What should I do next? MSc, PhD, RA or AP experience?

Information about qualifications, experience and the typical career path

What should I do next? MSc, PhD, RA or AP experience?

Postby maven » Fri Dec 21, 2007 11:38 pm

After graduation, you may be considering a number of options. Should you become a care assistant, an assistant psychologist, a research assistant or embark on further postgraduate study by doing a Masters degree or PhD. For most people, the main decision maker will be what is available to them, as AP posts are highly competitive and further qualifications take time, money and/or a competitive application process. However, if you did have a choice, which would be better? For each person this will be an individual choice, and there are a lot of factors to weigh in the balance:

Towards a care assistant type job

--If you need to gain "people" experience, which will help you pursue assistant psychologist jobs in the future
--If you need a job fairly quickly after graduation (or before), but want the job to be clinically relevant to your future career
Pros
-- Direct clinical experience
-- May have opportunity to network and liaise with psychologists
-- Gain an understanding of what it is like to work "on the ground" with people with mental health difficulties/learning disabilities etc.
-- Experience of working in the NHS
-- Usually fairly easy to get soon after graduating, and employers may be keen to have you on board as a psychology graduate
Cons
-- May be poorly paid
-- May not be able to apply psychological skills to your role
-- Will probably not have access to supervision with a clinical psychologist

There is more about this sort of work here relating to some reservations people can feel about this type of work.

Towards the MSc
-- If you are very interested in the subject are you are studying
-- If you have a "weaker" academic history (2:2 or conversion course*)
-- To build your research skills
-- If you would have the opportunity to research something with direct clinical relevance and possibly client contact
-- You may have opportunities to publish your work or present at conferences
Pros
-- Gain strong academic skills
-- Gain research experience
-- Develop strong research interests and good links with an academic department
Cons
-- May have to self-fund, which can be expensive
-- Unlikely to involve direct clinical experience

*This would depend on the nature of your previous studies, the areas covered by the conversion course (and whether there is a research/dissertation component) and whether the result is graded or pass/fail. Post-graduate study would be more beneficial if you don't have much psychology prior to the conversion course, didn't get a good mark in your previous degree, didn't have a research/dissertation component in the course, or did a course that gives a pass/fail rather than a percentage or grade. Most people would not consider a conversion course to be a "weaker" qualification than a psychology degree per se.

Miriam added:My Masters cost just under £3000, but it was by research only, so it was cheap, and it was a few years ago.

LEAs don't tend to fund masters degrees. You might be lucky enough to be able to tie one in to a research post, but otherwise you might find an employer who is prepared to pay the lump sum up front and then claim it back from your salary in instalments over a year or two (as my NHS trust did).

The one thing I would say is that a Masters is not a magical solution that will get you on a clinical course, and will not necessarily count as being better than clinical experience. You need to go for the areas in which you are lacking, so a masters is ideal if you have a 2:2 (or a low 2:1 and want to apply for courses that require a higher mark) or feel you didn't do well academically (e.g. poor A-levels, non-university degree), but if you have a first, or publications, or similar, it might be better to invest that time in gaining clinical experience. Also, doing a self-funded Masters is expensive, and doesn't provide any income, so not many people would be able to consider this as a viable option for a year or more of their lives, and courses wouldn't expect you to either.

