‘Careers are squiggly’

30 November 2020

British Psychological Society President Dr Hazel McLaughlin opened the day by urging those at the start of their psychology journeys to think about their own unique potential and how to achieve it. ‘Carpe diem, seize the day, go for your future – because no one else will be able to do that but you.’

Clinical Psychologist Dr Gemima Fitzgerald had an extremely tricky start in life – of the 10 potential Adverse Childhood Experiences she was exposed to eight. ‘I certainly had a lot of self-esteem issues, and a lot of anxiety... I'm now in my 40s and now I don't regret any of those and I don't say that lightly, I would never have chosen it, but boy oh boy I've learned some stuff along the way.’  

Fitzgerald was first drawn to clinical psychology as a career at the age of 16 thanks to her own experience working with a psychologist, however life took her in a different direction. She got married, a relationship which soon became abusive, and had children.

After 16 years she left the marriage and was reminded of her dream to become a psychologist. As a single parent in her mid-30s, with no qualifications, money, home or car, she said the odds were stacked against her, but she decided to try regardless. After a psychology BSc at the University of Sussex, and experiencing numerous knockbacks along the way, Fitzgerald got a place on a Clinical Psychology doctorate course at the age of 39.  

Although she had no experience as an assistant psychologist, one of the more common roles to hold before doctoral training, she had worked in numerous settings which she could draw on. She emphasised that in applying for doctorate courses it was useful to make a narrative out of previous work and life experience to demonstrate why and how this was relevant to an eventual career in clinical psychology. ‘You need very good reflection skills as a psychologist so being able to reflect on what you've done and evidencing that is really, really important. Whatever life experience you've had – good, bad, ugly, failures, mistakes – nothing is ever wasted, no pain is ever wasted, not if you are learning from it.’ 

Associate Professor Dr Mustafa Sarkar (Nottingham Trent University) also had an unconventional journey into sport and performance psychology. Initially hoping to study law Sarkar was unsuccessful in getting a place at law school and was forced to take a gap year, during which time he worked on a placement with Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) as a tax consultant. 

Later PwC offered Sarkar a job and he faced a dilemma – take the PwC job with an excellent salary or pursue a career in sport, exercise and performance psychology. He chose the latter. Sarkar completed an undergraduate degree in sport and exercise science followed by a psychology conversion diploma, master’s in sport and exercise psychology, and later a PhD. 

Since that time Sarkar has worked as a research fellow, senior lecturer and associate professor. He explained what it is truly like to work as an academic – teaching, supervising PhD students, applying for funding and carrying out his own research in areas including team and organisational resilience and growth after adversity. Given that research background, Sarkar shared some excellent lessons for those embarking on a journey into a psychology career. He said we should be aware that behind individual stories of success there are many untold stories of challenge that have helped people reach that point. ‘Take the opportunity to learn and reflect on the speed bumps that you encounter, be proactive in your personal and professional development – seeking out opportunities and saying yes more than you say no, be sensitive to different types of motivation – recognising are you extrinsically motivated or are you intrinsically motivated, thinking about decisions as choices rather than sacrifices, focusing on what you can control and processes, rather than outcomes.’  

Open things up

Questions came thick and fast for the panel before lunch. Society President Hazel McLaughlin emphasised that aspiring psychologists should try to take the ‘broader view’, finding out more about what people are doing on a day-to-day basis. ‘Open things up rather than closing them down’, she advised, reminding the audience that many people change tack mid-career. Eduard Margarit, current Chair of the BPS Student Committee, echoed the advice not to plump for a particular path too early. Claire Tilley, Head of Workforce Education, Training and Standards at the BPS, pointed to the ‘day in the life’ videos on the BPS YouTube channel as a good intro, and noted that there are ‘psychologically informed’ roles you can go into with a Psychology education. The society is increasingly trying to look at competencies rather than qualifications, she said.

Asked how best to stand out in an application process, Forbes Earl Clinical Associate Psychologist of Cornwall Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, advised ensuring a sense of yourself comes through, which led to an interesting question about how personal is too personal. Claire Tilley felt it’s about ‘being reflective but clearly linking that to the point you’re trying to make’. Dan O’Hare, an educational psychologist working for Gloucestershire local authority, talked about the importance of adapting communication skills to different levels. ‘9:30-10, I might be meeting a six-year-old, talking about Frozen 2; 11, talking with a school governor’. It’s about listening, meet people where they are, recognise assumptions and bring them to the discussion.

Next, Dr Chris Street (Reader in Cognitive Psychology, University of Huddersfield) described his journey out of ‘the Valleys’, with an attendance rate at school he admitted was ‘not very high’. Told he would not be ‘capable’ of doing science, and that he should work in a shop, Street said: ‘I didn’t know that I wanted to do Psychology. I was just chatting with a friend about memory, when I was 17. Can you force yourself to forget things? Understanding how things function is what drives me today.’ 

