My Experience As An MSc Psychology Student
After eight hours of driving through the night, driving through two borders, then a quick meal with a new athletics coach, unpacking the majority of my entire life into a small accommodation halls room, and saying a teary and very anxious goodbye to my parents as they set off for another eight hour car journey to return home, I sat down on my new single bed, turned on a comforting playlist of YouTube videos, and tried to adjust to my next chapter of my journey into a career of clinical psychology. First step was to fall asleep for many, many hours as I was exhausted.
I had moved to Swansea in the south of Wales, a beautiful city on the coast of the country; my room overlooking a nearby beach. I was there to attend the MSc in Abnormal and Clinical Psychology at Swansea University. This was a year long course, and ran from late September to the late September the following years (actually the 1st of October for the end date, but let’s not get pedantic here.) A few things drew me to this course. Originally, I planned to stay in Scotland, and, although I applied to Scottish universities, I didn’t feel settled and fully satisfied with the courses on offer for my intended career. This is not to say they are poor courses, as I have several friends who attended universities like Strathclyde and Glasgow and thoroughly enjoyed their courses. However, I decided to look further afield on findamasters.com, and the first result to pop up was the masters I went on to do.
It was the cheapest masters compared to others I applied to, resulting in my postgraduate loan covering the majority of the cost, leaving me to pay £350 from money I saved. Adding to this, the course was incredibly interesting. I was immediately taken by the modules offered. I knew this was the course for me.
So, one application, some references, and a graduation later, I was enrolled into the Abnormal and Clinical masters. I believe it’s changed its title now to Clinical Psychology and Mental Health, due to the negative connotations and stigma surrounding the word “abnormal.” As it’s taught that mental health difficulties and diagnoses are observed as “normal reactions to abnormal circumstances” rather than the individual being noted as the “abnormal one.” The module names have changed somewhat, as has the module layout e.g. I studied a module called Forensic Psychology, which is now called Investigative Psychology. However, the course content looks to be the same. Generally, I find these changes to be a great sign that they are readily available to adapt to societal shifts within mental health, regarding language, as well as new evidence.
I had classes Monday and Tuesday and the other days of the week were for coursework and general studying. The classes were full on, and basically these days lasted from 9-6pm. I was very used to one hour lectures during my undergraduate so it was a bit of a shock to see I was about to endure a four hour long lecture for four weeks on Psychopathology and Sexual Offending. However, it’s necessary that the lectures are long, as you have a lot more modules to take on in one semester. They have to squeeze a lot in. Therefore, I did a four hour lecture for four weeks, as it was required that we did twelve hours for this module, whereas I did a two hour Research Methods lecture for six weeks in comparison. Again, this added up to the twelve hours. A masters usually always teaches more modules. In my undergraduate, I did three modules a semester. In my masters, I did six.
However, while it sounds intense to have so much more to learn, this is where it has its advantages in the same breath. A masters really allows you to examine and focus further in the parts of your previous education that has interested you. Obviously, I was very interested in the clinical psychology aspect of my undergraduate. For me, in particular, this course provided a closer and clearer examination of my future intended career. It not only strengthened knowledge I had on areas like mood disorders, but introduced me to topics I was not so familiar with such as third-wave therapies, extending past the standard Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, psychopathology, and Applied Behavioural Analysis. This broadened my perspective and enhanced my knowledge in aspects of mental health and therapeutic practices, which I have been able to adapt to my current job and voluntary roles.
However, please note that masters are not the same as clinical doctorates. It is a more theoretical based degree rather than being hands on. Although, I did get the opportunity to take up an unpaid placement, which gave me experience in therapeutic practice and being in a clinical psychology environment.
Masters are also not British Psychological Society accredited generally.
A lot of masters are for research. Some are “taught” like mine. Therefore, it wasn’t so much a hands-on experience, but more learning about the processes, structures, and details of different mental health diagnoses and treatments, as well as fields that an individual can go into within clinical psychology, e.g. Forensic/Investigative Psychology. Even so, alongside the placements we would apply for, we were provided opportunities to “practice” our skills with other students. Within the Psychotherapy module, we were often involved in role-play tasks, splitting off into pairs or groups to employ what skills. It allowed us to practice active listening, open question formats, and generally empathy skills. It gave us the opportunity to work on these soft skills that are often vital, but can be missed, within therapeutic practices. Although these opportunities weren’t involving particular demographics, it was helpful for us to have that chance to practice.
Our classes could sometimes be big in size, but generally masters classes are smaller than most undergraduate classes. Therefore, we would have discussions and debates within the modules, which was commonplace. This sounds overwhelming if you aren’t used to discussions and debates, especially having been involved in larger undergraduate classes. But, usually they are forgiving places that allow you to learn and give your different opinions or experiences of whatever topic the discussion is about. You are encouraged to participate, but not pressured. I always tried to participate as I felt I could learn this way, plus it kept me and it kept other students engaged. It’s much better than being lectured at for three hours that’s for sure.
