Ten tips for aspiring Clinical Psychologists

The competition to become a Clinical Psychologist is fierce. In the UK, the constituent parts of the training are a three-year undergraduate degree which is accredited by the British Psychological Society (BPS), and a three-year taught Clinical Psychology doctorate. The doctorate is full-time; candidates are employed by the NHS and complete a series of six-month placements in addition to coursework and a research project.

Psychology undergraduate students self-fund their degrees and as such, courses have flexibility about the number of students they can enrol. Psychology is consistently the second most popular degree in the UK, with an estimated 13,000 graduating each year. However, until recently, the only places offered on the doctorate were NHS funded, and therefore carefully regulated. Between 2012 and 2018, doctorate courses enrolled around 590 students per year altogether; just 15% of the total number of applicants. While three courses now include self-funded places, these come with a price tag of £20k+ a year, putting them out of reach of most graduates. 

Here, I offer 10 tips for aspiring Clinical Psychologists:

1. Know the bottom-lineIf you are at the point of applying for the doctorate, look at the particular courses you are interested in on the Clearing House website. What are their non-negotiables? Many courses now stipulate that candidates must have a 2:1 or a score above 65% in their undergraduate degree. Others require that applicants have a year’s clinical experience supervised by a qualified psychological therapist. If you don’t meet their stipulations your application will be automatically excluded, even if it is otherwise strong.  It is therefore worth researching each course’s bottom-lines before you apply.

2. Look into placement-year degrees. Several universities including Aston, Bath and Leeds (where I am based) offer applicants the opportunity to undertake a placement year ‘in industry’ between the second and third year. This means that students can gain relevant clinical experiences which can help them to be competitive applicants for graduate jobs. These placements are overseen by the universities, helping to ensure that they provide students with more useful experiences than they may gain through general volunteering. Some placements also offer a contribution towards expenses or a stipend, which volunteer roles generally do not. 

3. Consider the ‘Increasing Access to Psychological Therapies’ (IAPT) initiative for an alternative career as a psychological therapist. IAPT was launched in 2007 to provide greater access to psychological interventions for people with mild-to-moderate anxiety and depression. It is now planned to expand in order to provide therapies to 1.5million adults per year by 2020/2021. There are two main types of psychological therapists working in IAPT: Psychological Wellbeing Practitioners (PWPs) and High-Intensity CBT Therapists (HITs). PWPs are recruited into training positions with IAPT services on an NHS band 4; once they are qualified, they are paid at band 5 and can progress to band 6 (for information on NHS pay bands, see here). Similarly, HITs apply to train with specific NHS services. They train on band 6 and are paid on band 7 once qualified. Sign up to NHS jobs for alerts about these roles. A follow-up of HITs suggested that 79% stay in IAPT services after qualifying, 61% become CBT supervisors and 23% progress to more senior roles. It also possible to self-fund training to qualify as a CBT therapist, by undertaking a postgraduate course accredited as Level-2 by the British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP). 

4. “Remember at the end of the day, it’s just a job”. This was the best advice I was given before I attended my interviews for the Clinical Psychology Doctorate. A qualified Clinical Psychologist called me to give me some advice, and these words helped remind me that I wasn’t auditioning for the X-Factor: at absolute best, I would become a qualified psychological therapist. Imminent fame, stardom and riches were not around the corner. Being a Clinical Psychologist in the NHS is a wonderful job, but it is not without stress and strain, like any other healthcare related job. So, relax: it’s just a job.

5. Vary your experiences. Working as a research assistant or assistant psychologist will give you great experience for the Clinical Psychology doctorate, but more than a year in any one post will have diminishing returns. While you will always need to balance the opportunity to gain varied experience with the need to pay your rent and bills, it’s worth remembering that having a broad skillset will give you the strongest CV and application.

