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How to Become a Clinical Psychologist

Responsibilities, working hours, what to expect and qualifications needed

Career guides » How to Become a Clinical Psychologist

What does a clinical psychologist do?

A clinical psychologist is a mental health professional who assesses, diagnoses and treats people of all ages with specific mental or physical health problems, psychological difficulties and emotional distress. They can work with people with various conditions and disorders, such as anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar, addictions, psychosis, learning disabilities, eating disorders and more.

Clinical psychologists differ from other psychologists as they receive further training to work with clients suffering from severe psychiatric and mental health problems. They also get involved in research, use scientific methods, develop psychological practice and can provide various types of therapies.

Clinical psychologists use their expert knowledge to assess and diagnose their clients’ problems to provide the necessary management, support and treatment. They use various techniques, therapies and treatments to help clients overcome their difficulties and challenges. They also help their clients understand the psychological aspects of their conditions and develop coping strategies so they can manage them effectively.

A clinical psychologist can work with clients with various mental health problems or specialise in different areas, such as oncology and palliative care, clinical child psychology, clinical neuropsychology, clinical health psychology, forensic clinical psychology and psychosis and complex mental health. Therefore, what a clinical psychologist does will depend on who they work with and their specialisms.

A clinical psychologist aims to help clients with their mental or physical problems, conditions and disorders to improve their physical and psychological well-being, reduce their distress and promote overall good health. They help people make positive changes and can even save lives.

Clinical psychologists will carry out many tasks, including conducting research, assessing clients’ needs using various methods, deciding on suitable treatments, developing treatment plans and monitoring their success, collaborating with other healthcare professionals, attending conferences, making referrals, etc. The role will also have an element of administrative work, such as maintaining confidential records and writing reports.

Clinical psychologists can work with children, adolescents or adults and with families, couples and groups. They may collaborate with other healthcare professionals, such as doctors, nurses, psychiatrists, counselling psychologists, therapists, etc. They may also liaise with other external stakeholders, such as social workers, probation officers, teachers, local authorities, etc.

A clinical psychologist can work for different-sized organisations. They mainly work for the NHS but can also work for other employers, such as local authorities (e.g. social services), private providers, charities and those in education. Some clinical psychologists may choose to have their own practice and become self-employed, freelance or work through recruitment agencies.

Clinical psychologists can work in various settings, such as NHS or private hospitals, psychiatric units, clinics, health centres, residential facilities, prisons, educational establishments, social services, community mental health teams, Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), clients’ homes and even their own homes or practices. However, most will work in offices and treatment rooms in various healthcare settings.

Responsibilities

Clinical psychologists’ responsibilities will depend on many factors, including their role, who they work for, where they work and the area in which they specialise.

Some examples of their day-to-day duties may include (this list is not exhaustive):

  • Researching various areas of mental health and behaviour.
  • Developing services for clients.
  • Assessing clients’ needs, conditions and behaviour and making diagnoses using various methods, such as interviews, direct observation, one-on-one discussions and psychometric tests.
  • Providing advice and support to families and other carers.
  • Deciding what treatments clients need, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), other therapies, advice and counselling.
  • Developing treatment plans and administering treatments.
  • Monitoring and evaluating treatments to determine whether clients are improving.
  • Collaborating with other healthcare professionals, e.g., doctors, nurses, allied health professionals, and other psychological professionals.
  • Referring to other healthcare professionals where necessary for further assessment, treatment or support.
  • Attending conferences and other relevant events.
  • Supervising, supporting and training less experienced psychologists and other teams.
  • Writing reports.
  • Acting as an expert witness in court cases.
  • Keeping confidential records, e.g. progress and treatment.

Working hours

A clinical psychologist can expect to work 37-39 hours a week, usually Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm. However, some work evenings or weekends for events, training or appointments. There may be a requirement to be on-call for emergencies.

Flexible work is possible for some clinical psychologists, e.g. part-time hours or a job share. There are even working-from-home opportunities or hybrid jobs with particular roles. Some may be self-employed or work on temporary contracts.

Travel may be necessary for some clinical psychologists, i.e. those who visit clients. There may be a requirement to cover others in other areas. Overnight stays and overseas work is uncommon but may be necessary for some roles.

