Do you need a Master's Degree to further your Psychology career?

by Dr Marianne Trent & Dr Mel West


This is taken from episode 26 of The Aspiring psychologist Podcast which you can listen to here.

Welcome along to The Aspiring Psychologist Blog. Thank you so much for being here today. I am often asked in my day-to-day when supporting aspiring psychologists whether it is always necessary to have a master's to progress in your career as an aspiring psychologist. This blog post is an adaption of episode 26 of The Aspiring Psychologist podcast, which you can also watch on The Good Thinking Psychological Services YouTube channel. In this episode, I attempted to answer one side of this debate through a conversation with the lovely Dr Mel West who works for a master's course that I also studied myself and found it really useful. I should say that I have not been funded or cajoled in any way to share this course with you.


Mel and I will be discussing the benefits of doing a master's. If you would like to talk to the other side of this argument that a master's is not essential to progress your career in psychology, please drop into my DM'S or email me. I would absolutely love to get you on to discuss the other side of this debate.


Similarly, I hope you found it useful to think from the perspective of a mother in last week's podcast episode. We discussed whether you can and what it would be like to train as a professional psychologist when you are a mother. If you would like to discuss it from a male perspective, let me know.


I hope you will find this discussion really useful. It might open your eyes to thinking about ways to strengthen your CV.




Marianne Trent:

So, Welcome along Dr. Mel west who is joining us from Newman. Hi Mel.


Mel West:


Hi, thank you very much for having me.


Marianne Trent:

Thank you. I reached out to your predecessor, Lorna, because I had done the master's qualification with Newman. I understand that you took over after Lana, is that right?


Mel West:

That's right. I took over running the masters in 2017. It was a big thing, because Lorna set the course up and had been running it for a long time. So there were some big shoes to fill, but I think I'm doing alright <laugh>


Marianne Trent:

Very hard to give away your babies. Isn't it?


Mel West:

Absolutely. That's the thing as well. Yes. I think she was quite watchful over it for a while, but I think I've sort of earned the trust now. She’s obviously an absolute fountain of knowledge with so much to give, having set it up as a novel course and having set that up and being part of the initial thought about developing it. She's given me so much information that enabled me to go into it feeling quite confident and running it successfully.


Marianne Trent:

Brilliant. We will hear a little bit about the novel way that your particular course is set up a little bit later. Our audience is not just clinical psychologists. Like me, our audience can be anyone, really. They may be an aspiring psychologist or someone working in another area of psychology. Could you tell us a little bit about your kind of psychology career and how you got to be where you are now, please?


Mel West:

Certainly. Yeah, so I finished my undergraduate degree and didn't go straight into a master's. I decided that I'd had enough of education, higher education, and I needed a break. I went into finance because obviously psychology allows that with all the stats. I have many years of working in finance, got married and had children, and then moved to a different part of the country. I'd always felt I wanted to go back to it. I wasn't finished with psychology. But obviously, once you get caught up in life, it can be difficult. Having moved to a different part of the country, I'd given up my job. I felt free to try something new. So I went back to university to do psychology with health studies, there wasn't health psychology back then. I had to do a PG certificate to get the conversion for the BPS graduate registration. So I did that. Then I went on and did my master's in health psychology and my PhD. Since then, I've been working again in higher education at different universities.


Marianne Trent:

Thank you so much. Thank you for chatting to me. We were chatting just before we went live about how unique the qualifications certainly were when I was looking for it in 2000s, sort of 2007. When I was doing it, it was part-time distance learning. But I had to kind of go a little bit in once a term for teaching and for an exam, but I understand it's moved and become even more modern.


Mel West:

It has, that's right. Yes. We are now completely online apart from one day you come in for the induction day, and that's where we talk you through and make sure you can use the library systems and Moodle. So you can navigate your way around the electronic versions of everything. Also, that enables you to meet your cohort and the staff in person. Then it's all online. There are no exams it's just coursework. And like I said, we are doing recorded lectures so that they're available. And then we have the chat functions where we discuss the reading and there are sort of online activities and quizzes and things. So, yeah it's amazing how everything is done electronically.


Marianne Trent:

Yeah. And I guess the pandemic has sped up that process as well.


Mel West:

Absolutely, yeah. So obviously we were moving towards that sort of gradually throughout the world generally, but yes as the course was already mostly online at that point it was still quite novel in that respect at that time and COVID pushed it forward. And I said, so now we are making it even more online and even more interacting online. That's the difference, I'd say that's the thing. Before it was less, it was more asynchronous and now it's becoming more synchronous because we are much more together if you like. We are doing these face to face and digital-electronic kind of contacts which is great because we are getting to see the students rather than see a picture of the students all the time.


