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The Complete Guide To Becoming A Psychologist

Published on: 9 Mar 2023

Complete Guide To Becoming A Psychologist

Authors: Professor Clive Sims and Judy Cooper

Psychology is the study of people – how they think, act, react, interact and why. It is concerned with all aspects of behaviour and thought.

Psychologists apply a scientific understanding of the mind and behaviour to solving real life problems that people are experiencing – this could be at an individual level or at a macro level.



Psychologists are often confused with psychiatrists or psychotherapists and this is because many individuals will train and practice across some or all of these different disciplines.

  • Psychiatrists are medically trained doctors and as such are the only ones able to prescribe medication. They need to be involved in the patient care of those with serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, clinical depression or psychosis.

  • Psychologists are focused on the scientific study of the mind and behaviour and have undertaken specialist post-graduate training (following a psychology degree or conversion course) in a range of specialist areas such as occupational psychology or clinical psychology. It is possible to be a psychologist but not work directly with patients/clients. Some work only in research or as part of policy teams for example. Psychologists are able to assess and diagnose certain conditions such as autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) but cannot prescribe medication for them. Certain specialisms such as clinical psychology or counselling psychology can deliver scientifically based therapeutic services to individuals or groups of patients.

  • Psychotherapists are specially trained in treating people using defined, evidence-based therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy or psycho-dynamic therapy. They can work with a patient/client over the short term or long term and can work with groups or individuals. They will often specialise in delivering certain types of psychotherapies or working with particular client groups such as art therapists or marital therapists. Many psychologists and psychiatrists also undertake psychotherapy training as do a wide range of health professionals.


Psychology is a relatively young field of study which emerged in the Victorian era. It continues to develop rapidly with more roles and specialisms emerging all the time. Like medicine, research is an important influence on practice so keeping up to date is key in this field.

Psychology is one of the most popular degrees in the UK owing to the fact some training is funded by the government as part of its ambition to increase the psychological professional workforce by 60% over the next few years. Consequently, competition for training roles and post-graduate courses is fierce.

While there are thousands of psychology courses available in the UK only a select number will help you graduate with the qualifications needed for chartered status - reflecting the highest standards of psychological knowledge. This is essential for most careers in the sector and to gain the best earning potential.

As a result, you will need to have achieved a minimum of a 2:1 in your undergraduate psychology degree (or conversion course) and have undertaken an accredited Master’s degree in your specialism (see chartered specialisms below).

This enables you to be considered for a place on an accredited doctorate programme, however due to competition many wait years to obtain one. Most will spend these years obtaining experience in their chosen field in associated roles. Usually courses require evidence of at least six months of relevant experience to be considered for a placement.

The primary accrediting body of courses is the British Psychological Society (BPS) but psychologists are regulated by the Health and Care Professions Council.

While an extremely competitive field of study, the highly transferable nature of the skills obtained means it can open up a wide range of job options outside of the field of psychology itself.


Skills Required

Psychology is a field built on evidence and research. It can be academically challenging and requires good research skills, understanding of statistics and ability to apply research findings in practice.

Some psychologists will have more than one specialism although this is becoming increasingly rare as the field develops. Many psychology careers are not linear as people find their skills applicable in a wide range of areas.

You will need to pass background checks as you can be working with extremely vulnerable people. You will need to have good listening skills, verbal communication skills, non-judgemental approach to problems, sensitivity and understanding, patience and the ability to remain calm in stressful situations.

Often the work can be emotionally demanding and will need levels of emotional resilience when working with patients/clients. It can also have an impact on your home life as you have less energy available to deal with family problems or challenges or are unable to switch off from work challenges.

However, psychologists receive great job satisfaction in helping people through challenges that are often hidden but debilitating.


Working Life

Psychology is a very broad field encompassing a variety of roles and types of work. Some of the key chartered fields of study are:


Clinical Psychology

What is it?