Volunteering in a vision and perception lab at the University of Dundee, he got interested in how the presence of other people affects our perception of the world. Landing a highly competitive Research Assistant role at University College London, he encountered an undergrad student who wanted to work for MI6. ‘This interest, in deception, was entirely new to me and my supervisor. And it seemed that some very basic questions in cognition and decision making were not being asked in lie detection.’

This work developed into a PhD, becoming a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of British Columbia, and then on to lecturing at Huddersfield. Street’s ‘Spinozan mind’ approach to lie detection considers whether the fact that accuracy is pretty low and training doesn’t help much is an indication of a problem, or actually smart decision making. ‘We rely on past experience to fill in gaps. Lying is discouraged, and people usually tell the truth. People who lie are not producing any cues, or if they are they are very weak. We could just guess randomly whether they’re telling the truth, but why do that when you have context-general info?’ 

Street has now worked with Bob’s Business to develop evidence-based cyber security training (part-funded by Innovate UK working with Knowledge Transfer Network); and on an ESRC project exploring a relatively new scam technique called ‘smishing’. ‘Text messages piggyback off a very old system,’ he warned, ‘so it’s easy to spoof them’. 

Ending with a general picture of life in academia, Street emphasised the importance of self-motivation: ‘you get to set your own research agenda, there’s generally no boss above you telling you “you need to do this project”.’ Don’t rush through a PhD – it can be useful to have time to build up publications. Expect failure and uncertainty he warned, as you are working ‘at the edge of knowledge’. A thick skin is ‘helpful but not essential’. It’s competitive, ‘but anything worth doing will be – don’t let that put you off!’ 

That fire in your belly

Two psychologists shared their fascinating journeys that started in the emergency services and led to applied psychological research. Dr Sabrina Cohen-Hatton, now Chief Fire Officer, completed her PhD while working full time in the fire service, which she had joined at 18. Cohen-Hatton is not a stereotypical firefighter. She has had to combat stereotypes throughout her career, and became comfortable being different. Cohen-Hatton now thinks that being different can be freeing, it can allow you to define new boundaries and empower you.

Cohen-Hatton is the most senior rank in the fire service and has led the response to terror attacks and significant tragic fires. In her job, ‘our every day is always someone else’s worst day’, and Cohen-Hatton wanted to make firefighters better and safer. Taking research from the lab to the field, Cohen-Hatton gathered data on how firefighters make decisions in real incidents. Ultimately this informed new policies with techniques to help Commanders make decisions. These policies are now used as standard nationally, and within other emergency services. Cohen-Hatton describes this practical applied research as ‘pracademic’, and she said it was really special to have achieved her goal and contributed to science. 

Professor Coral Dando, forensic psychologist at the University of Westminster, described her journey ‘from the street to the lab’. Dando became a police officer at 19, which is when her interest in psychology began, although she didn’t even know psychology existed then. Interviewing ‘is a bread and butter activity for every police officer’, and Dando discovered that it was one of the most demanding and complex social interactions – ‘all aspects of psychology impact on an interview’. When interviewing offenders, victims, and witnesses to child sexual exploitation and abuse Dando wondered in particular why children couldn’t remember incidents in much detail.

Unable to continue to work on a part time basis with two children, Dando got a place on an undergraduate degree in psychology. ‘As soon as I stepped into the world of psychology it all just fell into place.’ All the questions Dando had asked herself about memory as an interviewing police officer made sense, leading to a PhD in episodic memory and social cognition. In postdoctoral research with Professor Ray Bull, Dando developed techniques and taught police officers to optimise the chances of detecting when a suspected offender is being deceptive. Now, Dando works with organisations such as the Transportation Security Administration in the US to improve their aviation screening, as an expert witness on interviews with witnesses and victims, and as a consultant such as on the TV drama Deadwater Fell (yes, she got to work with David Tennant!). 

Cohen-Hatton and Dando both shared advice based on their experiences. Cohen-Hatton said that thinking about your goal can help to drive you – ‘make sure you have that fire in your belly’. Doing a PhD is hard, but Cohen-Hatton said you will discover something new. ‘With your own mind you can nudge forward the knowledge of humankind.’ One of Dando’s key tips was to find mentors who challenge and encourage you. ‘Reach out and find a couple of people that you really trust.’ Dando also suggested looking at the media to see what the general public are concerned about because that’s what funders and the government will also be concerned about.

We may crave certainty about our future careers, but in Cohen-Hatton’s words, ‘careers are squiggly – there is no such thing as a straight line career’. Wrapping up, McLaughlin said ‘it’s about finding your own way, finding the journey that works for you’.