Assistant Psychologists around the country tend to go underground between September and December each year, as this is the hallowed window for writing applications for the Clinical Psychology Doctorate. You get a whole 3,000 characters to send to a maximum of four universities to explain why you’re amazing. It’s a tough process, and a process that the majority of applicants will go through more than once. Since we’ve been a bit quiet throughout this process, we wanted to reflect on how it went this time round…
Having done this form before, I thought this year would be easy and significantly less stressful, but I think I’m starting to realise that that’s probably never going to happen…
Working within the NHS in a small team made up of assistant psychologists can be both a burden and a curse throughout this process. While being surrounded by other people going through the same nightmarish ordeal as you is comforting, it’s important to ensure it doesn’t become all-consuming. When you’re in the middle of applications it’s so easy for it to spill into everything you do, both at work and at home. In our office we found that actually making sure we had conversations that were a million miles away from ‘How’s the form going?’, was vital for our emotional wellbeing. Also remembering that although your colleagues are technically your competition, that comes second to your current relationship with them. Denisha and I share an office and I like to think we’re pretty good friends, that will always come over and above any competitiveness from trying to get on the same course. I’m not a competitive person by nature and I learnt pretty quickly that competing with colleagues within clinical psychology would always be a waste of time. You’re trying to do the same thing, big deal, so are most people in most careers in the world. Sure the doctorate is a little different because you get one shot each year and the uncertainty surrounding the funding makes people more desperate to get on as soon as possible. However, if you let that competitiveness poison your working relationships, the road to get on the course will quickly become a lot harder and a whole lot more lonely. I’ve heard horrible stories about AP’s falling out over this process, and managers even having to step in to resolve office conflicts. I can gladly say I have never experienced that, and I hope it’s not something I ever come in contact with. It can be super difficult working with lots of people all shooting for the same thing, but it’s not going to change until you get on the course so you might as well make the best of it and help each other through. After all, misery does love company.
One thing i remembered from last year that I carried into this years’ process was that absolutely everyone will ask if you’re applying. Everyone knows an AP post is a step up to the DClin. We aren’t paid remotely enough money or given enough responsibility for this to be your final career stop. Everyone is doing this for the experience and then they either get on the course or move on to another post. So naturally, managers/supervisors/everyone-you-come-in-contact-with-who-has-worked-in-NHS-psychology-for-more-than-5-minutes is going to ask if you’re applying, offer advice or even offer to read your form. Last year I found this overwhelming and at times almost invasive, which I am well aware was not anybody’s intention. In the caring profession, you’re surrounded by people whose job is to help others, and so they want to nurture you and support you through this god-awful process that usually they’ve had to suffer through themselves. Being aware that this was going to happen made me more prepared this year, I didn’t feel as overprotective of my form as I did the first time around, and I was able to constructively use people’s advice and comments to (hopefully) improve my application. If you’re a first time applicant in an NHS setting, be aware that this is likely to happen, but try to appreciate and utilise the support effectively, trust me it’s a godsend.
Having left the form writing to last minute last year, I vowed to be different this time around. I wanted it complete and ready to send by the end of October, especially since I was having a three week holiday in November and arriving back in the country three days before the deadline. This absolutely did not happen. I was manically making changes to my form on an airplane flying 30,000 feet across the sea in an effort to eventually get to a point when I was happy with it and ready to send it off. And then I realised that actually, that is never going to happen. It’s never going to feel perfect and you’re probably never going to feel ready to let go of it. There is a comfort in editing; feeling like you’re making it better and you’ll eventually make the change that will get you on the course. I honestly believe that the hardest part of this application process is the end. Working for three months on 3,000 measly characters is both emotionally and physically draining, but at least you’re working on it. Submitting it should bring waves of relief but I have found both times it’s just bought more anxiety and it’s taken a good few days to get to a point where I can get it off my mind. It’s something that you just have to manage, I am constantly working on my ability to sit with uncertainties both at work and in my personal life so this has just become another challenge I need to tackle. It’s nice that it’s gone, I don’t have to stress about it every evening when I get back from work and a general calm has taken over the office for the time being. It won’t last, the buzz will be back in February when interview invitations start to go out but for the next couple of month’s ignorance is bliss and we all get to pretend it’s going to be good news. I think reflecting on this process is really important because of how emotionally draining it is, making sure that you’re still good and you’re still happy when you come out the other side is just as important as making sure you’ve got a good application in. At the end of the day, it’s only work right.
