The lack of diversity within clinical psychology is well established. People from marginalised groups in society or those who have faced adversity in life are consistently underrepresented in both the number of people who apply for clinical psychology training and the proportion of people who are offered places. This pattern is clearly and consistently reflected across 16 years of data published by the Clearing House for Postgraduate Courses in Clinical Psychology (who manage the application process in England and Wales). The data highlight stark (and most likely intersecting) barriers relating to age, gender identity, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, caring responsibilities, disability, religion and socio-economic background.
The barriers facing people within underrepresented groups wanting to access clinical psychology training are complex and multi-faceted. Although many of these challenges reflect broad health, social and education issues and are evident in other professions and postgraduate programmes, many barriers are situated within current clinical psychology application and selection processes. Barriers to inclusion and diversity are evident even within the first stage of this process – the application form.
We (the undersigned) have written this letter to call for a review of the DClinPsy application form. We believe that the application form for the Doctorate in Clinical Psychology (DClinPsy) fails to appropriately invite and encourage reflection on issues around difference and diversity. We believe that this contributes to people from marginalised groups being unfairly disadvantaged, reinforcing the discrepancies seen within the profession and increasing the barriers facing people already underrepresented in our profession.
Applicants are given 200 characters to detail the main duties of each job they have held - most candidates will have multiple roles to describe. Candidates then have 3000 characters to consider “In what ways have your work and/or research experience made you a better candidate for training in clinical psychology?” as well as 1500 characters to detail any dissemination of research. While these questions give shortlisters important information about applicants, we want to highlight the contrast between the space applicants have to talk about their professional life compared to their personal experiences. There is only one section of the DClinPsy application that appears (indirectly) to allow applicants to reflect on issues around exclusion or adversity. In the ‘Background information’ section of the personal statements the form asks; “If there are any other factors relevant in assessing your application, please give brief details here”. This section is limited to only 700 characters (including spaces); this is less than three tweets.
This is also less than the section where applicants are asked about their activities and interests apart from Psychology (750 characters). Candidates who have the necessary social, cultural, health and financial privilege and capital to take on multiple/varied roles (e.g. by working in honorary roles or being able to move around the country) or engage in “relevant” hobbies are going to be significantly advantaged by the questions asked on the application form.
In its present format, the respective character limits for each section suggest that lived experience or diversity is vastly less important than work/research experience or being able to showcase interesting and “relevant” hobbies. The central, largest, section of the form ask the candidates to reflect on their work/research experience. Any discussion of adversity, being marginalised or minoritised, or lived experiences of stigma, discrimination, racism in this section must necessarily come at the expense of reflection on occupational and research experiences. A person who is not from a marginalised or minoritised background is therefore advantaged by having more space to expand on what they have learned from their academic/work/research experiences. Applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds may be able to demonstrate they are a better candidate than someone from a more privileged background (all other things being equal), but presently this reflection comes at the cost of having less space to reflect on conventional experiences.
Furthermore, we believe that the impact of being from a disadvantaged background (and how this might be valuable/relevant to the role of a trainee clinical psychologist) cannot be adequately written about in 700 characters. Experiences of disadvantage are not isolated soundbites or catchphrases; it is not enough to provide only room to say, “I come from … background, it had … impact, and it would make me better psychologist because …”. These experiences may have impacted a candidate’s life in broad and complex ways and allowing applicants to showcase their reflections is critical.
The language used in the DClinPsy application does not encourage disclosure and reflection. For example, a common question from applicants every year is whether it is ‘okay’ to mention lived experiences; it is unclear where this information would be welcome on the form (if at all). There is no explicit mention of background, disadvantage, discrimination, diversity, etc. Applicants without access to advice, support or mentorship may struggle to know how to approach such questions because the wording is ambiguous – leaving the candidate to wonder where to write about their background and whether it would even be considered relevant by shortlisters.
Applicants also have 700 characters to explain any gaps in their employment history; however, this question highlights issues with the language used within the form. When asked to explain a period of their adult life not accounted for by their list of jobs, the example given is “09/2012 to 03/2013 travelling in South America”. This example perpetuates the norm of a middle-class candidate; somebody with enough social, cultural, health, and financial privilege and capital to be able to go on such a trip. More inclusive examples should be used to illustrate a wider range of factors that candidates may have experienced which led to gaps in employment history (e.g. having caring responsibilities, periods of poor health) to show that such experiences are common, normal and welcome. This information may give important context to shortlisters reading the form, but as it stands applicants are not encouraged to reflect on these kinds of challenges in a meaningful way.
We propose that all applicants should be actively encouraged and supported to reflect on both personal and professional experiences that they feel are relevant to their development and the role of a clinical psychologist.
We would like the form to include dedicated space for candidates to discuss their individual context in a way that is meaningful to them and allows them to present an argument for how this has made them a better candidate; welcoming reflection on how issues of power, privilege, discrimination, stigma and the social context of psychological distress relate to their journey and how they see the role of a clinical psychologist. This space should be of adequate length to allow for a reasonable degree of description and reflection.
This should be supported by clear guidance and prompts so that people without access to a space to reflect on these issues (e.g. clinical supervision) are not disadvantaged.
The wording of all sections should be reconsidered so that they present more neutral and less exclusionary language (including broader examples where possible). The form should be clear on what is meant to be written where.
We would like to see involvement from across Doctorate in Clinical Psychology programmes, relevant groups/committees, trainee and qualified clinical psychologists and aspiring applicants to contribute to a review of the content, structure and language used within the application form. We would like to see transparency about how and when this feedback will be used going forward.
More broadly, we would like to see a consultation process which considers the role of the application form in the overall shortlisting and selections process. We would like this consultation to consider other measures of shortlisting and selections which may be more supportive of initiatives to improve inclusion and diversity.