Your degree is not enough. This is the message I keep hearing as I’m exploring career opportunities in Psychology. Despite working hard towards our degrees or conversion courses, getting onto further training or into a paid position will require something extra.
Volunteering can be a fantastic way to demonstrate your commitment to Psychology and show-off your skills and ability to apply your subject knowledge. But there are lots of other benefits to volunteering that can enrich your studies as well as your personal development.
I’m currently studying part-time with the Open University. Rather than convert my existing degree, I’ve chosen to do an accredited BSc alongside working in advertising and raising my young family. This year I made the leap to combine studying with volunteering to gain some real-life experience and explore which areas of Psychology might suit me best.
Although I’m still considering training options, I already know I have a passion for attachment, early-years development and perinatal mental health. I knew I wanted to gain experience in a health-care or hospital setting which led me to apply for a volunteering role in Maternity Services at my local NHS Trust.
I went from working on the postnatal ward in a general volunteering role to completing the certificate in Infant Feeding, and I now spend a couple of hours each week supporting new mothers to establish breastfeeding. This role involves direct contact with women and their babies, and supervision from the Infant Feeding leads.
As well as feeding advice, we spend time listening to women and offering them additional care and support while in the hospital. As any new mum will know, although having a baby can be immensely joyful, it can also be a tiring, worrying and emotional time. So kindness and encouragement in this environment are key.
Psychology in the real world
Volunteering can give you valuable real-world exposure to working with patients and alongside medical teams. As a volunteer, you are bound by the same guidelines of confidentiality, ethics and patient respect as other staff, which brings to life the responsibility you’ll have as a Psychologist in a way that a textbook or case-study never can.
In my role, I am responsible for upholding the values of my NHS Trust which include a patient first, kind and responsive approach to healthcare. It has given me a broader appreciation for the multidisciplinary nature of working in a team and I have picked up new knowledge and skills just by being there and listening to experienced midwives and staff.
Volunteering also allows you to start making a real contribution as a Psychologist. Even though you may still be studying, you have valuable training and understanding of key psychological issues that are relevant in the workplace. Through your experience, you can bring your subject knowledge into real-life situations and actively help other people.
You can observe how different specialisms intersect for each patient journey and understand the complexity of each situation and the pressures on staff. Even if your role isn’t directly related to Psychology, think about how you can build on or apply your subject knowledge.
This could be by using your listening skills, showing empathy to people you encounter, or exploring further research and reading related to your volunteering position.
It can also be very motivating to see your knowledge and skills in action – you’re a step closer to realising your career in Psychology. This can be especially encouraging if, like me, your journey to Psychology is a slow process. As a part-time student, lots of my studying takes place at night on my own, and it can sometimes feel like a very distant dream.
Since volunteering, I feel like I’ve made a more tangible commitment to training as a Psychologist which, in turn, has increased my motivation to study.
Lastly, there are significant health and well-being benefits of volunteering. As well as feeling good, research has shown that volunteering can reduce stress, release endorphins and improve overall well-being. A study by Dr Stephen Post found that 73% of respondents said that volunteering made them feel less stressed and 58% said they slept better (Post, 2008).
Balancing the demands of studying alongside work, family and life commitments can be stressful. Although it may seem difficult to take on additional obligations, volunteering may actually be an effective antidote to the other pressure around you.
The NHS also recommends volunteering to improve your mental health by connecting with others and making a contribution to your community. When applying for a volunteering role it’s important to consider the key factors that make it work for you. For example, the time commitment involved, the location or how intense the environment will be. These will all contribute to it being a positive learning experience for you.
I am now working in the same maternity unit where I had my own children and where my youngest son spent time in NICU as a premature baby. I had to consider the triggering effects of being back in that environment but I have actually found it incredibly healing and rewarding to help women in the same place I was so well cared for.
Even though it’s only a few hours a week, the positive feeling I have after my shift stays with me for the rest of the day and has a balancing effect on my stress levels.
Tips for finding the right volunteering role for you
- Think outside the box – there are lots of charities and organisations that offer formal volunteering programs but you can find other opportunities by approaching anyone related to your area of interest and offering your time
- Be open to new experiences – you may discover an interest you hadn’t previously considered
- Be prepared to learn from everyone around you, not just Psychologists or senior staff
- Make the most of any opportunity that arises – even if a position isn’t directly linked to your specialism, it may lead to other opportunities or training in the future
- Make an effort to gain new contacts and build relationships
- Keep a record of any experience you gain and reflect on what you’ve learned along the way
Post, S. (2008) ‘Why Good Things Happen to Good People: How to Live a Longer, Healthier, Happier Life by the Simple Act of Giving’, Broadway Books
Sarah is a BSc Psychology student with the Open University. She is studying part-time alongside her current career in media & advertising and has a degree in Philosophy from the University of Birmingham