Psychoanalysis is the study of the unconscious mind, and if you want to study it, you have to have the courage to investigate your own. All trainee psychoanalysts are required to lie on the stereotypical sofa and undergo an intensive personal analysis for a minimum of three years.

"It takes a certain type of person," says Caroline Polmear, head of training at the Institute of Psychoanalysis (IOP) who has been in private practice for 20 years. "You have to be able to identify with your patients without being judgmental. Most importantly, you need passion – it takes a lot of dedication to go through such intensive training."

The training is, indeed, highly demanding. As well as personal analysis, most courses include theoretical and supervised clinical work and take four years to complete (although it's possible to finish in three). At the Institute, the first year is spent almost entirely on personal analysis – one hour five times a week – but the work soon snowballs. In the second year, you add on theoretical seminars, and begin seeing your first patient five times a week under supervision. In the third year, you are given a second patient on top of that.

"It would be silly to pretend it's not gruelling, but it's also exhilarating and new and interesting," says Josh Cohen, a recent graduate of the IOP. "You learn to realise how elastic the day is – I'd see my first patient at 7am, go and teach at Goldsmiths, see my second patient in the evening, go to a seminar and finish around 10pm."

Trainees come from a variety of backgrounds, but they often have some clinical training. Cohen was a bit of an exception. When he entered training at 34, he was working full time as an English literature academic at Goldsmiths, a position he managed to keep up throughout the course. Before applying, he gained important clinical experience by volunteering an afternoon a week in a hospital – something the Institute can help to arrange.

When they feel ready, applicants are subject to an intensive application process. The application form is time consuming, the questions are personal, and you can expect to be interviewed by a prestigious panel. But according to Cohen, the process can be insightful as well as daunting. "One rarely gets an opportunity to think about the major events that made an impact on you or what makes you happy," he says. "The whole process was an interesting exercise in self-reflection."

The personal analysis sessions on the course are conducted very differently. In keeping with the psychoanalysis discipline, they rely heavily on a technique known as "free association", whereby the client reveals whatever happens to be in their mind at the time. Together you analyse why you might be experiencing certain states of mind, which includes feelings as much as thoughts. It is a joint journey of self-discovery.

According to Cohen, such training can fundamentally alter preconceptions. "As an academic I was used to associating authority with telling people things they didn't know. It was quite surprising to find that being a decent psychoanalyst has nothing to do with that. Patients wanted to make discoveries by themselves. I had to give up being the teacher."

Of course, such eye-opening training costs money. Although the teaching fees at the Institute are kept low – just £450 a year – the compulsory personal analysis sessions cost about £45 each. Taking them five times a week adds up – the total cost of training is estimated to be £11,000 a year. The institute does allow the seven-to-ten students it takes on a year the chance to take up a £15,000 interest-free loan to be paid back within seven years of graduating. But for those not sure whether to take the plunge, a year-long foundation course of evening classes provides a taster, and open days are held in Leeds and London in May and June.

Geography can be an obstacle for psychoanalysis trainees. The key institutions offering training – the British Psychoanalytical Association and the Society of Analytical Psychologists as well as the IOP – are based in London. The latter offers some supervised clinical practice up North, but some travel remains inevitable.

The pays-offs, however, are high. Most psychoanalysts work in the private sector, and can expect to make £40,000 to £60,000 a year. Cohen is now going part-time at Goldsmiths to build up a private practice. "It's a very subtle and exacting discipline, but when the light dawns it's incredibly rewarding," he says. "I look forward to getting out of bed early to see my first patient."

Fact file


Three main institutions offer training – the Institute of Psychoanalysis (IOP), the Society of Analytical Psychologists and the newly formed British Psychoanalytical Association. Training takes a minimum of three years, but is usually completed in four or five.


Most psychoanalysts work privately and earn £40,000-£60,000 a year.

Open Evenings

The IOP has one in Leeds on 12 May and another in London on 9 June.