Psychology Degrees: Courses Structure, Specializations & Career | Top Universities

Tell people you study psychology, and you’re likely to get a response along the lines of, “So you analyze people?”

While based on a stereotype, and the common confusion between psychologists and psychiatrists*, this refrain is not too far from the truth. Psychology degrees are all about the study of people – their behavior, thoughts, actions, interactions and reactions.

*Psychiatry is the study, diagnosis, management and prevention of mental disorders, a career only available to specialized doctors of medicine. For more information about studying medicine, visit our
medical degrees guide.

What do psychology degrees cover?

While the majority of psychology degrees are grounded in natural and life sciences, the subject also offers scope to explore social sciences and humanities such as criminology and philosophy. As a result, the subject is likely to appeal to students from diverse academic backgrounds, while future psychology careers are just as broad and varied, spanning roles in sciences, arts and humanities fields. The focus of your degree will likely be reflected in the course title and/or the degree type – either a BSc (Bachelor of Science) or a BA (Bachelor of Arts).

Most undergraduates studying psychology degrees will start with a series of introductory courses dealing with core elements of the subject. This will often involve the exploration of mental health, childhood and development as well as required scientific fundamentals.

During the next few years of studying psychology, the focus will become more specialized, dealing with topics such as cognitive processes, neuroscience and the psychology of certain groups of people, for example criminals, victims of abuse or trauma, and the elderly. In your final year you will typically be required to carry out your own original research, collecting data through observation or scientific study of the brain.

Entry requirements for psychology degrees

Entry requirements for psychology degrees vary from institution to institution. Although many good universities don’t require students with specific qualifications, you will need a strong academic record (especially in science and mathematics) and an aptitude in both scientific and non-scientific subjects. Students with a broad skillset in both sciences and humanities are particularly sought after.

Course structure and assessment methods

The majority of undergraduate psychology degree programs last three or four years, with some institutions requiring students to undertake a relevant work placement as part of the course. Placement options are varied, but common choices include roles within hospitals, prisons and rehabilitation centers. This placement year can prove to be vital when pursuing psychology careers after graduation; practical experience is valued highly by prospective employers.

If your university doesn’t offer a placement option, you may want to find some work experience yourself, either during the vacations or in a part-time capacity. Although specialized experience can sometimes be difficult to access, many relevant roles (voluntary or paid) can stand you in good stead; for example, working with children and adults with learning difficulties, mentoring, or helping in a care home.

Psychology degrees typically employ a range of teaching techniques, allowing students to gain the diverse skills needed to carry out psychological investigations. This will often include practical lessons; lectures in relevant theory and tools, such as how to carry out research and analyze data; and training with professional software programs. Assessment is also varied, typically including timed examinations, essays, laboratory reports and final project reports.

See the full list of life sciences and medicine subject guides

Psychology specializations

Often psychology students in their second and third years will be given the chance to specialize in a particular area of interest, choosing from a list of psychology topics that is partly determined by the interests and expertise of the faculty members teaching at the university. The following list of possible psychology topics is by no means exhaustive, but it should help to give an idea of some of the main fields you could focus on, either when choosing a degree or further down the line.

Clinical psychology

This is the study of mental and emotional distress and wellbeing. While studying clinical psychology, you’ll learn how to use a range of approaches – interviews, observation, psychometric testing – to assess conditions such as depression, anxiety and relationship problems. Clinical psychologists usually work as part of a wider team of health and social care professionals, and may make recommendations for different types of therapy, counselling or other treatment.

Neuropsychology

Neuropsychology focuses on the brain and its relation to psychological processes and behaviors. This requires examination of different types of neurological problems, such as degenerative diseases, brain damage from injury, strokes, tumors and disorders caused by consuming toxins or problems with the body’s metabolism. Again, neuropsychologists work as part of a wider team, providing therapies and treatment advice for both the patient and family members.

Educational psychology

The field of educational psychology covers psychology topics such as the assessment of learning difficulties, related social and emotional concerns, and various strategies and solutions to help improve the learning process. Educational psychology graduates who pursue relevant psychology careers may be involved in research and consultation, or play a more hands-on role, in direct contact with children, parents and teachers.