Marianne Trent:

You guys will be like 13 or 14 years ahead of the remote working curve <laugh>. You're really doing good stuff. A really common question I'm asked all the time is do I need a master's to progress my career in psychology, either clinical psych, health or forensic? Do I need that or can I do that without one? And I guess that's an important one for us to weigh up together.


Mel West:

Yes, definitely. It is very important. I don't, I think that some people can be lucky and you could get away without having a master's. I think, like we mentioned before we went live that maybe you could. There was this belief that if you had a first, you could get away without doing a master's, but actually I think they're so competitive.


The field of psychology is so competitive that actually, even if you have a first, a master's is a real benefit, because it is a step up from an undergrad.

Even if you have got a first, it is a higher level, you know? We talk about them in universities, we talk about your first year is level four and then second-year level five, then third year is level six. And then your masters is level seven and that is a step up when you look at all the marking criterias, a little bit more is expected. So I think that maybe employers are aware of that. Certainly within psychology, there's an awareness of that.


So I think you don't always need a masters. You could be lucky, but it's mostly advantageous.

Marianne Trent:

Yeah. I guess what I liked about what I did and I'd said before we came on as well, people might feel like they rather have listened to what you were speaking about before, <laugh> it sounds good. But, before we came on, I said that I only did the postgraduate certificate, cause I managed to get on the doctorate after one year. That was still really advantageous actually. So I was really pleased that I was still able to get a qualification for that one year, but even just the rigorous way that you taught me about research and being able to comfortably pick it apart, put it back together and construct my own was really useful.


Mel West:

Yes. That, oh yes, that's right. So, it's the case that we often have students starting, they have to register for the masters anyway, that's the way it kind of works at the moment. But they sort of leave after doing the first year, which is retaught modules. That gives you a postgraduate certificate or you can stay on and you might finish the six modules, which is the postgraduate diploma. Often, like I say, students will start thinking they're going to finish the whole master's. And then, as you said, you did apply thinking you’ll just give doctorate a chance. And then they get a place, and so then they take the lesser award.


But they always say that the first module in research methods really does help with that interview where you have to do tests and talk about research, what kind of things are of interest, and how you would go about carrying out research.

Mel West:

It is designed that way, the course is designed so that it will help with those kind of things. And obviously, like you said, it's not just about clinical psychology here. It can help with any area of work that you are doing in any career, if you want to be leading things. And especially in an applied setting where things might really help to do action research, you might not need a formal kind of research project, but you can do action research - which is research as you go through in a real setting. That can really help to give you evidence of making a change that is required in any work.


Marianne Trent:

Thank you. Obviously one of the main drawbacks for any masters is that it might mean that you have to do less work or paid work. I mean that in a traditionally taught masters you might not be able to do any work around it, or you might choose not to so you can really focus on your masters. And of course, there are financial implications to master's study in that you have to pay tuition fees as well. So this stuff doesn't come for free. And that can be really tricky when we're trying to think about inclusion and diversity in our workforce as well. Are there any other subsidized or adversary ways for accessing master's funding or, you know, scholarships, anything like that these day?


Mel West:

I think some universities do offer some, it's a case of looking at what universities have on offer because obviously most students are looking to go through student finance and not all masters cost the same amount of money. That isn't the same as undergraduates, most undergraduates cost nine thousand a year for studying (in 2022). I think you could also be really lucky and get a company to sponsor you. And


sometimes people in the work situation do actually manage to get support from their employer and get the tuition fees paid.

But yeah, it is a problem. And like you say, you have to have work experience and the work experience isn't well paid. Trying to then balance that with your very demanding masters is quite a sort of a balancing act and quite a skill that you need to develop really.


Marianne Trent:

Yeah. I think that's a really good idea and not one that I considered, but you could potentially ask your employer to help with that. Certainly, even if you're doing distance learning, like I was, it can be really helpful if your employer is on board with giving you a little bit of study leave here and then, or allowing you to work on assignments, you know, just some quieter moments. It is really tricky. When I was with you, I had a car crash, I had a breakup, you know, I was trying to strive for new assistant posts, and it was not an easy time in my life whilst also trying to learn this stuff and get it in my head and be functional in my paid work as well. You know, we are asking a lot of our aspiring psychologists, aren't we?


Mel West:

Yes, we really are. It is. Students are coming to us at a time, you know, usually in their twenties when there's a lot of change and there's a lot to get to grips with and you're still developing as a person. So, it is a very demanding time. Um, and yet there's a lot to be balancing and juggling. But it's amazing how it can be pulled off.


