I want to train as a psychologist...

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Thinking back to my application…

I am now an Academic and Course Tutor on the doctoral course that I trained on and found myself having an interesting response when I was asked to write up some key ‘pointers’ for applicants to clinical psychology training.

I found myself thinking back to my experiences of applying and recalling the range of messages that applicants are often exposed to relating to the chances of getting onto training. I remember feeling anxious, apprehensive and unsure about what to expect when applying. I wanted to feel as prepared as possible and recall putting a lot of pressure on myself. Hiding somewhere amongst this whirlwind of emotions was a tiny part of me allowing myself to lose myself in an occasional positive thought and feeling a tad excited about the prospect of actually getting a place on training!

I remember attending numerous assistant psychologist groups and hearing about the range of experiences of applying from others in the field, feeling temporarily put off by the precise calculated odds of getting onto different courses and reading account after account regarding this daunting process on online forums. Now don’t get me wrong. These groups can be helpful for a number of reasons (e.g. developing skills and knowledge as well as for peer support) but when it came to applying, I remember leaving the meetings feeling a little disheartened about my chances of getting onto training after comparing my experience to that of others in the group. Sadly, it didn’t seem as though I was the only one to feel this way at that time.

I want to train as a clinical psychologist because…

Now when I think about common reasons for wanting to pursue this career path, people often talk about one reason as being wanting to help others and alleviate distress. My question is therefore, if we have skills in being able to be empathic, encouraging and supportive of others, why is it that we tend not to speak to ourselves in the same compassionate tone?

I fully appreciate that the competition for clinical training is fierce (and it may of course take a few times of applying to get an interview or place) but when thinking about what applicants may be able to control as part of this process, it has made me wonder whether we make this process feel more gruelling for ourselves by not allowing ourselves the same level of compassion that we so readily offer to others?

I also fully appreciate that the available spaces on clinical training courses can lead to comparisons with peers (this is of course a common social response!) but again, is it fair to be putting so much pressure on ourselves when doing everything possible to get onto training?

You do not need to be a superstar clinician skilled in five therapies and well-published researcher before applying (or even after!)…

Please remember that trainers do not expect applicants to be fully-fledged clinical psychologists when applying for training (so don’t worry about not having delivered CBT, having worked with every clinical population or run your own research trial!) … the three year doctorate is designed to support you to develop your clinical and research skills along the way… and you have the rest of your career of course!

So… when I think about the advice that I would give, I would encourage you to think about your personal journey and I use the word ‘journey’ as we are all constantly learning and progressing at every stage of our career. When I think about my journey so far, there are so many things that I would have liked to have been able to do but I am learning to also value the skills that I have developed along the way. Whilst it is great that the field of psychology affords so many varied and novel opportunities, I think we also need to take stock of where we are at and value the skills that we have.

Think about when the time is right for you! …

It is important to think about applying when the time is right for you. I would encourage you not to feel under pressure to get onto clinical training by a particular point as the skills that you obtain along the way will no doubt help you during training. In fact, several trainees that have either waited to apply until they felt ready or have applied for training a few times, reflect on the value of the experience that they gained along the way and often say that they regret beating themselves up for not having got onto training previously. I still find myself using some of the skills and experiences that I developed as part of my pre-training posts nearly 15 years ago, so all experience is useful!

Be open to obtaining experience from a range of roles …

It is important to say that there is not a sole ‘golden path’ to follow with regards to obtaining relevant experience, although it is important to have a good academic record and some clinical and/or research experience in order to support you to manage the demands of clinical training. Also, although many of you may have experience of working as an Assistant Psychologist, this is by no means the only route to get onto clinical training and we are finding that trainees are coming to us with a wide range of both clinical and research experience. This is great for us as trainers as the breadth of experience really adds to the richness and diversity of discussions and reflections!

Try to write your form with an open mind…

When short-listing applications, it is important to say (and clear to see) that a large proportion of applicants would be deserving of a place on a training course … so please try not to be so hard on yourself!

Instead of engaging in an ongoing process of self-doubt when applying therefore, I invite you to think about what it might it be like if you approached starting to write your form by thinking about the range of skills that you have gained and your experiences as an individual?

Avoid writing your form like a ‘shopping list’ …

I am often asked for tips on ‘how to play the game’ and which key ‘buzz words’ to include in forms and whilst I am happy to discuss key skills and help applicants to reflect on these, I don’t think adding in buzz words to simply tick a box and when out of context is helpful (this also really stands out). It can be helpful to think about the narrative of your form overall.

I have also noted that applicants sometimes either downplay their experience or list this in a shopping list fashion (this does not allow you to shine!). Instead, what we want to hear is what you have learnt from this experience and why or how this has been helpful. For example, rather than just stating that you have worked in a neuro-rehabilitation setting and observed a group, I would encourage you to consider the knowledge and skills that you have developed via observation or by working in that particular setting where there is an interplay of mental and physical health difficulties, e.g. what types of strategies or skills did you observe or develop when working with individuals with mental health difficulties and possible cognitive impairment?, did you have to be mindful of adaptations to the approach?, what was your experience of being part of a multi-disciplinary team?, what was the role of psychology?, how did you feel about working in this way or with this clinical population?

If you have obtained more clinical research experience than direct clinical work, this is fine! Again, what is important is reflecting on the skills and experience that you have obtained and thinking about how you have developed professionally (and personally) since starting the post.

Although it may sound like another thing to do (sorry!), keeping a reflective log or journal can really help and this is also good practice for your psychology career.

Try to be open to feedback…

Although I appreciate it can be anxiety provoking, I would recommend asking your supervisor (or someone in the field) to read through your application form. Applicants often spend so long working on their form so a fresh pair of eyes can often offer some helpful reflections! Also, it is helpful to start getting yourself used to receiving constructive feedback … this may feel painful at the time but for me, has led to some key learning points over the years!

Self-care is important…

Whilst working as a psychologist can be rewarding in many ways, there are demands that we all face on day to day basis (and training will definitely involve you managing a range of competing demands). Health professionals seem to be better at looking after others … I therefore encourage you to think about looking after yourselves now and trying to be self-compassionate so that you can carry this forward to the next part of your journey (whether that be obtaining more experience or securing a place on training!).

Tell us what you are proud about!…

When reading form after form, as a short-lister, it is really refreshing when you get a real sense of the person applying … whilst it is a professional application form of course, please don’t be worried about letting yourself shine through! Of course, it is perfectly understandable to feel anxious about applying and applicants often say that they worry about blowing their own trumpet, however, if you’ve worked hard to obtain skills in a particular area and developed on an individual or professional level… then tell us about it! Good luck and remember that when applying, it is important to really think about what makes you you!


Dr Reena Vohora is an Academic Tutor at the University of Oxford and Clinical Psychologist

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