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Psychologist explained


This guide contains everything you need to know about routes to becoming a practicing psychologist in the UK. You will also find information about the day to day working life of a psychologist and what you can expect to be paid as a psychologist, as well as information and links to online courses to start you on your way to your new career, today.

What is a Psychologist?

A psychologist is a professional trained to recognise and diagnose abnormal mental and cognitive processes, including mental illnesses, as well as unhealthy behaviours and beliefs (for example, phobias). Unlike psychiatrists, psychologists cannot prescribe medications, instead they provide treatments to patients that centre around discussion and ongoing therapy to reach the root cause of the problem. One of the most common approaches of psychologists is known as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), on which more later.

What are the different types of psychologists?

Psychology offers a number of opportunities for specialising within a specific field. Here’s a list of the main areas of psychology in the UK, and what they mean.

  • Clinical Psychologist – Broadly, a clinical psychologist diagnoses disorders and unhealthy behaviours, with a focus on treating them.
  • Consumer Psychologist – Looks at psychology in the general population relating to how people choose and buy products, to make recommendations to marketers on advertising, store layouts etc.
  • Community Psychologist – Focuses on individuals within communities and how the individual and the community interact, often with the aim of helping community issues and tensions.
  • Developmental Psychologist – Studies changes across a lifespan, starting with early development and following through into adult years to examine how human minds change.
  • Education Psychologist – Studies psychological approaches to learning and seeks to make improvements to education by applying findings within educational institutions.
  • Engineering Psychologist – Specialises in how we interact with everyday products and infrastructures, and makes recommendations for improvements based on findings.
  • Forensic Psychologist – Often with research as a major focus, forensic psychologists most commonly study criminals and crime to determine commonalities which may help law enforcers.
  • Geropsychologist – Specifically focused on older people and their families, to help individuals maintain maximum wellbeing in later life.
  • Health Psychologist – Focuses on promoting physical health as a means of maintaining psychological wellbeing
  • Industrial/Organisational Psychologist – Uses psychological findings and applies these to the workplace to create atmospheres of high productivity and wellbeing.
  • Media Psychologist – This branch of psychology focuses on the ways that groups and individuals interact with the media and new technologies.
  • Military Psychologist – Works with the military and military personnel, often conducting regular rigorous studies into issues such as how cramped living conditions affect individuals psychologically, for example. Military psychologists also play a vital role in helping military personnel with the effects of trauma and PTSD.
  • Neuropsychologist – The study of the structure and functions of specific parts of the human brain.
  • Psychologist Doctorate (PhD) – Students enrolled in a Psychology PhD programme will be expected to complete a research project to earn their degree.
  • Psychologist Doctorate (PsyD) – Differs from a PhD programme in that students will undergo clinical training as part of their course.
  • Rehabilitation Psychologist – Works with recovering addicts of various substances or behaviours with a focus on helping those individuals to manage or entirely overcome their addiction.
  • School Psychologist – Not to be confused with an Educational Psychologist, a school psychologist will work within a school helping young people there.
  • Social Psychologist – Study the way the presence of other people (real or perceived) impacts on the behaviour of an individual, often related to issues and phenomenon in society.
  • Sport Psychologist – Works with professional and amateur athletes to maintain psychological well being during difficult training, or sporting defeats.
  • Transpersonal Psychologist – Also known as “spiritual psychology”, this field looks into areas that are believed to go beyond the “physical” or “known” world.
  • Applied Behaviour Analyst – Focuses on using new behaviours to bring about positive changes, often working with children or individuals with ongoing conditions such as autism.

What do psychologists do?

Psychologists study behaviour and beliefs of individuals, often with underlying mental conditions, and use ongoing therapies to help these individuals overcome their issues, or to cope with them day to day.

There are a range of techniques employed by psychologists today but one of the most common is known as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). CBT seeks to break the unhelpful cycles of beliefs and behaviours in patients with a variety of mental conditions. As you can see in the diagram below, CBT aims to disrupt the unhealthy circle of negative thoughts, negative feelings and unhelpful behaviours, usually by teaching coping strategies that can disrupt this cycle. On a deeper level, the root causes of these thoughts and feelings are then realised and can be addressed. These core beliefs usually relate to a confused or misguided perspective on how the self relates to others and/or the future. As a purely hypothetical example, an individual who struggles to trust people may have a core belief that people are going to abandon them, leaving them lonely in the future. This may affect their behaviour by making them extremely socially anxious or hostile to others.

Of course, the approach of psychologists will differ depending on the specific field that they are in. Courses on psychology often focus on specific areas (more later).

What are the responsibilities of a psychologist?

“Confidentiality and professionalism are probably the most important parts of the job,” says working psychologist Steph Watts, who is a clinical psychologist specialising in working with children with autism and their families. “I can’t talk about my work to my friends, or even my husband. Confidentiality is probably one of the most important aspects.” And what about the challenges day to day? “I work with a lot of different people and you get to see that different people react very differently to difficult situations. Of course, you sometimes encounter people who don’t see the world in the same way that you do, so being patient and understanding are very important. As a psychologist, you can’t bring your bad mood to work. You have to leave a lot at the door, for the sake of your patients.”

Training as a psychologist will prepare you for difficult and emotional situations. Psychologists are responsible for the welfare of the people their treat, who will often be very fragile or vulnerable.

How did psychology start?