I think if you are determined and you are very motivated, you can pull it off and you can succeed.

But it's a lot to deal with, especially when you've got the finance issues as well. Yeah, it is very difficult.


Marianne Trent:

Yeah, it certainly is. And, I think I was one of those just operating on grim and gritty determination really <laugh> at times during that tricky patch in my life. You know, it's not, I think it's important that we think about how we balance and reduce the risk of burnout. Is there any guidance you'd give to master students or potential master students, or even people that aren't considering masters for how to reduce and avoid burnout in mental health professions?


Mel West:

Yes, definitely. We cover that quite a lot on one of the second year modules actually that I run. It's a really important topic and there's a lot of work looking into how as a profession, when in any type of therapy, it's a very giving profession and it takes a lot out of you. It can be quite exhausting. And yet


we recommend all these things to clients and yet don't take the time to do it to us and give ourselves that room.

And because it's so competitive, you often find that it breeds more competition in the workplace. Who gets in first, who's got the heaviest workload, who's got the most clients and it's not very healthy. So, we encourage people to reflect; reflection is a massive part of being a psychologist.

Mel West:

You should be able to spend time and just reflect on what's happening. How do you feel? How can you make things a bit better and try to recognize any signs of stress before it builds up, because stress can build up and come upon you quite slowly, but it's not until you are sort of dysfunctional that you realize how much it has affected you. So, really


encouraging time for self-care and finding things that help with self-care and making sure you fit it in and pushing work back and not taking on more and trying not to get it sort of be pulled into that very competitive element of being a psychologist.

Marianne Trent:

It is tricky, isn't it? I remember when I was working as an assistant psychologist and, you know, you are asked to do stuff and there is that expectation that you will just do it, but you've already got so many other things. I was working on three inpatient wards before my qualified work, for my assistant work. It's a big job and I loved it, but there is that kind of… it's a tricky relationship where you feel like you want to say yes, and you kind of have to say yes, but you don't really have enough hours in the day.


Mel west:

Yes, absolutely. So, obviously it is often sold to those in lower paid jobs as it's good experience for you. Why would you say no? And yes, it is good experience, but you should be allocated the right time frames to fit these in within the workload that allows you to feel that you are giving it everything, rather than being spread so thinly that you aren't able to fully be present with anything. So


I'd say it is about being boundaried. You have to, however much you're grateful for being in the role.

That's often a feeling which students sort of relay to me, they're grateful for having the role, but they wouldn't be getting that role if they weren't deserving of it. It's about appreciating your value, putting boundaries in place, and saying that you want the experience, you're very grateful to the experience, but you need to be realistic about what you can do.


Marianne Trent:

Yeah, and that could be a question on your applications or interviews as well. You know, when have you been able to say no to something? So it's good practice to try and put that in and to try and give that a bash as well. It's very important that we're able to know our own limits and be confidently able to protect them. Otherwise, we will be too thinly spread and it will lead to burnout. It will lead to long periods of sickness, absences and it might well lead to us wanting to leave the professional altogether. And that's just not what anyone wants for us.


Mel West:

No, that's exactly right. So, you know, we see all the time where burnout, it is sort of leading to more and more absences and people leaving the profession. And they say that young people coming into the profession are more at risk of burnout. And that's because they're trying so hard. Of course, it's better for you to build up experience, and then you're bringing more to the job, but if you're leaving before you get to that point, that's really sad and it's detrimental for the profession. So, yeah, I think it's very important to take what you can and try to keep boundaries. And like I said, it will pay, you will be asked about that. And


it is something to be proud of that you have that ability to say no.

Marianne Trent:

Yeah. I am trying to use this podcast to spread a little bit of compassion in the psychology world. Just to really highlight that this isn't a race, you know? I often say it doesn't really matter whether you get onto training this year or next year or the year after. It might matter personally. It might matter if you feel like you're putting your life on hold, but in terms of the finished product…what is actually better is that you get there on day one of your course and things feel within your comfort zone, or just ever so slightly, a little bit of a stretch.


What we don't want is for people on day one and year one of training to be massively floundering and feeling like it's all too much and like they can't do it.

They can't do the professional bit. They can't do the research bit while mixing socially with the cohort and juggling your life. It is a lot, isn't it? When you are undergoing any professional psychology training. And so some of the advantage of just slowing things down a bit and really making sure you are consolidating these skills, you're giving yourself opportunities to learn how to do research and that means that when you get to your chosen professional qualification route in psychology, it will feel like it's in your stride. And that is so much better.