6. Treat applications like assignments and interviews like exams. You cannot assume that the knowledge and experience you have will naturally shine through: work hard to sell yourself. Consider carefully the range of experiences you have had. For example, what is the range of client groups you have worked with? What experiences have you gathered? Think carefully about the knowledge you have in relation to engaging different client groups, conducting assessments, collecting and storing sensitive data, managing risk, and applying psychological theory to individuals, for example by contributing to formulations or interventions. Also consider carefully the job which you are applying or interviewing for: who is interviewing you, and what is their area of interest? Which client group will you be working with, and what things might you need to be conscious of? Which therapeutic modalities might you be using, such as CBT or psychodynamic approaches? One way to impress your interviewers is to appear prepared for the opportunity they are offering. For more tips on improving your chances of being successful in your applications for assistant psychologist posts, see my more recent blog post here.

7. Consider alternative psychology disciplines. If you have a BPS-accredited undergraduate degree, Clinical Psychology is not your only option for working therapeutically. For example, many posts which are open to Clinical Psychologists are also open to Counselling Psychologists. To train as a Counselling Psychologist, you can either do a self-funded doctorate degree or the BPS qualification in counselling psychology; this involves three years of supervised practice. More information is available here. Alternatively, for psychologists interested in working with forensic populations, Forensic Psychology may offer a fulfilling alternative career to Clinical Psychology. In some secure hospitals, much of the work of Forensic Psychologists involves delivering psychological therapy. To train as a Forensic Psychologist you can either complete a Doctorate in Forensic Psychology or a Masters in Forensic Psychology followed by two years of BPS training and supervised practice. More information on becoming a Forensic Psychologist is available here. It is also worth noting that the University of Birmingham now runs a four-year doctorate which offers candidates a dual qualification in both Forensic and Clinical Psychology (see here). 

8. Look for research opportunities. As an undergraduate I undertook some voluntary work as a research assistant with a professor and lecturer in my department. It was one of the best decisions I made: it paved the way to my Medical Research Council-funded PhD in Resilience to Suicidality and kick-started my love of improvement in healthcare. It also helped me to gather a range of experiences in working with clinical populations, as my PhD involved undertaking psychological assessments with people with psychosis and testing a novel mood-boosting intervention in this group. I would highly recommend seeking research opportunities to aspiring Clinical Psychologists. If you are currently a psychology undergraduate, seek opportunities with clinically-oriented researchers in your department. If you are a psychology graduate, sign up for job alerts at jobs.ac.uk and look for opportunities which would allow you to gain experience working with clinical psychologists and/or researching with clinical populations.

9. Keep your eye on the proposed role for ‘Clinical Associate Psychologists’. This is anticipated to take the form of an apprenticeship which will last 18 months and produce psychology professionals who undertake psychological assessment and formulation, and who deliver psychological interventions. At the moment, it is suggested that each Clinical Associate Psychologist will train on a Band 5 salary and be paid at Band 6 once qualified. The plans are currently in development, but should be in place in the coming year. 

10. Take heart: the need for psychologists is not diminishing. While the sense of competition may feel overwhelming, the demand for psychological therapies is increasing, which is reflected in the introduction of the IAPT initiative and the new role of the Clinical Associate Psychologist. While getting a place on the Clinical Psychology Doctorate may be challenging, if you have a passion for psychological work, the future is bright!

Finally, I want to note that while the cap on funded places for the Clinical Psychology doctorate produces a low success rate at the point of enrolment, I believe it also offers significant benefits. First, the competition that the cap creates means that aspiring Clinical Psychologists need to seek additional experience and training after their undergraduate degrees to strengthen their applications. This experience ensures that all doctoral trainees know the discipline they are working in and can feel confident in their career choice before they sign-up to the three-year course. This is reflected in the high retention rates of courses (99.4%): students rarely fail to complete their doctorate, once they’re on it. Second, it means that once qualified, Clinical Psychologists have good job prospects: 95% are employed in a clinical psychology job within 12 months of graduating. Deregulating the number of doctorate training places could shift this balance, creating the possibility that qualified Clinical Psychologists could become unable to find employment. By ensuring that applicants are experienced and committed, I believe that continuing to fund all forms of postgraduate psychological training offers the best outcome for applicants, healthcare providers and clients.

Please note that unfortunately I am unable to offer personalised career advice.

