Assistant Psychologists provide clinical support under the guidance and supervision of a qualified Clinical Psychologist. The role can vary significantly depending on the service that the Assistant Psychologist is working in and the population they are working with: while some may be largely involved in delivering direct interventions and group work in inpatient ward settings, others may spend more of their time supporting audits or research. Assistant Psychologist roles are pitted at Band 4 or Band 5 on the NHS Agenda for Change pay scales and a general requirement for most posts is that applicants hold an undergraduate psychology degree which is recognised by the British Psychological Society.
While other jobs can also help aspiring Clinical Psychologists to gain the experience they need, Assistant Psychologist roles are often regarded as a first major step on the route to becoming a Clinical Psychologist and competition can be fierce. Dr Karen Hardwick, a Principal Clinical Psychologist I spoke to, told me that their most recent Assistant Psychologist post was open for just a week, in which time they received a total of 64 applications. Similarly, Dr Christopher Taylor*, a Clinical Lead and Principal Clinical Psychologist I spoke to, said they received 87 applications in 2 days for their most recently advertised Assistant Psychologist role. Despite the fierce competition, both Dr Hardwick and Dr Taylor told me that many of the applicants made some simple mistakes that could have easily been addressed. They also suggested there were some clear things that marked out the stronger applicants from those who were unlikely to be shortlisted. Here I summarise some of these tips to help you bag that first coveted Assistant Psychologist (AP) post:
- Gain experience of working in a research or mental health setting. “All seven applicants who we shortlisted had experience of working either in research (in a Research Assistant post) or in a mental health setting”, Dr Hardwick told me. You can gain this experience through taking support worker roles in the NHS or applying for Research Assistant roles in either a university or research institute setting. Sign up for job alerts with NHS jobs and jobs.ac.uk. You can also sign up with agencies for temporary work in support worker roles, such as Pulse or approach individual NHS trusts to register for bank shifts.
- Read the job description and show an interest in that specific job. You may find that you are applying for a large number of Assistant Psychologist posts and truthfully, you may not mind which specific service you get your first job in. However, to have a successful application, you will need to show an interest in that specific job. As Dr Hardwick said, “Successful candidates had clearly written the job description and were applying their previous experience and learning to the particular role we were advertising”. Read the job description in order to understand 1) the type of work the service undertakes, 2) the nature of the population you will be working with and 3) the specific tasks you will be expected to undertake. Then, tailor your application to these factors. This will convey an interest and enthusiasm in the role and will help convince your prospective employers that you have accurate expectations of the work you will be undertaking. It will also help ensure that you don’t waste your time applying for a job that you wouldn’t enjoy. Similarly, before you attend your interview, find information about the wider organisation that the service is a part of and consider questions you may have about how the service relates to this wider organisation. For example, where does it receive its referrals from? Are there any relevant national policies or initiatives which may impact the service or how it works? It may also be helpful to search for information about the people who will be interviewing you to understand their role within the organisation and their interests. Dr Taylor said “If you have been shortlisted for interview, a further way to demonstrate your interest in the post is to contact the appointing manager via email and arrange a time for an informal conversation about the post. It gives you a chance to get sense of the context of the post and other factors which might not be in the advert or job description. It is also a chance ‘sell’ your existing experience in advance of coming for interview”.
- Show the relevance of your previous experience. When writing your application, read the job specification and aim to meet all the criteria in your responses. You will need to show that you meet all the essential criteria to be shortlist-able; showing that you meet as many ‘desirable’ criteria as possible will give you the best shot at standing out. As Dr Hardwick said, “Write your application in such a way that the person reading it doesn’t need to read between the lines to work out the skills you have. If there is something specific in the job advert which isn’t generic – such as conducting cognitive assessments – be transparent about your ability to undertake these. If you haven’t done the specific thing before, explain how you can draw on your previous experience in order to be able to manage this”. Dr Taylor said, “A significant number of NHS trusts now use the ‘trac’ jobs software. When undertaking shortlisting, the online system insists we score each application against each person specification criteria advertised as part of the post, so it is important that applicants make the relevance of their experience very clear”. In the interview, when answering questions, consider your relevant previous experience, refer to it and show how you would draw on this to tackle the challenge at hand.
- Communicate a sense of your personality. It is likely that the people who shortlist the applications for interview and who then subsequently conduct the interviews will be the same people who will be supervising you and working with you. They will be keen to hire someone that they think would be good to work with. As Dr Hardwick highlighted, “It’s important to convey yourself as someone who can fit into a team”. So in both the application and the interview show that you have good interpersonal skills. In the application, highlight work experiences that have enabled you to develop skills in communication, team-working and problem-solving and in the interview, show that you are personable, polite, friendly and able to respond to questions in a balanced way. For their most recent Assistant Psychologist post, Dr Hardwick said “The successful candidate managed to convey a sense of their personality by talking about how their experiences in other areas – hospitality and children’s work – had helped develop their communication skills and their ability to relate to a range of groups and populations”.
