We at SLV.Global understand how difficult it can be to source psychology work experience, either via psychology volunteering or a psychology internship, that challenges you and that is relevant to your future goals. This is one of the main reasons we created this organisation, but we also feel it’s important to commit to your community too. We know that there are psychology-focused opportunities out there, whether they if you’re serious about finding a position whilst at university, it just may not be the position you’ve been dreaming of or that’s most obvious to the field of psychology.
We all have to start somewhere and most of us at SLV.Global began our volunteering career in elderly care homes and at centres for people with brain injuries or specific needs. Your first position working with vulnerable individuals is, sadly, never going to be as an Assistant Psychologist. However, the more you volunteer the more likely you are to be snapped up for those elusive psychology jobs, as your CV will stick out for all the right reasons.
Gaining relevant psychology work experience is something that every psychology student wants. But what is “relevant” psychology work experience? If you were to look at the careers that most people with a psychology degree selected after graduation you would find that the many of them, despite what their original goals were, ended up working outside of a clinical environment. According to Prospects (2015), around 17% of Psychology graduates go into the service industry with nearly the same amount going into teaching and working with children.
Our placements abroad are varied for this very reason. We know that everyone wants to get the clinical experience, but not everyone will end up going the clinical route and we want our placements to be valuable no matter which direction you choose to head in post graduation. From teaching to working with individuals with special needs and in children’s homes, it’s all relevant to psychology. So relevant in fact, that these types of careers are chosen in huge numbers by psychology graduates.
One area of working in the field of psychology that is often overlooked is working with the elderly. We are an ageing population and there are many pensioners who could benefit for a cup of tea and a chat with someone right now. According to Age UK (2016), the UK’s largest charity focused on the needs of the elderly, “half of all older people consider the television their main form of company.” This is a heartbreaking statement, but is the reality of so many older people in our society.
Combating isolation and improving socialisation are two ways you can improve the life and mental health of a lonely elderly person. Many psychiatric facilities have geriatric wards and any experience working with older people will surely enhance your CV and your skill set. All of our placements abroad involve working with elderly individuals. Whether it’s physical activities like yoga, to help keep the body strong, or creative projects to exercise the mind, time spent with older individuals is not only a benefit to your future career, it’s benefit to society as a whole.
On the other end of the age spectrum, working with children can often have a mental health focus, especially children from difficult backgrounds. Just because you’re not sat in a room one on one and discussing trauma doesn’t mean that you’re not facilitating healing in a different way. Volunteering at an after school program is a great way to work with children of all ages and from various socioeconomic backgrounds. Building up confidence and self esteem that has been worn thin from abuse or neglect is a big job and it’s something our volunteer teams do every day in Sri Lanka and in Bali. The ability and desire to treat children with kindness and empathy is a skill. So please don’t assume that because you’re making a giant collage out of foam sea creatures or working through the alphabet that you’re not actually making a big difference.
Yes, even teaching, which some may argue isn’t at all based in psychology, can have a psychological focus. Motivating young people can be difficult, as can creating a lesson which is appropriate for all abilities and ages. This focus on inclusion and teamwork absolutely fits into working in mental health, especially adolescent mental health. Educational Psychology is a field for a reason after all.
The psychology of learning and what impacts and impedes learning is endlessly fascinating and what better way to experience this than by working in a classroom yourself? There are plenty of opportunities to volunteer as a tutor or as a befriender, working with a child living in poverty or with a difficult past. All of the volunteers on our placements abroad teach for at least three of their eight weekly projects to hone their communication and presentation skills as well as to work closely with the youth in both Sri Lanka and in Bali. We feel that these projects benefit the volunteers as much as the service users and we find that although at first volunteers may be slightly reluctant to step into the classroom, by the end of their placement they often report back that these projects were among their favourites.
Working with individuals with special needs is also incredibly relevant to a career in the mental health sector. There are many people with learning disabilities and brain injuries residing in psychiatric facilities worldwide. Failing to acknowledge this client group is a massive oversight and the more experience you have working with differently abled individuals, the more desirable your services can become. This is hard work, but incredibly rewarding. You need a huge amount of patience and must be even tempered, but the rewards of working with differently abled individuals can’t be overstated.
All of the psychology work experience we’ve spoken about can be gained in your home country, and our advice is to always work at home before heading abroad. However, committing yourself to a psychology internship or placement in another country gives you the experience you’re after as well as extra benefits you may not have even considered. Working in a cross-cultural environment exposes you to complex cultural norms and unfamiliar societal structures, some of which will be very much at odds with your own belief system. Working without judgement and considering that there isn’t always just one way of doing things improves your problem solving skills and also increases empathy for others who think differently to yourself.
Working abroad pushes you outside of your comfort zone. From the extreme weather to the very basic living conditions, you are forced to work effectively whilst also battling discomfort and trying to acclimatise to incredibly different surroundings to what you may be used to. You need to be up for challenging not only your physical self, but your emotional core as well.
As you may have noticed, our idea of “relevant” experience is quite varied and we suggest you try your hand at a few different things and see what you enjoy the most. Don’t feel like you have to commit to a future without testing it a bit first. We love hearing from previous volunteers who contact us letting us know that they are changing their focus to teaching or to SEN after they finish their placement. We also love to hear from volunteers who have gone on to do the clinical doctorate or a who have obtained a psychology job like an Assistant Psychologist post. But the fact that we hear from both in nearly equal measure means that we’ll continue to advocate for the less traditional voluntary roles. We want you to think outside the hospital, especially if that’s where you’re hoping to build your career.