From Disillusioned Unemployment to Therapist-in-Training

I seem to have writer’s block when it comes to this blog. There are several things that I want to write about, and I have even started a couple of blogposts, but somehow what I’ve written so far isn’t capturing what I wanted to convey, so they’re just gathering dust in my Drafts folder, waiting for me to have the confidence to go back and finish them. I used to write blogposts a lot more frequently and I know that this was partly because I had more time, but I was also less intimidated than I am now, which seems silly, because I don’t think my writing skills are any worse. Perhaps it’s just that I’m now spending more time absorbing content than producing it – even on Twitter, I rarely write my own tweets anymore, but instead spend most of my time on there RT-ing other people’s opinions. I am not happy about the fact that I seem to be more self-conscious about my writing than I was before, but I am hoping that my goal of writing four blogposts this year (which sounds pathetically low) will make it easier for me to come back to it. The first rule of Behavioural Activation, for those who are feeling unmotivated and lacking in confidence, is to set very small, easily achievable goals, so you can meet them without too much difficulty and boost your confidence. I am therefore going to follow this advice, which I have handed out to my clients several times – on the basis that if it’s good enough for me, then it’s good enough for them.

So first, a quick update on what I’m doing now. I’m currently in my second year of a doctoral program in clinical psychology. If I get through the program, I will be able to get a job as a clinical psychologist and start my career as a therapist. It has taken me a long time to get here. I completed my BSc in Psychology at uni nine years ago and had no idea what I wanted to do after that. I mucked about for a couple of years, travelling a bit and volunteering, before finally deciding that I did want to do more studying. I completed a masters in Mental Health Studies, which was advertised as being a good stepping stone to a clinical psychology course. At this point, I was considering clinical psychology, but did not feel particularly confident about my chances, because it is extremely competitive to get into the PsyD program and I didn’t think I was ambitious and dedicated enough to do it. However, it was something that really interested me, because I liked the idea of being a kind of GP for mental health – meeting, assessing, diagnosing and treating people with all kinds of mental health issues. The biggest barrier to making it onto a clinical psychology course is work experience. You must have at least a year’s worth of work experience (this is a bare minimum) as either an assistant psychologist or a research assistant. Most of these jobs are advertised through the NHS. Some idea of how difficult it is to get these jobs can be gained from the fact that every time one of these positions was advertised on the NHS jobs website, the application would close within 24 hours due to the sheer volume of applicants. One recruiter I spoke to said they had received over 300 applications within that 24 hour period. I even applied for positions that were unpaid (like psychology internships), but after receiving feedback from one recruiter that I needed more volunteer experience (to get an UNPAID position!) I gave up and applied to work as a teaching assistant in a primary school instead. This was a really low point for me. I had no experience with children and no particular desire to work with them, but the recruiters were looking for people with psychology degrees to work one-to-one with autistic kids and I figured that at least this would give me some experience that was vaguely related to psychology.

In contrast to the psychology positions, I heard back from three TA recruiters within 24 hours, which tells you a lot about how desperate they were for teaching assistants, bearing in mind that, as I mentioned earlier, I had precisely zero experience working with children. I got a place at a primary school and quickly realised that I was way out of my depth, with absolutely no idea whether I was doing okay or fucking up on a fairly monumental scale. No one ever actually took me aside and told me that I was doing things wrong, but I never really felt comfortable in that environment and although I did gain some valuable experience and enjoyed working with the kids on a one-to-one basis, I never felt like I learned how to handle even a small group of them on my own. The child with autism that I was assigned to was an absolute sweetheart and needed much less support than I had anticipated, which meant that I actually spent more time helping other kids in the class who were struggling to keep up with the work. I definitely don’t regret the experience, because I learned a LOT, but I do wish that I had received more support and feedback on my performance, so I could have known for certain whether or not I was doing an adequate job.

Fast forward two years and I am now in a PsyD program in Canada and enjoying it very much. It’s the most challenging thing I’ve ever done and I get pushed out of my comfort zone on an almost weekly basis, but I’m also learning a huge amount and feel incredibly supported by the faculty, my supervisors and my classmates. I don’t honestly think I could ask for better support and encouragement. Last week I went to my first ever conference and presented some data relevant to my thesis project. My thesis supervisor helped me choose what data to focus on, edited my abstract and made suggestions for my presentation. I probably wouldn’t even have been accepted for the conference without her advice and support. I am coming to the end of my first placement now, which has involved me learning how to conduct therapy, honing my clinical interview skills, how to facilitate a psychoeducational group, how to do a diagnostic assessment and how to write up case notes. I have been given every opportunity to try new things and develop new skills, whilst still feeling nurtured and supported by those with more experience. In addition to developing important clinical skills, I also feel that I am growing as a person. After feeling stuck and stagnant for so long when I was unemployed, it’s amazing to finally feel that I am making progress and doing something meaningful!

I am hoping to write a couple more posts talking about my experiences on the program, for the benefit of anyone who might be considering clinical psychology as an option and also for those who are curious about what psychologists actually do.

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