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Miguel Montenegro – BA (Hons) Psychology with Criminology, MSc Child and Adolescent Mental Health

Miguel’s story from University

Miguel MontenegroMy current job involves working with people with complex physical health, mental health, forensic, and neuropsychological needs from a range of psychological models and approaches, like Cognitive-Behavioural, Cognitive Analytic, Systemic, Psychodynamic, Acceptance and Commitment, and others.

I mostly see service-users and their families, either together of one-to-one, but also my job is to get involved in meetings, developing new ideas and services, and work closely with these teams to help maximise service-users involvement in their treatment.

I also conduct comprehensive neuropsychological assessments to assess clients’ general cognitive abilities, memory, attention and executive abilities. I conduct pieces of research and service-evaluations, and audits, to help guide the work we do and ensure that it is based on evidence at all times.

I provide teaching and training to staff, carers and families when needed. I also provide supervision to colleagues, and consultations to multidisciplinary teams.

My experience

My most enjoyable experience has to be working with clients and groups of clients. In particular I prefer working with people with complex bio-psycho-social needs, who sometimes have longstanding mental health needs but also have physical and social difficulties that prevent them from having quality in their life.

I also enjoy working with carers and families too, because they play such an important role in clients’ well-being. Often families and unpaid carers’ well-being is overlooked and forgotten by services, and when this happens people can go into meltdown and burnout, and this will have an impact on how the whole family and their relationships.

I also enjoy doing research and making the results known to the public, like publishing in journals or books. I believe that knowledge should be shared so that the most effective practice can be replicated and the least effective practice can be changed and improved.

I also like to work collaboratively with clients, which means that all I do is in partnership with clients and we make all decision together as much as possible and discuss any diverging views.

The part of my job I enjoy the least is ending therapies with clients and families. It is sad to see people go after a therapeutic relationship has been built over a few months, but the aim of the entire work is to help people feel more resilient to what is bothering them, to work on establishing self-help methods, and eventually let people go and encourage them to move on.

I also don’t enjoy having to spend too much time in front of a computer around bureaucratic exercises and filling in lots of paperwork, but this is also an important part of my job and has to be done promptly. The same way I don’t like working in the background without having ever seen the client, like planning interventions with carers and team, and not having direct contact with the client, but again at times this is necessary, when clients are too unwell to take part in their careplan.

I would rather work directly with clients, talking to people and follow their journey with them, but I understand that it is part of my job that I may not always meet the person that is the primary client but work in consultancy capacity instead.

How to work in Psychology

The journey into Clinical Psychology in the UK has to start with either a psychology degree accredited by the British Psychological Society (BPS) or, for those that already have degrees, a conversion course also accredited by the BPS. I did an initial BA in Psychology with Criminology at the University of Northampton and got a 2:1, which was very good considering I had been studying in a second language.

Sometimes people can also top-up their studies with a relevant Masters degree, or other postgraduate qualifications that would ideally be relevant to the field of psychology. I did an MSc in Child and Adolescent Mental health at the University of Northampton too, and a postgraduate diploma in Counselling and Psychotherapy hosted at the University of Northampton but facilitated by an external organisation.

Some of my friends and colleagues have done studies in research methods, cognitive behavioural therapy, or forensic studies prior applying to clinical psychology. Some people even complete PhDs to give them more experience in a specific area of psychology and also lots of research knowledge.

Options after graduating

Afterwards, or during their studies, most often people get work experience as research assistants, assistant psychologists, mental health workers, or support workers in different environments, like schools, hospitals, inpatient units, or community clinics. I got some of the above, and did work while studying to make the necessary links between psychological theory and practice, and to get some money to pay my bills.

The final stage to this profession is to acquire a qualification in Clinical Psychology by applying to doctoral courses via the Clearing House in Leeds (but some universities may offer direct entry). I finished my doctorate in 2013, thus allowing me to practice as a clinical psychologist in the UK. These courses are very competitive to get into and then quite intensive to study.

They combine academic, clinical and research competencies during 3 years. Generally students have to complete essays, case studies, literature and systematic reviews, exams, and final thesis, but universities can vary on these. Students also have to pass clinical placements by carrying out specific pieces of clinical work and demonstrate that they are safe and conscientious psychologists. Courses have to be accredited by the BPS and by the Health Care Professions Council (HCPC).

The HCPC currently regulates some psychology professions, including clinical psychology, so it is a legal requirement to be registered with the HCPC to call ourselves clinical psychologist. For people coming from abroad with psychology qualifications from other countries, the process can be lengthy and complex, so it is best to call the BPS or HCPC, or check their websites for more information.

Opportunities from University

When I started my undergraduate course I wasn’t sure where my career would lead to, since I had no clear perspective of the options available to me. From the onset of my studies I felt I was given a life time opportunity to study for a higher degree, so I was not even imagining at the time that I would continue to do an MSc and then a Doctorate.

I was just very happy to even starting a bachelors degree, and enjoying the experience. At the time I was not even aware of the different careers in psychology.

It was during many of the lectures and workshops I took part in my bachelors degree that I started building up an idea that psychology in the UK was very much different from psychology in my birth country. It was confusing at first, and I was struggling to conceptualise and decide what I wanted to do, and most importantly whether I would be good enough to continue with further studies.

However, tutors were very patient and supportive, and guided me throughout. It was by the second year of my undergraduate degree that I had made the decision that I wanted to become a clinical psychologist.

