A psychologist analyses, researches, and assesses the functions and processes associated with the mind and brain. This may involve pure research or involvement in medical, diagnostic, clinical, or other specialist fields.
Psychology can be defined as the study of the mind and brain. It is derived from the Greek word “psyche”, meaning mind and “logos” study. Psychologists can work in a wide range of commercial and medical/diagnostic fields.
All of these fields will generally involve the study of human behaviour and research into the best means of altering different kinds of undesirable behaviour. Psychology is not just restricted to the human world and animal psychology is a separate area of expertise.
A psychologist will be expected to have a background in medical theory of the mind and, for certain careers, the physiology of the brain.
The current pay rate for clinical psychologists working in the NHS is £28,313 to £37,326 per year. Senior clinical psychologists can expect to earn between £36,112 and £43,335, with specialists and those working in the private sector able to earn considerably more.
The number of graduates holding a degree in psychology has increased substantially over the past few years and this has impacted upon the supply and demand for jobs at the lower level. However, graduates should expect a base salary of around £15,000 to £25,000 depending upon the nature of the work, employer, and location.
A detailed knowledge of human behaviour is also in demand in the commercial sector. This quality can be useful in assessing consumer trends, as part of management analysis, or in marketing roles. Graduates can expect to earn around £20,000 to £30,000 in this type of job. However, the opportunities and pay scale can differ substantially.
Responsibilities are likely to differ substantially depending upon the area of practice but common tasks include:
- Actively contributing to research and analysis of human behaviours
- Meeting with patients or clients to discuss problems in a progressive and therapeutic way
- Providing assistance in resolving mental health issues and ensuring that individuals fulfil their full potential
- Advising on the best course of action/care for individuals, couples, and families
- Providing comprehensive and methodical notes which assist in the diagnosis or resolution of a problem
- Applying psychological theory to real-life situations and adapting treatment as appropriate
- Acting within the ethical bounds of the profession, maintaining client/patient confidentiality and ensuring that emotional distress is minimised
Although not the only route into the profession, most individuals who wish to become a professional psychologist will have a degree in psychology. Most universities offer an appropriate course but to ensure that you will be licensed to practice in all possible fields it is worth ensuring that the course you are interested in is approved by the British Psychological Society (“BPS”).
The BPS is the representative body for psychology and psychologists in the UK and maintains a list of accredited courses. A full list of accredited courses is available here.
The minimum requirements for university entrance will normally be 5 GCSEs at grades A-C and 3 A levels. Some universities may require certain subjects and/or a grade B or higher in Mathematics.
For those wishing to practise psychology professionally, the next step will be to complete a postgraduate professional training course in the relevant field. The surge in degree qualifications has increased the number of applicants to these courses and it is advisable to have obtained work experience in the relevant field in order to improve your chances.
A list of the relevant qualifications is given below. This list is not exhaustive and you should contact the BPS for further information:
- Clinical Psychology – a 3 year, full-time, NHS funded Doctorate in Clinical Psychology.
- Educational Psychology – a 3-year Doctorate in Educational Psychology.
- Forensic Psychology – an MSc in Forensic Psychology and two years’ supervised practical experience
- Counselling – a BPS Qualification in Counselling Psychology or a BPS accredited postgraduate training course in Counselling psychology
- Sport Psychology – an accredited MSc in Sport and Exercise Psychology and 2 years’ supervised work experience, or a minimum of 5 years’ supervised experience
- Neuropsychology – completion of the clinical/educational psychology requirements and two years’ supervised practice and an accredited course in neuropsychology.
It is also possible to achieve the title of Chartered Psychologist on completion of one of the above.
Statutory Regulation dictates that from 2009 psychologists will be expected to participate in Continuing Professional Development (“CPD”). This will be monitored by The Health Professions Council (“HPC”) who will act as the independent regulator for the industry.
Technical Skills – a detailed scientific background and knowledge of psychology is a pre-requisite. A psychologist should have an analytical mind and be methodical by nature.
