Applying for your Psychology Masters?

I have lectured Psychology Honour’s students for seven years, which means that at this time of year, I’m inundated with requests for referee reports for Psychology Masters applications! There is much mystery surrounding the selection process. Who will be selected? What is the interview process like? What if I don’t get in? Psychology Masters

Most students are engrained to believe that Master’s selection would be close to impossible! I remember visiting the admissions department at Stellenbosch University in my Matric year. I was encouraged to register for a B.A. Social Work for a number of reasons, but particularly because selection for Masters is “unlikely.” I’m all for being rational and realistic, but I remember the disappointment that day. I also remember my first week at Varsity: “So, what are you studying?” “Well, I’m studying Social Work but I want to be a Psychologist!”

In South Africa, to register as a Psychologist (Clinical or Counselling) you need a Master’s Degree. If you go the Clinical route, you need to complete a community service year before you can register for independent practice. Masters takes two years to complete (some universities are now introducing a third year). According to my experience, the first year is a combination of theory and practical experience. The second year is a full-time (usually paid) internship. During these two years you need to complete your thesis.

Acceptance into Masters is highly competitive – usually only 8 students are selected annually for each university programme and hundreds of students apply! In my Honour’s year, there were 60 students. Only 8 were accepted to do each Master’s programme in Clinical and Counselling Psychology. You can imagine the frenzy when our marks were pinned to the notice board after our first exam – everyone would scope out the competition!

Of course, marks are only one aspect of being selected. They mostly are important to obtain an interview. The Master’s programme is challenging, academically and emotionally, and the lecturers want to know that you will cope with the work load. On the other hand, you can have some of the highest marks, but if you don’t have the personality or emotional capacity to be a therapist, you will not be accepted.

Many students ask my advice on how to improve their chances of getting selected. While I have never been involved in the selection process as a lecturer, these are some suggestions:

  • Gain practical experience. I think that my undergraduate Social Work gave me valuable experience with individual, group and community interventions. I also volunteered as a life skills trainer at a local high school and was a student assistant during my Honours year. The Psychology Department want to know that you have experience in working with people, particularly in the community where much of your training will take place. This is why applicants with more work/life experience are often preferred.
  • Start therapy. There is no better way to learn about being a therapist than being in therapy! In addition, you will gain more insight into yourself. Interviewers don’t want to hear “I’m a people-person” in your interview. They want to know if you understand yourself, that you can separate yourself from your client’s issues and value self-care in an often demanding career. Therapy is usually compulsory during your Master’s training.
  • Have good referees. Each application requires 2-3 referee reports. The reports are preferably from Psychologists (not mom or dad!) and people who know you well. Take a look at the questions in the report and make sure your referee will be able to answer most of them. It may sound obvious, but select someone who you think will write a strong motivation. I have had a request from a student who bunked most classes. I turned down her request – I have to be honest in the report as my reputation and credibility are at stake. I had three lecturers as referees. One in the Psychology Department and two from the Social Work Department. They each knew me well and I had strong relationships with them.
  • Apply to as many universities as possible.  However, make sure you are able to afford to travel to the university if you are invited for an interview. It is a valuable experience to go through different interview processes and it can increase your chance for selection. If you are in Cape Town, make sure to apply to Stellenbosch, UCT and UWC who all have excellent programmes. Find out what the theoretical approach is for the university that you apply to. I specifically wanted to train at Stellenbosch as I knew that they had a stronger focus on Cognitive-Behaviour Therapy (CBT) at the time.
  • Contact a Master’s student for advice. If you are offered an interview, make contact with a student who has recently been through the university’s selection to get an idea of the questions, process and programme. It can help prepare you and calm your nerves! I was fortunate to meet a student before my interviews. He gave me valuable insight into what to expect. My selection process included a group activity (we were observed based on our group interaction skills and while discussing a case study), writing an essay on our view of Psychology in the South African context, a one-hour one-on-one interview, and finally, a panel interview. This was in 2001, so the process may be quite different now. Each university has their own format.

