How do I become a clinical psychologist?

I regularly get asked about how to get an assistant psychologist job and how to get onto clinical training and become a clinical psychologist. Below I’ll try and map out my usual reply in the hope that it might be helpful to others. Please note that the text below probably only applies to the UK and is based on nothing more concrete than my experience and hunches, so do hold it lightly.

I picture the road to becoming a clinical psychologist as a long one with two significant bottlenecks. People often meet the first when they try and get their first assistant post and the second when they try to secure a place on clinical training. At both points lots of similarly able and similarly qualified individuals chase a limited number of places.

My top tip for getting a first assistant psychologist post is to get some relevant clinical experience. My top two tips for getting onto clinical training is to first make sure you have enough clinical experience and then to enhance the academic side of your CV. I’ll now look at both in order.

Relevant clinical experience

So what counts as ‘relevant clinical experience’? In my mind this is anything that approaches or parallels the day to day work of a clinical psychologist. For the most part clinical psychologists work in the NHS with groups or individuals who are struggling with some aspect of their lives. So showing a commitment to working in the NHS is important as is demonstrating the ability to work with people who are experiencing significant suffering and distress.

Of course the best way to gain relevant clinical experience is by getting a job as an assistant psychologist and I’m aware that this sounds like a Catch-22. Somehow you need to be doing the job of an assistant psychologist before you can get a job working as an assistant psychologist. But you can get comparable experiences elsewhere. Depending on when you decide to set out on this career path there are several things you can do.

If clinical psychology sounds appealing to you before you start your undergraduate degree consider three things. One, obviously, consider doing a psychology degree. Two, pragmatically, make sure the degree gives you the Graduate Basis for Chartered Membership (GBC) of the BPS (British Psychological Society). And three, consider picking a degree course that offers industrial placements. These schemes give students the opportunity to spend anything from a term to a year working alongside qualified psychologists in the real world. Potentially this is a great way to enhance your experience and CV from an early stage.

You can also try and gain relevant experience during university term-time, vacations or after you have graduated. Below are three of many potential routes.

1. Clinical Psychologists are probably working close to your university or your home town, in lots of different specialities and work locations. It is probably the case that the experience you will gain through this route will not immediately involve direct patient contact. It may instead involve data collection, data entry or the conducting of literature reviews. However working in this capacity may stand you in good stead for applying for future assistant jobs if they arise. You may find that there is a local head of psychology who knows who works where and with whom close to you. (Before contacting him or her please remember how busy they are likely to be, so please do some homework first.)

2. Other NHS work. Consider looking for work opportunities in parallel roles in the NHS. For example as a mental health support worker, support assistant or health care assistant. Before I got my first assistant post I worked on a local inpatient ward for older adults with dementia and on a adult mental health ward. The work did not involve any psychological interventions, but was practical, hands on, and involved direct patient contact. I think it enhanced my CV.

3. Non NHS organisations and charities. Consider what non-NHS organisations serve the same client groups that clinical psychologists work with. For example, I spent one afternoon a week teaching IT skills to a small group of people with long term mental health problems. Again, while the work was far removed from ‘talking therapy’ it gave me direct client contact and demonstrated my willing and initiative.

It is worth noting that I became an assistant psychologist back in 2001. Since March 2002 any work that includes direct work with children or patients will probably involve a pre-employment CRB (Criminal Records Bureau) check. For this to be worth-while to an employer make sure you are offering enough hours over a long enough period of time for the costs and effort involved in getting this to be out-weighed by the benefits you may bring.

Some other practical tips for getting that first assistant post

The NHS jobs website makes finding and applying for assistant posts very easy, maybe even too easy. Once you have completed one application a few clicks of a mouse is all it takes to apply for similar posts elsewhere. Despite this do read job descriptions and person specifications carefully. Try and tailor your personal statement to these documents. Resist the urge to simply resend the personal statement you wrote for the last job.

Do some additional research about the unit or services you are applying to. What work do they do? What approach do they follow? Do the staff present at conferences or publish academic papers? Hopefully it is clear why this is information might be helpful at the interview stage, but it can also be helpful at the application stage. Showing that you have done your homework suggests you are keen, hard-working and can use your own initiative. All skills an employer will value.

If you are really keen on a post consider contacting the unit by phone. The job advert often includes the details of a person to contact. What questions do you have? What more do you want to know? A telephone conversation can give you a chance to find out further information and it also gives you an initial opportunity to impress. For similar reasons, if you do get short-listed, consider visiting the service prior to interview.

If you are struggling to get an assistant post local to you consider widening the geographical area you are searching in.

Seek out feedback. If you get an interview but don’t get the job, always get feedback. It provides a great opportunity to understand what might need improving for next time.

Last but by no means least, do check your spelling, punctuation and grammar. Don’t undermine your considerable efforts in other areas by weakness in this one.

Enhancing the academic side of your CV

People sometimes ask about the usefulness of gaining extra academic qualifications after their undergraduate degree and before applying for assistant posts and clinical courses. Below is my personal, biased, and possibly faulted point of view. Most candidates applying for assistant posts and clinical training will have either a 1st or a 2:1 undergraduate degree in psychology. Some courses will accept 2:2 undergraduate degrees, some will not, while others will need to see further postgraduate work has been completed to a high standard.

Assuming that you already have a 1st or 2:1, I remain unconvinced that getting a Masters or even a PhD helps candidates get onto clinical training unless they can show that they have done something extra with it. By this I mean making an additional contribution to the psychology community and academic literature over and above the qualification itself. This could mean getting your name on posters that are presented at academic conferences or giving talks or presentations at the same. Even better is getting your name on academic papers especially if they appear in peer reviewed journals. I have a hunch that it is these things rather than the qualifications themselves that really make a candidate stand out.

In my opinion neither Masters, PhDs, posters, presentations or even academic papers are an adequate substitute for relevant clinical experience. I think perhaps it used to be the case that a PhD in psychology would somehow magically open the doors to clinical training courses. Today it appears that there is no substitute for relevant clinical experience.

Other useful web based information:
The BPS web pages about careers in clinical psychology
The Leeds Clearing House for Postgraduate Courses in Clinical Psychology