Communication – strong inter-personal and communication skills are a must. There will be many difficult situations involved in the job and it will be necessary to liaise with a range of different people, some of whom may be suffering from acute mental problems. Tolerance, subtlety, tact, understanding, and patience are essential.
Ethics – psychologists need to have a well-defined ethical philosophy as they are responsible for ensuring the mental and emotional health of individuals and groups who may be severely disadvantaged. It is imperative that you are able to remove yourself from the work environment and maintain a professional distance from the subject when appropriate.
Teamwork – you will be expected to work with a wide range of individuals including nurses and doctors to ensure the best treatment for a patient.
For careers in business and occupational psychology, a good knowledge of business practices is useful.
Working conditions will vary considerably between the different fields of psychology. Clinical psychology can be intense and emotionally draining. Most clinical psychologists will be expected to work 9-5 but may also be asked to do shift work or be on call at all hours. Psychologists normally work from an office but may have to travel extensively and work at hospitals, schools, or prisons.
Psychologists specialising in certain fields need to understand the risks of working with individuals with severe mental disorders. Patients can suffer from violent, abusive, or obsessive behaviours and this can be highly distressing.
Necessary experience will depend upon the area of psychology chosen by an individual. For common career paths, please see the qualifications section above.
Given the increased competition in the field of psychology, it is advisable to obtain relevant work experience prior to applying for courses. This experience could be obtained in various environments and at various stages in an individual’s education.
National Health Service (“NHS”)– the NHS is the single most important employer for psychologists in the UK.
Business & Private Practice – Jobs will be available in a wide range of sectors including marketing and consultancy, as well as in private clinical practices.
Universities – most universities will be looking for graduates to continue their studies and add to the current body of research.
The Prison Service – this service employs forensic, criminal, clinical, and occupational psychologists.
It is possible to migrate through the profession and constantly change position. However, it is more common to specialise in a single field. Moves into industry and consultancy positions are also possibilities. However, due to the commitment involved in becoming a psychologist many choose to stay in the profession.
Also known as…
What’s it really like?
Joanne Strenski is 27 years old and is currently a clinical psychologist
How long have you been in this particular job?
I have been working with the National Autistic Society (“NAS”) for just over 3 years. I used to be a deputy manager and I am now manager of a day service for individuals with autism spectrum disorder diagnosis (as well as individuals with other learning/physical disabilities or mental health problems).
What did you do before this job?
Before I worked with the NAS I was studying psychology and sociology at Leeds University.
What do you do in a typical day at work?
A typical day includes managing the day to day running of a day service for adults with Asperger’s syndrome and high functioning autism. This will normally include overseeing issues such as staffing, arranging activities, and ensuring that we have the correct resources to meet the patients’ needs.
A major part of my job involves working directly with the service users, particularly in problem focused sessions. I also work on developing the service and liaising with parents, care managers, and external bodies.
What do you like about the job?
I like being able to work directly with people of all types who always surprise and challenge me. I also enjoy being able to develop the services people with ASD have access to, particularly the pioneering projects.
What do you dislike about the job?
The hardest aspect of the job is managing a large staff team because departmental politics are inevitably involved.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of doing this job?
The advice I would give to anyone thinking of working in this field is firstly to learn to switch off when not in the work place. You will often have to deal with difficult and highly emotional situations and only by learning to switch off can you sustain the high standards of the job. It is also important not to let the patients’ verbal and physical behaviour affect you personally. It is crucial to develop strong links with your colleagues and show genuine support for the staff you manage.
What job(s) do you think you might do after this role?
I am particularly interested in the psychological element of supporting individuals with ASD and mental health issues, in both a clinical and research capacity and I am actively looking to further my career in such areas.
What other inside-information can you give to help people considering this career?
If you are interested in working in the field of psychology, in particular clinical psychology, it is important to get as much experience as possible. Psychology is often highly competitive and volunteering in areas you are interested in can open doors. Also, it is important to get a wide range of experiences as staying in one area for too long can prove detrimental.