I get a lot of emails from people, many of them young people still in school, interested in pursuing a career in psychology asking me how to go about doing that. As a result I thought I’d put up a page where I’d give you my take on how you should do that, and in particular how to build a career as a Clinical Psychologist in the child and family area and the forensic area.
It’s a great qualification to do because it gives you a huge amount of flexibility in terms of the different roles you can take on (everything from frontline work with children and young people to frontline work with soldiers in Afghanistan). That said it’s a competitive course to get in to and it’s going to require a ton of hard work and a bit of sacrifice to get there.
So these are my suggestions for how to do that, but be sure you check all this out with the different Clinical Psychology courses around the place because each University will have its own take on all this:
First off try and be a fairly well balanced person. No one’s perfect, and goodness only knows I’m living proof of that lack of perfection, but just try to be fairly sensible and have your feet on the ground. If you have issues/history that’s neither a bad thing nor a good thing. When I was applying for the Clinical Psychology programme there was a bit of a myth that you needed to have some kind of past trauma/ difficult history stuff to get in. Not true. Whether you come from a good home or a dysfunctional one it all comes down to you as a person. In general the people who decide who gets the places want to know that you are a sensible, ethical, and safe person.
If you do have issues (over and above the normal stuff we all have) then go talk to someone to sort it out. Do this long before you apply for the course because that stuff will usually get picked up, and if it isn’t then that’s even worse because your job is to help other people, not work out your own issues on the job.
You will need to study psychology, obviously, as the major for your undergraduate degree. The main thing you need are really good grades. As far as I’m aware it doesn’t matter whether you do a Science undergraduate course or an Arts undergraduate course, you just need really good grades. An A average is probably enough, but an A+ is better. Study your arse off and get the best grades you possibly can.
When you reach the end of your undergraduate degree you can apply for the various postgraduate Clinical Psychology postgraduate programmes. My advice is apply for them all if you really want to get in. They all have slightly different approaches and flavours but ultimately what it’s about is getting the ticket and then developing your own sense of professional identity as you go.
Generally a bit of life experience is a good thing when you're applying so if you can spend some time working away in some allied role before you apply then that certainly wouldn't be a bad thing.
The six Clinical Psychology programmes in New Zealand are shown below (and I’ve linked these to the respective pages for each University)
If you are interested in a forensic career then you should, at least in my humble opinion, spend your first few years working at Psychological Services in the Department of Corrections. This is obviously the place to be if you want to work in the forensic area. Expect to spend a number of years there because it takes time to really find your feet. You need to work with lots and lots and lots of people who’ve committed all kinds of different crimes to get your head around what it’s all about.
I spent many years working on the SAFE programme in Auckland, a treatment programme for adult and adolescent sexual offenders. I've also spent many years working under contract to the Department of Corrections providing therapy for men on parole, assessments, clinical supervision of probation officers, and running and supervising groups. There is no substitute for experience and this is the place to get it.
If you want to work with children and young people you will obviously be wanting to spend a similar number of years working in child and family agencies. You should also, again in my humble opinion, take a position as a psychologist in CYFS for at least a couple of years. You need to know that system if you are going to work with families.
At some point you will eventually reach your shelf life in frontline work in public agencies. At that point you can either then move off into management roles, begin the adventure of private practice or (if you prefer the healthier option) open a café somewhere.
I hope that’s helpful. Bottom line is just try and be a sensible, ethical person, work hard, get fantastic grades, apply everywhere, get in wherever you can, and then learn as much as you can while you are there. Most of your real learning comes from being on the job, from the clients themselves as you plod along doing your day to day clinical work. Read widely. Take an interest in things generally, and don’t be afraid to say what you actually think. Heresy is a good thing, especially in this job.