What does it take to become a psychologist? 10 things you should know before applying
I was recently asked the following question:
I’m studying psychology. I’m thinking of applying for Honours and after that for Masters. So I wanted to know what do you think one must have to get into the program? I know it’s very tough and all my friends told me charity work counts a lot, but what do you think?”
This is not the first time I’ve been asked to give advice on how to get into masters. Psychology students are always keen to find out what the “magic formula” is. I am not sure if this is something specific to South Africa, but there tends to be a great deal of speculation around who gets accepted into clinical masters programmes and who doesn’t. Perhaps it is because it is such a highly competitive degree. In South Africa, most universities enrol around 300 students for first year psychology courses. Of those, only around 50 get selected into honours, and only 8 for clinical masters.
Statistically, there are very few psychology students who will ever become clinical psychologists. And so, I guess it’s understandable then that anyone with the hopes of becoming a psychologist might find this process slightly anxiety provoking. Believe me, I’ve been there and I KNOW how hectic it is. So let me tell you a little bit about my experience and in the process I will also debunk some of the ‘myths’ that circulate about who gets in and who doesn’t.
But first, let me quickly explain to you how the process works. As mentioned previously, psychology 101 is a relatively easy course to get into. I don’t have the stats but I think it’s safe to assume that it is one of the most popular humanities courses to take. I think this trend is seen across the world and not just in South Africa. And it makes sense. Human beings are naturally self-interested and it’s normal to want to find out a little bit more about yourself and your psyche. Unfortunately, it is easy to be put off by psych 101 because in essence it is a course that teaches you a) the history of psychology, and b) how to write an essay. You really only get to the juicier stuff in 2nd and 3rd year. Everybody hates their stats and research courses because they’re boring and mathematical – hardly what humanities studies are used to! But there is always much excitement surrounding the first psychopathology course, where you get to learn about the different disorders and you watch films like Girl, Interrupted.
It takes three years to get your bachelors/undergraduate degree. Then comes the first big hoop. It is at this point that a psychology student must first ask themselves: “Do I want to go all the way, do I want to become a psychologist?” There are a lot of people doing therapy out there. They call themselves therapists, counsellors, coaches, and even (erroneously) psychologists. But unless you have that masters degree (in the States and UK it’s a doctorate) then you cannot actually call yourself a psychologist. In South Africa, there are different kinds of psychologists (e.g. industrial, educational, counselling, clinical, neuro- and research) and each university offers courses in some not all of these. In South Africa you can also train to become a registered counsellor or a psychometrist. If you want to find out anything about the different categories, which universities offer which, or how they differ please visit the website of the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA). I only have experience applying for masters in clinical psychology and so that is what I’m going to speak about today. When most people think about a psychologist, they’re thinking about a clinical psychologist anyway. It’s a clinical psychology masters you need to become a shrink.
My experience was slightly disjointed because I graduated with my bachelors of social science in 2006 but I only did my honours in 2009 because I took two gap years to live in Europe. I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that I wanted to get into honours and then probably masters and so I had worked very hard in my third year and had achieved really good results. At University of Cape Town (UCT) getting into honours is strictly about academics. Psychology honours is notorious for being one of the most difficult courses to get accepted into. Out of the 200 odd students in third year psych, they accept only 40 people (including students from other universities) into honours. They select only the best students. You basically have to have a 1st (above 75%) for all of your subjects.
Honours was a very stressful and academically demanding year. Getting in is hard enough but then you have to work your arse off in a year full to the brim with essays, projects, and the all-important thesis. It felt like my classmates and I spent the year jumping through one academic hoop after the next and we were barely keeping up. But we got through and I got quite good results, which was validating and rewarding after a year of really hard work. But then came “that time of the year” when we started to think about the following year and almost immediately after we were introduced to the concept of the clinical masters application process, the myths started flying about. I guess it’s natural that anything that is that hard to get into would have a great amount of mystique and intrigue surrounding it. Those who wanted it badly started anxiously trying to make sure that they met the so-called requirements, those who feigned fatalism fought hard to present the arguments for why they probably wouldn’t get in. The myths started to circulate, used either to defend pride or ward off mounting anxiety.
