Psychology is consistently one of the top 5-10 areas of study for university students in the UK and around the world. It’s a degree that’s versatile and well-regarded by future employers. However, many students agree they felt underprepared for the demands of the discipline once their studies were underway.
I took my own experience into account and spoke to 50 recent Psychology graduates to learn what they felt were the top five things they wish they’d known before pursuing a career in Psychology and here is the result:
Get to Grips with Stats Early
As Psychology is a science, there is understandably a lot of maths required. This is something I certainly wasn’t as prepared for as I could have been going into university. Stats and research are a huge part of any Psychology degree irrespective of what path you choose post-graduation.
The grads I spoke with all agreed that the sooner you get to grips with statistics the better. Having a solid stats foundation will make analyzing data and complex research much easier and your dissertation significantly less stressful.
Cultural Competency Counts
Cultural competency is considered one of the key competencies in Psychology. However, few universities have a structured curriculum for this important skill. It is unlikely all the clients you will serve as a psychologist or mental health worker will look just like you or have a similar background.
My first role as a counsellor was working at a community college with students who were also asylum seekers. They were unable to work, but permitted to study and I was there to help support them in choosing a course and offer pastoral support throughout their studies.
I loved that role and found it hugely rewarding. However, I wouldn’t say I was prepared in any way for understanding and contending with the cultural differences I was encountering on a daily basis. I enjoyed the challenge and did my own research to get up to speed, but felt it ludicrous that I wasn’t adequately culturally literate to support my clients outright.
This is why programs like Well Ed’s Global Mental Health Educational Program are so useful. You can gain a huge amount of insight into global approaches to mental health without having to go anywhere, which is especially handy in times like these when we’re unable to travel as we could before.
Competition is Rife
Psychology is one of the most competitive fields of study there is. According to stats from Clearing House this year there were 4225 applications for the clinical doctorate’s 770 places. Although the NHS has announced they will be increasing places by 25% in 2021, this is still a big deficit.
This kind of competition puts huge pressure on students. Nearly all those with whom I spoke said that they wish they had really understood the level of competition for doctorate spots when they entered university. Some said it would have helped them to study harder and others said they would have taken their eye off the “clinical prize” earlier and chosen a different area within Psychology to specialise in.
The good news is that there are countless ways to use your Psychology degree. From business consulting to research to other fields within Psychology like Educational Psychology or Applied Psychology, there are so many places your degree can take you.
Everyone said they knew they would need experience before entering university, but we spoke about the fact that no one really explains to you what “relevant experience” is. My advice is to think outside the consulting room.
“Relevant experience” in the field of Psychology can be any experience where you spend a lot of time engaging with people. In fact, the majority of the grads I spoke to worked at summer camps or various charities either with those facing homelessness in their communities or at food banks. In my own experience, I found working behind a bar to be my most valuable experience during my time at university.
The key is how you talk about it. You can make any role relevant to Psychology so long as you’re not completely isolated. If you can demonstrate how you used the skills you gained in your studies to most situations you will find you actually have a lot of relevant experience. You don’t need to be working with people with mental health concerns in a clinical setting to sharpen your psychology skillset.
Just as an aside: with the effects of COVID, phone lines offering support to the isolated and lonely have popped up all over. This is certainly relevant experience and in today’s uncertain world, it’s a service many people need.
It’s OK to Ask for Help
It’s often those of us working in mental health that neglect our own mental health. The grads I spoke with said they felt pressured to put on a tough exterior, as they said they worried that if they told people they were struggling it would somehow impact their future prospects.
As mental health advocates and practitioners we often have a lot on our plates. It is absolutely essential you ask for help, even if you feel you don’t feel you “need it”. If we all waited until we “needed it” it’s likely many of us would already be in crisis. Please check in with yourself often and don’t be afraid to reach out.
Think about it – all mental health professionals engage in some sort of Supervision. This is so we are able to support our clients better, but also so we are not shouldering everything on our own. If you are pursuing a career in mental health you are likely empathetic, caring and compassionate, which means you are also likely to feel depleted at times and this is OK.
Whether you reach out to a friend, call a service, speak with a representative at your university or get support online. Don’t neglect your own self-care. You can’t pour from an empty cup as they say, so keep your cup topped up, as you are very important.