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How To Become An Independent Expert Psychologist

Any qualified psychologist who is registered with Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) and who is an expert in their field can become an Independent Expert Witness Psychologist, sometimes referred to as an Expert Psychologist. Whereas there are no absolute guidelines which set out the exact nature or amount of experience or training that an Independent Expert Psychologist must have, it is essential that they have significant expertise and specialism behind them and that that they are able to carry out the highest quality assessments which are defensible in Court. Certainly, at WillisPalmer, we would look for a highly experienced psychologist who has the skills, training and expertise to enable us to deliver the high-quality services that we promise. An Independent Expert Psychologist can provide a variety of services including assessments, expert reports and therapy. At WillisPalmer, our psychologists also work alongside other professionals including expert social workers, psychiatrists and family support workers in our multi-disciplinary interventions aimed at supporting families by addressing their support needs.

Independent Expert Psychologists are self-employed and either take on cases or instructions directly from clients or they work with an organisation such as WillisPalmer which matches cases to the Independent Expert Psychologists within our national network of professionals who have the correct knowledge and expertise for that particular case.

Psychology

Psychology involves studying people and exploring how they think, act, react and interact. Psychology focuses on behaviour and the thoughts which drive that behaviour. Psychologists may specialise in mental health, educational or occupational psychology. Clinical, counselling, forensic, educational or health psychologists are found in healthcare settings.

Psychologists work with their clients to tackle stress, emotional and relationship problems, and often high-risk behaviours and complex needs. Psychology is often referred to as ‘talking therapy’ and psychologists use a variety of approaches including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), psychoanalytic therapies, psychodynamic therapy, family psychotherapy and arts and play therapies.

Independent Psychologists vs Locum Psychologists: What’s The Difference?

Independent Psychologists are distinct from locum psychologists or locum mental health professionals. While both will be self-employed, locum psychologists usually sign up with a recruitment agency who will find typically short-term contracts to cover a vacancy, sickness, maternity leave or to focus on a backlog of cases.

Psychologist:

A psychologist may be employed by the NHS, Prison Service, education setting, hospital, community mental health team or IAPT service. There are different types of psychologist working in different areas of psychology:

  • Clinical and Counselling psychologists

Typically, Clinical psychologists work on a wide range of mental and physical health problems including addiction, anxiety, depression, learning difficulties and relationship problems. They also work with more complex mental health problems including eating disorders, psychosis, personality disorder, bereavement, domestic violence, sexual, emotional and physical abuse, traumas and relationship issues.

Clinical and Counselling psychologists tend to be based in hospitals, health centres, community mental health teams, social services, schools, prisons or Improving Access to Psychology Therapy (IAPT) services.

  • Forensic psychologists

Forensic psychologists apply psychological theory to try to understand psychological problems associated with offending behaviour. Forensic psychologists work with all aspects of the criminal justice system from the psychological aspects of investigation and legal process through to offending behaviour and application of psychological methods to reduce the impact of this and future re-offending.

Forensic psychologists work in the treatment of offenders in a range of areas including sexual offending, violence and aggression, social skills and intervention to help stop drug and or alcohol use. Forensic psychologists work closely with the police, probation services, prisons and young offender institutions, trying to understand the psychological problems leading to offending behaviour and looking for ways to prevent it.

The largest employer of forensic psychologists is the Prison Service and forensic psychologists may also work in the NHS, in secure hospitals, social services or offender management agencies.

  • Health psychologists

Health psychologists are trained to help people deal with the psychological and emotional aspects of health and illness as well as supporting people who are chronically ill. Health psychologists also use psychological interventions to help people self-manage and cope with pain or illness.

Health psychologists work across a range of health care and other providers including hospitals, community settings and private healthcare providers.

  • Neuropsychologists

Neuropsychology is concerned with relationships between the brain and behaviour. Neuropsychologists carry out assessments to understand behavioural and cognitive changes resulting from central nervous system disease or injury, like Parkinson's disease, traumatic brain injury, stroke, dementia, and many more. Neuropsychologists also work across a range of health and care providers.

  • Educational psychologists

Educational psychologists or educational mental health practitioners work across education and healthcare to provide mental health support for children and young people in schools and colleges.  They provide low intensity interventions such as guided self-help based on cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and group-based CBT for those with persistent mild to moderate depression.

