The word "psychology" comes from the Greek "Psyche," which since the 17th Century has come to mean "mind," and "-ology" which denotes a department or area of study, mostly in science.
Psychology is also defined as the study of people. In this sense, we are all lay psychologists, as we struggle to understand people in our day to day lives. The discipline itself also stems from philosophy, as the great thinkers of the past tried to explain the "soul" (which, pre 17th Century was one of the meanings of the Greek "psyche"). And what better location for the soul, they thought, than the grey mushy matter that is our brain? It could be for this reason that Psychology has been considered an "art" for many years.
But how much do we actually know about our grey mushy matter? Not a lot, really. For the end of the 19th and most of the 20th Century, psychology focussed on trying to explain how we become who we are; our development and personality. And so the main "schools" of Psychology were formed, each with their unique form of therapy to treat mental disorders.
Recent developments in imaging technology mean that we have a clearer picture of the brain than ever before, but we still know less about the brain than any other organ. The role of the Research Psychologist is to conduct experiments, and Psychology is becoming increasingly accepted as a Science, with undergraduate degrees deliberately choosing to promote their scientific nature.
Psychologists are not just researchers and therapists, they can be teachers, lecturers, counsellors and businesspeople. Psychology is popping up everywhere - in magazines, on the television and some pupils are even being given lessons on "happiness" in school. It is the science "du jour," and there is no doubt there are many great psychological discoveries still to be made. And who knows, if you do your degree in Psychology, you could be the one making them!
Universities offering Psychology
Psychology Degree Courses shows a list of BPS accredited Universities which offer Psychology courses, and a basic indication of the kind of A-level grades they expect. Please remember that there may be other admission requirements for each institution, and applicants are strongly advised to research any University they are interested in themselves, as well as using this table guide.
Note some courses are combined, joint or otherwise (such as at Cambridge). For a list of of these Psychology courses, visit UCAS. There are many different options, and Psychology can effectively be taken in conjunction with any other subject.
Like most degree courses, Psychology is very competitive, and can at some institutions require top grades at A-level to give you a better chance of success.
The academic requirements for Psychology courses are broad depending on the institution you are applying to. For instance, the University of York require AAB at A-level, whilst Manchester Metropolitan University usually give offers around BBB at A-level. International and Scottish grades also vary, and one should consult each institution's website you're interested in on an individual basis.
In terms of what A-levels are most recognised, there is little difference, with a lot of emphasis placed on your personal statement and grades rather than what your subject options are. Indeed, many Psychology students never studied the subject at A-level (though this might perhaps make writing their personal statement more difficult as they must explain why they like Psychology). However, subjects in the sciences do tend to be held with high regard, particularly among the top Universities. Oxford, Cambridge, UCL and York in particular state that candidates must be studying one science subject to full A-level (though they often accept Psychology as one).
At these top institutions, Psychology has become a very competitive course, and one should be prepared to try and go beyond the minimum academic requirements the Universities lay out. In 2006, 85% percent of Psychology students at York were straight A students, with approximately 70% able to offer an additional science subject (usually Biology) as well as Psychology.
UCAS Form & Personal Statement
Like most degree courses, admissions tutors look towards the personal statement as a means to judge whether candidates are suitable for their University and department. With Psychology courses, a great deal of emphasis is placed on whether candidates can give evidence of a genuine interest in the subject. This can of course be accomplished through simply stating how much you enjoyed actively researching the topics at A-level, but evidence of work placements or voluntary help directly relevant to Psychology can be quite advantageous (though by no means at all essential).
Furthermore, a good science basis is required for Psychology, so one should perhaps consider analysing the courses done at A-level. How have they trained you? Did they require strong academic rigour? Was there an emphasis on deadlines, and could you meet them? All these factors and more should be considered when composing your personal statement.
To look at some sample personal statements for ideas, see Category:Psychology Personal Statements.
A degree course in Psychology is extremely diverse, a key reason why it is such an attractive degree in that one topic is never studied for too long a time, and there is always interesting new areas to explore as part of your studies.
In the first year, candidates are usually involved in a lot of practical work. They learn an introduction to Psychology as well as scientific and statistical methods. The weight of the first year on your overall degree is usually very small (about 1:3:5), but it provides a firm basis for knowledge in the second year.
