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Psychology, the OU, OUPS and me

My interest in psychology began in my early twenties during a spell of temporary work where part of my job involved scoring a form of psychometric profile for people looking for work so that they could be matched to vacancies notified by employers. The idea that individual differences and preferences could be assessed and used this way fascinated me and sparked what became a life-long interest in psychology and what makes people who they are.

A few years later and after several false starts in the jobs market, I decided to try the Open University to study for the degree which I’d not attempted straight from school. I hadn’t made a great success of secondary education but I did know I was capable of better than my A- level results suggested. I began with the humanities foundation which confirmed that I could study effectively the OU way and I particularly enjoyed the breadth of the course, the tutorial support and the way in which self-help groups organised and ran locally. The atmosphere was supportive, encouraging and involving - education in its best sense, aimed at drawing out and developing individual interests and abilities. Summer schools added a taste of the traditional university experience, with a full-time focus on the subject matter, an active social life and renewed inspiration for the rest of the course.

The social sciences foundation course introduced me to the academic study of psychology and sociology and I was soon well and truly hooked. I followed this with 30 point courses in both disciplines and then an early presentation of the OU’s first social psychology course D305, written by Richard Stevens. Here I found the sort of material that had fascinated me in the first place, a broad view of psychology in action in the social sphere, looking not just at individual differences but at the way interactions take place and how individuals are changed by them in a process of constant flux and development. If the OU had re-awakened my interest in learning, OU psychology gave my personal interests academic respectability and helped me follow my interest in people, how they work, what motivates and supports them and how they work together in society. It also widened my perspective on psychology, sociology, science and philosophy, exploring and valuing the connections between them rather than the constraints of the separation of disciplines. The more I studied, the more convinced I became that this was the area where I really wanted to work.

The summer schools that had been so valuable in extending my earlier courses became more scarce as I took second and third level courses and it was in this context that I first came across OUPS. The revision weekends OUPS organised, usually then at Nottingham University, proved invaluable to me, integrating the course modules, clarifying the concepts and reassuring those of us that needed it about the way in which the exams would not only test our knowledge but provide the opportunity to demonstrate our real understanding of the material and its context. The level of academic support from tutorial staff and course team members was excellent, with discussions about the courses often extending late into the night, academic debate (suitably lubricated) merging with an active social side.

As with the “official” summer schools that characterised the foundation and some second level courses, the mini summer schools that OUPS ran parallel to the annual conference provided a mid- year boost for anyone whose spirits might be flagging. Courses then ran only from February to October and a July refresher, focusing on current assignments, future modules and likely exam themes was very valuable, just as they are today. Note that this was in the late 1970s and early 1980s; TMAs were handwritten, or typed if you had the skills, personal computing was the province only of geeks; there was no e- mail, no world-wide web with its wealth of online information and face-to-face contact with academic and tutorial staff was very much more important than it is now. OUPS, by facilitating and encouraging face-to-face contacts, made a real difference then for me in achieving the success I did.

I finished my first degree in 1982 with D303 (cognitive psychology) although I’d had to withdraw from my first attempt at it the year before due to the pressures of a new family and a long and tedious commute for work. I succeeded in passing the second time around but the financial and other constraints of family life meant that further study wasn’t possible for me at the time, neither was a move into working in psychology, and I took an enforced break from the OU. However, I did maintain my membership of OUPS.

It was to be another ten years before I studied again with the OU, this time for an MBA degree with the business school. My impressions of this course were heavily coloured by my earlier studies and I came to see management not so much as a separate hard science but rather as a particular example of applied psychology. Individual differences as crucial to recruitment, selection, training and other aspects of personnel management; theories of social behaviour and organisation underlying politics and economics; theories of motivation impacting on personal and organisational performance and so on. The highpoint of these studies was a course entitled “Creative Management” (B885) which to me most clearly represented psychology in action. Jane Henry’s excellent course reader, with its detailed exploration of creativity, still has a prominent place on my bookshelf more than twenty years later, alongside Richard Stevens’ “Understanding the Self” and other influential texts.

