‘I viewed it as an unreachable, elite career’
Emily Reynolds hears from working class people who have struggled to make their way in Psychology.
26 May 2022
Applied psychology has a class problem. From school to university to doctorate training programmes, working class people are underrepresented – and this has an impact not only on professionals but on service users, too.
So what are the barriers to working class people thriving in psychology, and what can be done about it?
Paths to psychology
Issues of accessibility can arise before someone even enters the field. Matt Morgan, an assistant psychologist working in primary care, came to psychology later than most, and is currently applying for doctorates in clinical psychology in his late 30s. He grew up on a council estate in Swansea in what he describes as ‘abject poverty’; because of the struggles he experienced growing up, including being a carer for his parents, his career in psychology only started after a series of jobs in retail and call centres.
‘I wasn’t able to pursue a career [in psychology] like a lot of people could, because I did have those responsibilities,’ he says. ‘A lot of people go to uni when they’re 18, graduate at 21, do a masters, then follow a journey that way. I’ve come to it a lot later.’
Morgan acknowledges that many of the more affluent aspiring psychologists will also have to care for their parents or juggle responsibilities. But he also points out that people from poorer backgrounds are statistically more likely to have to deal with such challenges. ‘Poverty exacerbates poor health: my family are not able to eat as well, live in houses as warm, live without the stress of worrying about money. All of those things contribute to ill health. I have to deal with that in a way people who have good diets and live in warm houses in nicer areas and have money for therapy might not.’ These kinds of factors place young people from underprivileged backgrounds on an unequal playing field before their careers have even begun.
Early expectations about future career trajectories can also make it harder for young people from working class backgrounds to become psychologists. Dr Kerrie Lissack qualified from Exeter University in 2021, and now works as an educational psychologist in primary and secondary schools with children and their families. Like Morgan, Lissack was late to a career in psychology – largely because it was simply never offered to her as a possibility. Only after a career in education did she consider further training.
‘For me, psychology very much felt like an out of reach subject – one of those subjects that other people did,’ she says. ‘It was never promoted to me as a subject I could pursue or consider at degree level. I viewed it as an unreachable, elite career.’ Morgan agrees: ‘I didn’t even know about clinical psychology until later in life. As a working class person, there’s absolutely no sense that when you grow up you’re going to become a psychologist.’
Figures suggest that Morgan and Lissack are not alone in their experiences. According to data from the charity Clearing House, only 9 per cent of applicants to clinical psychology courses in 2020 came from the lowest socioeconomic quintile, compared to 25 per cent from the highest. Of this lower quintile, only 6 per cent were accepted to courses compared to 32 per cent for the highest.
Young people from working class backgrounds face financial barriers as well. Lissack, for example, was only able to apply for her masters and doctorate programmes after saving for several years, and was heavily supported by loans and grants.
Of particular concern are honorary posts, which provide training and experience but are unpaid. Honorary positions have long been criticised for their inaccessibility and their likelihood of entrenching inequalities. A Nuffield Trust report notes that around two in five applicants for clinical psychology doctorates have held honorary or voluntary assistant psychology roles, potentially explaining why those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as older applicants or those with dependents, are less likely to apply.
‘Honorary posts naturally limit who can apply,’ says Ste Weatherhead, who works as an academic, as a clinical psychologist in the NHS, and in the third sector. ‘They need to go. We need to stop having an expectation that people can pay upfront for the career they are going to have. Whether that’s paying for travel, paying for courses – any element of the selection process that means you would have had to pay to get to these points, they should be gone.’
Fixed-term, low pay, and part-time roles also disadvantage without a family safety net, Morgan points out. ‘For some people on fixed-term contracts, the worst case scenario is that they borrow money from their parents or move back in for a few months. My parents couldn’t give me money even if I was desperate, and they haven’t got any room. It really does impact the type of opportunities you can go for, which then affects your CV and your desirability as a candidate.’
Feeling like an impostor
Along with material barriers, working class people also experience issues of identity. ‘I continue to feel that, because of my background, I don’t fully identify with being a psychologist,’ Lissack says. ‘Being a doctor in psychology and earning what I earn pushes me into the middle class, but this continues to feel very conflicting for me.’
