I’m right at the end of my formal psychology training; I’ve just submitted my PhD thesis. Given this milestone and also being the start of the year, I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting about my time completing my training and thought I would describe what I would tell the undergraduate me…
1. Know my options
There are so many legitimate vocational options that could come out of a psychology degree. Becoming a clinical psychologist is only one. In fact, statistically, the vast majority of people doing a psych undergrad will not go on to become a clinical psychologist – or any form of a psychologist for that matter. And that is OK. Looking back, I think many of my decisions were likely based on a belief that becoming a clinical psychologist and completing my training at university was the only real or good option; everything else was a failure. Perhaps if I understood the breadth of options available to me I would have made other decisions, have been less stressed, and perhaps even slightly kinder to myself.
Simply knowing the differences between the 4+2 program, 5+1 program, and a masters program would have been helpful. I have friends who believe that the 4+2 program is only for people wanting to go down the counselling/therapy route, for example. This is not true!
Also, I wish I found out about the types of employees that hire people with a 3 or 4-year behavioural science or psychology degree. For example, I now know that I could have explored becoming a counsellor, worked within rehabilitation, developed skills in other chronic diseases or health management, become a parole officer, a human resource manager, worked in marketing, or become a behavioural research assistant just to name a few.
This is an amazing website I wish I knew about 10 years ago: https://psychologycareers.org.au/
Also, you can create alerts on employment websites like Seek that can deliver frequent emails about potential jobs. Perhaps create these alerts to start to understand the scope of job opportunities you might be interested in.
2. Do some research assistant work
I hadn’t really considered doing research while early in my undergrad (now look at me, handing in my PhD thesis!!!). I wish I had given up some time and volunteered in a research lab though. Most academics would kill to get some free help. This would have given me a first-hand experience of what it is really like doing research. The anxiety of doing face-to-face recruitment, the monotony of data-entry, the excitement of conceptualising ideas, and hard work and dedication it takes. Some people love it, some people hate it. Again, I may have made different decisions about my career if I had given research a try that bit earlier.
I understand, however, that giving up your time for free incorporates a certain amount of privilege. You must be in a position that allows you the time and flexibility to do this. Many people from a working-class background, who have family or other occupational responsibilities, or those who have a chronic illness (to name a few) may not have this privilege.
3. Seek other experiences
Further to my point about getting research experience, I also wish I sought other real-work, practical experiences that may have further increased my professional identity. Research demonstrates that exposure to a professional environment builds a professional identity, which is often lacking while completing a psychology degree (given the focus on learning theory over skill development).
I don’t know quite what this would look like though. Perhaps, again, doing some type of volunteer work in community organisations in the areas I was interested in. Perhaps looking for other paid work. Perhaps being more engaged in professional bodies or organisations.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have engaged in a number of awesome opportunities over the last year or so. Not generically awesome like a specific holiday but being involved in things with people I admire, which only arose because I knew the right people.
Luckily, I’ve always been quite gregarious but I wish I had taken more advantage of this by networking the shit out of everything. Who knows who I would have met, what opportunities I could have made, what fun I could have had, or how little would have changed?! How can we ever know? I am reaping the rewards of some networking right now though, so I imagine if I did it more often sooner, other positive things could have also come of it.
P.S. These organisations relate to number 3 and 4.
5. Reflect more
In some way, this is related to number 1 but I wish I took more time to reflect on the breadth of skills I was accruing. It is so easy to miss these skills when so much of our degree focuses on theory and content knowledge. The mere act of being at and doing moderately well at university affords many skills (time management, organisational skills, critical thinking, research, etc.). I know it is much easier when we have discrete and concrete skills to sell to employees (or even our family) but in a world that will be increasingly taken over by AI, recognising that we are adept at learning, communicating, prioritising, and critically analysing would have been invaluable to my confidence and appreciation of my degree.
What other thoughts or reflections do you wish you had told your undergraduate self?
Daniel J. Brown