Why is psychology such a popular area of study?

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Why is psychology such a popular area of study?

Post by Spatch » Wed Apr 11, 2007 8:33 pm

This article was originally published in the New Statesman and explains the growth in the popularity of studying psychology at degree level.

Shrinking Britain
Hester Lacey
Monday 6th November 2006

Fancy a career change? Why not be a psychologist? It seems everyone else is . . . Psychology is now the fastest-growing major subject in the UK. So why do we all suddenly want to become shrinks? Hester Lacey reports.

There can be few people who, as they approach mid-life, have not secretly wondered if they haven't balanced enough profit and loss accounts, brokered enough sales, manufactured enough widgets, or, ahem, written enough articles. Up until now, the classic way to try to add one's tiny quota to the sum of human well-being and do something a bit more useful has been by retraining as a teacher, or perhaps by trying to join an NGO or charity. Now, however, psychology is muscling in on that territory.

Professionals from all walks of life are picking up on psychology as a potential career-change booster, and the media aren't short of potential converts. "After 15 years in PR, I'm working part-time on a degree," says one would-be counsellor. "I had counselling myself after a bereavement, realised how helpful it could be, and I wanted a proper qualification and grounding. I'm still working as a consultant; I've cut down on the clients who were the least satisfying, and money is very tight. But I do believe that ultimately, this will not only help others but change my life for the better, too. I've had enough of helping other people flog stuff."

This is a path I am hoping to follow myself. I have secured a place at Bristol University in the face of some scary statistics: large numbers of terrifyingly well-qualified A-level sproglets with fistfuls of straight A grades, vying for every place. Next September, if all goes well, I shall be dusting off my pencil case and heading back to the lecture theatre. I am definitely not alone. I was briefed earlier this year by a features editor who was distracted by the imminent prospect of her psychology finals. Another friend has just graduated. A third is working towards her Master's degree. A significant proportion of psychology graduates - more than 13 per cent - are not only mature students (over 21), but over the age of 30, which suggests they are studying in the hope of practising in some capacity, rather than simply aiming to rack up a good general degree.

Dr Simon Green is senior lecturer in the school of psychology at Birkbeck College, the branch of the University of London for part-time, working undergraduate students. He also sits on the British Psychological Society's education board. "A number of our students have perhaps worked in the City and are specifically looking at a career change," he says. "It is a very common aspiration to become a therapist of some kind." The Open University, where 70 per cent of undergraduate students are already in full-time employment and nearly all are studying part-time, turns out more psychology graduates than any other UK university.

So why are we all picking psychology? It is a hot subject all round. In 2005, for the first time, the number of psychology graduates overtook those graduating in English: 10,345 were awarded an English degree, while 10,570 graduated in psychology. That was also more than the combined total of biology, chemistry and physics graduates for the same year.

"It is the fastest-growing major subject," says Dr Charlie Ball, labour-market analyst at Graduate Prospects, the graduate careers advisory service. Psychology has also become very popular at A-level and at postgraduate level. "Clinical psychology vies with chemistry as the largest single PhD subject," he says. The British Psychological Society, the professional association for psychologists, now has 33,228 full UK members; in 1995 it had fewer than 20,000 (and just 811 in 1941).

Robbie Coltrane's portrayal of Fitz, the grumpy but effective criminal psychologist in the television drama Cracker, has played an important part in popularising psychology. "The great explosion in psychology dates from the Nineties, and it was a result of media influence - the 'Cracker effect' entered the psychological lexicon," says Ball. "In the Eighties everyone wanted to be a vet because of All Creatures Great and Small, and now everyone wants to be a forensic scientist because of CSI and Silent Witness. Psychology has been growing steadily since it took off in the Nineties. It will be interesting to watch psychology as a profession over the next few years to see if it expands because of the weight of qualifiers."

Similarly, the growth of counselling cannot have hindered psychology's popularity. People keep asking me if I'm going into counselling. If I were, I could set up in business tomorrow; counselling remains unregulated, while psychology has regulated standards. A qualification in psychology can only add to a counsellor's credibility.

