and mental health. He emphasised the power of networking, creativity and sheer determination in forging a successful career in the field and encouraged keen writers to reach out to him to author guest posts for the blog which was nominated in the 2019 UK Blog Awards.

Thanks to the influence of 90s TV programmes such as Sex and the City and Ally McBeal, Occupational Psychologist and Principal Lecturer Dr Vicki Elsey (Northumbria University) hoped to be a high-flying MD by the age of 30. However, upon realising many of the people around her hated the daily grind of their work, after her degree she embarked on a Master’s course in Occupational Psychology.  

After working for a Management Consultancy in the North East, developing leadership programmes, working in psychological assessment and organisational change, Elsey moved into academia at Northumbria University and completed a doctorate on the career trajectories of occupational psychologists. While Elsey had not ever predicted a move into academia she sent a message that echoed through both events – be open to opportunities which arise, even if you had not considered them before.

Work takes up a huge proportion of our time on the planet, and Elsey said it is normal to feel at the whim of chance throughout one’s career journey. ‘Make the most of the opportunities you have, career success is more about the knowledge you gain from your degree. Be prepared to adapt, network, learn about other jobs and careers and don’t be fixed in your mindset – often things which are unintended can be more enjoyable.’

In London Dr Emma Norris, a Research Associate at the Centre for Behaviour Change (University College London), gave an early-career perspective on a life in academia. She emphasised another message which ran through both events – there is no ‘correct’ career trajectory in psychology.

She explained the process of completing a PhD and gave some tips on how to find postgraduate study opportunities by contacting potential supervisors or searching for vacancies on job sites. As a postdoctoral researcher Norris spends around half her week on research and the rest on teaching, writing, administration, grant-writing, meetings and seminars. As a former chair of the Society’s Postgraduate Affairs Group (PsyPAG), Norris pointed to the importance of getting involved with organisations such as the Society, writing for publications such as The Psychologist and GetPsyched, and using social media to stay involved with discussions in the field. Finally she added: ‘love what you do on a day to day basis and that will get you through those rocky moments.’

Both events also included lively panel discussions with experts in Sport and Exercise Psychology, Infant Mental Health, Clinical and Forensic Psychology taking questions from the audience. Many enquired about gaining clinical psychology experience in the face of diminishing numbers of assistant psychology posts and the emotional difficulties of working with people struggling with their mental health.

- Read the keynote speakers' letters to their undergraduate selves.

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