In sixth form, Lissack found it difficult to even identify with the idea of going to university because she was the first in her family to consider attending. And research shows that it’s common for first generation students to feel that they don’t fit in. One 2019 study, led by Elizabeth Canning and covered on our Research Digest (see tinyurl.com/digest090120), found that first-generation STEM students were more likely than their peers to experience impostor syndrome, or feelings that they didn’t belong or lacked the skills and intelligence to continue. This has a material impact, reducing engagement, attendance, and performance and increasing the intention to drop out – again, potentially reducing the pool of potential psychologists from marginalised backgrounds of all kinds. And this can have a long-term impact on someone’s career.
‘There’s an internal barrier in terms of people with a middle class background having an inbuilt sense of entitlement,’ Weatherhead says. ‘But those from a working class background feel we don’t deserve it, we step away from opportunities that people with a greater sense of entitlement will step towards.’
For Morgan, there has been a consistent sense that psychology is not for working class people. ‘We talk about impostor syndrome, but a feature of that is that you’re wrong about being an impostor. But we are impostors – we weren’t supposed to be there. It’s not what society intended for us. You feel like an impostor because you are an impostor.’
Benefitting from experience
This is not merely an issue of representation. For psychologists themselves and those hoping to enter the field, struggling against discrimination and other barriers can take a mental toll: juggling different jobs in order to get by, working on fixed-term contracts, having language or accents demeaned by colleagues or superiors, or feeling pushed out or alienated can have a serious impact on mental health.
More knowledge of class and more representation among clinical psychologists would also benefit patients directly. Poverty and deprivation are common experiences in all kinds of services – as Morgan puts it, ‘this isn’t a niche patient group’. Yet staff with a profound or firsthand understanding of these issues are still rare. Weatherhead agrees, pointing also to his sense of community and responsibility to others, a direct result of his background, as a benefit to his work. ‘I’m just a normal person and want to help people.’
But both feel that this isn’t sufficiently acknowledged by the field. For Morgan, there is a particular frustration in what he sees as hypocrisy within the profession. ‘When you start in psychology and you’re from a working class background or disabled or from another underrepresented group, you’re always told it’s going to be so valuable – “we need people like you, it will help you with patients”, things like that. But then you don’t see it in the process at all.’ Meanwhile, the preconceptions and implicit biases about class held by other clinical psychologists are overlooked, Lissack adds.
A more equitable profession?
So what needs to change in order for clinical psychology to become more equitable and less middle class? Lissack, Morgan and Weatherhead all point to the financial barriers that need to be removed – no more honorary positions or paying upfront for training or travel. This, Weatherhead argues, is a basic issue of accessibility and should be treated as such.
Suggestions from research also include creating a more welcoming classroom environment: the 2019 study on first generation students found that more competitive environments were more likely to foster impostor syndrome, so a more hospitable atmosphere may go some way to make a difference. There also needs to be greater acknowledgement that psychology is currently a middle class profession, says Lissack; frank discussions about class could be one way of starting to challenge this hegemony. She also argues that children and young people should be meeting with, seeing and interacting with psychologists in order to see clinical psychology as a viable career – though she notes that meaningful funding needs to be made available for young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds to actually access higher education.
There have been some positive developments in this regard. Networks of academics and clinicians have begun connecting working class psychologists and, crucially, campaigning for real change. The ClassClinPsych Collective, for example, holds events and pushes for new practices within psychology; in their mission statement, they argue that psychology as a ‘responsibility... to acknowledge and address issues and barriers surrounding class’, not only for the benefit of professionals but for service users also affected by class-based discrimination.
Actively addressing power imbalances can be uncomfortable, but is crucial. ‘You’re asking people, in order to fix this, to reduce their own chance of success,’ Morgan says. He suggests asking people not to apply for doctoral programmes or jobs or ring fencing more places for working class people; contextual admissions, where programme leads take into account contextual information like background, asylum status, or care experience, could also improve access.
‘But the psychologists who are in power now need to reflect on class, and that requires the privileged to lose some power,’ Morgan concludes. ‘If you make it more likely that poor people succeed, it necessarily becomes harder for richer people to succeed.’
- Emily Reynolds writes for our Research Digest.
Illustration: Eliza Southwood