How I got a place on the clinical psychology doctoral programme

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University College London.

Once I’d given up working as a management consultant I started on the path to becoming a qualified Clinical Psychologist. This turned out to be a much longer and more difficult path than I had anticipated. As I progressed down that path I realised that it was entirely normal to have difficulty getting onto the courses. There’s a huge amount of competition so a lot of good people miss out.

When I eventually managed to get onto UCL’s Clinical Psychology programme our introductory lecture confirmed that the selection process is imperfect. We were told that they were sure that they’d rejected many applicants who would make excellent clinical psychologists. This isn’t because the courses are being ineffective – they regularly try to refine their assessment and interview processes. The problem is that there really are too many good applicants for the number of places available.

The frustrations of being an applicant

The frustration as an applicant is that it’s difficult to work out what you need to do to get on the training programmes. The courses have certain minimum requirements (for example, a good 2:1 in a Psychology degree or conversion Masters and some relevant work experience) but once you’ve met those criteria it’s difficult to know for how long you should continue to invest in trying to get on the courses. I have a number of friends who spent years doing low-paid roles to gain the experience they needed to get onto the Clinical Psychology courses before they decided that they should try a different career. The good news is that they all found fulfilling careers in fields as varied as ambulance paramedic to academic researcher.

The path I took…

My own path was to find work as an Assistant Psychologist at an adolescent inpatient hospital. Although the Assistant Psychologist posts are low paid they are also very hard to get because of the high number of applications for each post. I was fortunate in that the psychiatrists at the hospital were looking for someone who could administer neuropsychological assessments and other psychometrics. My experience in Singapore meant I had the skills they needed and I got the job.

After some time at the psychiatric hospital I found I still wasn’t getting invited to interviews with the London courses that I was applying to. I guessed that this might be down to one of two things. Either the courses wanted more evidence of my academic ability or perhaps they wanted me to have worked directly with the NHS (the adolescent inpatient hospital was run by a private company but most of the patients were funded by the NHS). I managed to solve both these problems in one year. I got a part-time job as an Assistant Psychologist with the NHS and I managed to get a scholarship to take a Masters in Mental Health Services Research (MSc) at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London.  I wouldn’t recommend that approach unless you have some interest in research! At the time I was thinking that I would embark on a research career by getting a PhD if Clinical Psychology didn’t work out.

Once I had that masters and the NHS experience my fortunes with the application process turned around and I was offered multiple interviews and a few offers of a place on the clinical courses. I’m still not entirely sure what it was (if anything) that made the difference. But I was certainly glad that I managed to get onto the course.

Looking back …

Looking back, the period of time trying to get onto the course was actually really helpful to me. I learnt a lot about how to work with other professionals (nurses, care assistants, psychologists, therapists and doctors) when you don’t have any official ‘power’. The only way to get things done was to understand things from their perspective and persuade or encourage without being too annoying. I think I would have missed out on some important learning if I’d immediately have become a trainee and then a qualified clinical psychologist.

If any of you reading this are currently fighting your way along the path to being a Clinical Psychologist I empathise with your situation. I can reassure you, at least from my own experience, that it’s really worth the journey.

Note

It’s important to note that these difficulties applying for places on the Clinical Psychology courses relate mainly to the funded NHS positions which are only open to British (and at least until recently European) applicants. People from overseas face the bigger challenge of finding funding for the course. If you are an overseas applicant and you have funding for the course you will need to prove that you are as capable as British applicants but there is not as much competition.

I am a British Chartered Clinical Psychologist currently working in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I aim to help people who are facing psychological or emotional difficulties to overcome their difficulties.

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