Towards the PhD
-- If you want a significant academic or research component in your later career
-- If the security of a funded post for 3 years is attractive to you
-- If there is opportunity for publication/presentation at conferences
-- If you are genuinely passionate about the area you would be researching and are willing to spend upwards of 3 years working on it fulltime
-- A PhD should always be done for its own sake, not *just* as a route on to clinical training, although PhD students working in clinical areas often do go on to clinical training and work in their particular field of interest
Pros
-- Dvelop extremely strong research and academic skills
-- Offers a good chance of an alternative career in academia if you change your mind about clinical psychology, and may give you a strong foothold from which to work in research or teaching as a clinical psychologist (although CP training should also provide you with this)
-- Opportunity to engage in conferences, network with other academics
-- If funded, there is 3 years of secure salary and position
-- If studying a PhD in a clinical field (e.g. psychosis, PTSD), the depth and understanding you obtain during your PhD, will be much greater than you will recieve studying it in during clinical training.
Cons
-- 3 Years is a long time, and many PhD students take 4 years to complete the write-up, submission, viva and corrections. Even then, you may find yourself writing papers from your research for years to come....
-- A PhD can be a lonely and stressful endeavour
-- If you're not 100% interested and passionate about your potential PhD research area, it really won't be for you. Furthermore, you wouldn't likely get onto a PhD course with a 2.2 - they expect at least a 2.1 and check transcripts to make sure you got a high 2.1 or 1st in your final year research project.
-- It is a not so well kept secret that the average drop-out rate for PhDs is very high (can be up to 60% in some places). Dropping out can be extremely upsetting in emotional and financial terms. Remember, that you don't get credit for an incomplete PhD, and it probably doesnt send out good messages to clinical courses and future employers.

I wouldn't suggest doing a PhD for the money - its not much more than AP job (and with AfC, it may now be less) and you're stuck there for at least 3 years with no opportunity for salary raises! I really think it can't be understated that a PhD should be done for its own sake, not "just" as a route on to clinical training.

Towards the Assistant Psychologist job:
-- If you already have a strong academic position (first or postgraduate qualifications)
-- If you have no clinical experience or client contact
-- If you are interested in the client group or project
-- If you want to develop skills in linking psychology theory to clinical practice in assessment, formulation, intervention and evaluation
-- If you will be directly supervised by a clinical psychologist who can be your reference when applying for training
-- If you don't have experience of the NHS and this post would link you in to local services and issues
Pros
-- Gain excellent clinical experience and a real understanding of the role of a clinical psychologist
-- Gain experience of the NHS (or the private sector)
-- Supervision by a clinical psychologist
-- Gain skills in linking psychological theory to clinical practice
-- May gain some service-based research experience and further your research skills in this way
-- A reference from a clinical psychologist for your clinical application
-- The chance to meet other APs and trainee clinical psychologists
Cons
-- These are very competitive posts and most applicants face a considerable amount of rejection before they actually get offered a job
-- Contracts may be short term (6-12 months), so it can feel quite insecure at times
-- It may involve moving to another part of the country, working with a client group you are less keen on, or a long wait to secure a post (or all 3)
-- The experience you get will very much depend on the supervisor and the service - some are excellent, some much less so.

Towards the Research Assistant job
-- If you want to gain research experience, but not carry the level of responsibility or autonomy of a PhD student
-- To develop research skills and interests
-- To gain training in different research methods (e.g. interviewing, specific neuropsychology assessments etc. used in a research context)
-- To enhance your understanding of research in a clinical context and network with people working in this field
-- To network with clinicians and other professionals who take an active interest in research
Pros
-- Gain good research experience, without having to commit to a project as you would with a PhD
-- May have opportunities for networking and engaging with other people in the academic community
-- If you are researching in a clinical psychology field, you may be able to arrange to spend some time with a clinical psychologist (e.g. observing them, or doing some basic work with them) as part of your job or they may be supervising you
-- You may get a feel for the place of research within the NHS and clinical practice
-- Good way to suss out a department, potential supervisors & projects and what you think of research before embarking on a PhD
-- If they like you, they may arrange for you to do an MSc/PhD with them
-- Research Assistant salaries in academia often pay better than AP/ HCA/ support worker jobs, and PhD stipends.
Cons
-- Its not your research and you may be in a more administrative role, rather than engaging with the project on an academic level (although this will be very much dependant on the post and what you are willing to put in)
-- Depending on the particular job, you may not gain clinical experience or experience in the NHS
-- Research Assistant posts are often for fixed terms, for the duration of a specific project or study, and may require job hopping.

In the end, deciding which choice to aim for is very personal, and may change over time. Someone once said to me to toss a coin, and if you are disappointed with the result you have made your decision!

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Content checked by Will on 26/2/12.
Last modified on 26/2/12 (tidied up links).
Maven.

Wise men talk because they have something to say, fools because they have to say something - Plato
The fool thinks himself to be wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool - Shakespeare
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