Mel West:

Yes, absolutely. Yes. So I hear that it's quite a lot. Students feel really disheartened. They can do the course over four years. So obviously, you know, some of them are applying year after year and they're so disheartened. And, and often I hear, I feel like my life's on hold and I just want to get this. But like I say, it is about trying to frame it,


reframe it in your mind slightly and think, “well, each year I'm more experienced. I'm gonna be bringing more to it. I'm going to be able to be more comfortable in it and be able to enjoy it.”

And it seems like a bizarre thing to say, but actually if you can enjoy it then it will be so much more pleasurable as an experience. You are less likely to feel really overwhelmed.


Mel West:

So yes, it's about sort of accepting your capabilities at the time. Then knowing you will get there eventually. Or you'll get to somewhere and you'll be happy. Things often work out for the best. Yeah, I think that a slow build up is probably more beneficial than going in straight away and feeling way over your head, and then sort of feeling a bit panicky and not comfortable. They say you want to have a little bit of a challenge, but it's got to be a comfortable sort of push, not being massively overwhelmed.


Marianne Trent:

Yeah, I guess I kind of liken it to when I did my maths GCSE and in year 10 I did an exam. I just found it quite tricky, you know? And I really spent time looking at what I'd found tricky about that. I asked my math teacher for some additional help at lunchtimes, you know, once a week. I was that kind of girl. By the time my GCSE exam final exam came, I walked out of that exam happy, cause I'd looked at every question thinking I can do that. I can do that. I can do that. I walked out feeling like I'd absolutely given it my best shot. And that's kind of how it felt when I was doing my doctorate interviews when they asked me questions. And even if they're a bit left field, I still felt like I could give a good answer. And I think that's the difference. That's what time and consolidation and kind of focused attention can be, can be really useful for.


Mel West:

Absolutely. Yeah. So that's it, that's the sort of epitome of it, isn't it?


You're sort of building up that experience and the more you experience you have in all aspects of your life, the more you are bringing to that interview or job role,

and that's going to be beneficial, not just for you and, and how you perform as a professional in that role, but also to any clients that you have. You're going to be able to bring more to it, because you are sort of have a much sort of experience and more to bring to it. So, yeah, I think that's exactly right. It is about just being aware that all experiences are good. They say, if it doesn't kill you then it makes you stronger, which is a bit maybe a little bit controversial, but it does mean that you have more to offer and that can be really good for clients.


Mel West:


Yeah. I don't, we definitely don't want to be suggesting that.

Marianne Trent:

<laugh> no, no, sorry. Its alright.


Marianne Trent:

No, I absolutely know what you mean. You know, it's being able to reframe the negative experiences as well and to take things from it, isn't it. So yeah. I think when I was studying my doctorate, even there was teachings that we'd had about people that had been scarred as part of their experiences. And it's that sense of


you only get a scar if you've survived.

That's really powerful as an idea. So it is basically that if it doesn't kill you, then you know, that's a good thing. It's how you then speak about that. Isn't it. And even within difficult interviews, challenging interviews, they will often want to know how you've coped in adversity and how you've gone through that. And we need to be well practiced in doing that and also demonstrating that it's okay to have had adversity, we want well-rounded people in psychology. We definitely don't want machines.


Mel West:

No, that's exactly right. Yeah. So it is about, well, it comes back to reflection, doesn't it? And I was saying the importance of reflection earlier, it is a key sort of function within a professional, a psychology professional. It's about thinking about what that event meant to you, that adversity that you've experienced and we all have, it's an important thing to survive adversity. To come out of it and think about what that means and how do you take it forward and what can you do in it in a positive light. Yeah, that will obviously benefit clients. So you, because you can relate to things and you can talk about experiences more and just that more to offer really.


Marianne Trent:

Definitely. So, do your masters generally still kind of roll on roll off in September, or can you kind of roll on at different points of the academic year? Just I'm thinking people are listening to this now they're thinking is now the time, you know, do I apply now or when is the best time or the only time to apply for master's study?


Mel West:

I think now universities are trying to get this sort of much more flexible approach to applying and starting. But in my own experience, I'm not aware of any that are currently starting other than in September, we start only in September. Applications are for masters. They're not the same as for undergraduates. In undergraduates, you are applying the year before really. For masters, you can still be applying in July and be expecting to start in September so you can have a good long think about it. Also, I would just say that it's probably worth putting in an application anyway, you know, just putting in an application and you can think about whether or not you do want start and you can defer your start. But yeah, I think because of the way masters are structured with modules taught in a certain order at certain time that it's not always as flexible as being able to start at different times. Maybe that's next. Yes. <laugh>


Marianne Trent:

Roll on, roll off masters, here when you're ready. What's the deal with actual applications? Is that like a form? Is it an interview? What tends to be the application route?


