Is Studying Psychology A Waste Of Time?

Is A Psychology Career A Waste Of Time

Studying psychology in South Africa is potentially a waste of time if one is seeking employment and /or entrepreneurial pursuits shortly after graduating. Each year, tertiary institutions in South Africa are producing thousands of Psychology majors at undergraduate and postgraduate level. Unfortunately, many of these graduates find themselves albeit frustratingly in possession of a degree that is practically useless. Most of the skills and qualifications acquired over a three- or four-year period have little to no real viable career options in the South African context and lived experiences. Studying psychology can often be at best the acquisition of knowledge and college experience for personal growth and at worst, a waste for time, money, and resources, to which most students cannot afford that privilege.

What is Psychology?

The word psychology is derived from the Greek words psyche and logos meaning ‘study of the soul’. However traditionally psychology concerns itself with the study of the mind and human behaviour. Psychology as a field of study began in 1854 in Leipzig, Germany. The history of  psychology is fascinating , it is also violence and dark. Modern psychology is  Western and has many founding fathers. Some of the most popular  names in mainstream culture are Sigmund Freud, Wilhem Wundt, John B Waston, B F Skinner, Carl Rogers, among others.

Psychology as a matter of principle is not a science. It is a form of art, literature. It branched out from Philosophy. The field of Psychology has simply borrowed the language and methods of other disciplines grounded in science like Biology, Mathematics, Physics among others to draw on conclusions. This does not however make it a science. A scientific theory needs to yield predications, which are tested to falsify the theory. This is critical in defining any study as a science. In Psychology this research design is very difficult to establish.

They are four reasons why psychology cannot yield testable, falsifiable predications these are:

  1. ethics (Human experiments),
  2. psychological uncertainty principle (borrowed from physics), the human subject is influenceable,
  3. uniqueness (you cannot repeat a psychological experiment ever, the subject matter is changing all the time) and
  4. the under-generation of testable hypothesis, this is because of the story-telling nature of psychology.

This does not mean Psychology is not an important and useful field of study. It absolutely is!

The Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM) which is the ‘Bible’ of Psychiatry and Psychology is an attempt to ground this discipline in science, however it is incorrect to pass the DSM as science.

The disciple of psychology is a wide and diverse field of study. It’s  interests are human beings as the primary subjects.

The most popular fields of study in South Africa are clinical psychology, counselling psychology, education psychology, and forensic psychology, but they are many others.


Studying psychology in South Africa.

Undergraduate psychology courses are extremely popular in South African universities, with at least one in five students taking undergraduate psychology (Cooper & Nicholas, 2012; Louw, 2002). These courses appear to attract a diversity of students; in 2002, for example, black women comprised the largest group (31%) of undergraduate psychology students at South African universities (Skinner & Louw, 2009). At undergraduate level it is relatively easy for a potential student to gain entry into  study majoring in psychology. The demographic entry is diverse in race, language, culture, and gender.

However, as graduates move to postgraduate studies, the admission levels significantly decrease so does the demographic diversity in gender, race, and language. This leaves many students with a bachelor’s degree and/or an Honours Degree in Psychology. These degrees can be difficult to translate into useful and needed skills within the South African context.

The problem with Psychology as a career option in South Africa.

Psychology as a career option in South Africa is often a long and frustrating journey for many people. Firstly, at undergraduate level there is little to no information and knowledge provided to prospective students on the reality of the chosen path of study.

Most prospective students are not aware that they cannot do much with a bachelor’s degree majoring in psychology.

It takes an average of between 6-7 years to be a qualified as a clinical or counselling psychologist for an example. This includes three years at undergraduate level, one year at Honours level and two years at master’s level (one year doing coursework and another year doing internship).

Unfortunately for most psychology students their dreams will come to an abrupt halt by the time they get to Honours level if they make it that far. This is because once a student completes their undergraduate study the stumbling blocks intensify.

Honour’s level study is not an automatic entry,  students would have had to prove academic prowess at undegraduate level with an average of between 65-70% minimum entry for most universities.

If a student is successful and gains entry into Honour’s study, the disillusionment becomes more jarring.

Most Honours programmes  in psychology currently offered by tertiary institutions in South Africa  have a theoretical framework. Students graduate Honours without any practical experience  and / or fieldwork.

It is only when studying Bpsych Equivalent that one can professionalise their qualification and register as a counsellor through the HPSCA.

However, this  route is beyond the reach of most for a number of reasons, namely, very few universities and colleges offer this option, the selection criteria is elusive, and the fee structures are beyond the reach of a lot of students.

Master’s study for psychology students in South Africa gets even more complex. Of the thousands of graduates produced at undergraduate level, only a tiny number is selected.

Most tertiary colleges have capacity for an average of ten Master’s students each academic year.