Clinical psychologists work with people of all ages across a wide range of psychological challenges including anxiety, depression, personality disorder, eating disorders, addictions, learning disabilities and family or relationship issues.

What does it involve?

The role involves using direct observation, interviews and techniques such as psychometric testing to assess problems. Decision making and interventions are always agreed and shared with the patient/client and often their carers and family members as well. 

All interventions aim to reduce distress and enhance wellbeing. Training will always include cognitive behavioural therapy and at least one other major psychotherapeutic approach such as humanistic or psychodynamic therapies.

Clinical psychologists are also expected to take on supervision roles, provide advice and support to other professionals, develop services and carry out research. There are other lower level roles such as clinical associate in psychology or assistant psychologist that would be traditional career stepping stones.

Training and pay

Training is a three-year full time taught doctorate programme which includes teaching, supervision, and a salaried training post paid at Agenda for Change Band 6. Once qualified and in a clinical psychology role an average salary is around £50k but can go up to £100k if heading up a department.


Educational Psychology

What is it?

Educational psychologists combine a knowledge of psychology and child development to assess and help children and young people who struggle with learning.

What does it involve?

Educational psychologists are usually employed by local authority children’s services departments but can also work in schools, charities, CAMHS or independent practice. They will be involved with those children and young people who may have autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, personality disorders, developmental disorders, those with physical disabilities and those experiencing social and emotional problems such as anxiety, depression or who have experienced trauma.

They work in a variety of ways including observations, interviews and undertaking assessments. They will offer advice and support on interventions to schools, teachers, parents, children and young people up to the age of 25 years. 

They will work with a range of other professionals such as speech and language therapists, clinical or counselling psychologists and occupational therapists.

Training and pay

To be taken onto an approved doctorate programme you will need to have completed an approved Master’s degree in educational psychology and have had at least one year’s relevant experience of working with children and young people such as working as a teacher, an educational social worker, a speech and language therapist or as a learning support assistant or early years worker.

The Association of Educational Psychologists manage the recruitment to those courses which are eligible for government funding.

Once fully qualified, salaries begin at around £40k and rise up to £75k when taking on leadership roles or principal educational psychology roles.


Counselling Psychology

What is it?

Counselling psychologists examine a person's experience and help them explore underlying issues (such as childhood experiences, social, economic, cultural, spiritual and physical health experiences) to help them understand their current challenges. 

These could be as wide ranging as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, addiction, psychosis, personality disorder, trauma and relationship issues.

What does it involve?

Counselling psychologists use psychological and psychotherapeutic theory and research but at the core of practice is the relationship with the client. All counselling psychologists must undertake counselling themselves as part of their training and ongoing CPD.

Counselling psychologists are usually part of a wider team working with a patient/client and so are often based in mental health services, GP surgeries, hospitals, prisons, charities and schools or work in private practice.

Training and pay

To be accepted onto a counselling psychology doctorate programme, you will need to have completed an accredited Master’s degree in counselling psychology and some experience of working with adults or children.  

The doctorate programme will include at least 450 hours of supervised counselling practice over three or more years, undertaken in a variety of settings.

Once qualified salaries start at around £31k and can rise to £62k for leadership positions.


Health Psychology

What is it?

Health psychologists use their knowledge of psychology and health to promote wellbeing and healthy behaviours. Their training is focused on understanding the psychological and emotional aspects of health and illness.

What does it involve?

This is a rapidly evolving area of psychology looking at and furthering the understanding of behaviour relevant to health, illness and healthcare. Roles will be as wide ranging as working in smoking or addiction clinics to studying the impact of communication between health professionals.

Health psychologists can work with individuals or groups in settings such as GP practices, hospitals or local authorities or work at a macro level to design or research effective public health policy interventions.

Training and pay

A place on a doctorate programme requires an accredited Master’s degree in health psychology and some experience of working in either health or psychology related fields such as nursing, social work or working in public health departments.

After qualification salaries start at around £48k rising to about £75k when reaching consultant level.



What is it?