17 Comments

  1. March 17, 2019 / 1:12 pm

    I completly agree with all of your points. However I have a point to make regarding your last paragraph.

    I feel that there are not enough qualified Clinical Psychologists, particuarly in certain NHS trusts. Working as an Assistant Psychologist in several services, I have witnessed CP’s far too stretched in their work and therefore unable to give 100%. So although having a tiny bottleneck to get onto clinical training means that the best of the best become trainee CP’s, however, once qualified they often struggle to perform to the best of their ability.

    Obviously there are several factors for why this may be the case (e.g. many CP’s working in private practice- maybe they wouldn’t move to private practice if working in the NHS was more manageable?).

    • judithnjohnson
      Author
      March 17, 2019 / 1:31 pm

      Hi Hayley,

      Thanks for reading and for your comment! It’s great to hear you found it interesting. I absolutely agree that many mental health services are overwhelmed and therefore the staff in them, including CPs, are burnt-out (see my blog on this). The point I was trying to make was a little different- that is that the current system allows the number of qualifying CPs to be linked to the number of available jobs in a regulated way, so that there are not far more qualifying staff than jobs. This is seen in some other countries were the doctorate is self funded, and results in many CPs- with huge educational debt- unable to find work. I believe that our current situation could be improved by 1) increasing funded training places on all psychological therapist postgrad training courses; 2) creating more jobs in services and 3) improving working conditions so fewer staff feel the need to leave the NHS.

  2. Shayne Fergusson
    July 25, 2019 / 2:59 pm

    Hi Judith, great article and very informative.

    I am currently a producer working in fashion. I have always had a love of psychology and studied sociology and youth work when I was 21. I didn’t finish the degrees because I decided to move into the media but have always regretted not finishing as I always seem to ‘swing back’ to a career in psychology.

    I am now 37 and still have a deep fascination with Clinical Psychology. Currently researching my options but thought you may have some advice and tips on how I can move over to this career?

    I am currently considering an online course with Arden university, so I would be curious in hearing your views on my approach and what tips you may have for me.

    Regards

    Shayne

  3. October 6, 2019 / 8:11 am

    thank you very nice website article

  4. Yaqeen
    June 16, 2020 / 6:23 pm

    Well, thanks a lot for this very informative article. I’ve a 4 year bachelor’s degree in psychology from Malaysia and a 2 years Masters degree in Counselling Psychology from Istanbul, Turkey.

    I also have unconditional offers from UCL and KCL for another Masters degree. But I couldn’t secure the funding unfortunately. As a foreigner the doctorate in clinical psychology has to be self-funded which is impossible for me. So, as a foreigner to qualify as a clinical psychologist in the UK, are there any alternate routes or funding opportunities that you know of?

    I really would appreciate your feedback.

    Thanks,

    Yaqeen

  5. Ugo Chukwu
    July 3, 2020 / 10:27 am

    Hi Judith, thanks for your article. I found it educating and interesting.

    I have a Bsc in psychology and graduated with a 2:2. I presently studying philosophy and should graduate next year either with a first class or a 2:1.

    I shall be 27 next year and I hope to study become a clinical psychologist. As a foreigner and one who did not get a 2:1 in my undergraduate psychology, it may be difficult to get funding and admission into schools in the UK.

    I am currently researching my options but would like to hear your advice and tips on how to go about it.

    Regards

    Ugo.

    • judithnjohnson
      Author
      July 3, 2020 / 12:50 pm

      Hi Ugo

      I’m afraid I don’t have much information regarding overseas students applying for the doctorate in clinical training in the UK. However, if you contact the Leeds Clearing House https://www.leeds.ac.uk/chpccp/ who manage applications for all the UK training courses, they should be able to advise you. You should also contact the British Psychological Society to explore whether your psychology degree would be provide you with the Graduate Basis for Registration within the UK. Finally, Miriam Silver provides training days for people looking to improve their applications: https://www.clinpsy.org.uk/forum/viewtopic.php?t=21468