This makes the profession extremely competitive and elitist. The selection criteria at Master’s level is arbitrary, confusing, and elusive to say the least. Students who gain entry are usually accepted after several failed attempts. Rarely does one get into Master’s study immediately after graduating Honour’s level.

Relevance is also another dilemma with ongoing debates in the field of psychology. Qualified Psychologists of all races and languages in South Africa usually follow the western approach as the field is grounded in Western thinking and ideologies.

Healing modalities practised are not always relatable to the diverse people living in South Africa. Whilst in on itself there is nothing wrong in Western approaches to healing as many have found the methods practiced useful, it is not the absolute.

Psychology as a field has imposed onto all cultures throughout the world, often ignoring the nuances of context, culture, lived experiences among other variables. Students, especially black students struggle to identify with the studies which can only add further frustrations towards pursuing a career in this field.

The field of psychology is still embedded in elitist, classist, racial and gendered discriminatory complex dynamics that make it difficult to enjoy the field without the politicking. This is both intended and unintented.


What happens to psychology students who do not make it into Master’s study?

Psychology students who do not make it into master’s study face some difficult decisions depending on individual circumstances. They are various options available, some of the options include:

  1. Research as much as possible prior to applying to study in the field of psychology so at least you chose the program that will yield the best possible results and options for you depending on your circumstances.
  2. Becoming a teacher by obtaining a Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE). This however is also not straightforward as it may require taking additional modules before one’s application is approved
  3. Studying further at private colleges like SACAP, in order to qualify with an Honours  BPsych Equivalent . This enables one to become Registered Counsellor through HPCSA. Unfortunately, the fees are usually beyond the reach of many so this is for those who can still afford this option,  further entrenching elitism.
  4. Register through other SAQA professional boards like ASCHP as a counsellor, specialist wellness counsellor among other gazetted designations. This article can explain to you the differences between registering through HPCSA, ASCHP . The scope of practice applicable under each designation, titles to occupy among other specifications.
  5. Psychology is a general degree, the knowledge and skills acquired can be transferrable to other careers in marketing, public relations, HR, administration work among other alternatives. One must create the path for themselves and apply resilience, grit, and perseverance to achieve success as defined by each person.
  6. Change careers to something else
  7. Use support systems like Cognition and Co for those interested in pursuing careers as registered clinical, counselling, educational psychologists. Cognition and Co bridges the gap between tertiary institutions, government, and students by providing useful information and practical steps to prospective students, undergraduates, and postgraduates. An example is Cognition and Co provides guidelines, coaching and mentorship programmes for students applying into Master’s studies (mostly free). Some of their offerings attract a fee. It’s a small price to pay given the useful information and support provided. This significantly eliminates unnecessary headaches and further time-wasting towards achieving your career goals.
  8. Volunteering at NGOs like Lifeline, SADAG et cetera. This may improve employability and or gaining practical experience which may significantly improve one’s CV, help build references (especially important  for those students who study via UNISA where direct access to lecturers is limited)  This can also  help in eventually gaining acceptance into Master’s level fulltime study in Clinial Psychology or Counselling Psychology.



South Africa is a country with a population of about 53 million people. It has an approximate 11 000 registered psychologists. The need for mental health professionals is clearly there.

They are various solutions to address some of the challenges in pursuing a career within the field of psychology. Below are some of the suggestions:

  1. Government’s allocations of resources to the mental health field from infrastructure, policy-making and money injection. This impacts directly the entire field as it allows for increased uptake of master’s level students at tertiary institutions  henceof producing more psychologists, registered counsellors and other relevant and ethically regulated mental health professionals.
  2. Issues around Professionalisation need to be better addressed to avoid frivolous and superficial debates and fights on who is actually “qualified therefore better” in practising in the field of psychology under the different designations available in the South African context
  3. In-take at undergraduate level if resources are not available should match the in-take at postgraduate level. This may help to alleviate false hope, waste of time, resources and poor statistics by producing graduates into the South African job market who basically have little to no prospects of ever being hired in their area of study.
  4. Changing the curriculums and framework of study in psychology from undergraduate level. Each year and level of study should allow for opportunities to gain practical experience and application of theoretical knowledge acquired within the South African context through fieldwork.
  5. A revolutionary approach to the field of psychology that allows for lived experiences and an African-centred view needs to continue to take place. They are organisations like GMHPN who are pushing for research and data on lived experiences unique to Africa. Other professionals like Dr Kopano Ratele author of the book The World Looks Like This from Here. Thoughts on African Psychology are through their work contributing in re-defining and challenging existing narratives in relation to America/Eurocentric approaches to Psychology.

Psychology is a fascinating field of study that influences and impacts our everyday lived experiences. It is important and useful.  It could do a lot more to benefit us all as a people despite its own limitations if approached critically, truthfully and with integrity.

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