'It can be distressing and solitary'

Gudrun Stummer, 34, is a psychotherapist at the Integrative Psychotherapy Centre in Manchester.

What does a psychotherapist actually do?

I'm trained to work in depth with a client's psychological processes. I encourage them to reflect on their lives and relationships, and learn new skills such as managing anger or anxiety. After the initial interview with a new client, I do several one-on-one sessions where we get to know each other. Then I combine what they've told me about their feelings with my training in psychological theory, to work out what the problem is. Each person needs a completely individual treatment plan.

How does your work schedule pan out?

I normally get up late and do paperwork during the day. Because I'm self-employed, like most psychotherapists, I spend a lot of time doing my accounts and making phone calls. I see clients from about 4 to 9pm, because most people come after they've finished work. At the weekends, I teach people who are training to be psychotherapists and do voluntary work. Most psychotherapists only do 20 contact hours a week with clients. It gets exhausting and draining, so you need to balance it out with time on your own, and with your friends and family.

What's the hardest thing about being a psychotherapist?

You have to be emotionally available to clients who are often angry, disrespectful, or on medication. It can be very distressing. Even if they are giving you a hard time, you need to be committed to them. It's also a very solitary job. You're always on your own with clients, and it's all about them - it's not your space. You need a really good supervisor and to have been through intensive therapy yourself, to be able to cope with the emotional impact.

What's the best thing about it?

You havemoments where you can see people open up, and that feels really amazing. It's like a mini-enlightenment right in front of you. They're more balanced, happy and at peace with themselves, and you can see them go out there and live their lives. And there are precious moments, which are hard to describe - when you meet as two people, and truly share something. It's never boring - clients always keep you on your toes. You're constantly required to grow as a practitioner.

What skills do you need to be a psychotherapist?

It takes a lot more than just sitting there and nodding - it's a really complex skill. Curiosity about yourself, and others, is the main passion you need. Knowing the theory of psychotherapy is a good start, but more important is being able to be present, flexible and able to improvise, because often you're covering new areas. The first year is toughest - you just need to jump in.

What advice would you give someone who wanted your job?

Check out the UKCP website, read some books and go to a workshop to see if you're interested. To qualify, you have to train for four years, and do weekly therapy sessions. You need to be willing to sit there even if you don't have anything to say, because that's often when really interesting things will pop up. If you understand your own pain, you will have compassion. You can only guide people to where you've been yourself.

What's the salary and career path like?

It's not a job to do for the money. A self-employed psychotherapist would be lucky to make more than £20,000 a year, after tax, in the first half of their career, because there are so many overheads. There are also some positions within the NHS. If you're creative, you can build the job around what you are passionate about - diversifying into lecturing, writing books and articles, or running workshops abroad.

The Integrative Psychotherapy Centre's website is www.therapyinmanchester.co.uk. For information on careers and training in psychotherapy, see the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) website, www.psychotherapy.org.uk