  6. Lindsay Maylor
    July 7, 2020 / 8:38 am

    Hi Judith,
    Thanks for this information it is really useful. I have a BSc in Applied Psychology which is accredited by the BPS; unfortunately I only gained a 2:2 (I had personal circumstances and didn’t apply for mitigating circumstances) I’m not sure of the exact mark but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t far off a 2:1! I then went onto complete a bsc in mental health nursing where I received a 1st and an award. I have worked as a qualified mental health nurse for the past 8 years in a range of different settings including a research nurse post and camhs. I have always wanted to be a psychologist but I have always thought I wouldn’t get anywhere because of my 2:2 in psychology – I’m just wondering if you have any advice around this? I.e. Do I need to do a conversion masters, what are my chances of getting onto a doctorate, and do I need experience specifically as an assistant psychologist.
    Thanks a lot
    Lindsay

    • judithnjohnson
      Author
      July 7, 2020 / 10:17 am

      Hi Lindsay, thanks for reading and this positive feedback! Your situation is unusual and I don’t think there is a straightforward answer, however I have a few points and suggestions:

      *You have a BPS accredited degree and as such you wouldn’t need to do a conversion masters. If you did a psychology masters however, this would strengthen an application
      *Some courses have a 2:2 as an exclusion criteria (they screen all these applications out). However, some of these courses would regard you as a mature student and so would not apply this criteria. As such I would encourage you to contact individual courses that you want to apply to, to find out how they would view your situation.
      *While your career as a mental health nurse would be viewed positively, many courses have a “bottom line” regarding the amount of time and experience you have in psychological therapies specifically. As such, I would encourage you to seek experience as an assistant psychologist or psychological well-being practitioner (you would need training for the latter role, but this is funded by the NHS).

      I hope this information is useful and wish you the best of luck with your next steps.

  7. Dr. J. Davis
    July 9, 2020 / 4:38 am

    Most of this would not fly in the US. Here is the short version from my experience: Undergraduate 4 years, masters 2 years, 1 year thesis research and internship, PH.D. 4-5 years, 1 year predoc plus research dissertation and 1 year postdoc internship. Overall, over 12 years of education, training and supervision and 2 board exams EPPP and CPLEE ethics exam to be a clinical psychologist.

    • judithnjohnson
      Author
      July 9, 2020 / 5:59 am

      Indeed, I am British and this blog is written for a British audience, not a US audience.

  8. July 9, 2020 / 12:25 pm

    Your blog is very nice…

  9. Megan Bale
    August 14, 2020 / 7:52 pm

    Hi Judith,

    I found this article extremely helpful as I feel extremely disheartened at the moment when applying for a PhD in Clinical Psychology.

    In short, I have a First Class Degree in BSc Psychology which is accredited by BPS. I am currently waiting to start my Masters in Developmental Disorders at University of Nottingham.

    I had the opportunity to work as a Research Assistant with my Supervisor as my dissertation received funding. (Still awaiting data analysis but this is paused due to COVID19)
    I have worked as a Teaching Assistant in a behavioural school, I have worked as Mental Health Assistant in a secure unit. I am currently working as a Health Care Assistant in the NHS.

    How did you find the application process? What experience did you have before you applied?

    I feel like I’ve tried so hard getting to where I am now, the experience I have obtained but feel like this is just not good enough.

    Thank you,

    Megan Bale.

  10. Jess
    November 18, 2020 / 10:39 pm

    Hi Judith. I hope your well.

    Great blog. Really great to read. I graduated in 2016 with a 2:2 in psychology. I didn’t complete a masters but I am currently training as a PWP in IAPT. I qualify in January and I am hoping to train as an accredited CBT therapist in a couple years.

    Do you think I would have enough experience by then to strengthen my application, even though I got a 2:2? Do you know anyone who was in a similar position to me and got a place? I was 0.5 off a 2:1 (so annoying).

    • judithnjohnson
      Author
      November 19, 2020 / 2:01 pm

      Hi Jess, I’ve approved your comment- hopefully someone with a similar experience will read and be able to offer advice. Good luck with your journey!

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