Educational psychologists work within mental health support teams (MHSTs), designed to help meet the mental health needs of children and young people aged between five and 18.

Mental Health

Locum psychologist:

Locum psychologists are self-employed and usually work through a recruitment agency who can find out the individual’s strengths and areas of expertise and interest and match them with the contracts for placements that they have available. Contracts tend to be short-term but may be extended. As a locum psychologist or mental health professional, it is generally recommended that the individual has experience and expertise as they will be expected to join an organisation and ‘hit the ground running’ which is easier when the individual has expertise and experience to rely on. There are pros and cons to being a locum psychologist, as with all jobs. You are likely to receive a higher salary than if you were employed directly, however there is the chance you may have ‘gaps’ between contracts. There is more flexibility with locum working in general but professionals who are risk averse and prefer to know what salary they have coming in every month may prefer employed work. It is usually down to an individual’s personality and preference, however, having sought after specialist skills will provide you with an advantage in the locum field.

Independent Psychologist:

Independent Psychologists are self-employed and may run their own private practice. Some may be newly qualified and provide counselling to their clients, while others will have more experience. Independent Psychologists may seek their clients themselves through advertising or through word of mouth.

Independent Expert Psychologist:

Independent Expert Psychologists must have an area of specialism and may run their own practice but some also choose to work with an organisation like WillisPalmer who will match your area of expertise and skillset to the cases we have coming into the organisation. Most of our Independent Expert Psychologists have a wealth of experience in their field and significant knowledge. Some work individually on cases where others may work with other professionals such as Independent Social Workers, psychiatrists and family support workers in our multi-disciplinary services including the Multi-Disciplinary Family Assessment Service (MFA).

Psychologists may straddle two roles. A psychologist may work for the NHS for example three days per week in an employed position and then carry out a locum role for two days per week. Similarly, someone considering setting up their own independent practice may stay employed for two days per week to ensure income while establishing their independent work and to clarify that they enjoy the way of working independently. This is more common for psychologists who may want to ‘dip their toe in the water’ before completely committing to independent work.

The Independent Expert Psychologists who work with WillisPalmer are experts in a specific field.

Consultant Clinical Psychologist Dr Anna Preston

The Benefits of Going Independent

Flexibility

Independent work enables professionals to work flexibly rather than stringent office hours. Psychologists with children may wish to work school hours and around school holidays. Others like to take on more cases when they have the availability and scale back in order to take frequent breaks either for travelling or certain projects. The recent pandemic has shown us that many of us can work from home perfectly well with the technological advantages of Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Skype and it has also enabled many professionals in a variety of sectors to work more flexibly.

Autonomy

Many experienced psychologists start working independently to have more autonomy over their cases and the work that they do. Often professionals want more control over their work/life balance and to become their own boss. Many psychologists work independently to gain that control.

In any job, there are always areas of our work that we enjoy more than others but working for an organisation you have to take the rough with the smooth. However, as an ISW – you are your own boss and do not have to take on cases that you do not want to in order to concentrate on the areas of work that you enjoy. At WillisPalmer, we ask our Independent Psychologists about their areas of strength and weakness and areas of work which they enjoy and would actively seek.

Every day is different

Psychologists, as well as other professionals, can get frustrated in employed work doing the same thing day in, day out in their permanent role and therefore turn to independent work for variety. Independent Psychologists can choose the work they want to take on and introduce more of a variety of work into their role.

You can also match the work you take on to your availability and circumstances. If you want to take a month off, you can factor that into your work schedule which would be more difficult while working full-time for an organisation.

Money

Many of us shy away from talking about money and while financial gain may not have been the primary driver in psychologists choosing their career, working independently gain provide financial advantages – obviously dependent on the amount of work you wish to take on. People who go into independent work are typically highly skilled psychologists with a wealth of experience and it therefore makes good financial sense to get paid more/earn more working independently than being full-time employed for an organisation. Naturally, as with anyone self-employed, you do not have a guaranteed income but, the potential is there, depending on how many cases you want to take on. For example, some people use independent psychological work once they retire from full-time employment to top up their pension so would take on less work. But working in a full- time capacity, the earning potential is there given your position as an expert in the psychological field.

