Recent weeks have been hectic for MSc Course Directors. Tasked not only with assessing final dissertations submitted by students from the previous year, they have also been putting plans in place to welcome and induct new students into their MSc programmes for the 2019/20 academic year.

From the student perspective, a fresh cohort of MSc graduates has been released on the job market, keen to begin recuperating the investment of their education. Yet for some, the feeling of elation experienced by graduating may soon be replaced with a sense of disappointment as the exciting range of employment opportunities they expected fails to materialise. This is a situation I am all too familiar with; the gap between graduation to early career placement can feel like a chasm.

After starting work for Psychological Consultancy Ltd (PCL) over 4 years ago, we began considering ways in which I could help graduates minimise some of the difficulties I faced when breaking into the industry. These methods benefited from hindsight, and not only included things I had done, but things I had not. Any actions not only needed to help future graduates, but also to provide a return on investment for PCL.

As an assessment publisher, we have an ongoing responsibility to demonstrate the validity of our tools. Research cuts to the core of this. The insight we generate serves to inform product development and improve the education and training of our test users. Reflecting on ways of generating this insight led me to consider the work students engage in during their courses. The dissertations of MSc students not only form a key component of programmes; they represent a potential conduit for obtaining essential validation data.

This led me to conclude that our goal was to create and develop a process that facilitated a win-win outcome for both students and PCL, and the MSc dissertation represented the best vehicle for this.

The Role of the Dissertation

A dissertation is likely to be a student’s greatest academic achievement for a single piece of work. The culmination of months of effort, it encompasses a range of skills including (but not limited to) review of the evidence base, writing proficiency, research methodology and project management. It also provides insight into a student’s interests and the directions they may want to take in navigating the profession. In short, it represents a foundation stone of the personal brand students will cultivate over the course of their professional career.

To some, a dissertation is viewed solely as a constituent part of their overarching MSc. The goal of completing it is to receive a score that combines with those of other modules to create an overall grade. Whilst this is true, an MSc dissertation can represent so much more than that. The goal of our involvement with students was to help them consider untapped opportunities generated by their MSc dissertations in a manner that justified PCL’s support. The result of our efforts to achieve this led to the creation of the PCL ‘Student Sponsorship Programme’ (SSP).

PCL’s Student Sponsorship Programme

The SSP is a competitive process involving approximately 20 UK-based universities running MSc courses in occupational psychology and related fields. Students interested in taking part are invited to submit a short 500-word application by the 11th November. The lynchpin of the SSP is the MSc dissertation, so students’ applications must demonstrate consideration for how PCL products could play a role in their research.

Applicants are informed of the status of their application several days after the deadline, and unsuccessful applicants are offered the chance to have a Skype or phone call with a consultant to discuss their research projects.

Our support starts in mid-December when we welcome successful applicants to our offices in Tunbridge Wells. This ‘Professional Skills Event’ is crammed with content that includes introductions to our assessments and sessions on consultancy, research skills and marketing.

The following months involve ongoing remote contact where we help the students pinpoint and flesh out their research ideas into actionable projects. Once these are identified, the next step is data collection. A significant obstacle for all students, PCL can provide support through our professional contacts and social media presence. Our help extends through to the analysis and write-up stages, with PCL staff on hand to respond to any questions the students may have.

Students have frequently noted the benefits of the programme. PCL staff represent an accessible source of expertise that can respond to students’ questions and concerns, thereby supplementing the support provided by academics. Working with a test publisher also provides the added benefit of enabling students to remotely and automatically deliver bespoke feedback reports to their participants.

Working with a consultancy can also provide opportunities for professional development. This relationship helps the student develop a practitioner mindset that encourages them to think about how academic research can be applied to the client-focussed services offered by consultancies. PCL represents another stakeholder in their project, and the student must reciprocate the support they receive by providing us with the insight resulting from their research.

Submission deadline day for dissertations typically represents the culmination of a student’s MSc journey. However, this is not the case for our SSP students!

Beyond Submission

After a well-earned break from their efforts, communications with the new graduates resume with discussions about next steps. The former students will have developed a range of skills and knowledge during their MSc, so the next goal is to make these as visible as possible. Networking and engagement forms part of this visibility, with the former students encouraged to continue applying the lessons introduced during the professional skills event.

This leads to the most significant next step in the context of the SSP: content dissemination. Students are strongly encouraged to make the most of their research beyond the dissertation. Luckily, disseminating content from dissertations is easier than ever! There are various platforms capable of hosting and distributing content that can be seen by peers, the wider public and potential employers. The SSP graduates can also benefit from uploading to PCL’s online ‘Knowledge Bank’, which hosts a range of freely accessible content.

Outputs emerging from the SSP include white papers, industry publications, blog pieces, video content and conference presentations. Translating an MSc dissertation into each of these formats requires the student to develop a more diverse skillset and cements the benefits of ongoing learning that all psychologists should engage in throughout their careers.

Lessons from the SSP

We have learned a great deal as facilitators of the SSP but feel many of these lessons are equally applicable to students, recent graduates, and academics. Recommendations include:

– Do not view your dissertation as a single piece of work. Instead, look to break it up and disseminate it across various platforms using different formats.
– Consider approaching your research as a consultancy project in and of itself. Engage with organisations and offer feedback on what you find, even if it’s for free!
– Create and foster habits that improve your personal brand. Engage with posts and thought leaders relevant to your interests during and after your research.
– Aim to use your research as a vehicle for engaging with the industry and community. You’ve developed MSc-level knowledge on a specific topic, so use it!

The list of achievements by SSP alumni is extensive and growing year on year. For students, we believe the SSP provides unique insight into the industry that enriches their knowledge and increases their employability. For consultancies, we believe the SSP represents a replicable framework that bridges the academic-practitioner divide and generates win-win outcomes for all involved.

Call for Applicants

Are you or someone you know completing an MSc in Occupational Psychology (or related field) during the 2019/20 academic year?

You can find more information about the SSP on the our website, including the SSP brochure, previous outputs, contact details and testimonials.

The deadline for applications to the next intake of the SSP is Monday 11th November 2019.

This piece was originally published in OP Matters (No. 43, Autumn 2019)

About the Author

Dr Simon Toms is a Principal Research Psychologist with Psychological Consultancy Ltd, and a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society.