A neuropsychologist assesses and helps rehabilitate people with brain injury or other neurological diseases such as stroke, brain tumours or dementia. They need skills and knowledge of psychology as well as specialist knowledge of neurosciences.

What does it involve?

Neuropsychologists most commonly work in hospitals and rehabilitation centres where they assess patients to determine brain function across cognitive, social, physical and emotional areas to determine why a client/patient is experiencing difficulty and help find effective solutions.

They will work closely with medical teams including neurosurgeons, psychiatrists and neurologists as well as allied health professionals such as speech and language therapists, physiotherapists and social workers.

Experienced neuropsychologists also often work as expert witnesses in personal injury cases.

Training and pay

You cannot become a neuropsychologist without first being either a fully qualified educational psychologist or clinical psychologist. You must then achieve the BPS requirements for entry onto the specialist register which is usually via accredited post-graduate training in neuropsychology.

Salaries start at around £48k and rise to £80k for consultant neuropsychologists. Many senior neuropsychologists supplement their income by working as expert witnesses in personal injury cases.


Forensic Psychology

What is it?

Forensic psychologists work to understand the association between psychological problems and criminal behaviour. They use psychological theory to help reduce reoffending and improve trauma and experiences associated with either criminal behaviour or the legal system.

What does it involve?

Forensic psychologists often work with offenders in a range of areas such as sexual offences, violence, aggression, interpersonal and social skills and addictive behaviours.

They may work within organisations such as the police, probation services, prisons, young offender institutions, or secure mental health hospitals. Work could include implementing treatment programmes, advising on how to improve programmes or environments, statistical analysis for prisoner profiling or crime analysis, providing expert witness testimony in court or advising parole boards and mental health tribunals on their decisions.

Training and pay

Forensic psychologists will usually have completed a Master’s degree in forensic psychology and either three years of evidenced and supervised forensic practice or a three year doctorate programme. As with most other areas, experience is essential when applying for courses including paid or voluntary and usually within prisons, probation services or youth offending services.

Salaries begin at around £48k rising to about £77k for a consultant forensic psychologist


Occupational Psychology

What is it?

Occupational psychologists focus on how people behave and perform at work with the aim of improving the effectiveness of an organisation and the job satisfaction of individuals. They can work either at the individual, group or macro level

What does it involve?

This speciality is broader in scope and less formalised than many areas of psychology and it touches on diverse fields, including change management, time management and even ergonomics. 

Occupational psychologists work with organisations and businesses of all sizes across private, public and third sectors. They work alongside HR professionals, managers, unions, training staff, consultants, and business coaches.

The work can be varied ranging from improving human-machine interaction, designing jobs or work environments, developing performance appraisal procedures, recruitment processes or training programmes.

Training and pay

To achieve a placement on a doctoral programme you will need a Master’s degree in occupational psychology as well as some work experience although this can vary depending on the university’s requirement.

Most occupational psychologists are employed in the private sector which means salaries can vary enormously. Starting salaries can be as low as £20k rising to £100k+ at senior levels in large corporations.


Sport and Exercise Psychology

What is it?

Although the protected title includes both, these tend to be two separate fields of psychology.

Sport psychologists work with elite athletes, teams, coaches and referees to improve performance or to cope with injury recovery or abuse from sports fans.

Exercise psychologists work with the general public to increase motivation and participation in exercise. The driving force behind their work is health and wellbeing rather than performance.

What does it involve?

Sport and exercise psychologists work in a wide range of settings. Many are permanent employees or consultants with professional sports teams or organisations. The work ranges from undertaking assessments and counselling for athletes to working with coaches on plans to improve team building.

Exercise psychologists often work in gyms or GP surgeries working with individuals to help them achieve their health goals. Or they might work for public sector bodies setting up and evaluating exercise programmes for different demographics such as the elderly or those in prison.

Training and pay

To obtain a placement on a BPS approved doctoral programme you will need an accredited Master’s degree in sport and exercise psychology and relevant work experience such as coaching or working as a PE teacher. You will also need evidence of research skills.