Factors which will help you on your journey to becoming an Independent Expert Psychologist

As an Independent Expert Psychologist you will be running your own business and therefore you need to register as a Private Limited Company with HMRC. You then need to decide whether you want to contact organisations directly or be matched with cases through an organisation such as WillisPalmer. We require our psychologists to be registered as a PLC, but this is not difficult to do, and we are always happy to give some initial guidance if needed, or signpost you to someone who can. Either way, you should update your CV, outlining your strengths, experience, training, career history and areas of expertise.

Considerable experience

The more experience you have, the more desirable you become as an Independent Expert Psychologist and the more cases you can be put forward for. Those commissioning you will look for a good grounding in mental health services and significant experience. At WillisPalmer, our reputation is based on the high-quality services we provide and it is therefore essential that our Independent Expert Psychologists are experienced and highly skilled. WillisPalmer provides a broad range of assessment and therapy services for children and their families, including expert assessment of parents in public and private law proceedings, assessment of psychological functioning, cognitive assessments, education assessments/assessments of educational needs, responding to children’s emotional and behavioural difficulties, multi-disciplinary assessments and forensic risk assessments. The more experience you have in these areas, the more work you can be offered. All Expert Independent Psychologists must have a particular area of expertise.

Knowledge and understanding of key legislation

Independent Expert Psychologists should have a good understanding of the legislative framework around mental health, including The Mental Health Act 1983 and The Children Act 1989 as well as key government guidance such as ‘Working Together to Safeguard Children’. Legislation and guidance will need to be referenced in your expert reports appropriately to ensure that they are evidence-based.

Up-to-date training

Keeping your training and skills up-to-date is essential to demonstrate that you are on top of your game and striving to achieve knowledge in the latest psychological practice arena and that you are committed to improving your skills.

Strong references

Strong references from relevant previous employers will reiterate what your CV states from an employer’s perspective and reiterate your skills and experience.

The ability to work autonomously

As an Independent Expert Psychologist, you will be self-employed and need to be able to manage your own time effectively and meet deadlines. If you are working directly for organisations such as the NHS or Prison Service, autonomous working is paramount. At WillisPalmer, while our Independent Expert Psychologists are encouraged to work autonomously, we do have the added benefit of our Consultant Social Worker Lucy Hopkins who is on hand to provide support and mentoring to our professionals. WillisPalmer also invests heavily in a robust Quality Assurance System where a highly skilled Independent Expert Psychologist will quality assure your reports before they are submitted. This ensures that all expert reports are subjected to scrutiny from incredibly experienced professionals prior to completion and provides you with the reassurance that your reports meet the requirements outlined in the instructions and are written to meet our high standards.

Confidence

Working autonomously as an expert, you need to have complete faith in your abilities, your strengths and knowledge. WillisPalmer provides our professionals with ongoing support but as Independent Expert Psychologists you should have confidence in your role.

Self-motivated

Working on your own means you need to be adept at motivating yourself, managing your time, meeting deadlines and thinking outside the box. For example, recently, with the COVID-19 pandemic, our professionals have thought creatively and carried out assessments remotely where possible. Independent Expert psychologists – like all self-employed professionals – need to be self-motivated and enthusiastic.

Strong report writing skills

As an Independent Expert Psychologist, you will be writing expert reports based on psychological assessments and therefore excellent written skills and grammar are imperative. At WillisPalmer there is the benefit of having the Quality Assurance System behind you as a second pair of highly experienced eyes and to ensure the report meets the instructions, but whether working with WillisPalmer or directly with organisations, strong written and communication skills are vital.

The barriers to becoming an Independent Expert Psychologist

Experienced and skilled psychologists often want or need a challenge, but some do not want to go into management. However, some may be anxious to leave the safety net of the organisation they make have worked at for some time. The decision comes down to the individual and whether they feel comfortable leaving that safety net. While WillisPalmer provides our professionals with ongoing support, psychologists are still working independently and therefore only each individual can decide whether or not they are confident enough to ‘take the leap’. One way to test the waters is, perhaps, to reduce the number of days you work employed by an organisation, say to two days per week, and use those two days for independent work to ascertain whether you enjoy working independently before leaving employed work completely. You can also continue with both roles if you like the variation. In terms of Expert assessment work, you will be in control of how much you take on, so you can start small until you grow more confident.

Lack of Regular Work

Some professionals are nervous about not getting enough work once they go independent. While no one can be guaranteed any work, the more skills, training and expertise that you can bring to the role enhances your opportunities of more work. You can make contact with organisations you know directly or work with an organisation such as WillisPalmer who will match your skillset to our cases coming in.

