How to Become a Psychologist

Male psychologist with female patient

Not a day seems to go by without some form of new psychological discovery, with one of the latest revolving around the differences between male and female brains. According to recent studies, the female brain ages slower than the male alternative, with a 70-year-old woman equivalent to a 66-year-old man.

This type of discovery highlights just how much we still have to learn about the human mind, which is one of the many reasons why becoming a psychologist is such an appealing proposition.

In this article, we’ll explore how you can become a psychologist and look at the necessary requirements to achieve this objective, whether you’re just starting out or looking to change your career.

1. Research the Profession

Before deciding on any profession, it’s essential that you first get a complete and thorough understanding of what the job entails. This section covers everything from what you’ll typically do on the role to what skills you need to succeed and how much you can potentially earn as a psychologist.

Job Description

In simple terms, a psychologist is someone who’s involved in the study of the human brain, particularly in terms of the behavioural patterns and personality of individual subjects.

Psychologists will interact with their patients in a number of different settings, including institutions such as hospitals, clinics, schools, prisons and community centres.

Depending on their precise area of study and the location in which they work, psychologists will have variable duties and responsibilities.

These include:

  • Development psychologists are tasked with researching behavioural patterns over the course of a patients’ lifetime. They then aim to correct disorders that have been caused by improper development.
  • Forensic psychologists work alongside law enforcement officers to work with child witnesses, assess competency and occasionally provide expert testimony during legal cases.
  • Clinical psychologists tend to work privately and are often tasked with the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of various mental disorders. They may also work alongside doctors to deliver detailed courses of treatment.
  • School psychologists will tend to work with parents, teachers and students in order to cultivate learning and address educational-related issues. They may also assess students to determine whether they have any special needs or requirements.
  • Social psychologists are tasked with examining behavioural trends in society, with the collated research subsequently used to advise leadership and government groups.

Essential Skills and Qualities

Whenever you consider new career options, it’s important to match role and job types that suit your unique set of personal attributes and existing skillset.

Becoming a psychologist or a therapist is no exception to this rule, so here’s a brief breakdown of the soft, hard and professional skills that you need to achieve this goal.

  • Problem-solving skills: Effective problem solving is at the heart of being a psychologist, particularly if you work on a clinical basis. After all, in this capacity, you’ll need to diagnose and treat specific issues in patients, while identifying the most suitable treatments to help resolve them going forward.
  • Numeracy: Whether you work as a research psychologist or not, you must remember that the human mind is the continual focus of studies and research. This means that you’ll need to understand the numerical findings of quantitative data, while also how to apply these to your work.
  • Patience: When dealing with complex psychological complaints, it can take years to identify the correct treatment and see the results of this. This requires an innate sense of patience and an ability to avoid emotive reactions that curtail ongoing treatments prematurely.
  • Communication skills: Communication is a critical transferable skill for any profession that you’d care to name, but it’s arguably even more pivotal in the case of psychology. Not only must psychologists communicate openly with their patients, for example, but they must also liaise with those in research and developmental fields to stay in touch with the latest academic opinion.

Working Hours and Conditions

Given the diverse nature of psychology and the number of fields that exist within this sector, the hours that you work and the conditions in which you operate will vary wildly.

As a general rule, however, psychologists work within standard 9-to-5 hours, in line with the organisations or the sectors that they represent. The obvious exceptions are forensic psychologists, who may occasionally have to work unsociable hours and a higher proportion of weekends.

Clinical psychologists also have the autonomy to set their own hours, of course, creating the potential to undertake more weekend work and go ‘on-call’ to handle emergency situations pertaining to their clients.

While this would hint at a progressive work-life balance, the work itself can be challenging and consume your thoughts while at home. After all, some patients will have complex and troubling issues, which can weigh on your mind and encourage you to undertake further research while at home.

Salary Prospects

Once again, the typical salary for a psychologist will vary between different iterations of the role, but there are general guidelines that exist within the public sector.

According to the NHS Agenda for Change pay rates, the salary for trainee and newly qualified operators in the UK will be between £28,050 and £36,644, with more experienced psychologists earning between £33,222 and £43,041. Beyond this, those who operate at consultancy level can make up to £85,333, while heads of psychology services at large institutions can see their salary rise beyond £100,000.

In the US, psychologists earn, on average, $77,030 a year, according to the BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook; this can increase to more than $124,520 with experience.

Job Outlook

This career path is a relatively safe and structured one, both in the public and the private sector. Not only is there a constant demand for psychological diagnostic expertise, for example, but this industry and its various fields are not at risk of automation.

Once you’ve completed your training period, you should be able to progress through the various pay bands as you gain experience and home in on your targeted niche.

The leap between experienced psychologist and consultant will take a concerted effort and period of time, however, with this process taking around six years on average.

2. Get the Qualifications

If you’re going to become a psychologist anywhere in the world, you’ll be required to focus on your schooling as a major priority.

In the UK, you’ll need to achieve a minimum of five GCSEs (A–C), including English, maths and a science subject. You’ll also need three A-Levels between grades A and C, before qualifying for a British Psychological Society (BPS)-accredited degree in psychology.