What to expect

Being a clinical psychologist and helping people with various problems is extremely rewarding. Individuals can go home at the end of the working day knowing they are helping make a difference to their clients’ health, happiness and well-being. In some cases, their interventions can save lives, especially for those at risk of taking their own lives.

The role would suit individuals with a passion for helping people and a strong interest in mental health and human behaviour. They will need to keep up to date on current research and understand the needs of each client they see. Using knowledge learnt and seeing clients progress and lead happier lives can be fulfilling, especially if they return to work or their usual routines.

Clinical psychology jobs are available nationally, although most are in cities and larger towns. There are many different areas in which to specialise and various settings to work in. The salary is also good.

Being self-employed, working from home, and having control of your own workload can benefit some individuals if they decide to have their own practice. They can work around their own needs, and it reduces the need to travel. Also, being your own boss can be exciting and fulfilling.

Boredom will never be a problem for clinical psychologists, as their clients and work can be varied. They will see and try to help many different clients with various issues. One appointment may involve helping an individual with schizophrenia, and the next, supporting a teenager with an eating disorder. Of course, this will depend on a clinical psychologist’s specialist area.

Even though being a clinical psychologist is rewarding, and there are many positives associated with the role, they may also face challenges, for example:

  • Degree required and costs – individuals will need an undergraduate and postgraduate degree to become a clinical psychologist, which can take many years to complete. Degree programmes are also costly, and individuals may need to apply for a student loan. They must also complete training after their degree and register with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC), which also costs.
  • High workload – clinical psychologists will have multiple caseloads and will see many clients during the day, which can be stressful. There is also a significant amount of administrative work involved in the role, e.g. writing reports and keeping records. They must juggle different demands, and work schedules can often be erratic.
  • Work-related violence – clinical psychologists can face verbal and physical abuse when working with people with mental health and behavioural problems. It is usually due to alcohol and drug-related issues, but people can also lash out when in pain or emotional distress. Employers have a duty to reduce and manage the risk of work-related violence, , so there are ways of prevention. However, clinical psychologists must be aware of the risk and will learn how to deal with these situations during training.
  • Mental demands – the role can be emotionally demanding, as they deal with clients with severe mental health conditions. It is not easy seeing them in emotional distress and struggling to cope with what is going on in their lives. Clinical psychologists may deal with distressing cases, such as abuse. Some clients may be challenging. It can also be frustrating if clients are not progressing as anticipated.

 

Every career choice has pros and cons, and prospective clinical psychologists must know what to expect before deciding whether it is a suitable role. Working in clinical psychology is challenging, mentally demanding and stressful. However, there are many positives and helping clients to bring about positive changes is very fulfilling. In some cases, it can actually save lives.

When considering whether to be a clinical psychologist, individuals should look at the pros and cons. They should also ensure they have the necessary personal qualities to carry out the role and responsibilities required.

Personal qualities needed to be a clinical psychologist

Some of the personal qualities that a clinical psychologist requires will include (this list is not exhaustive):

  • A passion for helping people and improving their quality of life.
  • Knowledge of healthcare, mental health and psychology.
  • Knowledge of related legislation and standards.
  • Knowledge of health and safety.
  • Knowledge of equality and diversity.
  • Knowledge of confidentiality, data protection and the GDPR.
  • Having a caring attitude, sensitivity, empathy and understanding.
  • Having confidence, patience, tolerance and a reassuring manner.
  • Having a non-judgemental and person-centred approach.
  • Having self-awareness, including examination of own thoughts and values.
  • Excellent interpersonal skills, i.e. dealing with clients and other healthcare professionals.
  • Excellent communication skills, both written and verbal.
  • Excellent counselling and active listening skills.
  • Observational skills.
  • Problem-solving skills.
  • Research, investigation and analytical thinking skills.
  • Good time management.
  • Being motivated and committed to helping people.
  • Being positive.
  • Being open-minded.
  • Being thorough and having attention to detail.
  • Being flexible and open to change.
  • The ability to work both in a team and alone using own initiative.
  • The ability to communicate and interact with people of all ages.
  • The ability to understand people’s behaviour and reactions.
  • The ability to challenge positively.
  • The ability to be resilient in emotionally demanding situations.
  • The ability to gain people’s trust, respect and confidence.
  • The ability to develop relationships and build rapport.
  • The ability to accept criticism.
  • The ability to work well under pressure and remain calm in stressful situations.
  • The ability to use IT equipment and software competently.
  • The ability to follow policies, procedures, instructions and risk assessments.

