What’s it like studying psychology at university?

More than 20,000 students started a psychology degree last year, making it one of the UK’s most popular degree choices. While some of those students will graduate into a career as a psychologist, the versatility of the subject means it can also lead into areas from criminology to zoology, from education to sports science.

But what’s it like to study psychology at uni? Is it all work and no play? And do you need to already be studying the subject at A-level to have a chance of getting in? We caught up with Chris Atkin, a 28-year-old psychology PhD student at Nottingham Trent University, to get the lowdown.

No such thing as a typical day

Ask Chris about a typical day studying psychology and the answer’s simple. There isn’t one. “One hour you could be learning about potential capacity limitations in imagination and the next you could be learning about the experience of social interactions from within the homeless community,” he says. “There’s nothing typical about learning something new and interesting every day.”

Plenty of variety, then, and with it you can expect a workload that will test your organisational skills too. You’ll cover topics in a variety of ways, digging into the theory and practical application of psychology as well as the methods that underpin these concepts.

Chris advises potential students to be aware of the level of work required, but he’s clear that good time management will keep anyone on top. “There’s enough independent learning time that you can maintain a steady pace and stay on top of the workload,” he says.

“In contrast, if you don’t tackle the workload you will fall behind and find it difficult to develop the necessary skills and knowledge.  It’s always good to develop a timetable that sets out short/mid/long-term demands. This simple method allowed me to manage my time more efficiently. It’s like most challenges in life: you only get out what you put in.”


Developing your knowledge

Plenty of A-level psychologists go on to study the subject at uni, but if you’re not already familiar with psychology it needn’t rule you out. Chris completed an Access to HE course that included a module on psychology, but he met plenty of people on his course with no prior experience. “The first year of study in a psychology degree gets you to the level that enables you to be knowledgeable and confident in your ability, which then propels you into the final two years of study,” Chris says.

In those later years, you’re likely to have the chance to focus on the topics that really interest you. Chris found his course gave him the chance to specialise early on, with options such as mental health, forensic, educational and developmental psychology available. He also found his department provided opportunities outside the course itself. Becoming a student researcher in the summer following his second year enabled him to get paid to develop research under the guidance of internationally recognised psychologists.

Those options are well worth asking about when you’re choosing a university, but Chris recommends also looking carefully at the course facilities. For example, psychology students at Nottingham Trent get the opportunity to use equipment including eye-tracking systems, a driving simulator and even virtual reality technology.

His degree experience led Chris to a point where he decided to continue down the academic path, and he recently started a PhD to help him achieve his ambition of becoming a university lecturer in psychology. “Without the knowledge and experiences gained from my undergraduate degree I wouldn’t have been able to apply for the PhD position, so the psychology undergraduate degree has been the foundation and mechanism that has allowed me to continue with my ambitions.”

Whether you want to be a lecturer like Chris or a clinical psychologist or even a criminal behavioural analyst, if you’re serious about studying psychology Chris recommends going into your studies with an open mind. “Be willing to engage with different perspectives in psychology,” he says. “You might just find that different perspectives can shape your interests – which creates a whole new understanding of how you might perceive ideas.”

Want to know more? Nottingham Trent University have an open day on 4th November. Reserve your place and find out more here.

Alternatively talk to other current psychology students in the psychology forum, or post a question for Chris in the comments.


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