This will take between three and four years to complete, at which point you’ll need to spend between two and three further years undertaking a BPS-accredited postgraduate qualification (this will involve a combination of both academic studies and practical work experience).

Students in the US need to follow a similar path, by initially studying for a bachelor’s degree full time over three years.

Then, those hoping to practise clinical psychology in the future will need to consider enrolling on a master’s degree programme. This is partially due to the competitive nature of the field and is considered to be a postgraduate course that will take a further two to three years to complete.

Doctorate degrees (PhD and PsyD) are also available to those pursuing clinical and research-based career paths, respectively, in both countries. It’s incredibly difficult to qualify for a place on a doctorate course but achieving this will boost your job prospects considerably in the future.

While the master’s and doctorate programmes will vary depending on your chosen field of expertise, bachelor’s degrees are more generic and contain a wide range of modules. Year One will typically consist of six modules, for example, which provide an introduction to the principal topic areas and an insight into basic research methods. If you pass these, you’ll qualify for Year Two and another six study modules, while the third and final years will see you complete eight modules which contribute to up to 70% of your degree classification.

When it comes to selecting facilities through which to pursue your course of higher education in the UK, the Guardian University Guide 2019 suggests that the University of Andrews is the place to be. Universities in Bath, Cambridge, Oxford and London make up the top five, so this should inform your choice and application process as you complete your studies.

In the States, blue-chip universities in Stanford and Berkeley top the latest rankings, with Harvard, the UCLA and the University of Michigan making up the top five.

3. Land Your First Job

Once you’ve qualified as a psychologist and earned your official licence to practise, it’s time to step out into the real world and land your first job. There are several components to this, including identifying viable vacancies and interviewing successfully for these positions. Here are some key points to keep in mind.

Where to Look for Psychologist Jobs

In general terms, you’d probably be better served by avoiding all but the largest general job boards, including:

These sites list vacancies nationwide, while there’s also a rich diversity of opportunities to suit a wide range of applicants.

If you’re interested in international opportunities or job listings in the States, we’d also recommend LinkedIn as an outstanding source of options. LinkedIn now regularly features thousands of psychology jobs on a daily basis, although you’ll need to filter these to find the most suitable roles.

This highlights how social media is becoming an increasingly influential job search tool, while Google has also introduced this feature in the last year or so and continues to grow its listings on a daily basis.

How to Apply for Psychologist Jobs

When preparing your CV, it’s important to ensure that this document is as concise and impactful as possible (regardless of the type of role that you’re applying for). In this instance, however, it’s particularly important to focus on your achievements and the outcome of what you have done during your studies and previous work experience, rather than simply listing the tasks that you’ve undertaken.

Also, try to use your CV to bring out your relevant soft skills and the attributes that we discussed earlier by highlighting practical examples of your methodology and response to challenges.

When preparing for your interview, meanwhile, there’s a myriad of universal rules that you need to follow in order to be successful. This means that you’ll have to research a potential employer ahead of your interview, paying close attention to their history, values and the core services that they provide. At the same time, you’ll need to dress professionally and deliver your answers with confidence and genuine assurance.

Psychology is also subject to continuous study, meaning that the guidelines concerning best practice will constantly shift in line with specific findings. As a result, you’ll need to keep in touch with these developments and the very latest research projects so that you can display knowledge of your field and present yourself as a viable candidate. Many of the questions asked in a psychology interview will relate to your preferred methods of assessment and therapy, along with others that test your aptitude for critical thinking and problem solving.

4. Develop Your Career

With the right education and training behind you, it’s possible to establish your career in psychology and lay the foundations for a bright future.

In terms of determining growth paths, you can tailor your career development to suit your chosen field and methodology of working, while those who work in private or public sector institutions can follow a more structured path that takes in fully-qualified consultancy and teaching roles.

Once you’ve qualified academically to become a psychologist, you can also immediately boost your career prospects by joining a reputable association. In the UK, this means showcasing your credentials (you must have completed a bachelor’s and postgraduate course to qualify) to the British Psychological Society (BPS). This is considered to be the largest online community of psychologists in the UK, while membership allows you to build knowledge and seek out career opportunities in the future.

We touched earlier on the importance of keeping abreast of the latest industry news, which is crucial if you’re to successfully apply for work and seek out new qualifications that may be relevant to your field. There are few publications that can help you to achieve these aims, including the Annual Review of Psychology. This has been published every year since 1950, while it covers a range of fields and the very latest breakthroughs and treatment techniques.

If you work as a clinical psychologist, you may also be able to sell your expertise as a freelancer. You’ll need several years of practising experience to achieve this goal, while you’ll ideally have a loyal client base and a track record for excellence. This certainly offers access to higher earnings and a superior work-life balance over time.

If you really want to be a psychologist, there’s no doubt that you’ll have to work and study hard over an extended period of time. However, this offers you access to a structured and finally rewarding career path and one that allows for success in both private and public sector spaces.

Just try to follow the tips and advice we’ve shared here and remember that you’ll need to learn continually as new research is published.

Are you considering a career as a psychologist? Perhaps you’re already an established psychologist and would like to share your advice with aspiring professionals? Join the conversation below and let us know.