A couple of weeks ago I had the chance to meet (although over the phone) one of our lovely Psychology graduates, Alexis, currently working as an Assistant Psychologist. This interview covers invaluable advice for any students wanting to apply for Assistant Psychologist roles or roles in mental health, and also covers additional tips and hints for international students. The Careers Service wants to thank Alexis for her excellent advice and support and wish her all the best in her career.
Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
Hi! I graduated from the University of Bath in 2017 with a BSc (Hons) in Psychology. I am currently working in my second position as an Assistant Psychologist in an acute inpatient mental health service in southeast England, and my first position was in an inpatient forensic mental health service.
First of all, do you enjoy working as an Assistant Psychologist?
Yes, definitely! I worked as an honorary Assistant Psychologist during my placement year and my experience really proved to me that I was passionate about working in the mental health field. As competition for Assistant Psychologist posts is especially fierce, a real sense of purpose and motivation is needed to successfully apply for a position – it kept me going through the challenging job application process.
How did you find your first job as an Assistant Psychologist?
It wasn’t easy! I browsed through the NHS Jobs website daily and I must have submitted about 60 applications within the first few months of my graduation. In order to apply for an Assistant Psychology position, the Graduate Basis for Chartered Membership (GBC) from the British Psychological Society is required, and you aren’t able to gain this status until you have graduated and received your transcript. Therefore the window I had to apply for posts before my Tier 4 visa ran out was only a few months. For a long time I did not hear anything back from the majority of NHS services I applied to (not even a rejection email – most services state that if you have not heard from them in 3 weeks you should assume that your application had not been successful), and of the many positions I applied to I was only short-listed for 5 positions. I was lucky enough to be offered the third job I was short-listed for and was in the fortunate position to be able to turn down the remaining two interviews and finally stop applying for jobs.
The field is very competitive and I also think I was at a disadvantage as I required a visa to be able to work in the UK. My second interview was actually cancelled as the service I applied to was unable to offer a position to a candidate who would require a visa. It is challenging enough for UK students to apply for roles as an Assistant Psychologist, but even harder for international students!
I found the application process for my second job much easier, I only applied for 5 different roles and secured a job after my first interview.
What is your advice and tips for current students thinking of applying for an Assistant Psychologist post when they graduate?
- Gain relevant experience
My placement year as an honorary Assistant Psychologist, despite it being unpaid, was invaluable in me finding work upon graduation. Most Assistant Psychologist posts list relevant experience in mental healthcare as an essential criterion and previous (paid) experience as an Assistant Psychologist as a desirable criterion, therefore any relevant experience would definitely be an advantage.
However, even if you don’t have the option of a placement year, or did not work as an Assistant Psychologist, any hands-on experience at a mental health service or a charity, either voluntary or paid, is beneficial. You can try emailing managers at mental health services and ask if you could shadow or potentially volunteer you might get a positive response. The NHS is not the only place to gain relevant experiences - there are a lot of opportunities within the charity sector and in private mental health services.
Some people also work as Healthcare Assistants or Support Workers before successfully applying for an AP role. It is on a lower pay band, but you still get hands-on experience and this experience is also looked favourably upon / taken into account in the application process.
- Know that this is definitely what you want to do!
Applying for AP roles can be a stressful and demoralising process. You spend hours daily applying for jobs, and you work on the same NHS application form day in and day out. By the time you feel ready to submit the application form sometimes the job opening has closed early. As you rarely hear back not to even mention get any feedback on your application form, often times you are making small tweaks without knowing if it is the right thing to do. What kept me going was the knowledge that this was something I was dedicated and committed to do. Even though at times it felt that the application process was like a never-ending tunnel, even though there were moments when I felt hopeless, I was not going to give up until my student visa ran out!
Be aware that this is a challenging process, whether you are a UK or an international student. It is normal to feel demoralised, there are a lot of other applicants feeling exactly the same way, but if you are sure this is what you want to do, JUST KEEP GOING!
