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. Psychology has been growing steadily since it took off in the Nineties. It will be interesting to watch psychology as a profession over the next few years to see if it expands because of the weight of qualifiers."
Similarly, the growth of counselling cannot have hindered psychology's popularity. People keep asking me if I'm going into counselling. If I were, I could set up in business tomorrow; counselling remains unregulated, while psychology has regulated standards. A qualification in psychology can only add to a counsellor's credibility.
Are we turning out more shrinks than we need? Will we end up with half the country busily psychoanalysing the other half? No, and no. The old cliché of lying on the couch discussing one's childhood at a fat hourly rate is a tiny part of what psychologists do: they are far more likely to be working with young offenders or autistic children. And it is a minority of psychology graduates who end up practising, even though there is an acute shortage of clinical and educational psychologists in particular. "What people don't realise is that, to practise at all, you have to put in another three years at least after you graduate," says one recently qualified. "You need a PhD to become an educational or clinical psychologist, so you're looking at a training that's comparable to studying medicine, but with a lower salary. You don't go into this for the money, especially if you are a mature student. If you were after money, you'd retrain as a barrister."
Or why get started at all, particularly as a mature student? After all, starting a degree when 40 is looming is no joke financially, particularly with no guarantee of ever getting the brass plate on the door. If you've already worked your way up one ladder, it's daunting to stand at the foot of another. Getting professionally qualified as a psychologist certainly isn't easy for twenty somethings, but if you are a mature student, have been in work for a while, and have a hefty mortgage, you are likely to find it very difficult, in both time and money, to put in the extensive, often voluntary - and thus unpaid - work experience that is expected even before you start in a junior trainee position.
Yet, although every would-be psychologist I spoke to acknowledged the difficulties of getting on to a good course and staying the distance, not one regretted any aspect of their studies. They found their courses far more wide-ranging than they had imagined, they felt they had learned a huge amount, and they particularly felt that anyone who thinks psychology is some kind of trendy soft option should sign up and see for themselves.
"Psychology is often simply described as the study of human behaviour, which sounds very attractive," says Dr Simon Green. "To get into the top universities is difficult, but there are roughly 150 courses available, and if you look at the clearing lists there are always lots of places going." Take one of those places on a whim, and you may be in for either a nasty shock or a pleasant surprise. Anyone who has studied even to A-level standard, explains Green, will discover that, if psychology is taught correctly, there is a strong statistical element to it, in addition to its neuroscience and brain-function components: it is not simply sitting around discussing why people behave as they do.
For mature students, there is also the age factor. When the framed certificate is on the wall, will anyone want to employ you? If you were consulting a psychologist, or finding one for your child or your grandmother, would you have more confidence in a twentysomething, or in a fortysomething who clearly had some life experience under their belt? I suspect I'm not the only one banking on a little gravitas and even a few wrinkles being less of a hindrance in psychology than they would be elsewhere. But this may well be whistling in the dark. Strictly speaking, it is illegal to discriminate on the grounds of age. However, much training is funded by the National Health Service or local authorities, and they want their pound of flesh: as many years of work as they can get out of you.
"I think that is incredibly short-sighted," says another recent graduate, aged 40, who is applying for assistant clinical positions, and has yet to get an interview. "This is a great age. If you qualify in your mid-forties, if you have children, they may be grown up, and if you don't, you won't be looking at a career break to start a family. Retirement age is getting older and you have up to 20 solid years of work left."
Determination is not in short supply. "I firmly believe that in five years' time I will be working, in some capacity, in psychology, using what I have learned," says one freelance commercial researcher, aged 36, in her final year of a part-time degree. "I want to work with geriatrics. It is deeply unglamorous but, in however small a way, I will be helping others."
Those psychologists in full . . .
A career with an ever-expanding workplace
Clinical psychologists: They work with people who suffer from a wide range of problems, including mental illness, depression, neurological disorders, addiction and learning difficulties. The clinical psychologist can assess, diagnose and treat. Clinical psychologists are likely to specialise in a particular type of client - for example, senior citizens or families. They are often based in community hospitals and health centres, and may work closely with social services.
Counselling psychologists: A fairly recent addition to the psychology spectrum. They combine theory with a therapeutic approach akin to counselling, and can be found in industry, commerce and schools, as well as healthcare and social-care posts.
Educational psychologists: As the name suggests, these experts work with young people in education, through nurseries, schools, colleges and special units, as well as local education authorities. They support pupils who have problems with learning and behaviour, and one of their key roles is assessing children with special needs. Until very recently, educational psychologists had to be qualified, experienced teachers. Because of this, and the long training required, they are in very short supply.
Forensic psychologists: Cracker types who specialise in legal and criminal psychology. They work with offenders and prison staff, give evidence in court, and work on crime analysis. They also facilitate rehabilitation; and may be called upon to assist with hostage negotiation.
Health psychologists: Another new field, which aims to promote good practice in health-related fields, including diet, smoking, drug use and helping manage severe or long-term illness. They may, for example, support families and carers when someone falls gravely ill. They may work in hospitals, or in partnership with GP practices and rehabilitation units.
Occupational psychologists: These are found in the workplace, as their role relates to performance and includes elements of ergonomics and time management. They aim to increase not only business efficiency, but also employee satisfaction.
Sports psychologists: Athletes these days train not only physically, but mentally. Sports psychologists work with sportsmen and women and their coaches to increase motivation, cope with the demands of training and competing, and enhance performance.