The MSc was the culmination of knowledge and experience gained during my undergraduate course, which helped me acquire further interest and the necessary skills to embark on a career into mental health and clinical psychology.

The MSc gave me a taste of applied psychology with experiential learning and reflective practice. The support received throughout both degrees was a beacon of hope that inspired me to write and submit several pieces of my academic work for peer-reviewed journals. In 2010, one of these articles was made into a chapter for the book “Understanding Non-Monogamies” by Meg Barker and Darren Langdridge.

These experiences have inspired me to get involved as co-editor and reviewer for an international journal focusing on integrating psychology and complementary therapies. I regularly write articles too and I do enjoy the experience.

I’ve only been qualified as a clinical psychologist for about a year. This has been a most rewarding experience, and I have learned many practical skills that courses cannot teach, including working with people with very specific health conditions and in acute levels of distress.

However, the career journey does not stop for a clinical psychologist once we have achieved this qualification, and we are expected to improve on management and leadership skills and on other specialist knowledge. So, for the past year I have completed clinical supervision courses to give me the skills to supervise other psychologists, and also a course on leadership to give me the flexibility to think in a more corporate and business perspectives.

Over the next few months I will be starting a module in clinical neuropsychology that will give me the skills to embark on a journey to eventually become a Clinical Neuropsychologist. This will take many years but I am hoping to build this alongside improving other therapeutic models, including becoming an accredited Cognitive-Behavioural Therapist and Cognitive-Analytic Therapist.

Learning about psychology and how the human mind works was the most important part of my experience at the University of Northampton. I guess this is the primary reason I did the degree, so that I could come out more prepared to continue my career.

This is the reason I continued to the MSc, so that I could have a flavour of applied psychology to specific settings, whilst keeping in mind that psychological well-being is just another human need as important as breathing, eating and sleeping.

Other most important skills I gained during my degree included systematic seeking of information through research, literature searches, supervision, networking with colleagues and making sure that information is stored (i.e. computer or paper) in ways that I can retrieve later more efficiently.

The other skill I gained was time-management and learning how to prioritise work, and this is important for my job, due to the way things tend to come up with levels of urgency and sometimes priorities change in a matter of minutes, and I need to be flexible in my approach to my work.

I think that having to manage different coursework, lectures, modules, etc, was a precursor to developing this capacity to evaluate priorities and deadlines. I guess with these skills I also developed the capacity to carry out group work and teaching skills, which are vital and essential in my current role. My English language skills improved significantly, due to the constant exposure to material, literature, and socialisation into idiomatic expressions and psychological technical language.

I did engage in volunteering while I was doing my degrees in Northampton. For instance, I was a student mentor for a local college to help students with mental health/learning needs preparing for exams, assignments and to think about careers. Also, I worked as a volunteer for a local hospital working with service-users with brain injury in vocational activities, including teaching languages and to focus on narrative and life story work.

For a year I was a volunteer assistant psychologist, working with service-users with dementia and focusing on developing databases to store service-users’ psychological progress, and also carrying out some research around the benefits of physical activity on the psychological well-being in people with dementia.

These activities were very important to give me a practical insight into working with people with a range of needs, but also into engaging with people who may always not be very receptive of having support from others at that moment in time.

In particular, I felt a growth in compassion and empathy to clients and I started understanding more how their difficulties impacted in their life, and how to best make use of their strengths instead of focusing on their weaknesses. My communication skills and creativity also improved, since I had to be very versatile with my language and think on my feet on ways to engage people with poor motivation to do things that would be important to them, even though they did not believe that at the time.

I also had the opportunity to put in practice research skills that I was gaining from the course, and how often clinical research can look very different from academic research, because of the different factors that can influence someone’s progress.

At present I am focusing in developing a community project to promote the importance of psychological well-being, its effects on physical health and longevity, and how people can maximise such well-being.

The format of the project is still being designed but it is likely that it would be a group approach to give many people the same opportunity to access the project, instead of just focusing on one-to-one therapies that can take longer to create impact and is more expensive to run. This project it is very much in progress and I aim to eventually propose it to the local councils to get funding for venues, staffing and materials.

My advice

I would suggest for people to take modules during their degree that are meaningful to clinical psychology, but also doing something they like too. If people haven’t got the grades to continue to clinical psychology, I would recommend further study to lift the grades and experience, like an MSc or postgraduate course on therapy or counselling. Some people even do some research or a PhD.

Work in jobs related to psychology is also very important, like being a care worker, healthcare assistant, or support worker. There are some hospitals around that take people in on a regular basis and that is a good place to start. Also, doing some volunteer work can give people some experience, since it will help people appreciate if they really like what they do, and then get their hand on the task more seriously.

Many people get work experience as an assistant psychologist or research assistant. This can be either during the undergraduate psychology degree or afterwards, even if this is as a volunteer to start with, like I did.  If people get any opportunities to network with psychologists or assistant psychologists, try to get information about the profession, how it works, what psychologists do, and whether they recommend any reading materials or books, and generally showing interest and asking questions.

Just remember that almost all clinical psychologists had to go through the above stages to get where they are now, so you won’t be on your own in your experience.

The University of Northampton believes in people’s potential and gives people the confidence and skills to start building the foundations for a good career. The University of Northampton was my compass, it guided me to my ‘north’ and definitely energised me to wanting to pursue my career in psychology.

I recommend the University of Northampton to anyone seeking quality degrees whilst keeping relationships with tutors meaningful and close, with the added bonus of transforming one’s potential into valuable transferable skills that can be used into a successful career path.

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