Applied Psychology

What kind of career can you have with a masters in psychology?

Jul 09, 2018

Intellectually stimulating and emotionally and mentally satisfying, psychology is nothing if not varied. Here are some of the career doors a Psych Masters opens.

Getting to your masters

Getting your masters in psychology is a challenging and rewarding journey. In most cases, you will have completed a three-year undergraduate degree, with a major in psychology, after which you’ll need to complete an honours degree in psychology before you are eligible for a masters programme. Alternatively, completing a four-year BPsych degree, permitting you to register as a registered counsellor with the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA), will also make you eligible to enter a masters psychology programme.

Something important to bear in mind is that you need to apply and be selected to participate in post-graduate (honours and masters) psychology programmes, meaning that simply passing your undergraduate and honours courses might not be enough! Psychology programmes, especially in undergrad, are extremely popular and competition is tough. If you are serious about getting to a psychology masters, you need to be prepared for a lot of hard work and possibly some disappointment, since you might not get into your preferred programmes on your first try. Psychology students who hope to enter a masters programme are encouraged to cultivate their own interests within the field of psychology and develop themselves in these areas, with volunteering, being one of the most popular options.

Once you’ve reached your honours, you’ll need to decide what programme to apply for. You will usually find yourself drawn to a certain area of psychology that you have studied in your undergraduate or in honours years, although it is common for psychology students to change their minds as they learn more about the field. If you are still stuck, ask yourself, “what kind of problems do I want to solve?” which should help you narrow down where you see yourself making a difference in the world.

Here are the five main career pathways in psychology to get you thinking.

Clinical Psychology

It may surprise you to learn that despite being one of the most well-known career paths in psychology, there are fewer clinical psychologists in South Africa than any other type! Clinical psychologists provide diagnostic and therapeutic services, usually in association with other medical professionals, to patients or clients experiencing mental or emotional distress. Clinical psychologists can work both within the private or public sectors meaning they might open their own practice or work in mental health institutions, hospitals or NGO’s and tend to focus more on identifying and treating mental health disorders, in medium to long term.

Universities that offer masters programmes in clinical psychology will usually accept less than 10 students per year for the clinical programme. Clinical programmes take two years, including a year of internship, and allows those who complete it to register as a clinical psychologist with the HPCSA after writing a board exam and a third year of community service.

Counselling Psychology

Although clinical and counselling psychologists complete similar training, counselling psychologists focus more on supporting clients who are dealing with life challenges and aim to optimise psychological wellbeing. Sometimes these challenges involve mental health problems but often involve supporting clients who are struggling to cope with events in their lives, like changes at school, at work or at home or challenges in relationships. They can work in private practice or within a range of institutions that provide psychotherapeutic support for clients, like organization with wellness services and community-based organisations.

Counselling psychologists usually complete a two-year counselling psychology programme, which include a year of internship before completing a board exam and registering as a counselling psychologist with the HPCSA.

Educational Psychology

Educational psychologists focus on educational development, finding solutions to challenges in teaching and learning. Educational psychologists tend to work more with children and adolescents since they aim to address learning difficulties or promote ways to enhance learning in different contexts. They will usually work in educational institutions like schools and universities, working together with teachers, students and parents to overcome barriers to optimal learning. Practiced in the use of various assessments, educational psychologists will often work closely with school counsellors as well, who will refer any cases that require specialised knowledge and interventions.

Educational psychologists can either complete a three-year undergraduate with a psychology major, followed by a Postgraduate Certificate in Education OR can complete a Bachelor of Education (BEd). This is followed by an Honours BEd before a two-year masters in educational psychology (MEd), including a year of internship permitting registration with the HPCSA as an educational psychologist.

Research Psychology

While all psychologists are likely to be involved in research related to their field, research psychologists are academic psychologists who dedicate their time to uncovering a wide range of knowledge about the human mind and behaviour. They do not provide psychological services to the public like other psychologists, but rather investigate human phenomena to better inform practices both within the field of psychology and other social sciences. Armed with an array of methods to conduct research and an advanced understanding of ethics, they might monitor treatment programmes to ensure their effectiveness or explore the experiences of a particular group of people to better understand their challenges and triumphs.