Qualifications and training

Qualifications

To become a clinical psychologist, individuals need an undergraduate and postgraduate degree. They can also do an apprenticeship.

Undergraduate degree

Individuals wanting to become chartered clinical psychologists must complete a British Psychological Society (BPS) accredited psychology degree.

Undergraduate degrees can take between three and four years full-time and up to six years part-time.

Individuals typically need three good A Levels or equivalent to get on to an undergraduate degree.

The entry requirements and the number of UCAS points needed will depend on each university, and individuals should check before applying.

Some institutions may also invite applicants for an interview as part of the selection process.

Graduate membership

After completing their psychology degree or conversion course, individuals must apply for graduate membership (GMBPsS) status to get work experience in a clinical setting before postgraduate training.

Postgraduate degree

Once an individual has their undergraduate degree, they must complete a postgraduate doctorate in clinical psychology accredited by the BPS and approved by the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC).

Competition is fierce for placements.

Therefore, to increase their chances of success in getting a place, individuals will typically need the following:

  • A first or 2:1 (upper second class) degree.
  • Relevant work experience, e.g. clinical and research.
  • Proof of excellent research skills.

 

Some institutions may accept individuals with a lower 2:1 or 2:2 if they have relevant postgraduate qualifications, e.g. MSc or PhD.

Individuals need a BPS-accredited postgraduate degree or a psychology conversion course if:

  • Their psychology degree is not accredited by the BPS.
  • They have a degree in a subject other than psychology.

 

The Postgraduate Doctorate in clinical psychology usually takes around three years full-time. During this time, individuals will receive a salary as they work as a trainee clinical psychologist.

Individuals can apply to the Clearing House for Postgraduate Courses in Clinical Psychology for NHS-funded doctorate courses. Individuals can apply directly for the University of Hull and Queen’s University Belfast.

Once an individual has successfully completed their Doctorate, they can apply for HCPC registration and BPS chartered status.

Apprenticeship

There is an apprenticeship route to help individuals become clinical psychologists, e.g. clinical associate in psychology degree apprenticeship. It is an alternative route equivalent to an MSc (level 7).

The apprenticeship usually takes around 18 months, and individuals will work under a registered clinical psychologist’s supervision.

Individuals usually need a degree in a relevant subject for a degree apprenticeship.

Opportunities are found on  Government’s Apprenticeships, Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education and Indeed.

Work experience working in nursing

Work experience

Individuals must undertake relevant paid or voluntary work experience to secure a place on Doctorate courses.

They could:

  • Work in an NHS clinical psychology department as an assistant psychologist under the supervision of a clinical psychologist. Individuals must prepare for fierce competition for placements.
  • Gain experience in clinical research, e.g. in academia, as an assistant.
  • Work or volunteer in the NHS, nursing, mental health services, social work, care work, disability services, prison service, substance misuse recovery and charitable work.
  • Work or volunteer in any role that involves interacting with individuals with mental health, physical or behavioural problems.

 

Individuals can browse job websites to look for relevant roles that could help them get experience. There is also information on volunteering and local opportunities on Do-IT, NCVO and Volunteering Matters.

The work experience needed will depend on the entry requirements. Most institutions require at least 12 months of work experience. Some may stipulate specific types of work experience. Individuals should always check the entry requirements.

Clinical psychologist taking training course

Training courses

Learning does not stop with experience or once someone becomes qualified. Attending relevant training courses and having additional certifications can help individuals enter the profession, enhance their employability and keep their knowledge and skills current.

We have many approved courses that can be useful for individuals looking at a career as a clinical psychologist, for example (this list is not exhaustive):

  • Children’s mental health.
  • Adolescent mental health.
  • Mental health awareness.
  • Mental Capacity Act.
  • LGBTQ+ awareness
  • Understanding eating disorders.
  • Drug and alcohol awareness.
  • Anxiety awareness.
  • Autism awareness.
  • ADHD awareness.
  • Depression awareness.
  • Borderline personality disorder.
  • Bipolar disorder awareness.
  • Substance misuse.
  • Self-harming.
  • CBT awareness.
  • OCD.
  • PTSD.
  • Phobias.
  • COVID-19 awareness.
  • Equality and diversity.