Remember that not everyone gets accepted the first time they apply. Some of the most respected and skilled Psychologists that I know, applied more than once. If you do not get accepted, ask for feedback from the course coordinator. There are often specific things that you can work on to improve your application for the next year. Always have a “Plan B” (mine was Social Work). Recognise that if the time is not right, it may be the best time for you to travel, gain work experience and life lessons. Perhaps the change of focus will steer you into a direction you had not expected, or perhaps it leads you back to Psychology. Good luck!

43 thoughts on “Applying for your Psychology Masters?

  1. I am a matric student who is taking a gap year next year. I am interested in studying clinical psychology however specialising in forensic psychology. I understand that this field is not particularly in demand in South Africa. I live in Cape Town so any advice on which universities and career options I should take? Would be greatly appreciated.

  2. Hi Jennifer! I trust your matric exams went well. Forensic Psychology is not necessarily not in demand, South Africa does not have that registration category as yet. It is a possibility in years to come, but for now you would only be able to do a degree in Clinical Psychology (up to your masters to register) and have a special interest in forensics. I believe that there are specific degrees overseas in this field. I did my community service year in the Forensic Unit at Lentegeur Hospital, but certainly do not consider myself a specialist in forensics. I recommend that you contact the career centre at a university closest to you to look at your options. All the best!

  3. Hi there Nicky, thanks for your interessting article. I´m a european psychology student stuying towards my Bachelor right now. I would really love to do my Honours and Master degreee in SA, but do you think I will have any chances as a foreigner?

  4. what is my chance of getting a master in clinical psychology in south africa. I studied guidance and counselling in nigeria. please I need your advice.

  5. I’d recommend that you contact the Health Profession’s Council of South Africa and ask them to refer you to an institution who can look at your credits from your studies and see if it is equivalent to a South African Honour’s degree in Psychology. Best wishes!

  6. I m an honours a 2.1 holder and from Zimbabwe,l have a Saqa certificate, equivalent to SA’s honours. I know my chances of entering a clinical or counselling psy from my readings of diverse psychology offering universities is zero or none,can l start MA in social Work being a psy major for four years without any social work background

  7. I would advise that you contact a university in South Africa and enquire with the Master’s coordinator whether your application will be accepted. I cannot imagine why if it is officially equivalent to our Honours. You will need to travel to the university for their selection interviews if you are successful in getting offered an interview. Selection is usually July-September for most programmes. Social Work would require credits in their undergraduate module – you need a 4-year degree in Social Work to practice. Contact your closest university in SA to enquire. Best wishes

  8. hi, i currently completed my honours degree in psychology. im applying for Masters in clinical psychology this year but i would like to gain more experience. are there any organization you’d suggest i contact? i also completed my honours at unisa and i did all my modules in 1 year. i cant ask the lectures to be referees as i only communicated with them via emails, can you please advice me on what i can do. thank you 🙂

  9. hi there, thanks for your informative website! 🙂 really helpful!

  10. Hi Nicky,
    I am a frustated Pschychologist who in working in finance. I have a BComm degree and am a certified financial planner. I would like to do a complete career change and become a pschychologist. I cannot, for financial reasons, study full-time but I want to start studying part-time in June this year. Do you have any advice and pointers for me.

  11. Dear Tshililo if you’re wanting to study part-time, UNISA is your only option in South Africa. The great thing is that you can start in June with 1st year modules. You’ll need to contact UNISA directly for more information. Just remember that if you want to register as a Psychologist, you will need to study full-time for your Masters. Only the undergrad degree and Honours are possible part-time. Masters will generally entail one year full-time studies, followed by an internship that is usually paid. Good luck!

  12. Thank you so much for this incredibly insightful advice Nicky!! I’ve been living in Australia for the past few years and can’t wait to return to SA. I completed a SA honours degree last year and as such I’m applying to 6 universities. I truly hope I get accepted into at least one. Your scrupulous feedback is certainly helpful! Congratulations on Nicky’s Drive and all the very best for your future endeavours 🙂

  13. Thanks, Melissa! Good luck with your Masters’ applications. Make sure that your application stands out (there are often hundreds submitted) by focusing on what makes you unique!