It’s been a week since the application for the Doctorate in Clinical Psychology submission due date and I am not sure how I can describe my feeling towards it, but I’ll do my best.
My initial reaction after submitting the application surprised me. I expected to feel relief, however I actually felt a lot worse. I instantly began to doubt the 3000 characters I had expressed to summarise and reflect on 6 years of experience. I began beating myself up about once again not leaving enough time for reviewing and gaining feedback and believing that more time would have led me to feel more confident in my submission. I had submitted a day earlier than the due date as I was aware that I would not have time on the Wednesday for submitting as I had to help plan a conference, which was to follow on the Thursday. This also meant that I felt that I could not dwell on my feelings of distress towards the application since I had to focus my energy on the conference. I avoided any discussion of the application and asked my friends not to mention it until March when I would officially hear about interviews (however as we tell many of our clients “avoidance is not always a helpful coping strategy”, hence I’ve decided to share what I have learnt from being involved in the process).
What I learnt from the application experience:
- You will never quite feel satisfied that you have managed to illustrate why you are the best candidate. This is an uncomfortable feeling, but a feeling that you begin to get used to and eventually let go.
- Leave yourself enough time for feedback and redrafting. I created about 8 drafts before I felt confident in allowing anyone else to read it. The application is about why you personally stand out and I guess by allowing people to criticise the application you are opening yourself to criticism about personal characteristics. On reflection, I would allow myself to criticism a lot earlier in the process. I had left it too late and then became confused as to what was good and what needed more work.
- Try not to get too attached. Whilst the application is about why you personally would be a good candidate, people will often criticise the way you have written something or that you have undersold yourself in a particular area etc. It is useful to remember that whilst at first this criticism can be tough to hear, people that know your strengths are trying to help you illustrate these in the best way possible.
- Allow a range of people to read your application. I gave my application to a few clinical psychologists, a friend and a trainee. Each person who reads the application will have a slightly different perspective, but will also reflect on what they know about you in respect to the relationship they have with you. A friend who knows you outside of a professional setting will be able to help you when it comes to illustrating your personality and passion. A trainee can help you think about recent agendas within the training courses. Clinical psychologists, (I’m sure I do not need to say this) are useful for reflecting on your professional development and how well you have been able to illustrate this.
- Take care of yourself. You will spend your weekdays, your weekends, time in the shower etc. thinking about sentences that could be used in your application. It can encompass much of your thinking space, but it is important that you take a break. I found it useful to take time away from the application and become involved in an activity outside of psychology. When you spend too much time thinking about the application, it can be quite overwhelming and can leave you with feelings of stress and anxiety. Time out from the application allows some breathing space and can refresh your mind for when it’s time to think about it again.
- Support each other. It can be a difficult time to work within a team of assistant psychologists. The topic of conversation from September onwards tends to be about the application. “Are you applying this year?” “Have you started on your application?” “Have you given it to anyone yet?” There always seems to be an element of competition and feelings of anxiety and panic begin as you compare your application activity with the others around you. I think it is important to recognise that supporting one another, especially in the working environment can really make all the difference. The application is a reflection on how well you can reflect and summarise your experience and therefore helping and supporting others either with their application or the stress elicited by the application will not be detrimental towards your chances. They’re also the only other people that can understand the process as well as you.
- Reflect on what made you go into a career in Psychology in the first place. It is difficult to remember the values that attracted you to Psychology but reflecting on this at the beginning can be a useful way of thinking about what matters to you. Linking your personal values with the competencies and values of the practice of a clinical psychologist is a good start.
- Try to think about what makes you a good candidate that differs from the basic or essential criteria. The courses can get up to a 1000 applicants a year and many people will try and illustrate what they think people want to hear rather than reflecting on their actual strengths. It can be quite easy to only reflect on what previous applicants have reflected on, or what the personal specification suggests. However, if you can identify strengths that make you stand out as a psychologist, you are more likely to capture interest.
- Give yourself plenty of time to contact possible references. References are important and you do not want to decide these a day before the deadline just in case they are on annual leave, unavailable or are unable to write your reference for other reasons.
- Pat yourself on the back and treat yourself. Writing about your achievements in 3000 characters is not an easy process and can be a skill in itself. If anything, it is a useful process to acknowledge all the work you have done and how it has developed you as a person and a psychologist.