Psychology – and other social sciences – are notoriously difficult fields to find work experience in. The need for relevant, clinical experience is ingrained into students from the moment they walk into their first lecture, and yet it is a feat which is easier said than done in many respects. Last summer I worked for two independent psychotherapy services and an NHS specialist service. All these experiences taught me a massive amount, and here is some advice to secure these placements and (more importantly) get the most out of them.
1. Contact Contact Contact
Research your field – where do you want to work? Why? What kind of services are near you? Find them, look at their websites and gather as much information as you can, and then contact them. I found that short-term placements (suitable for 3-4 months over the summer) were almost never advertised on recruitment websites. The larger, most popular companies are usually inundated with student requests for work experiences, so I targeted smaller independent firms by telephone. Phone calls are the easiest way to communicate personality, enthusiasm and are less likely to be ignored (unlike emails). I wrote letters to 48 practices and the ones that accepted me for work experience were the ones I telephoned directly.
2. Be creative and realistic
If – like me – you’re a psychology student, the most typical work experience that you will hope to get is a clinical placement. These opportunities are often few and far between, which means that it is time to get creative. Have a long think about where you want your degree to take you and explore the opportunities which are likely more ‘off the beaten track’. I worked with a lovely psychotherapist who specialises in mindfulness and holistic therapies – the experience was hugely relevant to my course and due to the small nature of the business gave me a real insight into alternative psychology practices. Despite the obvious appeal of large clinical practices, smaller more niche companies can offer a rather unique and personable experience. If you’ve approached all the NHS/private sectors near you and haven’t had any luck, do not despair. Expand your search criteria and keep your options as open as possible. For example, although typing “psychology services” into google may seem a fail-safe plan, using slightly more creative language can give you more hits.
3. Join a staff bank
NHS and independent sectors advertise for bank staff throughout the year. This is perfect for students, because there are no contracted hours (you work as and when available/required). Health care support worker posts are the most frequently advertised and are often available in secure units, psychiatric wards and private hospitals. Additionally, there are temporary recruitment agencies (I worked for TaskMaster Resources) who employ cover staff for the NHS. These are well worth pursuing, particularly for short-term opportunities.
4. Look early
It is likely that psychology practices receive many requests from students, particularly just before the summer or other holidays. Start your search early and build up a bank of contacts which you can later approach when you know your university holidays (with exam dates etc.) For example, I started looking for placements starting for May in January time, and was able to relax during exam time knowing that relevant work experience had been secured.
5. Be prepared to volunteer
Two of my work experience placements were voluntarily. Expenses were paid (train tickets etc.) but other than that, the work I did was entirely free. When the offers first came in I was suitably sceptical and had to secure full time paid work to fund myself, working around the volunteer positions. However, these opportunities gave me genuinely invaluable experience and contacts. Show enthusiasm, invest in your long-term career and be prepared for placements which don’t pay (especially the most competitive sectors).
Madeleine Pownall is a second year psychology student at University of Lincoln. She runs a blog www.thoughtbubblesblog.co.uk which discusses current issues in a psychological context. Find her on twitter: @1thoughtbubbles
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