Are we turning out more shrinks than we need? Will we end up with half the country busily psychoanalysing the other half? No, and no. The old cliché of lying on the couch discussing one's childhood at a fat hourly rate is a tiny part of what psychologists do: they are far more likely to be working with young offenders or autistic children. And it is a minority of psychology graduates who end up practising, even though there is an acute shortage of clinical and educational psychologists in particular. "What people don't realise is that, to practise at all, you have to put in another three years at least after you graduate," says one recently qualified. "You need a PhD to become an educational or clinical psychologist, so you're looking at a training that's comparable to studying medicine, but with a lower salary. You don't go into this for the money, especially if you are a mature student. If you were after money, you'd retrain as a barrister."

Or why get started at all, particularly as a mature student? After all, starting a degree when 40 is looming is no joke financially, particularly with no guarantee of ever getting the brass plate on the door. If you've already worked your way up one ladder, it's daunting to stand at the foot of another. Getting professionally qualified as a psychologist certainly isn't easy for twenty somethings, but if you are a mature student, have been in work for a while, and have a hefty mortgage, you are likely to find it very difficult, in both time and money, to put in the extensive, often voluntary - and thus unpaid - work experience that is expected even before you start in a junior trainee position.

Yet, although every would-be psychologist I spoke to acknowledged the difficulties of getting on to a good course and staying the distance, not one regretted any aspect of their studies. They found their courses far more wide-ranging than they had imagined, they felt they had learned a huge amount, and they particularly felt that anyone who thinks psychology is some kind of trendy soft option should sign up and see for themselves.

"Psychology is often simply described as the study of human behaviour, which sounds very attractive," says Dr Simon Green. "To get into the top universities is difficult, but there are roughly 150 courses available, and if you look at the clearing lists there are always lots of places going." Take one of those places on a whim, and you may be in for either a nasty shock or a pleasant surprise. Anyone who has studied even to A-level standard, explains Green, will discover that, if psychology is taught correctly, there is a strong statistical element to it, in addition to its neuroscience and brain-function components: it is not simply sitting around discussing why people behave as they do.

For mature students, there is also the age factor. When the framed certificate is on the wall, will anyone want to employ you? If you were consulting a psychologist, or finding one for your child or your grandmother, would you have more confidence in a twentysomething, or in a fortysomething who clearly had some life experience under their belt? I suspect I'm not the only one banking on a little gravitas and even a few wrinkles being less of a hindrance in psychology than they would be elsewhere. But this may well be whistling in the dark. Strictly speaking, it is illegal to discriminate on the grounds of age. However, much training is funded by the National Health Service or local authorities, and they want their pound of flesh: as many years of work as they can get out of you.

"I think that is incredibly short-sighted," says another recent graduate, aged 40, who is applying for assistant clinical positions, and has yet to get an interview. "This is a great age. If you qualify in your mid-forties, if you have children, they may be grown up, and if you don't, you won't be looking at a career break to start a family. Retirement age is getting older and you have up to 20 solid years of work left."

Determination is not in short supply. "I firmly believe that in five years' time I will be working, in some capacity, in psychology, using what I have learned," says one freelance commercial researcher, aged 36, in her final year of a part-time degree. "I want to work with geriatrics. It is deeply unglamorous but, in however small a way, I will be helping others."

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Reflecting on the article there are several positive things resulting from the expanding student base studying psychology.

- Increasing the calibre of future psychologists.
- More jobs for those wishing to teach psychology.
- Increasing diversity within the profession.
- Creating new areas within psychology.
- Raising awareness of what psychology is (and hopefully burying the idiotic misconceptions of it being a soft/ trendy/ easy option).
- Facilitating multi-disciplinary working.
- Imparting some numercy/ scientific skill to those that would otherwise not have an impetus to do so.

The negatives are fewer although still significant:

- Raising the A-level tariffs for all undergraduate psychology degrees (effectively excluding late developers or those that faltered at 18 or making them come back as mature students).
- Increased competition for those at the bottom of the ladder.
- The necessitation of having more MSc/ postgraduate qualifications on the route to chartership, making the path more expensive and time consuming.

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