Forensic and criminal psychology

Degrees focusing on forensic and criminal psychology nurture the application of psychology to focus on crime and criminal behavior. Areas of focus include risk assessment, prisoner profiling, treatment and rehabilitation programs, analysis of crime trends and assessing mental health. As well as appearing in court as expert witnesses, forensic psychologists give advice to prison and probation services, police, social services and health professionals. They may also be involved in civil cases, such as child custody decisions.

Find the world's top universities for psychology

Psychology careers

With a psychology degree your career options are vast, and those who don’t become trained psychologists often go into related psychology careers within healthcare, mental health support or in other people-focused roles. Examples include arts and music therapy, social work, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy and counseling.

Studying psychology does not limit you to healthcare roles, however. Psychology graduates can be seen working, researching and advising in every sector of society, including education, relationships, crime and punishment, advertising, management, workplace practice and sports training.

Psychology careers in healthcare and therapy

Whether in the public or private sector, a majority of psychology careers are found within the field of healthcare. Psychology graduates work in various capacities in advisory roles, research roles, treatment roles or therapy roles. These can include:

Psychologist careers

To become a chartered psychologist you will need to undertake a master’s degree as well as further training specific to your specialization. Psychologists will work with a broad range of people, including patients and clients, aiming to help identify behaviors, thoughts and feelings in order to better understand the motivations behind certain actions. Psychologists are able to specialize in many areas, including mental health and occupational and educational psychology.

Psychotherapist careers

Psychotherapists work with individuals, groups, couples and families, aiming to help people overcome emotional and relationship issues, stress and even bad habits. Depending on your specialization, skills and interests, psychotherapy can be approached in many different ways, including cognitive behavioral methods, psychoanalytic therapies, psychodynamic therapies, systemic and family psychotherapy, arts and play therapies, humanistic and integrative psychotherapies, hypno-psychotherapy and experiential constructivist therapies.

Psychology careers in education

Psychology graduates interested in careers in education can take a number of different paths. You may qualify as a teacher, working in a secondary or tertiary level institution, or you may work within social services or the prison sector, providing support for young offenders. Teaching at university level will often involve pursuing your own research, in order to contribute to the knowledge and betterment of your department in the field of psychology.

Another route is to become an educational psychologist, a role concerned with the development of children and young people in educational settings. The aim is to enhance learning and will mean dealing with social and emotional issues and/or learning difficulties.

More generally, a background in psychology can also be a useful asset in a very broad range of educational roles, whatever subject you choose to teach and whoever your students are.

Psychology careers in research

Psychology careers in research may be based within universities, independent research agencies, or a wide range of public- and private-sector organizations working in a relevant field. For example, you may conduct research to contribute to governmental guidance on the most effective ways to encourage healthier eating, or carry out research for a campaign group striving to improve people’s happiness at work. Alternatively, you may focus on strategies for overcoming speech difficulties, learn how to assess a patient suffering from brain damage, or research the impacts of divorce on children. The possibilities are vast.

Psychology careers in creative industries

The broad banner of the creative industries includes anything relating to arts and humanities – such as media, advertising and the visual arts world. Psychology graduates are valued in these industries for their insights into human behaviors and motivations, their ability to analyze a problem and quickly form a considered response, and also for their skills in reasoning, developing ideas and giving advice.

Along with the aforementioned skills, a psychology graduate’s ability to handle data and work with people could also provide a good basis for careers in industries including IT, finance, the legal sector, government administration, market research and human resources management.

Discover more careers with a psychology degree

Key Skills

Common skills gained from a psychology degree include:

  • Ability to analyze complex data sets, and general analytical skill
  • Communication and teamwork skills
  • Numeracy and technology literacy, including statistics handling
  • Presenting findings in written and spoken form, to an acceptable academic standard
  • An understanding of scientific literature and how to use it
  • Ability to approach issues from multiple perspectives
  • Sensitivity to a range of different experiences and emotions
  • Information-gathering skills, including survey design, observation, case study and sampling
  • Problem solving
  • Ability to work within a team