By Kelly Wade
You’ve just graduated, you have your top class Psychology degree from a great university, you’re ready to tackle the world and apply for your first Psychology related job, but all of a sudden you start to realise a lot of these positions (especially assistant psychologist posts) require that you already have patient experience. “How am I meant to get experience if no one will give me a job?” I hear you cry! Well that’s why I’m here, to give you a handful of the many ways to acquire experience whilst you’re still studying, so that by the time graduation rolls around you are ready to get out there and grab those jobs! As an aspiring Clinical Psychologist myself this one is going to be leaning more towards the clinical side of things, because if you’ve got your sights set on clinical you should already know that relevant experience is a big box you need to tick! But I think it’s just as important for anyone who wants to further their psychology career after undergrad.
The first thing to get into your head is that relevant experience doesn’t have to mean mental health, you don’t have to have had direct experience of working with mental health disorders like schizophrenia or depression for your experience to be relevant to psychology. Psychologists work with a broad range of disorders and ages, so always keep an open mind.
Experience can start right here on campus. Your university is a perfect place to start gaining experience, at the University of Birmingham there are student societies that run activity groups for children with autism, and for adults with learning disabilities, I’m sure that UoB isn’t the only university to run these kinds of clubs, and they are always looking for enthusiastic students to help out. Not to mention the Nightline service which runs on most campuses, this won’t be as relevant with regards to “patient experience” but it’s a good shoe in the door to prove you have those listening skills. Keep your eye out also for researchers in your Psychology department looking for volunteer research assistants. If they run any kind of clinical research it could give you some contact time with patients in a research setting, as well as giving you a good name and a few valuable connections in the department.
Even if your university doesn’t have those opportunities, there will be local charities that run similar schemes, mental health charities like Mind can sometimes be a little competitive to get involved with because every other psychology student will have had the same idea. But this is where keeping an open mind comes in; charities that deal with learning disability, autism, stroke or acquired brain injury will be just as rewarding and every bit as relevant. Schemes can range from play schemes, enrichment activities, advocacy services, learning centres, the list is honestly endless. And if you are really lucky you might even find a paid position to help stretch that student loan a little further.
If you are willing to really put in the hours then support work can be a fantastic way of gaining experience and earning money while you study. This is easier to do if you happen to be taking a gap year before you start studying, or can be a good place to initially look for work when you graduate if you haven’t quite built up the experience you need for your dream job. Residential services for the elderly or adults with physical disability can be surprisingly relevant, I work at a residential home for adult wheelchair users, which doesn’t initially scream psychology at you, but when I tell you that through this job I have cared for adults with acquired brain injury, stroke, Aspergers, and even an individual with a personality disorder. All of a sudden you can see what a broad range of experience a job like this can open up. If you find being a student makes it hard to land that support work position then residential homes are still a great place to look for experience as a volunteer; good volunteers are worth their weight in gold to most of these services. Whether it’s going in once a week and running an arts and craft group, or reading club, you will have something you can offer, a lot of the time just going in and talking to the service users will be all they need. I knew a volunteer at the home I worked at whose main job was to help one of our guys check his emails and go on Facebook, and I know if you’re reading this then you could manage that!
No matter what you end up doing, the biggest issue is always how you reflect on your experience. That is no doubt something you will have been told this back when writing that personal statement for your UCAS application, but it rings true whenever you apply for anything. Your experiences are only worth what you have taken from them. It’s your job as a Psychology student to look at those experiences in your life and ask yourself “where’s the Psychology?”, you might be surprised to find just how much experience you already have.