 

Health and safety and other training can also be beneficial, e.g. work-related stress, violence at work, lone working, resilience training, safeguarding, etc.

Professional bodies and associations, such as the British Psychological Society (BPS), the Association of Clinical Psychologists UK (ACP-UK), the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC), and others, can also advise on reputable training courses. Some also provide memberships, events and support to help individuals become clinical psychologists and give those already in the profession the means to continue their professional development. Continuing professional development (CPD) is mandatory to remain on accredited registers.

The type of training required will depend on what employers are looking for, an individual’s specialisms and the CPD requirements for accreditation and registration. As well as looking at professional body websites, it is also worth looking at several job advertisements to identify the courses required and other training needed for specialist roles. Jobs are on NHS Jobs, BPS Jobs, Jobs in Psychology, HealthJobsUK, BMJ Jobs, Health Careers, JobsMedical and other job sites, such as GOV.UK find a job service, Glassdoor and Indeed. Also, look at recruitment agencies, such as Pulse and JobMedic.

More relevant training and competence will open up more opportunities for clinical psychologists. Refresher training will also be required, as it is a legal requirement, and it keeps knowledge and skills up to date.

Chartered membership

As mentioned, individuals need a BPS-accredited undergraduate and a postgraduate degree to become clinical psychologists. They must also apply for chartered membership (CPsychol), which requires additional assessments and training. There is also an annual membership fee.

Further information on gaining membership is on the BPS’s website.

Registration

Individuals must also register with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC). They will need to hold a qualification from an HCPC-approved education programme and apply to get on the register.

The register will require registrants to adhere to certain standards. Also, registration will need renewing, i.e. annually, and there is a cost.

Criminal records checks

Clinical psychologists must undergo a criminal record check, as they may have contact with children and vulnerable adults. A criminal record, caution, warning or conviction may deter prospective employers and affect registration. However, an employer should account for the seriousness of the crime, when it occurred and its relevance to the role.

The organisation that holds criminal records will depend on the country within the UK, for example:

Driving

Some clinical psychologists will drive as part of their role, especially when working in the community and at different healthcare centres. Therefore, they should have a full clean driving licence.

Clinical psychologist working in school

Where do clinical psychologists work?

Clinical psychologists can work in many different settings, including (this list is not exhaustive):

  • Schools and universities.
  • Hospitals, health centres and local clinics.
  • Psychiatric units.
  • Residential homes.
  • Advice and support centres.
  • Offices.
  • Treatment rooms.
  • Their own home or private practices.
  • Clients’ homes.
  • Rehabilitation units.
  • Research facilities and sites.
  • Prisons.
  • Courts and other legal settings.

 

Most clinical psychologist opportunities are with the NHS. Individuals can also work for other public bodies and private organisations.

For example:

  • The NHS.
  • Community mental health teams.
  • Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAHMS).
  • Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) services.
  • Private healthcare providers.
  • Universities.
  • Social services.
  • Research organisations.
  • Charities.

 

They can also be self-employed and work for themselves or an agency.

Most clinical psychologist opportunities tend to be in cities and large towns.

Consultant clinical psychologist

How much do bakers earn?

If a clinical psychologist works for the NHS, their salary is subject to a band pay system (agenda for change pay rates).

For example (these are a guide only and are subject to change):

  • Trainee (band 6) – £35,392–£ £42,618.
  • Qualified (band 7) – £43,742–£50,056.
  • More experienced (band 8a-8b) – £50,952–£68,525.
  • Consultants (band 8c-8d) – £70,417–£81,138.
  • Heads of services and directors – £99,891– £114,949.

 

The exact salaries for clinical psychologists will depend on the role, location, specialisms, qualifications and years of experience. As individuals progress in their careers, there may be opportunities to enter more senior positions, and the band will increase.

