It’s not unusual to choose to become a psychological therapist later in life, perhaps as a second career. For example, in 2017, 395 of the applications to the doctorate in clinical psychology came from candidates aged over 35. However, most training courses in psychological therapy require an undergraduate psychology degree. What are your options if you don’t have this? Here I offer three routes you might want to consider, depending on your current situation.
Do a psychology conversion course
If you have an undergraduate degree in any other area, you can ‘convert’ your degree by completing a psychology conversion diploma (PGDip) or MSc course.
The key thing is to check that your chosen course is accredited by the British Psychological Society (BPS) and will provide you with Graduate Basis for Chartered Membership (GBC). The BPS currently lists 171 such courses nationally. The entry requirements for these vary, so it’s worth checking these on their websites and contacting them directly with any queries you might have. Two to consider are:
Consider Birkbeck – London’s “evening university”
Birkbeck offers two accredited psychology conversion courses, the Postgraduate Diploma and the Psychology MSc, both of which are designed for candidates with an undergraduate degree in another area. Both courses can be completed in a year full-time or two years part-time and involve attending lectures two or four evenings a week. I spoke to the admissions tutor, Dr Eddy Davelaar, who is a Reader in Cognitive Science about Birkbeck’s entry requirements. He said: ‘While the course is designed for non-psychology graduates, it is a postgraduate course. A certain level of pre-existing knowledge in research methods is needed. Where applicants have no such background, they may be made a conditional offer dependent upon their passing an online entrance exam in research methods. They will need to pass at 60% (if applying to study full-time) or at 50% (if applying to study part-time)’. However, if this is you: don’t panic. Birkbeck will assist you in identifying relevant courses (online or at the university) or practice materials to help you prepare for the entrance exam.
Check out the courses offered by Manchester Metropolitan University
These can be completed in 12 months full-time or around two years part-time (21 months for the PgDip; 24 months for the MSc). These courses are taught entirely online, requiring no attendance at the Manchester campus. In terms of entry requirements, pre-existing psychology credits are needed for the PgDip route but not for the MSc. Further guidance on the qualities the course looks for in prospective candidates are outlined on their website and include commitment and motivations, IT skills and the ability to study independently.
Once you have your conversion degree, you can choose to pursue any psychology career which appeals to you, such as Clinical Psychology, Counselling Psychology, or Forensic Psychology. Each of these requires further study, but there are opportunities for paid employment and development within these training routes. For example, once you have your degree, you can apply for Assistant Psychologist roles within the NHS which are usually appointed at Band 4 or Band 5 and provide further experience for subsequent psychology career specialties.
Sign up to jobs.nhs.uk for alerts. You can also apply for research assistant posts at universities, which offer paid experience for psychology graduates interested in pursuing research-related careers. Sign up to jobs.ac.uk for updates. For further info on therapy-related psychology careers, see my previous article.
Train in cognitive behaviour therapy
An alternative to traditional psychology specialisms is to train as a Cognitive Behaviour Therapist. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy is an evidence-based, goal-oriented, time limited therapy. It is the most commonly delivered therapy in the NHS and the main focus of the Increasing Access to Psychology Therapies (IAPT) initiative, which delivers psychological therapies in primary care settings.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this route is that it isn’t accredited by the BPS, but by the British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies. As such, you don’t need a psychology degree to start training. Instead, you need to have a background in one of the listed ‘Core Professions’, which include Mental Health Nursing, Occupational Therapy and Social Work, among others. If you have one of these core professions, you already hold the basic entry requirement for further training to become an accredited CBT therapist.
If you are choosing to self-fund your CBT training, check out the BABCP list of accredited ‘Level 2’ courses. Completing one of these will make you eligible for registration as a CBT Therapist and able to apply for Band 7 CBT posts in the NHS. Courses are 1 or 2 years long and involve supervised CBT practice on placement and attending teaching at university. You can apply directly to universities such as Birmingham and Bucks New University. Entry requirements vary between courses, but most stipulate that two years’ experience of working in mental health is a pre-requisite. Self-funded applicants are expected to have a pre-arranged placement where they can undertake supervised CBT practice to gain the relevant experience they need. At Birmingham, this is stipulated as three days a week for a year. At New Bucks, this is stipulated as 200 hours in total.
There is also the option to pursue paid training routes in CBT. For less experienced mental health professionals, this may initially involve training and working as a Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner (PWP) in Primary Care. These posts are usually appointed at Band 4 and promoted to Band 5 once training has been completed. PWPs deliver low-intensity CBT interventions, such as guided self-help and psychoeducation groups. To then train as a CBT therapist (termed ‘High Intensity Therapists’ or ‘HITs’ ), you apply directly to services for specific roles, rather than to universities. HITs train on a Band 6 and can apply for Band 7 roles once qualified. For training opportunities in both roles, search jobs.nhs.uk for ‘trainee’ positions.
Looking for a third way? Consider a career in counselling or psychotherapy
While the BPS is the accrediting body for psychological therapists and the BABCP is the accrediting body for Cognitive Behaviour Therapists, the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) accredits counselling and psychotherapy courses. They all share similar letters, so beware of confusing them!
Counsellors can train in a range of therapy modalities, from Freud’s psychoanalysis to Roger’s person-centred (or ‘humanistic’) counselling. Once qualified, they can work independently, for the NHS or for third sector organisations. Training courses usually focus on one of these therapy modalities in particular, but the BACP suggests that counsellors may use a mix of techniques if they think a client would find this helpful.
- Stage 1: An introductory course lasting 8–12 weeks, usually run as evening courses at local further education colleges.
- Stage 2: The Certificate in Counselling Skills, a year-long part-time course also usually run at local colleges.
- Stage 3: The core practitioner training at diploma, undergraduate, postgraduate or doctorate level.
For Stage 1 and 2 courses, the BACP recommends contacting local colleges and education centres. However, for the core practitioner training, check their website for accredited courses. A wide variety of options are available, from weekend courses run by independent training centres to university-run MSc degrees. For an example of an independent training centre, see the South Manchester for Psychotherapy, which offers a four-year, part-time diploma in psychotherapy. For an example of university-run core practitioner training, see the University of Salford which runs both a postgraduate diploma and an MSc. These courses run part-time, with the diploma last two years and the MSc lasting three years.
Judith Johnson, PhD is a clinical psychologist based at the Institute of Psychological Sciences at the University of Leeds, and the Bradford Institute of Health Research.