- Have a NHS application form template ready
For NHS jobs specifically you are required to complete the same application form for every position you apply for. Keep a template of the application form and make small tweaks each time to ensure you have tailored your application to that position. Make sure you address all items listed in the person specification in your supporting statement to evidence how you meet the essential and desirable criteria. As you never know when a job advert may close (a lot of them close before the stated deadline after reaching their maximum cap of applicants – some even within the same day!), it is important that you submit your application as soon as possible after the job role has been advertised.
- If you can, apply anywhere
Remember that the NHS is not the only place hiring; also consider applying for relevant jobs in private mental health services and charities. As I was not restricted by the location of the job, I was able to apply anywhere in the UK. The competition for AP posts is fierce everywhere, but even more so in London and other major cities. Flexibility in terms of location may mean there are more opportunities available to you. However, this meant that I had to travel 4-5 hours for an interview, which was both time-consuming as well as expensive.
- Be able to drive
While it wasn’t strictly necessary for both of my roles, when I was applying for jobs a number of positions listed the ability to drive and access to a vehicle as essential criteria. Therefore, having a driving licence may open up more opportunities for you.
- Have a back – up option ready
Make sure you consider backup options that are available if you aren’t successful. My backup option was to go home and apply for relevant jobs there, and even though that was not my first choice, this was still a valid option that I was comfortable with.
How was it to apply for Assistant Psychologist role as an international student?
As said previously, I only had a short space of time to secure a job before leaving the UK (or else I would not be able to attend job interviews), which made it very stressful. I found it helpful to set myself a clear deadline (end of my student visa) and consider backup options.
Most job adverts on the NHS Jobs website state that applications who require Tier 2 sponsorship will be considered along all applications, however from my experience services tend to be unable to sponsor Tier 2 visas. As mentioned earlier one of my interviews was cancelled as the service was unable to offer the position to candidates who would require a visa, and my first post was offered on the condition that I was able to secure my own visa.
I was fortunate to be from Hong Kong, which is eligible for the Tier 5 (Youth Mobility Scheme) visa. The Tier 5 visa allowed me to stay and work in the UK for up to 2 years. However I understand that this may not be an option for everyone, and as evidenced in my application process, not all services are willing to employ someone with a Tier 5 visa either.
One of the disadvantages was that I had to fly home to apply for the Tier 5 visa, after I had received a job offer, although I still consider myself lucky to have been given the opportunity to do so. Another disadvantage of the Tier 5 visa is that you are not allowed an extension, which means it is unlikely for me to be able to secure a further AP post that is willing to sponsor a Tier 2 visa It was also tricky as I needed to think carefully about timings when applying for my two fixed-term jobs – no one will hire you on a year-long contract if you only have six months left of your visa!
Do you have any additional advice for international students?
Make sure this is really what you want. As I talked about earlier, getting an AP role is challenging on its own, however this is only the first step if you would like to further your career in Clinical Psychology in the UK. The conventional pathway would be to apply for either the Clinical or Counselling Psychology Doctorate courses, which are even more difficult, and have significant financial implications for international students. While there are a number of options, the important thing is to be aware of what you might be signing up for.
Consider your priorities; is it to get a job in the mental health sector or is it to stay in the UK? If it is the latter it may be easier to find an employer who is willing to sponsor a Tier 2 visa in the business/commercial sector. See whether the Tier 5 visa is an option for you. And always consider your backup options.
What are you doing next?
As my two-year visa runs out just after my job contract ends it is unlikely for me to be able to secure another relevant job in the UK after that without a visa. I am currently in the process of applying for a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology and will find out in the next few months whether I have been successful in reaching the next application stage. As the Doctorate course is highly competitive, my backup option is to return home to Hong Kong, find relevant work there, and apply for the course again next year.
Careers Service wishes Alexis all the best in her Clinical Doctorate application!