Students & Experience: How to get the experience you need before you graduate.
By Emily Hanlon
A question I get at least once a week from psychology students/provisional psychologists, is What should I be doing to increase my chances of getting into a master’s program/getting a job after graduation?
In this post, I’m going to mostly talk about getting into master’s programs, but the same basic principles apply for those who are looking for a job after graduation, so bear with me.
I remember when I was an undergraduate student, sitting in a huge amphitheatre full of psychology students. Our professor at the time said this:
‘Look around the room. There are about 500 of you in here. Congratulations! You all made it to university, and you all made it into a psychology degree. That’s no easy feat, so well done. By the end of your second year, half of you will have changed degrees, so there will only be around 250 of you left. By the time you get to your fourth year of study, where you need a Credit Average to even apply, there will only be 125 of you left. I’m assuming a lot of you want to get into a master’s program. To do this, you’ll need a minimum of a Distinction Grade average, and universities only accept between 10 and 20 students into these programs each year. I wonder which of you I’ll be seeing in a few years’ time!’
At the time, that obviously scared the CRAP out of us!! I made it through the first year, and then the second year, and he was right! There was around 250 people left. Getting into a fourth-year program in psychology is challenging, but not impossible. You simply need to ensure your marks are above the cut off mark.
Getting into masters, now that is a whole new can of worms! When it came for me to apply for the clinical master’s program, most universities required a distinction average (some required a higher mark) in your fourth year. Whenever people ask me what they can do to help their chances of getting into a master’s program, I say the same thing: at this point, every single person who is applying/gets an interview, has the marks to get in. Literally. They do not accept you for an interview without those marks as a bare minimum. So, show them how you stand out.
There are so so so so so many ways you can stand out. One way is to work hard on your fourth-year thesis and get it published in a reputable journal. Your supervisor will help you with this, and it is hard work, but it pays off! Going into an interview and being able to say you are ‘published’ is a great way to separate yourself from the rest.
Secondly, make sure you have some experience up your sleeve. There is quite literally no point going into the interview and explaining that you have been working in retail for seven years and have just been promoted to store manager. They don’t care. They want to know what REAL client experience you have!
So, what are some ways that you can get real experience as a student?
ABA therapy for children with autism. Applied Behaviour Analysis therapy (ABA) is a type of intensive therapy that focuses on the principles and techniques of learning theory to help improve social behaviour. ABA therapy helps to (1) develop new skills, (2) shape and refine previously learned skills, and (3) decrease socially significant problem behaviours. Several organisations offer training in this area. After completing the training there are ample paid and unpaid positions you can find. The demand for trained ABA therapists is never ending.
Engage in some volunteer positions at your local hospital or nursing home. This may include playing with children at your local children’s hospital and or being a companion to the elderly at your local nursing home.
Ask around your university and see whether any master’s or PHD students require a volunteer research assistant.
Contact allied health clinics in your area and see whether they require a receptionist or someone to help clinicians run groups.
Under the NDIS (National Disability Insurance Scheme) in Australia, families are now receiving funding for therapy assistants to work under OT’s, speech pathologists, and psychologists and implement programs written by professionals, with clients. This is the perfect job for a psychology student, and you can earn better money doing this than you earn in retail anyway!
So, what did I do as a student to make myself stand out? Literally, all of the above. I was an ABA therapist, I was a receptionist at a psychology clinic, I volunteered to be a research assistant, I volunteered to assist a psychologist with her small practice, and I was a therapy assistant for teens with disabilities who needed help travel training (not under the NDIS as it wasn’t around back then).
I can hear you all saying ‘what, that’s crazy, it sounds like so much work!!” Let me tell you something, it WAS hard work! I worked my butt off and it was particularly hard doing all of this while trying to maintain my grades and publish my thesis. But, I did it. And if I am able to do it, so are you!
**WARNING: Controversial statement coming up**
People these days are afraid of hard work. They think things will just fall into their lap. Don’t be one of those people who has a dream to get into a master’s program, but doesn’t chase it, work for it, or earn it, and then wonders what could have been. Work hard, get to the next level, demand to stand out. It sounds harsh, but it’s reality unfortunately.
All of these suggestions also put you in a great place post-graduation. Your resume will literally be overflowing with experience, and that is what employers want to see.
These suggestions also really help take away some of the anxiety about seeing your first clients as a provisional psychologist/registered psychologist. I remember when it came time to see our first clients in the clinic during our master’s degree. Everyone was super nervous, understandably. I was nervous too, but not as much as everyone else. Why? Because I had been seeing clients and interacting with them for two years already. No, not as a psychologist, but I was still a therapist. It taught me so much and gave me the resources I needed to get through those early hurdles.
Experience is key when it comes to lots of careers, but in my opinion, it is so important in psychology. I know I’m not alone when I say that I feel like I learnt nothing in my undergraduate degree. I truly started learning when I started work experience and actually seeing clients. And what a steep learning curve that was!!