Volunteering as an Assistant Psychologist: Why it isn't easy

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Volunteering as an Assistant Psychologist: Why it isn't easy

Post by miriam »

How do I volunteer to a Clinical Psychologist?

Sending prospective letters or emails seeking voluntary work can pay off, but it can be a matter of lucky timing. However, there are some tips that might help you to be successful.

Firstly, don't just send out a generic email with a CV. You need to address the person by name, show you know where they are based and what they do, and how you can contribute to their service.
I'd recommend that if you approach people requesting to shadow them, or for voluntary work, you offer to make yourself useful. You need to give some specific suggestions of what you could do, so suggest things like scoring questionnaires, data-entry, filing, literature searches, audit tasks. Explain where you are up to in the career path, but keep it brief. Don't expect anyone to read more than a few paragraphs of text, and assume that you need to get everything important over even if they don't open attachments. Take the trouble to make the email personal - address the person by name, and be interested in the specific area of work they are involved in. Don't send a generic email to lots of people: it might save time in the short term, but it won't pay off in the long term.

Don’t be upset if you get no response, as it can be extremely hard to find a clinical psychologist who is willing and able to have you shadow them as this is loads more complicated than it might appear. Also each clinical psychologist gets approached by quite a lot of people with these kinds of requests, but it is worth a try - maybe you will find something. Good luck with it!

Why wouldn't a Clinical Psychologist accept a volunteer? Surely it's something for nothing?

Actually, having a volunteer takes time and money. There has to be a contract, a DBS check, a job plan, somewhere for the person to sit (and ideally a computer they can use, an email account, a badge), and most importantly supervision. Unless there is something that the department need doing that is going to make all of that worthwhile, they probably won't take on a volunteer. Also, although volunteers often promise to stay around to see a project through, experience shows that they rarely stay long enough to make a substantial commitment to the department (I've added it up, and mine have worked between 10 and 24 days each, which averages less than a month of full time work - and I spend about 3 days worth of time with them as part of their induction, and more behind the scenes setting it up - in which I could earn £2k doing court work). So although it might feel like you are giving something for nothing, this has a cost to the department that isn't always "paid back" in terms of the work that someone less experienced can do.

Are Volunteer Assistant Psychologist posts exploitative or mutually beneficial?

I think there is a risk that a post can be exploitative, especially if it is full-time and has a long term commitment, as this neglects the applicant's need to earn a living. However voluntary work during a university holiday, or for a placement year, or on a part time basis can be balanced with other commitments and seen as an investment in which the time saved on the overall career path is weighed against the short-term financial sacrifice. As I understand it, no post can insist you see out the full term. However, some would expect a month's notice if you wished to leave, and some supervisors would not be willing to provide a reference unless you completed a certain minimum commitment (although this may sound manipulative, it isn't really possible to feel you know someone well enough to write a reference unless you have worked with them for a few months, and seen their ability and attitude - besides which, a reference that says "this person has worked with me for 9 days" won't carry much weight!)

In terms of whether the volunteer gains from their experience, I'd say that they do. Every volunteer I have had has left to take up a paid AP post. Many of them spent months applying for these posts without success prior to being a volunteer, and yet within a relatively short time as a volunteer the picture became more positive. I think there is a number of reasons for this. Firstly, there is a lot of added value in putting a post that is supervised by a CP onto your application form. There is also added value in having a CP as one of your referees. However, there are also powerful indirect benefits - being more confident, having more awareness of the profession and the NHS, having more directly relevant experiences, knowing how CP supervision works, etc.

You also need to weigh up the career gains of experience and supervision compared to other options, like doing a post-graduate qualification (which costs money and takes up time) or doing lower-paid lower-skilled work for longer. It might be that some volunteering is actually the most cost-effective option if you need to get a foot on the ladder and can't secure a paid position. It can also be a proving ground in which you make yourself so invaluable that you have an advantage if a paid opportunity comes up, and even a few weeks of paid work can be a bridge into something more substantive - it might even be that a supervisor can choose to advertise a post for internal applicants only, and you are not up against hundreds of other people.

How many applicants do I get to voluntary posts? And how many speculative letters?

The last Honorary AP post that our NHS service advertised (the post had a minimum commitment of one day per week for six months, to assist with research, and was supervised by me) received 68 applications. These included applicants who were fully qualified psychologists in their own country but did not have equivalence, people who were prepared to move to the area and seek paid work to support themselves, and people who were prepared to commute the length and breadth of the country. It sure reminded me how competitive this career path is! We interviewed 4 candidates and appointed one.