  14. Hi Nicky. I’m currently doing my MA in Industrial Psychology. Ideally, I’d like to switch over to counselling or clinical psychology sometime in the future, after I have some life experience.

    Would you know if it is possible to enter into an MA in Clinical or Counselling Psych if I hold an honours in Organisational/Industrial Psych? Or would I have to start from the beginning again? Been trawling the web but I have yet to find an answer.

    Thanks for the informative post!

  15. Hi Nicky. Thank you so much for this article, it has helped me at a time when I am faced with a crossroads kind of decision. I did my Honours in Psychology through UNISA and was taught Psychopathology by you at Varsity college in 2010. I have since been working as a Human Resource practitioner and volunteering at lifeline part time. Although my work is people focused I can’t shrug the feeling that I am in they wrong line of work as my study focus was Psychology and not Organizational Psychology for the reason that I specifically enjoy connecting with people on more of an emotional level than an administrative and business level. I do get some fulfillment in the work that I do, but have always wanted to be a psychologist. When I was in your class, I was motivated and inspired by the person and professional that you are. I have applied and been accepted into a masters Programme in Whales, which is not enough for me to be registered as a psychologist in SA or in the UK (I would need to do a 3 year PHD that side to register with the British Psychology association). I know that the work experience that I have gained over the past three years would not give an advantage enough to be accepted into a clinical masters Programme in South Africa. I guess I would like to know whether pursuing the overseas masters (together with some practical experience) would assist my profile into a clinical masters Programme or shall I just focus on gaining some part time practical experience whilst working in SA.

    Thank you again for this informative post!
    Boitumelo Peters

  16. Hi Nicky. Thanks for the insight. Can you shed some light on the interview process at the three Universities in Cape Town please?

  17. Thank You for the blog, i sent through about 6 applications and i am praying for the best.

  18. Nicky, I am a Clinician myself and I should say it is very commendable of you to share your experiences and give practical advises to our prospective psychologists.
    To echo your words: My experience is that students enrolling for B.A with psychology as a one of the modules are often inclined to saying that they are studying psychology when asked on the corridors what they are actually studying..Well you are setting a trap to your disappointment. WHY?
    In that your B.A psychology class of almost 500-to-1000 students only 15-to-20 or even less are likely to graduate with masters degrees (clinical, counselling, research and/or industrial) in psychology.
    This is not intended to scare you or demotivate you , but to assist you in projecting mountains you are likely to climb o your journey and for you to tighten your shoe laces, because you are searching for a lost needle without your spectacles on!!

  19. Hi Nicky
    I was wondering if you can help me. I am interested in becoming a lecturer in psychology and I am particularly interested in Research Psychology and/or Social psychology. I love teaching and would like to combine in with research and psychology. I am busy with my MA Psychology (by dissertation only) , but someone informed me that I actually need to be a registered psychologist (either educational, counseling or clinical) in order to be considered for a position as a psychology lecturer /teacher? Do you know if this is true? I thought teaching experience and at least a masters degree in Psych is enough/

  20. Dear Nicky
    I have finished my BA (HSS) qualification this year through Unisa. I would like to become a counselling psychologist. I am only able to study part time. Can you may advise on the way forward?

  21. Hey Nicky! Thank you so much for this article! I want to study Psychology, but I am not sure as to which field I should get into. Can you help? What types of psychologists are in most demand in South Africa?

