Lifestyle, Psychology

Guest Blog with Dr Judith Johnson on her Career in Academic Clinical Psychology

Dr Judith Johnson has very kindly guest blogged on her unique experience of Clinical Psychology and how she came to work in Academia. Many people have various journey’s in psychology and after reading Dr. Johnson’s blog about the Doctorate, I wanted to have more insight into the journey to share with you readers.

I’m a qualified and registered Clinical Psychologist, but I work primarily in research and teaching. I didn’t intend things to work out this way. I set out on my psychology career to become a therapist: inspired as a child by fictional heroes like Frasier Crane (who embarrassingly, in retrospect, wasn’t a hero, or even a psychologist), my goal was to help people with talking therapies. My foray into research only began in my second year of my undergraduate psychology degree, when Professor Richard Bentall advised our class that completing a PhD was a good idea for any aspiring Clinical Psychologist. Diligently, I sought out research opportunities with a Lecturer and Professor in my department, and subsequently applied to complete a PhD. To my delight, I was successful: The Medical Research Council (MRC) funded me for three years to research into resilience to suicidality.

How can you find PhD funding?

I was fortunate enough to be awarded my PhD funding over 10 years ago, before the recession, when there were a wider range of opportunities for graduates wanting to pursue their own PhD ideas. Things are a little different now, but there are still a range of options for psychology graduates keen to undertake a PhD:

  1. Apply for advertised projects. While I designed my own PhD research, projects are now often advertised which have pre-identified goals. You apply for them like you would apply for a job. While this may be restricting, it can come with benefits: you don’t have to generate a whole PhD idea and plan yourself, and you are likely to have the support of invested supervisors who wrote the project idea. To find out about these opportunities, sign up to alerts from and
  2. Write your own proposal. In addition to these projects, there are a wide range of opportunities for candidates keen to pursue their own PhD research ideas. For example, for applied health researchers and qualified health professionals, the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) has an annual call for PhD Fellowships which effectively ‘buy out’ successful applicants at their normally salary rate, which is often higher than a standard PhD stipend. For those interested in researching how to improve health services, the Health Foundation has a similar annual cal . A range of smaller organisations also offer more targeted opportunities, such as the Stroke Association, which offers PhD fellowships to researchers investigating topics related to stroke. It’s worth noting that a lot of these opportunities are national calls and therefore extremely competitive. However, they’re worth being aware of. Furthermore, universities sometimes put out open calls for candidates with research projects in mind. The bottom line: research your options so you are aware of the opportunities that are available.

For me, my PhD was a turning point. It was challenging and tiring, but also incredibly exciting. For the first time, I was putting my own findings into the academic domain. I suddenly realised that I didn’t simply have to consider and criticise the things other people published: I could influence the academic narrative myself. While I was still sure that I wanted to pursue training as a Clinical Psychologist, I knew that I had found a type of work I loved.

Training as a Clinical Psychologist

I’ve written a blog containing tips for aspiring clinical psychologists elsewhere, so I won’t repeat this here. For me, gaining my training place was about pursuing every source of help I could. I knew that my PhD would help me build part of my application, as it was supervised by a Clinical Psychologist and involved researching with clinical populations. As such, I had already gained experience of researching in NHS services, recruiting service users with mental health difficulties and conducting psychological assessments for research purposes. However, I knew I’d need more experience to gain a training place. I undertook voluntary work as an assistant psychologist with a local Clinical Psychologist. I also gained some paid work as an assistant psychologist for a private psychology service which conducted parenting assessments for court case proceedings. I sought advice from the university careers service and colleagues on my application and then did practice interviews with almost anyone who would give me their time. The latter was particularly helpful, and I’d strongly encourage candidates who have been offered a Clinical Psychology Doctorate interview to take any interview practice opportunities that they can get. The Doctorate in Clinical Psychology is an incredible opportunity: you get to move through 5 or 6 different services (depending on where you train), working with different supervisors and different clinical populations. During my training time, I worked with violent offenders, children with health problems, young adults, older adults and people affected by stroke. I worked in 4 different NHS Trusts, including both inpatient and community settings. I learned how to conduct a range of psychological assessments, from those focused on assessing mental health disorders, to those designed to gauge intellectual capacity and even risk of violent offending. I developed competence in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), becoming experienced in both formulation and intervention. I also used Cognitive Analytical Therapy and Compassion-focused interventions. It was a fantastic introduction to Clinical Psychology and the wider NHS, and it gave me a passion for improving the delivery of healthcare.

Now: Working as a Lecturer and Researcher

Following completion of my Clinical Psychology Doctorate, I applied for university posts. I was keen to return to academia and the world of research, but I wanted to research in health services. If my clinical training had shown me one thing, it was that well run services deliver a better experience for both staff and patients than those which are poorly run. I wanted to conduct research which would help improve services, but this was a departure from the work I had done before, and therefore a challenge for me. The post I gained at this point, where I am still working, allowed me to make this change. For the past 6 years, my research has focused on healthcare staff wellbeing, burnout, patient safety and communication . I really enjoy this work: it is topical and relevant, with real opportunity to help support positive change in healthcare. Alongside this, I deliver student education, which ensures that I have a varied, rewarding range of activities.

Final thoughts

My career now doesn’t look as I would have expected when I embarked on my undergraduate psychology degree. I’m a long way from delivering Frasier Crane-style advice over the radio. It’s been a journey: at the start, I had no idea how much I liked research, and I had no knowledge of what it meant to work in health services, delivering patient care. I would encourage any aspiring psychologist to approach their career with an open mind: it’s surprising where life can take you!

Thank you so much to Dr Johnson for providing so much insight into your career and lots of further links to find even more information. All aspiring psychologists don’t have the same journey or goals and this journey really is an indication of this.

Good luck to all those who applied for the doctorate and well done to all of those who will be starting training. It will be an exciting journey for you all.

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