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What is it Like to Be a Counselling Psychologist Trainee? Tips on Life Management From A Student

Counselling Trainees in a class room

A Doctorate in ‘Life Management’

Embarking on a Doctorate in Counselling Psychology is no mean feat. Throughout the first semester, the course tutors repeatedly encouraged the group to think carefully about how to manage their lifestyles to incorporate the course. However, many didn’t listen to this sound advice at first – being on a part-time course, surely it would be possible to continue with paid employment and incorporate a clinical placement and lectures into the week? As the months wore on however, several trainees decided to give up their jobs. Others began to look a little more stressed and withdrawn, as the task of holding the emotion of other people’s problems (i.e. becoming a psychologist) together with a job, lectures, one or two placements, supervision and personal therapy became a near on impossible task.

I was placed somewhere on the fence when I first started the course back in September. Aware that it would all be difficult, but determined to strike a balance. I had managed to secure a 3-day a week office role in order to pay my bills and keep me sane! Working purely in a psychiatric setting whilst training to become a psychologist is not advisable, as trainees rarely have the necessary coping skills in order to manage their caseload as well as deal with the demands of a job in a clinical environment. I therefore continued in the office role, with weekend work on a personality disorders service as a psychology assistant, believing that the clinical exposure would be beneficial for myself and the patients. I also continued to go to university lectures one day per week, attend personal therapy one evening a week, and juggle two placements both of which had supervision requirements.

1. Getting A Balance: Not Taking On More Than You Can Handle

To cut a long story short, I have come to the realisation that I am not super-human and nor should I be expected to be! This lifestyle was sucking me dry of my capabilities, as by the Easter break I felt a level of burn-out. This required me to reassess what was a necessary part of my life and what had to go. Working weekends was definitely not part of a healthy work-life balance, and I therefore decided to ensure that any work on the wards of the psychiatric hospital I was working in was carried out during the week, and I spoke to my office manager about taking time out to go to supervision sessions as part of my placement. I was very lucky to have such a flexible manager who could understand my other commitments. Financial worries are part of the life of any trainee, and being able to keep paid work that is not too stressful is something I feel is very important.

2. Finances and Whether to Self-Fund

There is currently a lot of debate around people applying for a Counselling versus a Clinical Psychology Doctorate. I myself battled with this decision, wondering where I would be best placed and what suited me more. One of the biggest pulls towards a Clinical Doctorate for a lot of people is the fact that the course is fully funded by the NHS. However, applicants find themselves applying for several years in a row, as the competition is so high with only 25% actually being offered a place. The fact that Counselling Psychology Doctorate trainees must fund the fees of around £5000 per year (depending on the institution), is a huge barrier to many. But there is help at hand in the form of a Career Development Loan (see link to Skills Funding Agency). This is a special type of loan which incurs no interest until the person has finished their study. It makes the prospect of a part-time course a lot more appealing, where trainees can continue with some paid work whilst studying, having used a loan to help pay for the tuition fees.

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3. Which Aspect of Mental Health to Train In?

First year trainees are expected to start working with clients with mild-moderate problems, so that they can slowly grasp what it means to handle mental health issues and work towards developing skills to deal with more complex cases. Many trainees start in charities such as Mind or The Women’s Trust to name a few. Others are already working as part of IAPT services or NHS Mental Health teams, whilst some are looking for their first ever hands-on experience. Exposure to different areas of mental health over the duration of the course is pivotal to the development of a trainee, as the person is able to pick up experience in different settings and varied client groups. Before starting the course, I had gained experience in very intense environments of Eating Disorders followed by Personality Disorders. Both these patient groups have the capabilities of projecting a huge amount of emotion onto others, and my learning curve has been around dealing with these conflicts in supervision and personal therapy. Looking back, I wonder how different my path into psychology would have been had I started in a moderate setting, where I could have eased myself slowly into the world of mental health. The reality is that career paths into psychology are never clear cut, with people literally coming from all walks of life and work experience; but I would advise trainees to be aware of their routes and think about what suits them best before committing to roles and placements.

4. Which Modality Are You Drawn To?

The different vocabulary around modalities becomes part of the ‘lingo’ of being a trainee psychologist. Are you more psychodynamically oriented? Or a believer in CBT? Are you more inclined to solution-focussed work or a more holistic/integrative approach? One of the outcomes of the 3-4 year training should be to answer these questions. For me, I have always liked the world of psychodynamics and have thoroughly enjoyed reading through Freud’s texts on transference. Through clinical exposure and training however, I have come to really appreciate the CBT & DBT models and what they can do to help people in the immediacy of their problems. Many clients are not so ready to delve into their pasts and childhoods as they feel it doesn’t really make a difference to their lives in the here and now, and as a budding counselling psychologist I feel I must respect that stance in the client and stay with them to work through their issues in their own ways. Learning not to make assumptions based on past experience is a key area of development as is being able to offer a client a therapeutic relationship.

5. Knowing Yourself as a Practitioner

Every trainee has different learning needs and capabilities, skills and expertise. It is advisable to know this in oneself early on, so that you are able to work on your areas of development. I knew that for me, distancing myself emotionally and not being sucked into the lives/emotions of my clients was paramount. That, together with learning more about the structure of therapy, as opposed to using my empathetic stance as the main tool. It’s great if you can pick up information/issues in others due to being empathetic, but to what degree should you really be using this technique? Conversely, if you shut this off, then you need to rely a lot more on the structure of therapy e.g. CBT, Socratic questioning, counselling skills; until you have developed the skill of being able to manage the transference and counter-transference in the therapy room. When feeling overwhelmed with emotion from the therapy room I have turned to books & research papers and found some of Freud’s words especially reassuring:

‘such experiences…are necessary and hard to avoid. Without them we cannot really know life and what we are dealing with…they help us develop the thick skins we need and to dominate the counter-transference, which is after all a paramount problem for us….they are a blessing in disguise’.

I’m OK You’re OK. Again, Know Yourself!

There is a huge stigma in and around mental health which trainees are only too aware of. This is coupled with the illusion that psychologists are the ‘sorted’ people in society, there to ‘cure’ others. However, this negates the fact that trainees all have their own feelings, anxieties and issues to face and deal with, which will change and shift constantly throughout the course. What the training offers is the chance for people to really get to know themselves as well as those they are helping, with the aim of developing awareness to become more robust. People grow and develop in different ways, and knowing what can help you through the challenges and emotion of a Doctorate is beneficial. For me, I have found that being really open in therapy and supervision has helped a lot, as well as using Mindfulness techniques and yoga/meditation. Knowing yourself is the best tool you can apply! Despite the juggling of different aspects of the course providing a shift in lifestyle, a Counselling Psychology Doctorate ultimately feels like a completely unique opportunity to see oneself and the world in a different light, grounded in the knowledge of sound psychological theory and practise.

By Jasmine Childs-Fegredo


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Blog Topics: Theory of Therapy & Training

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