Mel West:

Different universities do different things. For us it's just a form. We just have a form, its not that much. And I would say actually,


when you're writing your personal statement, we don't always want to read that this is all you've ever wanted to do.

It's nice when people are just open and honest and say that they're hard working and well motivated and that's enough. We don't need pages and pages of that. You've always wanted to do it, demonstrating how this is the case. It's enough to just say that you really want to do this now and you are really well motivated.


Marianne Trent:

Oh, you just made me flashback to my undergraduate personal statement. And honestly I found a copy of it. Not so long ago, it was dreadful. It was like talking about stuff like, me and my brother get on quite well. Like why was that in there? Who was not helping me? How did I get on to a course? I'm now much better at writing personal statements, but honestly. It's very interesting to think about what should and should not be in your personal statement.


Mel West:

Yes, absolutely. Yes, it is funny sometimes reading them <laugh> and I think most people will look back and sort to think “Oh”. But, I think sometimes a paragraph and a half maybe says more than enough. It's about making it directly relevant, which is key to all academic writing, really.


Marianne Trent:

Lovely. Thank you so much for joining me, Mel, is there anything that I haven't asked you or that you wanted to talk about that we haven't done so far?


Mel West:

Not really. No. Just we are talking about sort of inclusivity and diversity, and just how that's really important to make that much better within psychology generally. That's a really important point and


hopefully the barriers are coming down and we are making it better,

but that's just something to just acknowledge. I think it's important that we all acknowledge that.


Marianne Trent:

Definitely. There is more coming up in the podcast about inclusion and diversity and equality as well, but thank you so much for joining me. It's been so lovely, um, connecting with you and just wishing you a lovely summer. And let me know if I can help with anything in the future.


Mel West:

That's lovely. Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.


Thank you so much for reading and thank you so much to our guest, Dr. Mel West. I found this interview really interesting. Like I said, at the beginning, if you like to talk to the other side of this debate, if you think there are other ways to strengthen your CV without needing to do a masters, then do let me know. We can also talk about that if you've got any other ideas for podcast episode content then do let me know.


As a little sneak scoop, we've got an exclusive episode coming where I answer any questions for you. It's gonna be an ask Marianne anything special. So if you have got any questions and you'd like to record yourself asking me then let me know. Click here for the details for how you can do this.


You can check out other episode of my podcast on Spotify, on Amazon, or on apple podcasts. You can also listen to all of them YouTube.

We've had a lovely successful spring and summer in The Aspiring Psychologist Membership,


lots of people within the membership have this year gained places onto clinical psychology courses.

They have said that they found that the membership had really helped to support them and to help them perform optimally in the interviews. We've had a couple of people who wish to carry on in the membership as well, even though they are going to be trainee clinical psychologists. That is just the most wonderful feedback. If you would like to rub shoulders, not only with myself, but with other aspiring psychologists and also other trainee clinical psychologists, or maybe if you are a trainee psychologist and you would welcome some more support, some more compassionate guidance and some more thinking about enhancing, developing your personal professional and research skills, then do get yourself onto the aspiring psychologist waiting list. And we've got some exciting developments coming for you to be able to practice and improve your skills. There are also chances of being published in research within the membership, but you've gotta be on the waiting list for when the space is next open on the 1st of July 2022. So details of how to do that can be accessed via my link tree which is also available from all of my socials do come and connect with me on my socials. We do some lovely stuff in the membership.


There is also the upcoming The Aspiring Psychologist Collective book. If you know someone who is currently training on the special Hull York scheme that takes you from undergraduate to the doctorate in clinical psychology, I would love to be able to include a story from someone in that position. So if you know someone who fulfils that brief then do let them know about me. Similarly, if you know someone or perhaps you are someone who has trained, initially perhaps perhaps done your undergraduates, maybe done your masters in a different country and then come across to the UK to pursue your professional qualification, perhaps you've even got on to a professional qualifying course, but English wasn't your first language or you weren't born in the UK. I'd love to be able to include a couple of stories from your perspective, within The Aspiring Psychologist Collective book too. It is hopefully gonna be published at the start of October. Thank you so much for reading right to the end and thank you so much for being part of my world. Take care of yourself and be kind to you.


To listen to The Aspiring Psychologist Podcast click here.
To grab your copy of the Clinical Psychologist Collective Book click here.

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