There is potential for clinical psychologists to earn more if they work in other settings, e.g. private practice. Experienced individuals may also earn higher salaries if they combine their roles with other areas, such as teaching or research.

A self-employed clinical psychologist’s salary is variable, as most will set their own rates. It will also depend on how many clients they have, their hours, their qualifications and specialisms, and the expenses they have to pay, e.g. utilities, training, clinic space, registration and research.

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Specialising in oncology care

Types of clinical psychology to specialise in

There are many different areas in clinical psychology in which to specialise, for example (this list is not exhaustive):

  • Clinical child psychology – these psychologists work in settings such as hospitals, health centres, community mental health teams, Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and social services. They work with children with various mental and physical health problems. They conduct clinical assessments, make diagnoses and provide treatments and therapy. They can also conduct research.
  • Clinical neuropsychology – specialising in the relationship between the brain, behaviour and neuropsychological function. These psychologists assess, diagnose and treat clients with various conditions, such as neurodevelopmental, neurological, medical and psychiatric, usually caused by brain injuries or diseases. They also work with clients with cognitive and learning development disorders.
  • Clinical health psychology – specialising in treating psychological difficulties directly related to physical health conditions, such as life-threatening illnesses, chronic painful conditions, sudden physical traumas, painful or complex medical and surgical procedures, etc. They commonly work in hospital and community settings.
  • Forensic clinical psychology – these psychologists use clinical psychology in forensic settings, e.g. crime and legal. They assess offenders who have mental health problems or intellectual disabilities and have committed serious crimes.
  • Oncology and palliative care – specialising in providing psychological support and treatment to clients with cancer and other life-limiting illnesses and their carers and families.
  • Psychosis and complex mental health – specialising in conditions where people cannot think clearly, experience hallucinations or altered states of mind or hold unusual beliefs. They assess, diagnose and treat individuals with severe mood changes and difficulties and those who have experienced trauma. They help clients live with the impact these conditions have on their lives.

 

Clinical psychologists can also specialise in various mental health disorders or behavioural problems, such as addiction, depression, anxiety, personality disorder, eating disorder, etc. They may decide to specialise in one area, such as depression or addiction, or many.

They can also specialise in specific psychological therapies, such as Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) services, dialectical behaviour therapy or family and systemic psychotherapy.

All different clinical psychologist roles will require differing knowledge, skills, experience and qualities. Clinical psychologists need extensive knowledge of psychology, behaviour and mental health. They will also need to know how to build relationships based on trust with their clients and be able to assess, diagnose and treat various issues. Any additional areas of expertise will depend on what an organisation is looking for and the work a clinical psychologist wants. Some may need specific qualifications and training for specialised areas.

If clinical psychologists do not do their role effectively, it can put clients (and others) at risk. In worse cases, it may even cost lives. Therefore, whatever the type of role, they must have the necessary competence (knowledge, skills and experience) to carry out the work professionally and safely. They should also know the limits of their competency and not use assessments and treatments if they are not trained and competent.

Clinical psychologist becoming self employed

Professional bodies

Standards, assessments, research, treatments and laws are updated regularly. Therefore, clinical psychologists must keep ahead of the latest developments and changes to remain legally compliant and carry out their roles effectively and safely. CPD gives clinical psychologists the knowledge and skills to keep up to date with these changes and understand their responsibilities. It also helps them stay registered with an accredited body and allows them to progress in their career.

Joining a professional body or association, covered earlier, can help prospective and current clinical psychologists enhance their skills and overall career. These can offer different levels of membership, CPD, advice and support, access to industry contacts and networking events.

There is an opportunity for career progression, especially in the NHS. With more qualifications and experience, a clinical psychologist can enter more senior roles, such as a clinical supervisor or manager, a consultant or director, or move into specialised jobs, such as clinical neuropsychology. As they gain more experience and progress, their pay band will increase.

Clinical psychologists can also decide to focus on specific mental health and behaviour problems, such as psychosis or addiction. Alternatively, they may become self-employed, set up their own practice or work as a freelance consultant.

Knowledge, skills and experience in clinical psychology can also lead to a career in different areas. For example, a clinical psychologist may want to work in education, training or research. They may want to work in other psychology areas or mental health services. Alternatively, they may decide to combine clinical psychology with other roles.

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