Welcome to The Psych Journey!
This week’s article is brought to you by Hannah, an Assistant Psychologist (AP) working in the North West (England). Hannah is a friend and university buddy – we studied Psychology together at undergraduate and it’s great that she can offer her insight to the psychology profession and journey. Follow The Psych Journey on Twitter and Hannah!
In this article, Hannah brings all of her experiences working towards being an AP. In addition, Hannah talks about her Psych Journey and her reasons for becoming an AP and the journey towards the clinical psychology doctorate. Critically, Hannah talks about the value of her work experience prior to being an AP and how this can be fundamental.
Life leading to an Assistant Psychologist – University, jobs and transpiring this into an AP role
I graduated in 2017 with a 1st in BSc Psychology from Sheffield Hallam University. Hannah will hate me adding this but she was the highest achieving student – her grade was the highest of the whole cohort (super smart).
Back to Hannah. I only thought about the clinical pathway in third year, during a clinical seminar when we did a role play; we were given a diagnostic tool and had to do a clinical interview with peers posing as the client and a family member. When we were done, my housemate who was doing it with me said she noticed I was thoroughly enjoying it – and she was right, I found it so interesting. It was like piecing together a puzzle trying to understand someone’s difficulties – so I started to think a lot more about the clinical route. Prior to clinical psychology, I had thought about speech and language therapy (SLT), and before my degree I had actually got places at universities to study SLT but changed my mind. Once studying Psychology, I was more interested in forensic and sport psychology. I’m still passionate about these aspects now, as I’m currently working in a prison, but I ended up deciding that the clinical route opens so many more doors.. i.e. if I wanted to work in sport / forensic settings in the future as a clinical psychologist or on the journey to qualification I could always do that.
Before graduating, I didn’t have any paid clinical experience, only voluntary. I volunteered in a care home and in a primary school helping children with communication difficulties. After university, I went to volunteer in Uganda for a month in a primary school, medical centre and hospital. Here I did all sorts from teaching, building / painting, giving out polio vaccines to babies in the mountains (it’s been in the news this week that Africa is now free of wild polio, hooray!!) and observing counselling for those diagnosed with HIV. It was a truly amazing, grounding and invaluable experience.
Following graduation in 2017, my first role in mental health was as a healthcare assistant (HCA) for the Priory Group. I worked on an adult male PICU (psychiatric intensive care unit). This was a challenge, but amazing and very rewarding. It also helped me adapt to multi-disciplinary working and liaising with other professionals at ground level. In addition, it helps you get used to talking to service users and listening to their stories. As you progress up the ladder, you realise how vital these day-to-day interactions are in terms of implementing treatment plans at a systemic level, and I’m so glad I was a HCA and could do that in that role. I’ll always have so much respect for the workers at the coal face / on the frontline – I hope I never lose that perspective. In my current position, I am lucky enough to continue to have these informal interactions with service users on the wings, as well as in more formal sessions in 1:1s, groups and meetings which definitely helps cement the therapeutic relationships we’re all constantly building and working on as a clinical team in the prison.
I’d probably go as far to say that other than my HCA role which was of course invaluable experience (I wrote an article for the BPS Psychologist magazine about just how invaluable – click for article); my work experience for eight years prior to my degree in pubs – just talking to people, listening, empathising, validating, building up a relationship from week to week with the ‘regulars’ at the bar – definitely prepared me for future therapeutic clinical work.
Applying for AP roles
Whilst I was working as a HCA, I applied for so many AP roles in the NHS. I think if you’re in the NHS already (which I wasn’t, I was in the Priory Group) you have a better chance as many are advertised internally, so I never got any interviews. I knew it was competitive – I sought careers advice at university and the advisor mentioned that you could be in a support work role for a few years before getting an AP role. Even though I knew this, it was still pretty disheartening, mostly due to the lack of feedback and not knowing what you have done wrong / what you’re missing. I never started thinking about other roles though really, I just realised it might take a bit longer than I may have previously imagined and was still keen to progress towards clinical psychology and keep trying.
Summer 2018: My first AP role! It was with the Priory Group, at the hospital I was already working in – CRH (Cheadle Royal Hospital). They had advertised internally – so I suppose the ‘if you’re in the NHS you’re in, if you’re not, you’re not’ thing worked for Priory as well. This role was in an adult, mixed, inpatient eating disorders service (EDU). It was only part time – so I was half AP on EDU, half HCA on the PICU. This was hard. I had a taste of the sweet life and wanted more!
