If psychology was an industry, it would be booming. In the UK in 2021, 140,000 undergraduates were studying psychology, equivalent to 5% of all UK university students. It’s a growing area for jobs, too. Between 2018 and 2022, the number of places on the government-funded Clinical Psychology Doctorate doubled, and a range of new psychology professions have been created and supported by government funding. Alongside this, there have been an increasing number and range of psychology masters courses. A quick search on findamasters.com suggests they are currently advertising 1183 masters degrees in psychology in the UK alone. These focus on a range of areas such as health psychology, organisational psychology and forensic psychology. It’s a bewildering array of options for undergraduates to get their heads around.
I want to be a Clinical Psychologist, which masters should I do?
As a government-funded course, and the only way to qualify as a UK Clinical Psychologist, the clinical psychology doctorate is competitive. A number of students now look to complete a masters after their undergraduate degree to enhance their CV and improve their chances of success. I am often asked which masters course is best, but I always struggle to find an answer. Of course, the answer is that the best masters course is the one which clinical psychology doctorate courses rate the most highly; but no such masters course exists. Some clinical psychology doctorates operate a point-scoring system which will award a point for a masters degree, and possibly more points for higher grades on a masters degree. Others operate less clear selection systems, which may recognise the value of a masters but not necessarily award it a point. I am not aware of any system which formally rates specific types of psychology masters degrees more highly than others. Instead, it could be worth considering the following issues to identify which masters might be more suitable for you.
- Which skills do you want to learn?
As specialist courses, masters degrees aim to equip their students with specific skills which can be useful later. For example, at the University of Leeds, our psychology masters courses train students in how to conduct systematic reviews. For students considering a career in research or looking to prepare themselves for the academic elements of the clinical psychology doctorate, this is a valuable skill. At the University of Sheffield, the Psychological Research Methods masters course features training in questionnaire design, an important skill for anyone considering career options in research or management consultancy.
- Are you looking for clinical experience?
Graduates can sometimes find themselves stuck in the vicious cycle of ‘experience’: jobs want you to have it prior to employment, but how can you get it if you can’t get a job? To help students work round this, some undergraduate courses now offer industrial placement years, which can provide a year of clinical experience. However, if your undergraduate course didn’t offer that, you can now also find a masters which offers the same benefit. Universities currently offering this include the University of Reading and Bournemouth University.
- Check out who’s who
The masters research project represents a significant opportunity for gaining important experience and skills. For example, if your chosen course doesn’t offer a placement, but there are active clinicians offering clinically-focused research projects, you can gain important clinical experience through doing your project with them. Psychology departments will often specialise in certain areas. For example, at the University of Leeds where I am based, there is a strong emphasis on health psychology. Other departments may specialise in forensic, clinical or developmental psychology and employ several academics offering projects on those topics. It’s worth checking out who exactly the academics are in the department you are considering, and whether you would be able to do your research project with them.
- Institutional reputation
Most clinical course selection processes will not make a distinction between a masters from a more academically respected, research-intensive university and one from a lower-ranking university. However, this distinction could be important when considering your own specific interests. That is – will the academics working on your chosen masters course be able to supervise you to complete a research project which is potentially publishable? This could be important if you are considering continuing with a research career, or gaining a published paper to further strengthen your clinical psychology doctorate application. Alternatively, are you considering walking away from psychology to pursue a corporate career? Again, in this case, you might find that a masters from a higher ranking university helps give your CV the edge it needs.
- Accreditation with the British Psychological Society
If you have completed your undergraduate psychology degree at a British university, you will most likely have a degree which is recognised and accredited with the British Psychological Society. This is important, because you need it to apply for the clinical psychology doctorate, and for many roles and training courses which are linked with psychology. If you did your undergraduate degree elsewhere, or in another subject, you may want to do a masters ‘conversion’ course, which is accredited with the British Psychological Society. See my previous blog for more on this.
- Need flexibility?
Alongside the growth in psychology masters courses has been an increasing availability of online courses. At the time of writing, there are 206 UK online only psychology masters being advertised on findamasters.com. These courses can have drawbacks. Not being on campus can limit the social experience of university and lead to feelings of isolation. However, if you’re a part-time learner, or unable to move to study, distance learning may be the flexible option you need to progress your career.
- Study the handbook
While the huge array of options can be bewildering, it’s important not to jump to any decisions. Masters courses are often expensive, academically intensive and will take one to two years of your life to complete. Before finalising any decisions, be sure to study the handbook and the module options, to be confident that what you’ll be studying is right for you. If the modules sound dull, or the assessment approaches don’t appeal, pause. There is likely another course available elsewhere that will suit you better.