Make up your mind

A psychology degree can lead to a rewarding career in the public sector working with children, says Diana Hinds

One of the most satisfying moments of Brian Harrison-Jennings's career as an educational psychologist was working with a young boy from the Asian sub-continent, who was referred to him as being intellectually incapable. The boy had had no access to health care and spoke no English. Harrison-Jennings quickly ascertained that the boy was deaf.

One of the most satisfying moments of Brian Harrison-Jennings's career as an educational psychologist was working with a young boy from the Asian sub-continent, who was referred to him as being intellectually incapable. The boy had had no access to health care and spoke no English. Harrison-Jennings quickly ascertained that the boy was deaf.

"His deafness was confirmed, bilateral hearing aids were fitted, and the boy learnt English within four weeks," says Harrison-Jennings, now general secretary of the Association of Educational Psychologists. "He was bursting to learn."

Another child was thought by his teachers to be a bit dopey, and "away with the fairies", but when Harrison-Jennings had the chance to observe the child in depth, he diagnosed epileptic "petit mal" seizures.

Cases like these are what give educational psychology its excitement and challenge, according to Harrison-Jennings. The task of the educational psychologist is to apply psychological theories, research and techniques to help children, in conjunction with their teachers and families, overcome learning difficulties and emotional problems.

Sometimes there may be no ready solution and improvements may be long coming. But as Harrison-Jennings says, for someone with the public service ethic the "opportunities for making a difference" are very real.

Would-be educational psychologists need a first-class degree in psychology, followed by a Postgraduate Certificate in Education and at least two years' teaching experience, before applying for a one-year Masters. This one-year course comes complete with salary, but persuading local authorities to fund it can be difficult; last year there were 483 applications for only 110 funded places. Once you get on this course a job at the end of it is guaranteed, with many local authorities now struggling to fill posts.

A more lucrative - but intensely competitive - option for the psychology graduate is to pursue a career in clinical psychology. "Clinical psychology probably has the highest profile of psychology careers, and is the one we get asked about most often," says Emily Huns at the University of London careers service.

The field has expanded dramatically over the last 25 years, according to Professor John Hall, former head of clinical psychology in Oxford (and co-author of What is Clinical Psychology?): "When I trained in the 1960s there were only about 250 clinical psychologists - now there are 5,000."

There are 450 training places - with six to eight applicants chasing each one - for the compulsory three-year doctoral course. Successful candidates have to demonstrate their commitment to the field, by working for one to two years as an assistant psychologist in a clinic or prison.

Chartered clinical psychologists may choose to work in mental health dealing, for example, with substance abuse and eating disorders. Alternatively they can work with people who have learning disabilities, or with children in a paediatric department or young-offenders institute. The rewards for the clinical psychologist, according to Hall, lie in the intrinsic interest of the work, as well as the range of problems and the range of ways in which you respond to them.

"Every new person you see is a challenge," he says. "You are working with people who are seriously damaged, and often distressed. So you need to be empathetic and compassionate at the same time as keeping some sort of perspective. You need to be able to stick with people for years, sometimes for decades."

Forensic psychology, chiefly concerned with the rehabilitation of offenders, is another popular but oversubscribed area. Dr Colin Gill, chief psychologist at Psychological Solutions, thinks applicants probably need a first-class degree, plus related experience, before embarking on the required five years of supervised practice.

"If you're working in the prison service, hopefully the reward is changing people's lives and preventing convicted criminals from becoming recidivists," he says. Some categories of criminal, however, are thought to be more receptive to such work than others, and Gill says the profession presents many opportunities for research.

Sports psychology is beginning to attract the attention of sporting organisations such as football clubs keen to find ways to improve players' concentration and deter them from retaliating against provocation on the pitch.

As yet, there are no training courses accredited by the British Psychological Society, and most of the work in sports psychology is done in universities. But all this could change when the BPS votes, in April, on whether to make sports psychology one of its accredited divisions.

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