Studying psychology at uni – and careers it can lead to
There are lots of good reasons why students apply to study psychology at university. Perhaps you’re already planning your career as a clinical or educational psychologist. Maybe you’re intrigued by the prospect of studying human behaviour. Or perhaps you enjoy a wide range of subjects and like the thought of a degree that combines experiments, essays and a bit of maths. Whatever your reasons, our guide to undergraduate psychology courses can help you decide whether this is the right subject for you.
Do I need psychology A level to do a degree in psychology?
You don’t normally need to study psychology at A level, or in your Scottish Highers or International Baccalaureate (IB), to do a degree in psychology. Of course, it’s a good way to find out if you enjoy the subject and start developing some knowledge. However, you can always read up on psychology in your own time to see if it interests you, and at university you won’t be expected to have any prior knowledge.
If you don’t include psychology in your A level choices, it’s worth considering taking maths or a science subject – see below for more details.
Psychology degree entry requirements – what A levels do you need?
Some universities don’t ask for any specific subjects in your A levels, Scottish Highers or IB; others want at least one or sometimes two science subjects.
The details of which subjects are classed as sciences vary from university to university.
- Maths, psychology, physics, chemistry and biology are usually included.
- Geology, geography, environmental science, electronics, computing and economics are included in some cases.
- Other subjects can occasionally be included.
Universities may also specify what grades you need in English, maths and/or science subjects at GCSE or National 5 level.
What will I study on a psychology degree?
Your modules are likely to include:
- Research methods – how to design experiments and surveys and analyse data, including using relevant software packages.
- Statistics – essential for analysing whether data has anything meaningful to say.
- Cognition – includes areas such as memory, language and how we learn.
- Biological psychology – for example how the brain is structured.
- Developmental psychology – how children and adults change with age.
- Social psychology – looks at human interaction, such as behaviour in groups.
- Vision/perception – how we see.
As you progress you can select more specialised modules. Depending on your university, areas could include mental health, personality, intelligence, sleep, autism, forensic (criminal) psychology, clinical psychology, occupational (workplace) psychology and many more.
What teaching methods are used on a psychology degree?
Teaching methods are likely to include:
- Lectures – listening to talks and taking notes.
- Tutorials/seminars – interactive group sessions, often including discussions and exercises.
- Laboratory sessions – practical work. For example, everyone in your lab group might take part in an experiment on a computer and then analyse the results. However, you’re unlikely to get much hands-on experience of the biological side of psychology, so look elsewhere if dissection is your thing.
How many contact hours will I have on a psychology degree?
In your first couple of years, you’ll probably have about ten hours of contact time a week, with less in your final year. You’re unlikely to get as much lab time as friends on other science degrees.
You’ll be expected to spend the rest of your time studying by yourself. This will include researching and writing essays, analysing the results of studies or experiments and doing statistics homework. Typically in your final year you’ll carry out a project of your own, which will involve planning, conducting, analysing and writing up an experiment or survey.
Choosing an accredited psychology degree
It’s a good idea to choose a psychology degree that is accredited by the British Psychological Society, as you’ll need this accreditation if you want to train as a psychologist. You can check whether a course is accredited on the British Psychological Society website. It’s possible to combine psychology with another subject and still get an accredited degree – the British Psychological society lists plenty of options – although you’ll need to be careful that you keep taking the right modules.
Careers with a psychology degree
As a psychology graduate, you could either work as a psychologist or pursue a wide range of other careers. Becoming a psychologist typically requires lots of additional study and experience after you've finished your degree. At the other end of the scale, there are careers in areas such as finance that you could start straight after you graduate.
Options in psychology include:
- Clinical psychologist – work with people with mental health issues and some physical health issues (eg pain management). Many are employed by the NHS.
- Health psychologist – help people with physical health issues, eg stopping smoking or dealing with the psychological effects of illness.
- Educational psychologist – work in schools and other educational institutions helping children and young people who are struggling to learn.
- Occupational psychologist – help businesses to run efficiently and motivate their staff.
- Academic psychologist – research and teach in universities.
- Counselling psychologist – help people with mental health and related issues by using counselling techniques.
- Forensic psychologist – work for HM Prison Service or related organisations to reduce offending.
- Sport psychologist – help sports people, coaches and referees to improve performance or help them to interact effectively with athletes.