Research psychologists are equipped to work anywhere that research might take place. They might perform dedicated research at science councils and university research departments, market research at companies or research to enhance public policy and human rights advocacy at NGO’s.

Research psychologists complete a two-year masters research programme consisting of a year of academic coursework and a year placed at an institution that conducts research – following which they can register with the HPCSA as a research psychologist after passing their board exam. Alternatively, a research masters can be completed by dissertation, meaning that a research thesis is submitted without doing the coursework portion, forging registration with the HPCSA.

Industrial Psychology

Industrial or organisational psychologists are most interested in the relationships between employers and employees and seek ways to maximize both productivity and work satisfaction. By studying human behaviour in the workplace, industrial psychologists can provide guidance on career development and placement, streamline organisational processes to promote efficiency but might also be involved in developing knowledge on client needs and consumer habits. Industrial and organizational psychologists will typically work closely with human resources in large organisations or as consultants for companies that are looking for solutions to workplace challenges.

An undergraduate degree majoring in organizational/industrial psychology and an honours degree in organizational psychology (or a four-year BPsych degree) is a prerequisite for entrance to a two-year masters in organizational/industrial psychology. The two-year programme will usually include a year of coursework as well as a year internship at an approved organization after which a HPCSA board exam can be written for registration as an industrial psychologist.

Be sure to check out our new Human Resource Management programme.

Specialisations

Completing one of these masters programmes also opens other avenues of work within the discipline of psychology through specialisation. This can be a bit confusing since these psychologists are still formally registered with the HPCSA as clinical, counselling or educational psychologists but choose to develop themselves by working and furthering their education in their respective areas of interest.  

Forensic psychologists might complete a clinical, counselling or educational psychology masters and spend their time thereafter involved with the assessment and/or treatment of persons who are involved with legal or criminal justice system in some way. Through the use of assessments and interviews, forensic psychologists are called to provide evidence or expert opinion on legal proceedings. You don’t need to be a forensic psychologist to provide expert opinion in court but psychologists who market themselves as specialised in this area invite referrals from their colleagues and legal institutions on account of being well informed and practiced in their role as a psychologist in legal cases.

Neuropsychologists will usually complete clinical training and later focus on the evaluation and treatment of psychological and behavioural disturbances associated with impairment to the central nervous system. They will typically work to identify problems and promote the wellbeing of with those who live with neurological conditions or who have sustained injury to the nervous system or brain.

Sports psychologists will usually train as counselling psychologists before specialising. They are most interested in enhancing performance in competitive sport, exercise and other physical activity and typically work closely with athletes and coaches to build healthy ways of coping with stress, building mental fortitude and healthy habits. Sports psychologists might perform these activities as part of sports science organisations or as consultants, employed by coaches and sports teams to attain new levels of athletic performance.

SACAP’s Masters in Community Mental Health Promotion

We all know that good mental health is a crucial element to the wellbeing of all human beings and that psychologists fulfil an enormously important role in supporting and enhancing the mental health of their clients. Over time, however, psychologists have found that training psychologists that focus on working with individuals is less helpful in countries like South Africa, where the majority of the nation do not have access such specialised services.

SACAP’s masters programme marks a striking departure from the traditional training of psychologists as a “doctor of the mind” that works mainly with individuals to find solutions to their problems. This programme aims to produce social innovators: individuals who want to pioneer new ways of promoting the wellbeing of South African communities, drawing variety of fields like public health, project management and strategic leadership, grounded by the values of community psychology. These graduates will be cutting-edge mental health thinkers who are equipped with critical skills to act as agents of change in the mental health landscape of South Africa.

Graduates of this programme can work in a wide variety of contexts as well as perform different functions within their organisations. They might fulfil roles as researchers, programme managers and evaluators or policy advocates or work in training and development of other professionals. They might also work in NGO’s, community-based organisations or government departments. As graduates that aim to create new solutions to mental health challenges in South Africa, graduates of this programme can also work as consultants to other organisations, offering both the academic and practical expertise to enhance the wellbeing of communities.

This two year programme is a master of social science that includes both a coursework component as well as a participatory research component. Since this programme focuses on community engagement rather than individual interventions, it does not lead to registration with the HPCSA. Find out more about SACAP’s Masters of Social Science.

For more information on courses and programmes available at SACAP, enquire now.

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