Or maybe you’ve spent several years working in industry, maybe even in HR, and you’ve been hearing about this less known species known as the ‘Business Psychologist’ for a little while, it sounds like they do good stuff and it’s caught your interest?
Either way, you’ve decided you’d like to pursue the path towards becoming an Occupational Psychologist and you know that the first step is to complete the Masters. So, how do you pick the right one?
How to choose your Msc
The number of universities offering an Msc in Occupational Psychology has varied over the years. When I was choosing my Masters there were only 7 to choose from, but now thanks to increasing popularity and slightly raised profile there more and more universities offering the Msc. Firstly, and most importantly, you can find an up to date list of which universities offer courses accredited on the BPS (British Psychological Society) website – which is pretty crucial, as a non-accredited course can cause you all manner of problems (i.e. extra work) later on. So, assuming that you pick a uni from the afore mentioned list what else do you need to know to help you choose your Msc course?
1. Full time or part time? Here’s a killer question! Whilst not always practical or financially possible, I cannot emphasise strongly enough how much better it is to try and get yourself on a full time course.
The hours on the full time courses are typically not that taxing and you get access to tutors to ask questions (very important), a proper library and fellow students with whom to debate and share the proverbial load of the ‘joint assignment’. I’ve had a few friends who have completed part time/distance learning courses at different universities over the last few years. From what I can tell, the workload is significantly higher and the infrastructure just isn’t there in the same way in terms of the support and guidance you will need to genuinely enjoy rather than just ‘survive’ the course.
If part time is your only option then I suggest seeking out previous students of that particular uni’s PT course as they all have a slightly different approach and tend to draw on different learning methods. Also, check how long that university has been running a distance learning version of the Msc and grill them thoroughly (thumb screws optional) in terms of what support they offer PT students.
2. Check how many people will be on your course. Ok, so not an obvious question, but one that can have a real impact on your learning experience. When I completed my Msc it only accommodated 15 students, which on reflection created a real bond between us but it also meant that we personally knew and had access to all of the tutors who taught us. Other universities will accommodate much higher numbers, which has its advantages in terms of diversity and variety but can have the downside of maybe not having such good access to your tutors.
Finally, it’s stating the obvious, but for the courses with the smaller student numbers there will be greater levels of competition for places and a 2:1 will be a minimum.
3. What areas of specialism do the tutors have? Why is this important? Basically, if you haven’t already come across this on your Bsc Psychology, the tutors will tend to focus teaching on the areas that they are personally interested in.
Of course, any Msc course has to cover the 8 key areas of Occupational Psychology (as set out by the BPS) but you’ll find there will be a greater focus on the areas where the tutors currently have research underway. So, if you know you are more interested in organisational change and less in human factors, then check out the profiles of the tutors and try to find a uni where the fields of research reflects your interests.
The tutors’ preferred areas of interest can also, further down the line, influence the level of support you will get for your thesis research. If you pick a topic aligned with research that is already going on at that uni then this will pretty much automatically garner you a greater level of support (v. important). Picking a topic that none of your tutors have an interest in can lead to a lack of support or in extreme cases them refusing to be your supervisor.
Hence, the moral of this particular story, is to do your research on the tutors of any university you are interested in and see whether the areas of research they have going on align with your personal interests. Believe me, it will make for a happier studying experience further down the line.
4. How connected are the tutors? What I learnt during my Masters is that if your tutors are ‘connected’ they have a better network to draw on to help you find work afterwards. I can’t speak for other universities (and would love to hear other’s experiences) but the one I went to was pretty good at this. One fellow course mate went off to design cockpits for fighter jets thanks to the connections of the Head of Department and I got my first consultancy job with a firm who had the distribution rights for one of the personality questionnaires that had been developed there.
So whilst evaluating how well the university’s faculty members might be at helping you get work might seem a little premature, getting that first job in the industry often isn’t easy and in 12-18 months time you’ll appreciate all the help you can get.
5. Do the tutors have ‘real world’ experience? Ok, so the relevance of this question is to do with the fact that essentially Occupational Psychology is meant to be an ‘applied’ discipline. From what I understand Msc courses these days are much better at this than they used to be but I hear they still have a terrible habit of being taught by people who’ve spent the majority of their career in academia. In other words, they’ve never been out in the ‘big bad’ and applied the stuff they’re teaching for themselves.
The academia/consultancy divide is a long standing one, often debated but yet to be resolved. Being taught by tutors that are primarily academics isn’t a deal breaker but if you can find a university with tutors who has genuinely been practicing Occupational Psychologists it will just give a level of insight into what you are learning that wouldn’t get otherwise.
The other stuff
At this point you are thinking ‘surely there cant be anything else I need to know at this stage’. Well, just a couple of things, and they are both pretty important.
What’s in a name?
Firstly, as you delve into researching this particular career path you are likely to hear a variety of terms that seem to get used interchangeably and it can all get a bit confusing. The discipline of Occupational Psychology has had a variety of guises over the years, but if you come across any of the following terms you can feel pretty confident that you are on the right track:
- Occupational psychology – most frequently used term. Used by the BPS and legally recognised. Abbreviates nicely to ‘Occ Psych’
- Organisational psychology – the lesser known version of the above. Also abbreviates nicely to ‘Org Psych’
- Industrial Psychology – one of the original terms, think circa 1970’s. Not often used, not very hashtag friendly
- Work Psychology – attempt to more clearly describe what we do to non-initiates’! Lacking a snazzy abbreviation
- Business Psychology – Most recent term. Used to more clearly emphasis the ‘applied’ aspects of our discipline. Tends to get abbreviated to ‘Biz Psych’
Ok, that’s the main ones. The reason for mentioning this is that you might see Msc courses advertised under any of the afore mentioned guises. Also, knowing that they all mean the same thing can help when searching for jobs later. Note: Occupational Therapy is something completely different, believe me, I learnt the hard way.
The power of work experience
Second point is don’t underestimate the power of ‘having a job’. There are a couple of reasons for this. At this stage, having work experience can help differentiate you from other applicants for your preferred course – important when there is a lot of competition for a limited number of places. Some universities wont even entertain applicants without it, as how can you understand the application of psychology in the workplace if you’ve never ventured into one? Next, having work experience provides context for what you are learning, making the content more relevant and interesting and less abstract. Thirdly, thinking ahead, having work experience that spans a variety of industries can really set you apart as a consultant later on (explained in Part 3) – if that is the route you are ultimately interested in.
In summary, there are five key points I suggest for your consideration on your journey in finding the Msc that will be right for you. In Part 2 I’ll be moving on to explore how you can get the most out of your Masters.
As mentioned in the Introduction to this blog series, this guidance is purely constituted of my opinions based on my own personal experiences and those around me. My way doesn’t represent the only way. With that in mind, it would be great to get comments from people about what their experiences have been of choosing the right Msc and what advice they would pass on.
See you for Part 2,