Technology had moved on by this time and we were by then using the “COSY” e- mail system, working over a dial-up link using a 300bps modem. Slow but effective electronic communication and an early form of academic networking known as “First Class” supported our studies with both general and course- specific online discussion forums.

Five years further on and I’d realised that I could no longer stay in the line of work I’d been in for the previous twenty-five years. Reviewing my options suggested a sideways move into occupational psychology and I looked into updating my first degree to qualify for graduate membership of the BPS. To my surprise, I found that my then thirty year old degree still counted and that I could achieve GBR, again through the OU, by completing a Diploma in Psychology (Conversion for Postgraduates). All I needed to do was to complete the current Introduction to Psychology (DSE212) and the long-running course on child development (ED209). A welcome re-acquaintance with the psychology faculty and with OUPS followed and two years later I had my graduate registration, aided once again by mini summer schools and revision weekends.

However, suitable opportunities in occupational psychology were hard to come by and, having previously benefitted from counselling following episodes of being bullied at work, I explored my suitability for and the possibility of training as a counsellor myself. I took introductory and foundation courses at the University of East Anglia, renowned for its training in the person-centred approach pioneered by Carl Rogers whose work I’d first come across in D305 many years earlier. This initial training was more practical and experiential than theoretical, totally different to my OU studies and a new experience for me but one which confirmed that, with further training, I could become an effective counsellor and practice professionally. The opportunity for me to retire early came a while later, shortly after I’d been accepted for professional training to degree level in integrative counselling with a local specialist provider and, by October 2010, I was 60 years old and a full-time student with a discount card and a bus pass.

My experience of OU study and of the OU psychology faculty during all my previous studies has helped me very considerably to appreciate the theoretical underpinning of my subsequent counselling training. It has enabled me to see the range of different therapies offered in their overall psychological context, how they relate to one another, what they share and how they differ. I’m continually fascinated by the field of counselling psychology and continue to explore its links with the wider fields of social and developmental psychology, sociology and philosophy that I’ve studied previously. The knowledge I’ve gained has helped me to become a much better counsellor than I might otherwise have been. The on-going support of OUPS through annual conferences and local events since I last studied with the OU has kept me in touch with the faculty and the field and provides valuable support to my on-going professional development and research.

I’m now a fully qualified integrative psychotherapeutic counsellor, registered with the BACP, UKCP and the BPS, practicing professionally as well as voluntarily with local not-for-profit organisations.

And so, to summarise:

What the OU has done for me

  • Rescued me from a mismatch with conventional education;
  • Showed me I could study and succeed at degree level despite not delivering through GCE O and A levels;
  • Encouraged me to find my own route to higher education;
  • Introduced me to a whole new world of interests and interesting people;
  • Widened my perspective on psychology, sociology, science and philosophy, seeing the connections rather than the separation of disciplines;
  • Helped me further to develop my thinking skills and to use those skills constructively.

What OU psychology has done for me

  • Helped me to follow my interests in people, how they work, what motivates and supports them and how they work together in society;
  • Given my personal interests academic respectability;
  • Supported me towards a further professional qualification and a second career when many people are ready to retire;
  • Helped me to become a better counsellor than I might otherwise have been and hence to help other people;
  • The key for my personal development and subsequent future career was that my original OU degree with psychology as its main theme could still help me attain graduate membership of the BPS and attain further professional qualifications.

What OUPS has done for me

  • Provided very valuable support in my first degree;
  • Run excellent residential schools for OU courses when the OU itself didn’t provide them;
  • Run excellent revision weekends for core modules in psychology;
  • Encouraged and supported myself and many other students in all aspects of study;
  • Helped me to maintain a continuing link with the OU and psychology in particular, even when I wasn’t currently studying;
  • Welcomed me back to conferences with themes relevant to my current work and interests long after I finished formal study with the OU.

Overall, my training in psychology at the OU and my experience with OUPS have been invaluable and life changing. I’ll be at Warwick again for this year’s conference and the 40th birthday celebrations and look forward to meeting at least some of you there.

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