In terms of speculative letters, the frequency varies. I would suppose that I get about one a month addressed to me, and when I worked in an NHS team the head of department or other staff would also receive about one every other month (seems I'm more popular as I'm on the BPS register, and visible on the internet). I can think of two people we have taken on to do a voluntary task on the basis of a speculative letter, in the last 4 years, but the rest we have politely declined. When we advertise honorary posts on here we get between 5 and 25 applicants, although not all of these will be suitable in terms of geography and timing,

So, when I receive a speculative letter, how do I decide if I will respond positively to an offer of voluntary work?

There are a number of factors I consider when offered a volunteer:

Firstly: Does this person address me by name? Do they show an interest in my work, know where we are based, and what we do? Are they clear about what time commitment they are offering, and how they will earn a living around this? I haven't got much time for "Dear sir/madam" emails that don't tell me why this person from Bristol/Glasgow/New York wants to work with me in my location and service, as I would assume they have sent the same message to ten or more other psychologists, and don't really care about where they end up.

Second: Is there anything needed within the service that the person could competently do? We also need to identify whether there are things that are contained enough that a person could commit to complete them, with clear expectations on both sides. We can't expect voluntary staff to commit for long periods of time, as by the very nature of the post it is a stepping stone to paid work. This means that we could end up with frequent turn over, and a lack of coherence and consistency unless we identified something that was small and contained enough to make a commitment to. And sadly that means that it can't be most of the things that we do as qualified staff, and runs the risk of being quite boring (eg scoring questionnaires, data entry, cataloging resources, making up printed packs of information on topics, literature reviews).

Third: How committed is this person to clinical psychology? And how far are they on the route to being qualified? This helps me to understand how much I can assume they will know about the nature of the service, and their likelihood of seeing things through. And it also tells me whether time I invest now might reap rewards later (in terms of people who come back to the service as assistants, trainees, qualified clinical psychologists). I am also very keen to avoid prolonging the agony of people who might not make it to Clinical Training, so I would only consider people who had already got a 2:1 or better in a degree that conferred GBC, or had completed a conversion with GBC, or had a postgraduate qualification.

Fourth: I also need to gauge what level of knowledge and experience a person brings, what they are hoping we can provide for them, and match that up with what we could actually offer. Are there things that they could do competently within the service? How much supervision would they need? Do I have that time available and is it worth what I and the service would get out of it? [realistically, new assistants often have three to six months in which they are a drain on resources rather than a benefit in terms of service provision, and in a stretched service that means that giving people that first foothold is the hardest thing to do]. These difficulties especially apply to trying to arrange any work that involves direct client contact. The priority with therapeutic work is the needs of the client, not the needs of staff, and we take this responsibility very seriously and will rarely allow any therapeutic work to be undertaken except by trainees and qualified staff, though other services do train assistants to undertake therapy.

Fifth: There are many admin complications. Outside of the public sector and registered charities, we have to ensure that HMRC won't view us taking on a volunteer as avoiding paying minimum wage to a "worker" and that means that we would have to contract with someone very carefully, unless it was part of a university or international placement scheme to ensure that we won't be hit with a wage bill and accompanying fine. Even if appointing within the NHS or a charity where we can lawfully take someone on a voluntary basis, we have to comply with equal opportunities (and that might mean advertising, interviewing and a whole palaver). We then have to police check anyone that would come into contact with clients (this takes quite a number of weeks, and costs the service money to do), we have to have an honorary contract, go through child protection policies and all the regulation induction information. Then we have to agree how we would handle admin, travel costs, and all the secondary expenses, etc etc. And to add to this, we can't let anyone do the interesting face-to-face client work without certain levels of qualification, supervision, training, experience.

This all adds up to mean that we can't always offer anything, even to the best people that write and ask. And in my humble opinion it is better to turn good people down than offer something that doesn't work properly, isn't useful experience or takes advantage of people. I haven't found volunteers to be that successful in the past, so my energy is focused predominantly on our salaried AP positions (I created/supervised at least 6 AP posts in the NHS, and I have employed 17 APs since starting my own company in 2012, mainly contributing to our court work or our research) and these are always advertised and shortlisted from a wide field of applicants to encourage diversity, and never recruited from people who have sent me cold approaches.

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Content checked by a qualified Clinical Psychologist on 28/12/19
Last modified on 28/12/19

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