If you study psychology, the subject of work experience is something you need to be thinking about very carefully indeed. With this in mind, the following article will begin by outlining why work experience is so important before providing you with information and advice on how to go about getting the best work experience possible.
The popularity of psychology continues to grow. A trends report published by the American Psychological Association (APA) noted that between 1.2 million and 1.6 million undergraduates take introductory psychology classes each year and that the share of students majoring in psychology is around 6 to 6.5 percent, up from around 4 to 5 percent in the 1980s. Encouragingly, the APA trends report also notes that job prospects are strong and the demand for psychologists is robust. However:
IT'S COMPETITIVE OUT THERE
When it comes to postgraduate education and training, work experience is just as important as your degree. If you intend to stay in psychology beyond your undergraduate studies, getting the right work experience is vital and something you definitely need to be planning for now. An example of just how competitive it is for psychology graduates is the fact that fewer than 5 per cent of applicants to postgraduate courses in Clinical Psychology in the UK are successful.
Many postgraduate training programmes will require you to have significant relevant work experience in order to demonstrate that you are a dedicated candidate in possession of some real-world, applied psychological knowledge. This experience may have to be gained in a voluntary capacity rather than as part of a paid position. (The British Psychological Society)
Rather than pursuing postgraduate education and training, it could be that you simply intend to look for a job upon completing your psychology degree. You might, therefore, be thinking that work experience is not as important. Think again! The jobs landscape surrounding university education has changed dramatically. In an article on the importance of learning from experience, Professor Ishwar Puri states that as a result of an ongoing global drive for efficiency and competitiveness, students now face wider expectations, not only to learn and synthesize subject matter, but also to adapt it and put it to use almost immediately.
"It used to be enough for students to spend four years working hard on assignments, labs and exams to earn a useful undergraduate degree that signalled competence and was redeemable for a good job. Today, in contrast, employers want fresh graduates who they don’t have to train." (Professor Ishwar Puri)
Whether you are applying for a job, a place on a postgraduate psychology course or trying to secure an academic grant/bursary etc, you have to be able to stand out from the crowd and there is still no more effective of doing this, than by undertaking quality work experience.
HOW TO GET WORK EXPERIENCE
Of all the questions I'm asked via the All About Psychology website and social media channels, questions relating to work experience are among the most frequent. Here are two typical examples.
I am a Psychology student and I am looking for relevant work experience that will benefit me during and after my degree. I would be grateful if anyone could point me in the right direction.
I am studying for a BSc (Hons) degree in psychology. As part of the course, I am planning to undertake a placement and am very interested in working in a mental health setting. I was wondering if anybody could give me any information about where I could work or who I could work for in order to build on my experience.
The following information is designed to help answer these questions.
The earlier you start your search for work experience, the better. Ideally, you should begin looking during the first year of your degree, however, there is nothing to stop you making enquries in advance of your psychology course. Places where psychology students can look for work experience include:
Any work experience is valuable but if possible, it should be relevant to the psychological specialism you are interested in. For example, undertaking volunteer work in a school (learning mentor, classroom assistant etc) makes sense for anyone planning a career within educational psychology.
For an informed understanding of relevant work experience within your particular area of interest, visit the career section of your country's psychology association. In the UK, the British Psychological Society provides detailed information on all the major areas of psychology, including the type of work experience you'll need within each sub-discipline.
Job shadowing provides an excellent opportunity to gain valuable career insights. Think of it as a psychology ride-along where you get to spend time observing the work day of a psychologist or mental health provider. The key here is to be proactive.
Check with your university. Do they have a formal job shadowing scheme in place?
Ask your tutors. Do they know anybody who would be willing to let you shadow them?
Reach out to professionals in the field. Let them know that you have a passionate interest in their area of expertise and would appreciate any help, advice or guidance they can give. If you're in the UK, you can find chartered psychologists working close to where you live.
VOLUNTARY WORK EXPERIENCE
Most psychology students get the work experience they need through volunteer placements. With this in mind, make sure you check out the opportunities offered by the organisations listed below.
KIDS offers voluntary work with disabled children, young people and their families.
Mencap, the UK charity for people with a learning disability offers a wide range of volunteering opportunities.
SLV.Global provide psychology students and graduates from around the world practical psychology work experience whilst being immersed in a unique and exciting culture. Placements are designed to provide maximum benefit to the communities in which they are based and to give volunteers the opportunity to gain highly valuable experience in the mental health sector. Many volunteers use their SLV.Global Placements as course credit, or receive funding from their universities to go toward their fees and 80% of SLV.Global volunteers have successfully fundraised for their placements, with many managing to cover their full placement fees through crowdfunding platforms such as GoFundMe.
SOME FINAL ADVICE
It's not enough to simply show that you have done some work experience. The point is that you can demonstrate that you have learned from that experience and that you are able to draw from that experience. The best advice to anyone doing work experience is to keep a note of your thoughts and feelings. You don't have to write a full diary entry every day, just get in the habit of jotting down key experiences, major highlights, things that really inspired you, situations that challenged you, things that you made you think etc. These personal experiences are precisely the kind of things that will make you stand out and increase your chances of success when applying for a job or a postgraduate position.