While you acquire a great deal of hard skills during the course, a masters can teach and develop important aforementioned soft skills. During this course, you were expected to be independent and have the initiative in dealing with your work, moving forward with your research projects, grabbing the opportunities. Often, postgraduate courses can leave you with a ‘sink or swim’ feeling. You are given more responsibility. You are supported, yes, but your hand is not held. Personally, it developed and expanded my soft skills e.g. organisation skills, etiquette etc., Organising your workload is very important in every job you will come across, particularly within psychology posts. If I did not learn how to organise my workload, I wouldn’t have a job, and I wouldn’t have made it through the masters. Soft skills are the skills that can set you apart from other people. Within your class, you may begin to see the differences in those who haven’t got a handle of these soft skills, particularly when it comes to any placements or volunteer work you take part in. Unfortunately, this is when you begin to see that grades don’t mean everything but experience does, which is often not taught to many people who reach university, both postgraduate and undergraduate.
Adding to this observation, if you don’t take the time to soak up the opportunity to develop and employ such skills, you may find your masters is even more intense than it needs to be. As someone with anxiety that is heavily revolved around a fear of failure, and then overreaching and attempting to overachieve to compensate, I did find the masters exhausting. I was in the library or in front of a computer for hours every day. It seems like a lot of work, and that’s because it is. Which is why I am glad I took a break before I made my first application to my clinical doctorate. Overall, I felt that my organisation skills kept me pushing through. As did the friendship group I made as we were all equally as stressed and used humour to cope through it!
You have to be organised.
There were a few times I let things slip and I paid the price. Sometimes you will be working to a deadline and you are literally working to that deadline, so it can mean you are working constantly and consistently. It felt like a full time job, except you were also working weekends. I tried to keep up with additional or required reading, which I found to be beneficial in being prepared for the lectures or in better understanding the materials in general. Yes, you get more opportunity to work in smaller classes, but there is a lot for lecturers to get through in a short period of time, so they may not be able to go over the same stuff bit by bit, and they may have to skip through some materials to get to the meat of the lecture.
However, this is where organisational skills and an ability to self-care come into play too. At times, I can admit I did work to an excess, but I tried to treat my days like, as I said, a full time job. When I finished my classes for the day I went home and switched off for the day. If I needed to work at the weekend, I would go training in the morning or have a long lie and then head in for a couple hours. I felt it was those couple hours that benefitted my studies. I knew that studying excessively wasn’t always smart. Something I learned following studying for hours upon end during high school and at the start of my undergraduate career. A masters does require that extra push but you learn to take care of yourself a bit more even if sometimes it gets forgotten. Which is did happen quite a few times for me!
What I appreciated the most during my time at Swansea was support I received from my academic mentor and my dissertation supervisor. I had turned in an essay for my Psychopathy and Sexual Disorders, and received an average mark, which left me feeling disheartened as I was concerned this would be a running theme throughout my masters. I was not the best at essays, and never understood how to write them properly. At that point, I thought ‘no, I have to sort this out. It didn’t get sorted at undergraduate. I didn’t understand what my tutor there meant, so I’m going to speak to my academic mentor and get this sorted.’ I met with my mentor, Jeremy, and he briefly read through my essay, before providing the clearest advice I have ever received when it came to an essay. If you could look into my brain, you could probably see a neurological version of a jigsaw puzzle finally getting its last piece. He ran through some examples with me, rewrote out the information, and engaged fully in helping me how to write an essay. I then wrote two essays for my Psychosis module and my Eating Disorder module, and I received much higher grades, with the essays reflecting that I had indeed taken on Jeremy’s advice. I think I actually wrote him a thank you email I was so thrilled.
Following on from this, we were required to complete a dissertation during the summer, which was our third semester. We began to work on this research from the first semester, as we met our potential supervisors in a meet-and-greet style event where they explained research topics they had in mind, as well as their general research interests. Obviously, I jumped (not literally) on the ones involving child and adolescent mental health, and eating disorders. After some further meetings with the lecturers and researchers, we were asked to select our top five supervisors, and I was given Rachael Hunter, who became my dissertation supervisor for the year. And basically a mentor (even if she doesn’t know that.) Again, I felt entirely supported by Rachael, as I did with Jeremy, and felt she was excited to work with me with a novel dissertation idea. This made me excited to work with her, as I felt appreciated and encouraged. Consequently, I produced a piece I was very proud of: a qualitative piece on eating disorder stereotypes and their impact on non-stereotypical individuals. In fact, I was so proud of it I was nervous to let it go as it felt like my baby.
The masters course allowed me to really expand on my research interests and explore new research methods I hadn’t done before. As the classes can be smaller sometimes, you get a greater opportunity to talk with your supervisor and your lecturers, and it helps when you already have some understanding of psychology from your undergraduate. A masters research project is a great place to improve your research skills, and look further into a research topic you might be interested. Not everyone got that opportunity in my masters, or in masters in general, but it depends on the supervisor.
It is definitely advantageous to have a masters. It gives you an edge in the already competitive market that is psychology. It can effectively bide you time to gain further skills. Within courses like this, particularly in psychology, you can also develop good connections as I did, and, in doing so, get incredible support.However, a masters can shape you, and I believe it provides the time for you to acquire knowledge, refine that knowledge and mature further.