Thinking of doing a Psychology Degree?

Psychology continues to be one of the most popular choices for an undergraduate degree in the UK, making it a competitive choice to get onto. Psychology graduates work in a variety of different jobs including marketing and management, journalism, teaching, research, and of course clinical, forensic or educational psychology. All these careers seem very different, so we’ve written this article to help you decide if a Psychology degree is for you.

What sort of things will I learn about?

Psychology is the science of brain and behaviour. Lots of topics are covered including personality theorysocial psychology (how we interact in groups), evolutionary psychology (what are the evolutionary forces that have shaped how our brains work), statisticsexperimental design (the methods which underpin how we find out about the brain and behaviour), clinical or abnormal psychology (clinical disorders such as anorexia or depression, and personality disorders such as histrionic personality disorder), animal behaviour, neurobiology (how the brain enacts behaviours such as sleep or vision or hearing) and many more depending on where you study and the module choices you make. To do psychology you have to be comfortable with numbers, have good computer skills, be interested in biology, and be capable of writing essays which consider complex theories or debate contentious issues. This sounds like a tall order, and indeed psychology students will often have preferences for a subset of these skills, and specialise in them when completing dissertations or pursuing further careers. But, you will be expected to do all of them at some point in your psychology degree. If the idea of working with numbers and using computers to do statistical analyses bores you, perhaps consider doing something such as Mental Health nursing, in which you will still learn a lot about the brain and behaviour, but take a more hands on approach to working with people. Alternatively, if the idea of writing essays about different theories on personality terrifies you, perhaps a more biologically based degree such as neuroscience is more suited. A lot of universities have the option to do Joint Honours, where you combine Psychology with another degree. Popular choices for this include Psychology and English, Psychology and Mathematics/Statistics, and Psychology and Philosophy.

What University should I study at?

Registration with the British Psychological Society

If you have any interest in pursuing a career in clinical or educational psychology, you need to ensure the course you are undertaking is accredited by the British Psychological Society. This means it meets a standard minimum criteria of what is on the syllabus for you to register with the BPS after you complete your studies. If it is not – you will not be able to apply for the majority of jobs in the field of clinical, educational, counselling or forensic psychology, and certainly will not be eligible to apply for PhDs in these fields. If, however, you want to do a degree in Psychology to pursue a career in business or teaching, this is not an issue.

What is on the syllabus?

Although all courses registered with the BPS have a syllabus which they cover, Universities will differ in the courses that they offer, and more importantly what the departments’ strengths are. It is important to find a course which provides you with options which you think you might be interested in. Some universities do a lot of research with animals, but if you can’t see yourself doing this, this University is unlikely to be a good match for you as you could be limited in choices for a dissertation supervisor. Similarly, if you are interested in specialist topics such as forensics or eating disorders, it is likely that many smaller universities will not have people who are expert in these fields. Every University will have departmental webpages with information about what techniques they have, and what their research is about. Look through these for all the Universities you are interested in applying to! It may seem tedious and you may not understand all the specifics of the research, but if you invest an afternoon of your time looking into this and finding a good match for your interests, you will enjoy your degree a lot more.

Other things to consider?

Which University you can afford to go to, which University do you have a good chance of being accepted to, whether you would prefer to live in a campus university or a big city are all very personal decisions, and you should discuss these with family, friends and careers advisors beforehand.

From a careers perspective, other things you should consider are how many people drop off the course, how many people fail the course, where do people who graduate from the course end up in employment, and how much do they earn. For this information, there are many guides such as the Times Good University Guide which will give you an idea of these numbers. If you Google ‘university rankings’ you will get a lot of this information. Universities also publish information about where their Graduates end up. Be suspicious of this! This information is designed to make them look good and sell the course to you. Problems with this information include that they will write out to all former graduates and ask them to fill in a questionnaire about what they are doing. Those with fancy jobs will want to show off and fill in the forms, whereas those who are down on their luck will throw the questionnaire in the bin. So when the responses come in it may look like everyone who graduated has a fancy job. Also, be careful of the wording of these pieces of information. For example ‘97% of our graduates find jobs within 6 months of graduating’. This could be any type of work, including part time or casual work, in a job which they did not need to go to University to get.  The only type of employment statistics you should be interested in are graduate employment. If you are not interested in getting a graduate job following University, don’t do a degree unless you have lots of money and time and nothing better to do with it.

Courses which offer a year out in industry (sometimes known as a ‘sandwich year’ hopefully because it is sandwiched between years 2 and 4 of your degree, rather than you have to do the sandwich run for your office mates every day), or working in research or with people can be very advantageous. Because psychology is a competitive field, jobs often ask for previous experience. This can make it hard for graduates to get their foot on the career ladder as they can’t get experience unless they have experience. Choosing a course with a year out can help get around this problem as you are supported by the University to find a placement. This, however, isn’t everything, and there are many other opportunities to gain experience. This might involve doing internships following graduation, or taking on additional paid or unpaid work as an undergraduate.

What should I put in my personal statement?

Universities will be keen to know if you have a good grades, but also broad range of subjects to cover the types of things you will be required to do on a Psychology degree (see ‘What sort of things will I learn about?’). Check with Universities what their specific requirements are. Typically this is 2 science A levels, with A/B/C grades depending on the University. It is important to demonstrate that you understand what Psychology is. It is a common misperception that Psychology students will spend three years talking about Freud, and lying on leather couches whilst analysing each other’s dreams. This won’t happen and it is important you demonstrate to Universities you know this to be the case through telling them what it is about psychology that you are interested in. If you are invited to interview, do your homework about what the department does, as interviewers will want to know you know what you are letting yourself in for, and are still interested!

Generally for any personal statement it is important to show you are a ‘well rounded’ person with other interests than school work. This can be done by mentioning hobbies or sports team. For a subject like psychology it is perhaps more important that you show you are sociable and able to work with people. Even if you are not the life and soul of the party, during the degree you will carry out experiments with people and on people, so it is important to have some degree of social skills to do this. Don’t go overboard with this though, as it is mainly your academic potential they are interested in.

Speak to careers advisors at school or college for specific advice about this one.

How do I find out about future careers?

Speak to careers advisors at college / school/ University if there are any careers in which you think you might be interested in. Google these careers and there will be lots of information about what requirements you might need, what the job is all about, what you can be expected to be paid, and so on.

Look for independent sources of information (Times Good University Guide) about where graduates are employed.

If you can, go to University open days. The Universities will have students currently on the course and post-graduate students to show you around. Ask them lots of questions! They will have a good idea about what opportunities are available, where they and their friends are likely to be employed, and more generally about the course. These are probably the most reliable and useful sources of information about the course!

It is important also to be realistic. The majority of Psychology students in the first year of their undergraduate degree are interested in pursuing a career in clinical psychology or academia. In reality, a small percentage of students will actually end up doing this, because the numbers of people in these professions is so small. If working in clinical psychology or academia is your aim attending one of the top UK universities will help you (bearing in mind the tips above about choosing a University, just because it is a top Uni does not automatically mean the course is BPS accredited), getting a first class honours degree will help you, and getting lots of work experience will help you. It is definitely achievable, but you need to commit to doing this and work very hard to get there! Just don’t enter into the degree will the illusion that it is like medicine, dentistry or nursing where if you get the degree, you get to work in the field. The jobs market in psychology is so much more competitive than this!

Useful links

British Psychological Society – Why Study Psychology?

University Guide rankings for psychology degrees

Studential: writing a personal statement

Textbooks in neuroscience, or undergraduate books for Psychology

Edward O. Wilson’s book with excellent career advice for aspiring academics