If you have a caring nature and are interested in helping others cope with their problems, becoming a psychotherapist might be the job for you

Psychotherapists work with individuals, couples, families and groups to help them overcome a range of psychological and emotional issues. They use personal treatment plans and a variety of non-medical treatments to address the client's thought processes, feelings and behaviour, understand inner conflicts and find new ways to alleviate and deal with distress.

Types of psychotherapist

Psychotherapists can take a number of different approaches to their work, depending on the theoretical models they adopt and the therapy they practise.

Some of these therapies include:

  • cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
  • psychoanalytic and psychodynamic therapies
  • humanistic and integrative psychotherapies
  • systemic therapies
  • hypno-psychotherapy
  • experiential constructivist therapies.

Responsibilities

As a psychotherapist, you'll need to:

  • work with individuals on a one-to-one basis and with couples, families and groups of clients
  • conduct a series of individual sessions with a client - normally lasting between 30 minutes to an hour, one or more times per week. Through these, you will assess need, build trust and explore issues - over a few sessions or a longer period of two or three years
  • encourage the client to talk about and explore their feelings and behaviour
  • run group sessions with people undergoing therapy in a clinical setting
  • conduct group sessions in a training capacity for other professionals, such as social workers, nurses and teachers, who are interested in learning more about how groups work and how they function within them
  • keep abreast of developments in theory and research
  • network within the health professional community and other potential business areas to maintain continuity of work and client base
  • evaluate therapy outcomes and write reports
  • work to targets (in some cases, e.g. if working for the NHS)
  • undergo supervision with another appropriately qualified person, in order to raise personal issues and professional concerns arising from work
  • supervise other psychotherapists.

The role of psychotherapist can overlap with the role of counsellor. To find out more about the work of a psychotherapist, see the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP).

Salary

  • Starting salaries for a trainee psychotherapist range from £26,250 to £35,250.
  • Qualified psychotherapists' salaries can rise up to £55,000, with several years' experience.

There is no standard scale of fees and private practice rates vary considerably, typically charging between £40 and £100 per hour depending on the circumstances of the client.

For NHS salaries, see the Agenda for Change (AfC) Pay Rates.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours are typically Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm but can often involve extended working days, particularly in private practice, as clients come before or after working hours. If employed in a residential setting, working shifts may be necessary. Part-time work is possible. Career breaks are feasible, although those in private practice would have to rebuild a client base on their return to work.

What to expect

  • Self-employment and freelance work is possible. However, building up a client base takes time, and many do not achieve a full-time practice. Issues such as overheads, insurance, supervision and support groups have to be taken into account before considering self-employment or freelance work.
  • Self-employed practitioners work from home, in an office or from shared premises.
  • There are currently more women than men working in this role.
  • A support framework is essential, as the work is emotionally demanding. It can also be solitary.
  • Travel within a working day, absence from home at night and overseas work or travel are uncommon, although there may be work available abroad in places such as war zones and disaster areas.

Qualifications

Although this area of work is open to all graduates, the following subjects will increase your chances:

  • psychology
  • nursing
  • medicine
  • social work
  • sociology.

Entry with an HND only is not possible. Applicants will need an honours degree completed to a high standard in the relevant subjects and have previous experience from working in a related area, such as social work, mental health professions, psychology and psychiatry.

A pre-entry postgraduate qualification is essential. Details of the requirements necessary for students and trainees, usually including a Masters degree in psychotherapy, are available from the UKCP website. There is currently no registration or licensing process for private practice psychotherapists in the UK, so you won't find any specific entry requirement qualifications.

Courses are normally part time and take four to six years to complete. They're made up of written theory assignments, supervised clinical work and clinical seminars.

To secure a position within a recognised public institution, training that conforms to standards set by the UKCP or the British Psychoanalytic Council (BCP) is usually required. Prospective employers will specify which psychology qualification they seek in their job adverts, so it can be useful to consult job postings on NHS Jobs before deciding on a training course.

Start your search for postgraduate courses in psychotherapy.

Skills

You will need to have:

  • self-awareness, sensitivity and empathy
  • a broad-minded, non-judgemental attitude and a respect for others
  • a genuine interest in the emotional problems faced by people
  • common sense
  • an understanding of the importance of confidentiality and also an awareness of its limitations
  • a belief in people's inherent ability to change and develop
  • an energetic and positive approach
  • an ability to establish rapport with others
  • a sense of humour
  • an understanding of equality and diversity issues
  • confidence to explore difficult and painful aspects of a patient's life.

Work experience

Pre-entry experience is required. Life experience is essential for prospective psychotherapists in order to cope with the extremes of human emotion, ambiguity and vulnerability that they are likely to encounter.

Psychotherapy is commonly a second career with many people coming from clinical psychology, psychiatry, mental health or social work backgrounds.

Employers

Psychotherapists work in a variety of environments in the NHS, including:

  • community-based clinics
  • hospitals (within in-patient areas)
  • Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) services
  • general practice surgeries
  • student health services
  • social services departments.

If you are employed by the NHS you will usually work as a member of a multidisciplinary team made up of psychiatrists, social workers, psychologists, family therapists, occupational therapists, mental health nurses and therapists.

Employment is also possible with a university or training institution, where you could teach, conduct research, or facilitate training for groups of medical professionals and other health workers, for example nurses and social workers.

Another option is to set up your own private practice. This can provide a greater degree of flexibility but may also pose difficulties in terms getting established.

Look for job vacancies at:

Professional development

Once fully qualified, you can register as a full member of a professional body, such as BACP, UCKP or BPC.

Registration provides assurance to patients that you have fulfilled the qualifying standards of training and experience. Being a member of a professional body will also help you to keep up to date with new developments in psychotherapy and to complete the continuing professional development that is necessary throughout your career.

Training routes vary between different areas of psychotherapy. Contact the relevant professional organisation for the specialist area you are interested in to identify training and accreditation options. For example, you may decide to specialise in hypnotherapy.

Career prospects

How you progress will be determined by your interests, expertise and geographical mobility. With experience you could move into more senior or specialist roles and take on a greater amount of responsibility.

You could take up a managerial position within the NHS mental health services, where you would spend less time on clinical work and more on managing a particular service and team.

Lecturing and clinical teaching in universities or training institutions is another career development route. Also, with extensive experience it is possible to become a training therapist, where you would train student psychotherapists, or act as a supervisor, providing support to other psychotherapists.

You may be able to undertake research in order to become a consultant to allied professional and community organisations, or to deepen your specialisation in a particular area of psychotherapy.