  22. Hi Nicky, I just found your post. I want to become a Registered Counsellor. I have it all planned out. Get my Bachelor’s Degree, then my Honours Degree, Do a year worth of practicum, Write the National Board Examintaion and register as a Counsellor. But is it really that easy? I was thinking of studying through Unisa, for I have some learning disabilities. And then moving over for my Honours to Stellenbosch University. Is that possible? I am really confused, but also really determined to fulfill this dream of mine. Any advice? Thanks

  23. Hey Boitumelo – Is UNISA a good place to study Psychology,? (I have a learning disability so I think distant learning would be suitable for me) I am going back and forth as to if UNISA is the right place. I’ve heard a lot of complaints and I’m a bit unsure. Any advice? Thanks

  24. hi Nicky I am a Social Work student at wits and I wish to go into industrial psychology but I am not sure of where to head after I get my degree

  25. Good Day Nicky

    Thank you so much for this interesting piece. I currently hold my BA in Psychology, graduated a few years ago, then did an internship with Department of roads and public work in their Employee Assistance Programmes office.
    I have decided to go back to school to pursue my Honours in Psychology and would like to go as far as an HPCSA registration.

    If i study part-time, how many years will it take to get to that registration?

  26. Prosper, you and I are in the same shoes but how did SAQA qualify Zim honours toSAs. I have heard that SA honours is a 4 year programme so you need to do another year of field work for you to qualify to study a masters programme. Zim is 3 years usually so I am not sure which is which unless you did a 4 year programme yourself.

  27. Hi Nicky, i am currently studying my Bsc degree which was 4years, i’m on my final year this year,majoring in Psych,now i know i must do Hons,but at the same time i want to do my community service or internship. is it possible that you direct me to any organizations that could help me establish myself in becoming a clinical psychologist. i study at Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University, formerly known as University of Limpopo Medunsa Campus

  28. If you want to register as a counsellor straight out of honours ensure that the university’s honours program is accredited by the HPCSA. Stellenbosch’s program is academic only.

  29. Do a Bpsych degree and then the internship and then you can register as a counsellor….DON’T do a BA if you wish to register as a counsellor.

    At the moment Unisa had to suspend it’s Bpsych programme but they are hoping to have it up and running again in 2016/2017. Goodluck

  30. Hi Munei. Unfortunately you cannot do Clinical Psychology internship and community service until you’ve completed your Honours in Psychology and Masters in Clinical Psychology. I’d recommend you speak to your lecturers to find out if there are any community projects that you can do voluntary work to increase your work experience and get a feel for Psychology in the South African context. Good luck!

  31. Thanks for the input, Lerinda.

  32. Thanks for your contribution to this discussion 🙂

  33. Dear Zanele. Apologies for the delayed response (my website never sent me a notification of your message). If you want to be registered as a Psychologist (Clinical or Counselling) you have to do a Master’s degree full-time (even UNISA’s Masters is full-time in Pretoria).

  34. Hi Vee. I’m not familiar with the requirements for Industrial Psychology. Your best bet will be to contact the Wits Industrial Psychology head of department for some advise on the way forward. All the best 🙂

  35. It’s always best to contact the university directly to find out about the credits for your degree. In SA, you need an Honours in Psychology (4 years) to be eligible to apply for your Masters. I know of a student who did a three year degree in Psychology in the UK and had to do her Honours in SA before she could apply for Masters. Good luck!

  36. I am currently studying through UNISA to complete my Honors in Psychology. As a person with a with a person with a very slow reading a writing speed due to a medical condition I can say they are very accomadating when it comes to giving extra time provided you can give them a doctor or psychologists motivation for it.

    I did find the work to be confusing at times and some lecturers can be a drag. But in general I would rate my experience as pretty good.

