There can be few people who, as they approach mid-life, have not secretly wondered if they haven't balanced enough profit and loss accounts, brokered enough sales, manufactured enough widgets, or, ahem, written enough articles. Up until now, the classic way to try to add one's tiny quota to the sum of human well-being and do something a bit more useful has been by retraining as a teacher, or perhaps by trying to join an NGO or charity. Now, however, psychology is muscling in on that territory.
Professionals from all walks of life are picking up on psychology as a potential career-change booster, and the media aren't short of potential converts. "After 15 years in PR, I'm working part-time on a degree," says one would-be counsellor. "I had counselling myself after a bereavement, realised how helpful it could be, and I wanted a proper qualification and grounding. I'm still working as a consultant; I've cut down on the clients who were the least satisfying, and money is very tight. But I do believe that ultimately, this will not only help others but change my life for the better, too. I've had enough of helping other people flog stuff."
This is a path I am hoping to follow myself. I have secured a place at Bristol University in the face of some scary statistics: large numbers of terrifyingly well-qualified A-level sproglets with fistfuls of straight A grades, vying for every place. Next September, if all goes well, I shall be dusting off my pencil case and heading back to the lecture theatre. I am definitely not alone. I was briefed earlier this year by a features editor who was distracted by the imminent prospect of her psychology finals. Another friend has just graduated. A third is working towards her Master's degree. A significant proportion of psychology graduates--more than 13 per cent--are not only mature students (over 21), but over the age of 30, which suggests they are studying in the hope of practising in some capacity, rather than simply aiming to rack up a good general degree.
Dr Simon Green is senior lecturer in the school of psychology at Birkbeck College, the branch of the University of London for part-time, working undergraduate students. He also sits on the British Psychological Society's education board. "A number of our students have perhaps worked in the City and are specifically looking at a career change," he says. "It is a very common aspiration to become a therapist of some kind." The Open University, where 70 per cent of undergraduate students are already in full-time employment and nearly all are studying part-time, turns out more psychology graduates than any other UK university.
So why are we all picking psychology? It is a hot subject all round. In 2005, for the first time, the number of psychology graduates overtook those graduating in English: 10,345 were awarded an English degree, while 10,570 graduated in psychology. That was also more than the combined total of biology, chemistry and physics graduates for the same year.
"It is the fastest-growing major subject," says Dr Charlie Ball, labour-market analyst at Graduate Prospects, the graduate careers advisory service. Psychology has also become very popular at A-level and at postgraduate level. "Clinical psychology vies with chemistry as the largest single PhD subject," he says. The British Psychological Society, the professional association for psychologists, now has 33,228 full UK members; in 1995 it had fewer than 20,000 (and just 811 in 1941).
Robbie Coltrane's portrayal of Fitz, the grumpy but effective criminal psychologist in the television drama Cracker, has played an important part in popularising psychology. "The great explosion in psychology dates from the Nineties, and it was a result of media influence--the 'Cracker effect' entered the psychological lexicon," says Ball. "In the Eighties everyone wanted to be a vet because of All Creatures Great and Small, and now everyone wants to be a forensic scientist because of CSI and Silent Witness. …