Studying psychology has endless benefits in South Africa. However in-depth research is important prior to embarking on this career path. This may save you alot of heart-ache and uncessary wasting of time and or resources. Each year, tertiary institutions in South Africa are producing thousands of Psychology graduates. Unfortunately, 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. Whilst the acquistion of any degree is never a waste of time as many skills are acquired in the process, it is important to distiguish the purpose and benefits of studying Psychology as a career choice.
Definition And Benefits Of Studying Psychology
Psychology is defined as the scientific study of mind and behavior. It dates back to around 550 BCE .The word psychology is derived from the Greek words psyche and logos meaning ‘study of the soul’. The use of the term ‘psychology’ is often atributed to the German scholatic philosopher Rudolf Gockel (1547 – 1628).
Psychology as a matter of principle is not a science. Until mid-19th century the discipline of psychology was considered part of philosophy.Psychology as a field has borrowed the language and methods of other disciplines grounded in science like Biology, Mathematics, Physics among others to draw on conclusion. In 1879 Wilhelm Wundt (1832 – 1920) established the first psychology research laboratory in Leipzig, Germany.
Wundt was the first person to refer to himself as a psychologist.
The history of psychology is fascinating and dark. Modern western psychology has many founding fathers. Some of the most popular in mainstream culture include, Sigmund Freud, Wilhem Wundt, John B Waston, B F Skinner, Carl Rogers, Jean Piaget , Abraham H Maslow among others.
The discipline of psychology is wide and diverse. Various approaches to study have been developed over the years. Some of the discipline approaches include:
- Registered Counsellor
- Clinical psychologist
- Counselling psychologist
- Educational psychologist
- Industrial psychologist
- Registered Genetic Counsellor
- Art Therapist
Forensic psychology is yet to be established as a recognised career path in South Africa
Benefits to studying psychology include career ambitions, learning human behaviour and acquiring skills like critical thinking, numeracy, problem-solving, research , writing among other skills. It also has the benefit of everyday use. Psychology has direct practical application to everyday lived experiences. You can apply psychological principles in everyday life to becoming a great leader, quit smoking, improve your memory, make better decisons, become more creative, build a better website, lose weight, haggle, just to mention but a few.
What Is Studying Psychology In South Africa Like?
Studying psychology in South has numerous benefits as indicate above. 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,studying psychology in South Africa is fraught with equally many challenges. 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.
Psychology as a career option has its disadvantages in South Africa. It is often a long and frustrating journey for many students. Some of the challenges faced by current and or prospective students in pscychology include insufficient information at undergraduate level to make informed and better decisions in chosen career path. 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 Registered counsellor through the HPCSA.
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 of most 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 Can I do with A Bachelor’s /Honours Degree In Psychology In South Africa?
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:
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 free guidelines, coaching and mentorship programmes for students applying into Master’s studies. Some of their offerings may attract a small 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.
- 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.
- Change career path by using skills and knowledge acquired in psychology for the transition were possible.
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:
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 Prof 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.