- Neuropsychologist – work with people with brain injury. Rehab is a key aspect.
It may be a number of years until you are in permanent, paid employment. For most psychology careers you need to gain experience by working temporarily in related areas before undertaking further study, often to doctorate level.
For example, to become a clinical psychologist a typical path might be:
- Take an undergraduate psychology degree; gain voluntary experience while studying or after graduating
- Work for a year or two as a care assistant or nursing assistant
- Work for a year or two as an assistant psychologist or research assistant
- Undertake a paid, three year clinical psychology doctorate.
In other areas of psychology you may have to pay for your postgraduate training yourself. Some psychology graduates train in another profession first, such as teaching, social work or counselling, to gain the experience that postgraduate course providers ask for.
Other jobs you can do with a psychology degree
If you don’t want a career in psychology there are many other options. Around half of graduate jobs are open to all students regardless of what subject they’ve studied. Many employers in the following areas will be happy to hear from you:
- The media
- Retail (including retail management)
- Public sector or charity careers (in areas such as local government, central government, social work, the armed forces or the police)
- Business (eg sales, marketing, HR or PR). Psychology degrees are considered particularly relevant for HR.
For some of these careers you’ll need to undertake further study before starting work but in others you can train on the job.
Some roles in the IT industry will also be open to you, especially if you are willing to take a conversion course.
Using your psychology degree – skills you’ll gain that will help your career
On a psychology degree you’ll develop a good mixture of analytical, numerical (maths-based) and writing skills, which will be useful in many different types of jobs. For example, in business, finance and law you will need to communicate clearly in writing, understand both written information and numerical data, and have good analytical skills. If you become a journalist, your academic background should help you deduce whether there’s an interesting story lurking in statistic-heavy reports or press releases.
Some of the knowledge you gain may also be useful outside of psychology. For example, if you work in HR or recruitment or as a manager, knowledge of areas such as personality, psychometric testing and group dynamics can be helpful. If you work as a primary school teacher, your understanding of child development is likely to be useful.
Degrees similar to psychology
Psychology degrees are quite distinct. That said, the following subjects are worth considering, depending on your academic and career interests.
- Medicine or nursing – you could then specialise as a psychiatrist, neurologist or mental health nurse.
- Neuroscience, biology, anatomy or biochemistry – would allow you to focus on the biology that underpins behaviour and give you more hands-on experience of this.
- Veterinary science, zoology or animal behaviour – if you want a career that puts your interest in animal behaviour to good use.
- Sociology or anthropology – if you’d like to focus on groups or cultures rather than individuals.
- Criminology or human resource management – would allow you to study one area in depth.
What do psychology graduates do after they leave university?
Each year UK universities contact their former students six months after they graduate to find out what they are doing. The results from all universities are compiled into the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey.
The most recent survey, published in 2015, found that psychology graduates were less likely than the average graduate to be working full time in the UK – 45.9%, compared with 56.5%. However, this difference wasn’t due to unemployment – 6.2% of psychology graduates were unemployed, compared with 6.3% of all graduates. Instead, psychology graduates were a little more likely than average to be:
- working part time in the UK (16.6%, compared with 12.8% of all graduates)
- working and studying (8.4%, compared with 5.5%)
- in further study, training or research (15.7%, compared with 12.1%).
Among those who were working for at least part of their time, the most common occupations were:
- retail, catering, waiting and bar staff (17.1%, compared with 12.1% of all graduates)
- childcare, health and education occupations (16.9%, compared with 5.6%)
- legal, social and welfare professionals (13.5%, compared with 5.0%)
- clerical, secretarial and numerical clerk occupations (11.4%, compared with 7.5%)
- business, HR and finance professionals (8.7%, compared with 9.8%).
The percentage of graduates working in non-graduate roles that don’t relate to psychology (eg retail, catering, waiting and bar staff) may seem high. However, the picture was similar for many other degree subjects. It may also be that those working part-time were in casual jobs that they could fit around study or volunteering commitments.
The ‘childcare, health and education’ and ‘legal, social and welfare’ categories include numerous jobs that can be a first step towards a career in psychology. Examples include nursing assistants, carers, teaching assistants, educational support assistants, playworkers, counsellors and roles in clinical, educational and occupational psychology.
The ‘clerical, secretarial and numerical clerk’ category includes HR administrator roles, which are a first step into a career in human resources.