- Consider the structure and flow of your application. As an Assistant Psychologist, you will undertake a significant amount of written work – whether this is typing emails, completing letters, contributing to assessments or drafting sections of reports. For this reason, your prospective employers will be keen to see that you are able to complete written work to a high standard, and your first opportunity to show this will be in your application. As Dr Hardwick recommended, “Avoid repeating yourself or rewording the same thing. Structure your application and be clear in your writing style”. Dr Taylor suggested, “Subheadings in the main supporting statement can help break up longer, more dense text.”
- Proof-read your application. A common mistake highlighted by both Dr Hardwick and Dr Taylor related to typos and mistakes in applications. Your application is your first opportunity to make a good impression and basic errors can indicate a lack of attention to detail. Prospective employers may be concerned that you may carry this approach into the written work you complete in your job. A simple way to address this is to proof-read your application before you hit ‘submit’ or to ask someone else to do this for you. Dr Taylor said “NHS Jobs will let you print a full copy of your application before you submit, so this is a good chance to see what the shortlister will be working from when you have hit submit and to catch any formatting, spelling issues or typos”.
- Take a positive approach towards probing questions in the interview. During your interview you may find that you are asked follow-up questions once you have provided your initial response to the main question. If this happens, view it as a positive opportunity to provide more information. Remember that many NHS interviews use a scoring system: each answer is provided a certain number of points from 1 (Poor), 2 (Competency Development Need), 3 (Good) 4 (Excellent). Each question you are asked tackles a specific competency (e.g. personal development). Most likely, the panel is offering you the opportunity to boost your score on that particular question. As Dr Hardwick said, “Be open to interviewer’s curiosity – if they ask a follow-up question then they may suspect you have the information you want, but haven’t revealed it yet.”
- If the panel isn’t friendly, don’t panic: you don’t have to take the job. When looking for your first Assistant Psychologist post, you may feel under pressure to take the first thing which is offered to you, and in truth, this is generally a positive expectation to have: it may take a few shots before you are able to land an AP role and being fussy won’t speed things up. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that once you finally bag a job, you will actually have to do it. If you find in the interview that the panel seem rude, unpleasant or you suspect there are some negative workplace dynamics at play, don’t panic: you don’t have to take the job. Remember that your own wellbeing is more important than the speed of your career progression. As Dr Taylor said “I turned down the offer of an Assistant Psychologist job once, when the lead interviewer was openly rude to me at the interview. I later learned that he had a reputation for such behaviour. I was glad to have trusted my instincts, even though it took a further three months to secure another AP post, in a much friendlier and more supportive department.”
- Keep your composure if it doesn’t work out. If you make it to interview but realise the job is not for you or if you are called and told that you have not been successful, don’t be rude. Clinical Psychology is a fairly small world: there are only around 12,000 in the whole of the UK. There is a good chance you may meet your prospective employers again in another setting or may even find the same people are on an another interview panel you are called to. As such, take the long view and remember that there will be other opportunities in the future. Aim to maintain a positive professional relationship as it could well pay off in the future. Furthermore, if you are called to interview but learn you have not been successful, you can use this as a learning opportunity. As Dr Taylor said: “If you are able to get some feedback on your performance, ask if you were ‘appointable’ – this is whether you performed well enough at interview to be offered the post, but another applicant gave stronger answers on the day. Where you had answers which weren’t appointable (i.e., scored 1/Poor), these would be the areas to focus on for improvement next time.”
- Consider other ways of boosting your CV. If you find that you are applying for numerous posts and following the tips above, but having little success, it may be worth reviewing your CV and seeing if there are ways that you could boost your overall experience. If you have completed an undergraduate degree but do not have a Master’s degree, this may be one thing worth considering. As Dr Hardwick said “All seven of our shortlisted applicants and also those on the reserve list had a Master’s degree”. Alternatively, it may be worth considering completing some voluntary work to increase your experiences in areas you have yet to explore, such as with different populations (e.g., with children or young adults, with individuals with learning disabilities, or with older adults) or in research, if your previous work has mainly been more clinically-focused. As Dr Taylor said “A nursing assistant or support worker post can be very valuable initial experience. The roles themselves can be very rewarding, I did one for 12 months after graduating and it helped me secure my first assistant post. Working in a non-psychology healthcare role, gives you a clear sense of how psychology is viewed by multi-disciplinary team colleagues, and this lens becomes more and more useful as you progress in your career.”
*I happen to be married to Christopher Taylor. It improved my chances of a lockdown interview!
Please note that unfortunately I am unable to offer personalised career advice.