The modern techniques of psychology, with the focus on talking and ongoing therapy, is often attributed to one man, Sigmund Freud. Freud’s major contribution to the field was a huge leap in our understanding of the subconscious (parts of the mind that are out of our direct control but nonetheless have a significant impact on our thoughts, feelings and behaviour). Freud’s method of psychology was known as the “talking cure”, and in the late 19th Century, a time when individuals with mental conditions were seriously misunderstood and badly treated, this was revolutionary.

But Freud owes a lot to an earlier pioneer in psychology, Wilhelm Wundt, known as the “father of psychology”, he opened the first institution dedicated to the study of the human mind, in Leipzig in Germany in 1879.

What is psychology used for?

Human minds are, obviously, very complex. The greatest challenge for psychologists is that no two human minds are exactly alike. Psychological approaches are very varied and have to take into account the cacophony of influences and past experiences that have led an individual to their current place.

This also means that psychology is used for a wide variety of things. Most commonly, psychology is thought of as a means of helping individuals with mental illnesses and conditions. This is an important part of psychology, but in the modern world, psychology has far wider reaching uses. You probably encounter psychological techniques in your day to day life without even realising it. When you walk into a supermarket, for example, there’s a good chance psychological approaches went into the lay out. Fruit near the entrance to the shop gives the impression the food is fresh and healthy. It creates an association. That concept has its roots in psychology. Movie writers use psychological techniques to create positive and negative associations in our minds, leading us to like or dislike a character, or to fail to see the surprising twist at the end of the film.

Other related uses of psychology include within education, in relationship counselling, in advertising. You can also consider specialising into a specific industry. Sports psychology, for example, helps athletes to mentally and physically prepare, and looks at how punishing training regimes, and defeats, impact athletes mentally. Likewise, the armed forces also run regular psychological studies to better understand the effects of training, war and other aspects on soldiers. Psychologists also play a vital role in helping soldiers and other individuals suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which without proper attention and treatment can have devastating effects.

What skills are required to become a psychologist?

Patience, understanding and an open mind are probably the most important skills for a psychologist. But on top of this, depending on your specialism, you may need to conduct studies that will require the handling of large amounts of data. So organisational and analytical skills may also be required. Most psychology courses (and online psychology courses) expect a good level of written and spoken English and competency in mathematics.

What are the working hours?

A psychologist’s working hours vary dependent on their areas and their place of work.

A private sports psychologist, for example, may work for themselves in their own office and can therefore choose their opening hours. A forensic psychologist, on the other hand, may have periods where long working hours are expected, and other times that are less highly pressured. A clinical psychologist working in a hospital may be expected to work shifts on a rota system.

Where does a psychologist work?

Again, this is entirely dependent on the type of work.Several psychology specialisms such as clinical psychologists, child psychologists and health psychologists can be found in hospitals. Others have private offices. Many psychologists including military psychologists, education psychologists and media psychologists will spend a lot of their time in other people’s places of work (such as schools or military bases). Others, such as neuropsychologists, may have positions within institutions such as universities or laboratories.

What qualifications do you need to become a psychologist?

There are many ways into psychology, with one of the more traditional routes being to first study towards an A Level in Psychology before going on to apply for university degrees. However, this route isn’t for everyone and there are excellent alternatives to learning in a classroom. You can begin your training as a psychologist with online psychology courses that can be studied from home in your own time. These courses cover everything that you need to gain a working knowledge, including specialised areas such as criminal psychology, behavioural psychology and understanding personality. From there, you can work towards your diploma in psychology before moving on to the advanced psychology diploma. You may also choose to specialise with a course directed towards a specific area such as Sport Psychology, Criminology etc.

Once you have completed an online course, you will have a great working knowledge of psychology and an accredited quality assured certificate from ABC Awards. This course is carefully quality checked to ensure it meets the demands of employers. Although not an Ofqual regulated qualification, it is an ideal stepping stone towards the next step in qualifying to become a psychologist.

See courses related to this career

How to become a Psychologist

  1. Complete an online course in a specific branch of psychology or take a broader diploma in psychology to gain working knowledge and a qualification



  2. Depending on your chosen area of specialism, you may need to undergo further training with a Ofqual course or university degree



  3. As a newly qualified psychologist, you may wish to start applying for assistant roles in institutions, universities or hospitals



  4. If you have decided to specialise in a private sector such as sport psychology, you will need to establish an office and market your services



How much do psychologists earn?

The average earnings of a psychologist are very dependent on their area of specialism and level of experience. To give some examples, salaries for clinical psychologists within the NHS start at £26,565, but a more experienced clinical psychologist can expect to earn between £48,514 - £58,217. Within the private sector and in specialist areas related to marketing, salaries vary broadly from £30,000 - £75,000.

Career advancement opportunities

As we have seen, psychology is a wide-reaching career with many opportunities for career development, advancement and direction change. By the nature of the work you will do as a psychologist, you will learn on the job and gain experience. Psychology is a career with huge opportunity for advancement and pay grades naturally rise with experience.

Career development options


Psychology is a great basis for a huge number of careers. Related careers for an individual qualified in psychology include public relations, social work, advertising, youth work, offender profiling and even politics.

Studying psychology is a rich and diverse experience with huge opportunity to specialise or to keep your options open and explore future career changes. As we have seen, there are so many careers where a foundation in psychology is sought after.

By starting with the basic tenets of psychology, you will quickly learn the areas that interest you most and be able to gain further qualifications in these areas.