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Most of us are intrigued by human behaviour. We analyse friends and strangers from the comfort of our couch and lap up research that explains why we do what we do. But to channel this intrigue into a career and become a psychologist, qualifications are required.
We’ve taken an in-depth look at the steps to become a psychologist, giving an overview of the study, experience and registration required to pursue this varied and exciting career.
To use the title ‘psychologist’ there is a minimum standard of education and training that must be completed. It’s a highly regulated field because it’s a big responsibility to work with people at a vulnerable point in their lives.
According to Associate Professor Linda Byrne, Deputy Head of the School of Psychology at Deakin, the path towards psychologist qualifications starts with undergraduate study. ‘The first step is that you need a three-year undergraduate degree with an accredited major in psychology,’ she explains.
If you have an undergraduate degree without a major in psychology and you’re wondering how to become a psychologist, there is another option: some universities offer a one year bridging course.
Once you have these foundational studies, the next step is to complete an accredited fourth year in psychology. ‘This can be an honours year or a Graduate Diploma of Psychology (Advanced),’ Assoc. Prof. Byrne explains.
At this point you will have some options about where you wish to take your career. ‘Following successful completion of the fourth year, there are a number of pathways to professional registration,’ Assoc. Prof. Byrne says.
The pathway option that you choose here will impact the level of qualification that you gain. You might wish to become a general psychologist without a specialisation or a psychologist with an ‘area of endorsement’, which is another way of saying a specialty.
Assoc. Prof. Byrne says most students enrol in postgraduate studies, which will lead them towards an ‘area of endorsement’ in psychology. ‘If students are interested in working in a particular area of psychology, rather than as a generalist psychologist, then they would complete a two-year masters or a three-to-four-year doctorate,’ Assoc. Prof. Byrne explains.
Some examples of postgraduate options would be courses like a Master of Psychology (Clinical); Doctor of Psychology (Clinical) or a Master of Psychology (Organisational).
For students wishing to become a general psychologist there is an alternative pathway known as the ‘5 + 1’ pathway. ‘Here students complete a one-year masters (at most universities this is the Master of Professional Psychology),’ Assoc. Prof. Byrne explains. ‘After graduation, graduates need to complete a one year internship.’
Another alternative (that is currently being phased out) is known as the ‘4 + 2’. This is where a student completes their fourth year of study and then does two years’ work experience as a provisional psychologist under supervision. Like the ‘5 + 1’ pathway, this option leads to a general registration as a psychologist.
Assoc. Prof. Byrne suggests that anyone interested in this pathway consults the Psychology Board of Australia website as there is a strict process that needs to be followed. ‘The 30th of June, 2022, is the last day that the psychology registration board will receive applications for this pathway,’ Assoc. Prof. Byrne says.
'If students are interested in working in a particular area of psychology, rather than as a generalist psychologist, then they would complete a two-year masters or a three-to-four-year doctorate.'
Assoc. Prof. Linda Byrne,
School of Psychology, Deakin University
Beyond study, one of the critical steps to become a psychologist involves registration with the Psychology Board of Australia which is part of the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (APRHA). Registration is a way of ensuring all psychologists are practicing within the same code of ethics and guidelines.
Provisional registration is required after your fourth year whether you are studying in higher education (masters or doctorate) or following the ‘4 + 2’ or ‘5 + 1’ pathway. It’s needed in order to undertake placements or clinical practice.
After completing either the higher education pathway or one of the alternative pathways you need to apply for general registration as a psychologist, again, through the Psychology Board of Australia. This is a straightforward online application process.
One thing to note – those who complete one of the alternative pathways (the ‘4+2’ or the ‘5 +1’) are required to sit the National Psychology Exam before applying for general registration with the Psychology Board of Australia. If you’ve completed a masters or a doctorate you are not required to sit this exam.
General registration allows you to practice as a psychologist anywhere in Australia or New Zealand. To practice overseas, Australian psychologists need to follow the relevant country’s registration requirements.
In order to maintain general registration, psychologists are required to undertake continuing professional development (CPD) annually to stay up-to-date and improve upon their knowledge of the field. This might mean short courses, further study or supervision by a more experienced practitioner.
Students who completed a masters or doctorate may wish to apply for a registrar program which is a period of advanced supervised practice aimed at developing competency in an area of specialisation.
The nine areas of specialisation are:
Psychologists work in schools, hospitals, private clinics, community organisations, research institutions, marketing and business organisations and more.
Assoc. Prof. Byrne says a common way for graduates to find full-time work is through the work experience they have undertaken while studying. ‘Many students completing a Master of Professional Psychology course are offered internships based upon their placement performance during the course,’ she explains. Other students find employment by applying for publicly advertised roles through organisations such as the Australian Psychological Society. Or through job boards like SEEK.
When you find a position you are interested in the application process is fairly standard – you follow the instructions as provided by the organisation advertising the role and, if they are interested in employing you, they will verify your registration with AHPRA.
When it comes to career options for qualified psychologists, the possibilities are endless. Assoc. Prof. Byrne’s number one piece of advice is find an area that truly excites you and try to get some practical experience while studying. ‘Don’t do things to tick a box on your resume,’ she says. ‘Be authentic and this will come through to any prospective employer.’
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