  37. Hi Lee. This is just my opinion, but you can achieve much more (academically) if you are in a learning situation where you have (effective) contact with lecturers. I studied my honours through unisa and my experience was that the psych lecturers frequently gave me exact same marks for each assignment than I got for the first one (one reason among others for raising my suspicion that they did not mark assignments, but just screened the first one and estimated a mark for all subsequent assignments). The majority of the lecturers did either not understand their subject matter well enough to give good answers to questions or completely failed to respond to emails or phone calls and it was few (like maybe one), who was actually available for academic support should you need any clarity regarding subject matter. Furthermore, you never see your lecturers and this is a big downfall for people who wish to apply for master’s selection, since the universities ask for at least one referee to be a lecturer from your honours year. This means that your referee (who must be from unisa if you did your honours through them), will be unable to provide any valuable information regarding your personality, ability to deal with stress etc. They do not know you. One of the questions on the referee report, is “how many hours per week did you spend with the candidate recently”. Their answer wilk be none or “How long have you known the candidate?” On which they will reply: “I do not know him/her personally”. However, the info they are able to give, regarding your academic abilities, is really reduntant, because this info will already be given on your academic record. This makes for a very poor referee report. For anybody, especially people with learning difficulties, my opinion is that it would be better to study their honours through a university where they can actually build a relationship with their lecturers. This is an invaluable asset in achieving their best academic potential. From experience, I know this too well. By some miracle I got selected for my masters degree, but I have regrets when it comes to my marks for my honours year. I achieved a merely satisfactory average of only 67 for my honours. For M.A selection, the lowest acceptable average is usually 65. I studied my butt off, but with not being able to get through to lecturers and receiving dichotonomous info in outdated study tutorials regarding what can be expected in the exams (as happens too frequently with unisa), achieving ones potential is less likely than in other circumstances and with other universities. I have achieved an average of 78% for my masters thus far, which is more consistent with my abilities and with what I usually expect to attain, and I am finishing off my dissertation just now. I am not working harder than I did for my honours, I am working just as hard. But I am working smarter. My lecturer /supervisor for my study is such a big supporter of my work and working so closely with her, is inspirational. I would trade nothing for being able to have this- not even for the advantages of distance learning such as having no class and just carrying on at my own pace & time. I wish I had experiences and relationships with lecturers like I have now, back when I was doing my honours. With unisa honours, this is not possible. Achieving your best is not just about having the discipline to study hard and to study on your own, it is about that contact with lecturers and being in the classroom where knowledge can also be explored in a practical manner. I feel that anybody who is serious about getting entry into a programme where the selection is tough, would make a mistake to study through unisa and not through another university where they could get a more hands-on experience. However, this is just my opinion and other people may disagree and feel completely different about Psychology Honours studies through Unisa.

  38. Hi Nicky
    Thank you for this valuable commentary for a Clinical Psychologist in waiting. Do you perhaps know the focus of the SMU MSc Clinical Psychology programme.

  39. Hi Nicky. Your article has been very helpful in preparing me for what is ahead. I am currently in Matric and have been accepted to Stellenbosch for a BA (Social Dynamics) and a BSc Life Sciences (with a stream in Psychology). Both can lead to postgraduate studies in Psychology. I plan on becoming a Clinical Psychologist and specialising as a Forensic Psychologist. I am aware of the difficult entry procedures but beleive that I can cope, I received 6 A’s for my AS examinations and received top in South Africa for IGCSE English last year. However, I am currently unable to decide between doing the BA and BSc. Would doing a BA hurt my chances of getting a Master’s? I was thinking about doing the BSc majoring in psych and genetics. Would that give me an advantage over others? please may you reply, I am in dire need of professional advice.

  40. Hi Nicky You are a motivation and inspiration to those who have the passion in the field of Psychology. I am presently an educator who holds a BEd Honors (Special Needs/Inclusive Education.My dream was to always become a psychologist.kindly advise on the way forward regarding a possible study programme at any university in KZN in the field of psychology. Vijay

  41. Hi Boitumelo. Just following up on your progress with your Psychology career? I hope you are well! Nicky

  42. Minette, I’m keen to hear about how your career in psychology is going? Thank you for sharing your valuable experiences on my blog. I’ve only seen these comments today as my email notification was not working…!

  43. Hi Nicky,
    I am have just completed by BA Honours Psychology, and i am looking to apply for masters in educational psychology. i have been working and studying all through my undergrad and honours studies, as well as volunteering for the last 2 and a half years at life line. the problem i am having is that i need an academic reference but studying through UNISA has not given me the opportunity to interact with my lectures. Do you have any suggestions?

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