Business Administration

Many professionals fear going independent because of the business administration that comes with it. Nervous? You can employ an accountant for a reasonable fee to carry out your tax returns for you to the HMRC. All you need to do is keep a record of work carried out, invoices and expenses and they do the rest. Alternatively, HMRC puts out guides to help you complete a self-assessment.

Getting Paid

The lack of a regular specified amount of wages each month can be off-putting for many, especially with mortgages and bills to pay. Some professionals report having to wait months to be paid for the work they have carried out for organisations. While we cannot guarantee what other organisations offer, WillisPalmer guarantees payment within 42 days from receipt of invoice and you won’t ever have to chase us.

How WillisPalmer Can Help You Become an Expert Psychologist

At WillisPalmer we feel there is a wealth of expert, talented and highly-skilled psychologists who are tempted to become independent expert witnesses but who are just nervous about taking that first step, understandably so, in a climate where we all have bills and mortgages to pay.

It is one of the reasons that we have employed two new Consultant Social Workers, one of whom, Lucy Hopkins, is tasked with recruiting new professionals to join our national network of Independent Social Workers and Psychologists. Lucy’s role includes coaching and mentoring new professionals ensure that new independents still feel supported in their employment. In addition, we have 300 plus professionals across our national network and Consultant Clinical Psychologist Dr Anna Preston, who has 18 years’ experience in psychology and 10 as an Expert Psychologist, quality assures each psychological report. If you are taken on as a WillisPalmer Independent Expert Psychologist, we will identify your strengths and match cases that we take on with your expertise.

Why Choose To Work For An Organisation Like WillisPalmer?

Multi-disciplinary work

Multi-disciplinary work underpins our ethos, and we provide a vast range of services to children in families. We also offer a range of multi-disciplinary services such as our innovative Multi-Disciplinary Family Assessment Service (MFA) which provides a number of expert professionals to work with families, improve parenting capacity and provide support in a bid to keep families together, safely.

Expert Services

Our expert services delivered by Independent Psychologists include expert assessment of parents in public and private law proceedings, assessment of psychological functioning, cognitive assessments, education assessments, assessment of educational needs, responding to children’s emotional and behavioural difficulties, multi-disciplinary assessments and forensic risk assessments.

Quality Assurance

When we take on a case, it is assigned a psychologist, a case manager – a member of the team at WillisPalmer – and Quality Assurance Consultant Social Worker. We have a team of highly experienced Consultant Social Workers (CSWs) who robustly quality assure each expert report that we submit to ensure that all instructions are answered in full and that each report adheres to the very high standards that we set. All psychological reports are quality assured by Consultant Clinical Psychologist Dr Anna Preston who is extremely experienced and highly trained in psychology. All Independent Psychologists therefore have the reassurance that their report will be subject to this stringent process prior to its submission – and feedback from Dr Preston will be provided to assist with your learning.

Access to Ongoing Training

As a WillisPalmer professional, you will receive discounted places on our training courses, allowing you to constantly refresh and hone your skillset.

Summary

To conclude, becoming an Independent Expert Psychologist is a personal choice and a decision that can only be made by the individual themselves. It will depend on your home life situation, for example, do you have a partner with an income or financial commitments that you have to reach every month, are you naturally a risk averse person or are you ambitious and in need of a challenge, frustrated by working for an organisation and wanting to develop your own practice?  Experience, skills, training, confidence all play a part, but it is largely a personal decision. You need to weigh up the pros and cons of independent work such as being your own boss against not having a large organisation such as the NHS behind you. But if you have a wealth of expertise in psychology, independent expert work could offer you a financially beneficial package with more autonomy and the flexibility to work around your family circumstances. It is also an extremely exciting and rewarding form of work, which can make a big difference to the lives of the people you assess, and those in their network.

A service we provide at WillisPalmer is that you can contact us and have an honest discussion about independent working. Consultant Social Worker Lucy Hopkins is on hand to talk openly about what the job entails and what will be expected of you. She can explain what type of person is suited to independent work and discuss the pros and cons of independent work as well as how we can support you.

If you are interested in working with WillisPalmer or finding out more about becoming an Independent Psychologist and independent working contact lucy@willispalmer.com.

Lucy
Lucy Hopkins, Head of Practice

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