December 2018: The next AP role I got was part-time again, on the adult mixed acute ward, at CRH. I have always said (probably due to imposter syndrome) that I was in the right place at the right time for this one. The hours advertised were the equivalent of my HCA hours, so it took me to nearly full time AP split across EDU and acute. This was still only 4.5 days a week, therefore, I requested to add half a day honorary on the CAMHS ward doing a therapy group to fill the week, add another dimension of experience, and make the commute more worth it! Management was really supportive of this. I left Priory in March 2020 just as the coronavirus lockdown hit.
January 2020: I was offered an AP post in a personality disorder service within a men’s cat. B prison. Due to COVID, the prison was completely locked down and I was not allowed to start straight away, so I was redeployed to an adult mixed forensic Learning Disability & Autism service. This was so interesting and made me much more aware of inclusivity issues, Learning Disability stigma issues, and the debate around transforming care. It’s been great working in and adapting resources to a Learning Disability population.
August 2020: Finally allowed in the prison after waiting since January! I am loving it already.
Life as an AP – what does an AP look like in your service
This has varied in different roles I have had, but have mainly included: 1:1 clinical work (assessment, formulation, therapeutic work / skills sessions), facilitating groups, audit/research, supervision (team, peer, 1:1), cognitive assessment, HCR-20 assessment, report writing, reflective practice, training (giving and attending), and then stuff like attending ward rounds, Care Programme Approach (CPA) and Care and Treatment Review (CTR) meetings.
At the prison I do many more things that isn’t typical ‘AP work’ which is very fun, and the side of being a HCA that I missed. As well as all the more ‘typical’ clinical work, we do social inclusion activities with the residents like painting the wings, doing quizzes, games, music club, having tea and cake all sorts! There’s also a massive focus on the EE (enabling environment) so the prisoners are empowered in helping with decision making in the service – including interviewing me!
Thoughts about career as an AP and the challenges of ‘Doctorate phase’
Pros of being an AP:
- Amazing experience (depending on your service and supervisor of course! I’ve been very lucky, and have learned a huge amount across my posts)
- The amount you learn about life in clinical psychology and the role generally, but also about yourself and your values as a practitioner but also just as a human
- Also, of course, ‘the title’ of AP for the CV!
- The best bit though is meeting the people you meet. Wonderful resilient people, both staff and service users alike
Cons of being an AP:
- Sometimes services can take advantage of APs – in my experience it’s more about how your time is stretched thinly. I was given a lot of responsibility early on, landed with a huge case load, etc. However, I know others that have been on the flip side of this – crying out for more responsibility and work, and being asked to do mainly audit type stuff and not a lot of clinical work.
- Also, the salary is poor considering the intense competition for posts, and the high entry level requirements for AP’s.
Doctorate phase challenges
How much pressure you put on yourself (unconsciously) and how long the process takes each time when you apply. I have only applied once, and was lucky to get an interview, but not a place – that feels like forever ago. Yet equally, and paradoxically, the application time has come around so quickly again!? Also I’ve found it difficult to choose which courses to apply for and I have changed my mind this year compared to last year. You want to ideally base your decision on the ethos of the course and where you think you might fit in as a person, rather than just geography. However, it’s not so easy when you have a mortgage and a commute!
What would you have done if you were not aiming to be a Clinical Psychologist?
This is such a good question, and it’s always good to have a backup plan if things don’t go as you hope/ plan. When I was younger I wanted to be an actor… but now I think if I wasn’t aiming for clinical psychology, I would take a closer look at the forensic / sports route, or do some high intensity therapy training so I could still do that aspect of the role. If I were to completely abandon the field though, I’d probably want to open a garden centre or a florist or something!
Overall, I absolutely love my job and chosen career and the future is exciting and daunting in equal measure. I hope one day I will be able to say I am a Clinical Psychologist, but remember, it is NOT a race, and it’s very easy to focus so much on the destination that you miss amazing parts of your journey on the way there!
I would like to thank Hannah for such insightful and wisdom-filled knowledge. It is no doubt that Hannah will go on to be a fantastic Clinical Psychologist.