In year 2, candidates now explore areas they have been introduced to in much more detail. Course itenaries vary, but students can expect to study areas such as language acquisition, perception, motivation, development, social psychology, individual differences, and many more topics. The weight of year 2 towards your final degree is usually much more considerable than Year 1, but still not as much as your final year.
Year 3 usually involves candidates now specifying topics they are most interested in studying, as well as spending a lot of time conducting a dissertation. The subject options usually involve picking about five different modules for study, and candidates usually choose ones they achieved well in the previous year, or areas which might be most important to them for after they graduate and go into a specific profession. The dissertation takes up a large amount of a student's time in the final year, and counts heavily towards your final degree.
Life as a Psychology Student
Students of Psychology will find the course they are undertaking very demanding, but at the same time rewarding, varying and interesting. A good emphasis on practical work can mean strong interaction with other students, and a strong group often forms amongst the classes as a whole. Most Psychology institutions also divide candidates (particularly in Year 1), into groups of no more than 10, who then have a specific tutor to see almost every week, and who acts as their mentor or "line manager" if they have concerns. This means departments can give a lot of support to their students, and considering Psychology courses usually have around 100 students each year, a more intimate and individual approach is at times very helpful to students who feel like they are falling behind the rest of the crowd.
Psychology is also a degree course which attracts a diverse range of people from different backgrounds and cultures, meaning a real diverse group to study alongside whilst at University.
Graduates of Psychology go on to work in a huge range of settings. Many will seek employment in the National Health Service, or in other private care settings. Others may go into marketting, business or management. Still others may pursue Psychology further with a postgraduate course with the intention of going into careers of clinical, occupational, educational, or counselling Psychology to name but a few options.
Despite postgraduate courses being highly competitive, surprisingly few Psychology graduates actually continue studying in higher education (about 6-10% continue Psychology-related courses, and another 6-10% in other courses). This could be due to a number of reasons, not least the amount of debt a student faces after an undergraduate course; and to then study for another three years.
Which University to Choose
One of the most difficult questions a prospective Psychology student faces is where to study the subject. With a huge percent of UK institutions offering a bachelor of science or arts in Psychology, which to choose is a very hard decision to make. A number of league tables attempt to give advice on where the "best" courses can be found. For instance, The Times publish a score board for all subjects, the 2006 results of which for Psychology can be found here. The Times also give a guide on Universities in general, taking into account such factors as student satisfaction, teaching excellence, student staff ratios, and level of honours awarded. Their 2006 table can also be found here. In addition, The Guardian newspaper also offers a simple league table for prospective students of Psychology, viewable here. This departmental table is arguably more in-depth than the one in the Times, as it gives more parameters and readers the ability to organise the table by different variables (e.g. organise the table by teaching excellence rather than overall scores).
However, the league tables can change considerably each year, and so they should be viewed upon as mere rules of thumb about where in the country are Universities with top credentials for Psychology. Also, some factors in the tables are controversial. For example, Universities are penalised for a low graduate employment rate, but this fails to appreciate that a high number of graduates may go on to further study. Equally, a poor teacher to student ratio does not necessarily reflect poor connections at a University, and does not take into account the amount of support given by a department (even with a teacher to every student, good rapport and support might not exist).
Other factors should be taken into strong consideration when choosing where to study Psychology. Candidates should appreciate things such as the social life, the general student atmosphere, convenience of location, a closed campus or open city University, living costs and conditions, prospects of work experience, etc. In reality, there is no table or scoreboard with which to say "this is the perfect and best Psychology course", it is down to the individual and their preferences. One should remember that employers nowadays care much more on the individual's experiences (e.g. work placements) and their class of degree, as opposed to where they obtained their qualification. But of course, a well taught and structured Psychology course will probably help you with both these areas.
For reference, high scorers in recent years in both the Times and Guardian newspapers include Oxford, Cambridge (refused inclusion in Guardian), UCL, St. Andrews, York, Bristol, Birmingham, Nottingham, Bath, Durham, Royal Holloway, and Surrey.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why not read these Psychology Degree Frequently Asked Questions?