After Psych(Hons): Developing a career in mental health

By Ceara Rickard

It’s that time of year again where psychology students receive their end of year results and are forced to consider their professional futures in a far more immediate sense than they may have needed to during their first four years of psychology education. It can be a pretty difficult time, given that it’s not very easy to become a registered psychologist after completing 4th year, with two years to go in education or placement before one can register. The Psychology Board of Australia (PsyBA) specify three pathways towards gaining general registration as a psychologist, each involving at least two years of registration as a provisional psychologist.

None of the options are ‘easy’ and each bring their own specific challenges. The journey to psychologist registration can be a long and winding road. Perhaps learning about my journey may help you to consider yours. But my journey isn’t really about becoming a psychologist. It’s about developing a career doing what I love.

A while back, Dr Boris Fedoric introduced me to the Chaos Theory of Careers and wrote about his fascinating journey. The theory is also illustrated very well by my own career journey.

We live in a fast-paced world, where change, chance and complexity are inevitable. Whilst it would be very pleasant for us to be able to accurately predict every step of our career journeys, the truth is that it is impossible to predict and control everything. So, for the last 15 or so years, I have wanted to become a psychologist.

When I was in high school and undergrad, I thought my career journey would look like this:

That is, of course, not what actually happened. I finished Honours in 2006. I am now, finally, registered as Psychologist with Provisional Registration, working through my 4+2. My career journey has not been the straightforward process I thought it would be at the age of 16.

Before writing this blog post, I thought about what stories to tell about my journey. My journey towards Psychology has not been a linear process so I can’t tell just one story about my career. So here are a few plot lines. There is the story about a third generation welfare recipient going to uni. There is a story about wanting to do a Masters degree for nearly a decade and not getting there. That one is more a comedy than anything, with a sub plot about being a hapless pet owner! There are the stories of my colleagues, managers and clients and how they have influenced me. There are also the stories about how my family, my relationships, and my friendships all influenced my career choices and options. There is even a story about the direct influence of government policy on my career. There is the story about a wonderful journey of self-discovery I have been on as a mental health professional. It’s also a story about values and choices. It is a story about how I learned to stop worrying and embrace change, uncertainty and unpredictability. Ok, that’s a lie. I’ve just learned to accept that worry is part of life and that it’s not really anything I need to, well, worry over.

This is a little of what my journey since completing Honours in 2006 actually looks like. Don’t panic. My story is a good one. Start at the top left and follow the lines. Don’t worry if it confuses you. Looking back, it confuses me a little too. But that’s a large part of what has made it useful.

Here are a very few of the things I have learned professionally in taking the path I have taken:

  • Relationships come first. How I engage as a professional is more important than what therapeutic modality I choose to use. This is not only something I’ve noticed from personal experience. It is also consistent with the literature. In my work, whilst I am ever mindful of appropriate professional boundaries, I have learned that I need to know myself, be myself, and use myself to be effective, and I bring my own personal style into any work that I do.
  • Psychology is one of many disciplines, all of which have different approaches and theoretical orientations, and all of which have unique strengths. Working with diverse clients in a multi-disciplinary environment has been one of the best career choices I have ever made.
  • Registering as a Psychologist is not nearly as important to my ability to have gainful employment as I believed when I was a new grad. I can have a career I love whether or not I were to ever gain general registration and there are a whole range of qualities that effective therapists have that should and do exist in Psychologists, but also often exist in many other mental health professionals.
  • Psychology was definitely the right choice for me professionally, and my Psych Hons degree has given me a wonderful foundation for other learning. The critical thinking, emphasis on evidence-based practice and diverse knowledge base of Psychology continue to appeal to me. That is why I’ve continued to move towards registration, despite my winding way of getting there.

What I have learned personally in taking a less straightforward path:

  • It might be a platitude, but I truly believe the journey is more important than the destination and now I know this from experience, and not just reading Robert Frost poetry.
  • I have learned how to (mostly) leave work at work and accept ‘imperfection’ in myself and in my clients.
  • I have learned that I will never know everything, I am not a perfect practitioner, and never will be. No one can be. And that this is ok. I am enough.
  • I have learned to embrace the fact that I am a massive nerd, and that I continue to read at about the same rate that I did when I was at university – not because I have to meet minimum PD requirements for some of my registrations, not because I have assignments to do or will be performance managed if I don’t, but because Psychology is much more than a career to me. Mental health is an enormous part of my identity.
  • I have learned more about my own values, and how these impact my choices, both professionally and personally.

The challenges in my career journey have had an enormous impact on my work, and a positive one. I would be a different person, professionally and personally, had I followed my original plan, but not necessarily a better one.

If you are not happy with your results, or miss out on that treasured next step in your career, whatever that may be – take heart. Your journey is not over.

 

About the author

Ceara Rickard is a mental health professional with diverse professional interests, including adult and youth mental health, the consumer movement, career development and professional ethics. She has extensive experience in program development and management, mental health, and working with mandated clients. Ceara holds membership of the Australian Society of Rehabilitation Counsellors, Professional Membership of the Career Industry Council of Australia, Associate Membership of the Australian Psychological Society, and registration with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency as a Psychologist with Provisional Registration.