The right track: Participation and progression in psychology career paths

Despite psychology being a popular subject to study at degree level, staffing mental health services remains hugely challenging. With ambitions to grow the numbers of psychologists and psychotherapists by 2023/24, this report looks at the size and make up of the workforce of those with a background of psychology to better understand their career choices.

Now, as much as ever, there is a need to ensure that there is enough capacity to promote psychological wellbeing and treat and prevent mental health conditions. However, staffing such services has, to date, proved challenging. Psychology is one of the most popular subjects to study at degree level: over 24,000 students were accepted onto UK undergraduate courses alone in 2019, accounting for one in 20 students1. These students study the mind and how it influences our behaviour and how this understanding can help us address the challenges facing society2.

Many psychology students go on to work in health or social work or take on research or teaching jobs related to psychology. Indeed, psychology professionals play vital roles in these sectors, as well as others such as business and the prison service, and there have been some policy ambitions to expand their numbers. But, while demand for their skills is increasing, there appear to be shortcomings in ensuring a sufficiently diverse and adequately supplied workforce.  This report maps out – as far as can be ascertained based on existing data – the size and make-up of the workforce of people with a psychology background across all four nations of the UK. 

Key findings

Psychological workforce numbers
  • There is no common career path for psychology graduates – they work across a broad array of roles and settings and often follow diverse routes to get there making tracking the career paths of psychology graduates challenging. 
  • There has been a growth in the number of people working as psychologists over time. The total number of registered psychologists increased by almost a quarter (24%) in the six years to April 2020, to 24,621.
Career progression
  • Training programmes for becoming a registered psychologist are often highly competitive. The clinical psychology doctorate, for example, is a very competitive course to get onto, with fewer than one in six applicants (15%) succeeding in gaining a place in 2019. Furthermore, only a small minority of psychology graduates are becoming registered psychologists. 
  • There is a wide disparity between students’ career aspirations at the outset of their degree and their eventual career outcomes. Recent research suggests that at the outset, the vast majority of undergraduate psychology students (91%) appear to want a career in mental health; but this figure falls to 79% by their final year. 
  • For those working in roles relating to psychology, it often takes time for graduates to progress towards and reach their intended career profession. In particular, those seeking to become a clinical psychologist will, after graduating, often complete a Master’s and significant amounts of work experience. 
  • Opportunities for career progression in some settings may be limited. For psychological professionals in the NHS in England, career progression is fairly uncommon later in their careers.
Demographic differences
  • Certain minority ethnic groups are less likely to progress in a psychology career than others. Those with Black or Asian ethnicity going to university are similarly as likely as those with White ethnicity to study psychology and work in NHS psychological professions. However, they are far less likely to be more senior NHS roles and be accepted onto a clinical psychology training course.
  • Men are less likely than women to pursue a career in psychology, but those who do, tend to get paid more than their female counterparts. Around one in six of the NHS psychological workforce are male, however, they are more likely to be in senior roles, with 46% in Band 8 or 9 compared with 41% for women. 
  • Disabled undergraduate students are more likely to drop out of their psychology course. Attrition at university is also associated with socioeconomic status, with 3.4% of undergraduate students from areas with the highest participation in higher education dropping out each year compared with 4.7% of those from areas with the least participation. 
Place of work
  • There appear to be substantial regional differences in the NHS psychological workforce in terms of levels of both qualified and support psychological NHS staff with London having a significantly higher level of both.
  • There are notable variations in workforce levels across the UK in other settings and branches of psychology. In terms of qualified professionals, for example, people living in the East of England appear to have much lower access to educational psychologists, while those in Scotland and Northern Ireland have much higher access.
  • A significant proportion of registered psychologists work in the private sector. In particular, public sector recruitment of educational psychologists fell in the three years to 2018, whereas private sector recruitment doubled between 2017 and 2018.
Participation and lengths of career
  • There may be scope to increase the participation and retention of registered psychologists in public sector roles. 
  • While the scale is unclear, a large number of psychologists appear to be working in roles that do not require them to register. There could be around eight unregistered people for every unregistered psychologist, suggesting a pressing need to further explore these wider psychological roles and what, if any, barriers people face in taking up a registered role.
  • Overall, the proportion of registered psychologists approaching pensionable age is similar to the proportion in some other professions but varies considerably between psychology titles. Some 22% of registered psychologists are aged 55 or above, similar to the level on the nursing and midwifery (23%) and doctor (22%) registers.


Published: 8/07/2021

Download the report [PDF 1.1MB]



Suggested citation

Palmer B, Schlepper L, Hemmings N and Crellin N (2021) The right track: Participation and progression in psychology career paths. Research report, Nuffield Trust

UCAS (2019) Undergraduate End of Cycle Data (2019). UCAS.


The British Psychological Society (no date) ‘What is psychology?’. Accessed 30 October 2020.