The other route is via The British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences and its Sport and Exercise Psychology Accreditation Route (SEPAR).

Starting salaries for both can be about £24k rising to £50k for senior positions however many work on a consultancy basis. Sports psychologists working for high performance sporting teams charge anything up to £1,000 a day.


Coaching Psychology

What is it?

Coaching psychology aims to help clients increase self-awareness, achieve concrete goals and overcome obstacles to well-being and performance. The psychological underpinning enables coaching psychologists to engage with the underdeveloped capacities of clients.

It tends to be present and future oriented and concentrate on existing strengths. It doesn’t deal with mental health concerns, deep-seated negative experiences or fears in the way counselling or therapy would.

What does it involve?

While there is a wide array of coaching possibilities, many practitioners tend to specialise in areas such as executive coaching or life coaching. Coaches are used a lot in large corporate organisations where it has been shown to have a beneficial impact on performance.

Career coaches and life coaches tend to work in private practice building up a clientele. A career coach for example may help someone who has lost their job or wants to switch careers. They might help them understand their ultimate career goals and provide practical awareness that helps them rewrite a CV, prepare for interviews or identify skills gaps.

Training and pay

While anyone can set up as a coach, many do have a psychology background. As a result, coaching psychology is slowly becoming more professionalised. In November 2021 it was granted chartered status with the British Psychological Society (BPS) which also holds the register of coaching psychologists.

There is a temporary route to chartered status for existing, experienced (more than five years) coaching psychologists already on the register until December 2024.

Otherwise, chartered status can be achieved in two ways:

1. By completing a BPS accredited Master’s degree in Coaching Psychology or a BPS two year doctoral level qualification.

2. Undertaking the professional recognition route which is open to those with at least three years training and experience in coaching psychology. It requires the submission of a portfolio of evidence demonstrating alignment with the Level 8 Standards in Coaching Psychology.

Most coaching psychologists are likely to be self-employed and it can be a very flexible job that suits those with a range of other commitments. Fees range between £60-£90 per hour but very experienced coaching psychologists can charge up to £250 for a 90 minute session.


Other Options

While the above are the protected titles with the British Psychological Society there are a range of opportunities for those with these psychology qualifications. Just a few worth considering include:

  • Research and Academia - Psychology is a research dominated field of practice and most of the above roles will expect you to participate in some kind of research and teaching. For many this can lead to full-time roles in academia and teaching.

  • Clinical Associate in Applied Psychology or Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner - These are new roles that have been created in the NHS. Along with the assistant psychologist role they are supervised by a fully qualified psychologist and will often undertake assessments and treat patients with very specific conditions or do less intensive interventions with patients. They are often used as stepping stones to obtaining a placement on a doctoral programme.

  • Military Psychology - In July 2012 the British Army opened its doors to clinical psychologists becoming commissioned officers. While quite a new development in the UK most NATO countries have regular or reserve uniformed clinical psychologists in their armed services. The US and Australian military have well-established psychology corps. The work tends to be broad ranging and can cover occupational psychology, counselling psychology and clinical psychology. The work might involve counselling after experiencing trauma, screening and assessing for selection into specialised roles or helping improve relations between soldiers and citizens in conflict zones.


Professor Clive Sims is Visiting Professor of Psychology at the University of Suffolk and a chartered forensic, clinical, counselling and health psychologist as well as a registered clinical neuropsychologist. Judy Cooper is a medical journalist.


References and further reading

  • British Psychological Society: Find your career in psychology

  • Association of Educational Psychologists. Interested in a career in educational psychology?

  • NHS Careers. Roles in the psychological professions.

  • Health Education England. NHS funding for psychological professions training programmes.

  • Health and Care Professions Council. Practitioner psychologists standards of proficiency.

  • Forces Net. Meet The Only Clinical Psychologist In The Armed Forces. Oct 2020