But I am here to tell you that I made it out the other side and almost all the myths are just that…myths! There are many factors that the selectors consider when evaluating prospective trainees and I will try and point out a few of them but THERE IS NO FORMULA. There is no set of characteristics they’re looking for, no checklist that they mark off.
Myth #1 You have to be old
I was 24 years old when I applied for clinical masters. Many of my classmates in masters were my age or younger. They don’t necessarily write you off because you are young. But you have to demonstrate that you have had enough life experiences. And (this is important) you have to demonstrate that you have made meaning from these experiences. It is not enough to tell long stories about loved ones dying, tough breakups, or other difficult life events. You need to be able to reflect on these experiences with a degree of maturity and insight. I don’t know if this counted in my favour but by 24 I had been living out of my parents home for 7 years, I’d had two long term relationships, I had lived abroad and I had worked in various jobs. And most importantly I had been in therapy for over a year (but more about that later).
Myth #2 You have to be a straight A student
Not true! Sure, in order to get into honours at UCT you have to have the best marks but this is not the case for clinical masters. They do look at your marks but only in order to ascertain that you are capable of keeping up with the course work (the clinical masters programme is also academically demanding) and for that I think they are happy to accept you if you get 60-70% on average. Additionally, some of the best students who achieve academically do not have other qualities that are required to become a clinical psychologist. In our masters year, there were those of us who were used to being achievers and there were others who weren’t so academically inclined. For those who are used to performing well and used to getting good marks for everything, the clinical masters course can be extremely challenging. Where once the academic hoops were easy to see and therefore to jump through, in clinical masters the goal posts shift and what needs to be “achieved” is elusive and ever-shifting. For A-type achiever types this can be deeply troubling. You need to have the psychological strength to manage that.
Myth #3 You have to have counselling experience
This is probably the biggest myth. Many people will tell you that you need to have experience working at Lifeline or doing volunteer counselling at police stations or community centres before you apply for clinical masters. I mean sure, I think that experience of this nature can be helpful in that it gets you familiar with the role of counsellor and you can decide if you like the feeling of it. And I guess if you’re not already a people person then it’s probably a good idea to get experience working intimately with people. But let me tell you something. My first formal counselling experience occurred on the 1st of March 2011, in my second year of clinical masters with my first ever client. She was my only adult client of that year and I saw her for the duration of that year. But that first day I saw her I was a complete novice. I don’t believe that my clients suffer because I didn’t have more experience before doing my masters. I learned on the job. All therapists do. I’m still learning.
Myth #4 You have to have volunteer experience
In much the same way, there is also the belief that you have to have some volunteer experience in order to get into clinical masters. Again, volunteering at old age homes, at children’s homes or at psychiatric facilities is going to give you great experience and help you to be more in touch with “what’s out there” but it’s not going to be the difference between being selected and not. Many university students come from extremely privileged backgrounds. In South Africa there is a particularly large wealth gap and those living middle class lives are completely sheltered from the realities of those living in poverty. Unfortunately, there are many people living in truly horrific contexts. Working in these environments will help you to get in touch with reality and hopefully help you learn humility and compassion. These are obviously extremely useful attributes for a trainee psychologist to possess. But again, you could have years of volunteer experience and still not get in.
Myth #5 You have to be black
In South Africa, there is a lot of talk about affirmative action and about employment equity etc. Technically, universities need to accept a certain number of non-white students into their courses each year. And yes there is also a lot of talk about UCT being particularly bad at inclusion and some might even say racist (I think, but I stand corrected, that it doesn’t always meet the quota). There is a lot to say about affirmative action and the inclusion of ‘previously disadvantaged’ students into elitist tertiary institutions but this is not the space or time. The bottom line is that if you’re white and you want to be a psychologist in South Africa then do not fret. You are not going to be given any less of a chance to practice. Additionally, men are a precious resource in psychology courses these days (I think that there is probably only 1-2 males for every 8 females selected each year) so this might be one of the only courses in which white males have a really good chance of getting in. But again, myths myths myths! Black, white, brown, old, young, rich, poor, smart, not so smart – all can get into clinical masters.
Myth #6 You have to speak an African language
I had studied isiXhosa during my honours year and could probably say hello and ask where someone was from at the point at which I applied for clinical masters. Although this is not something that I am particularly proud of or want to promote, you don’t have to speak any other languages in order to get in. But if you want to live in South Africa and you want to be a contributing member of society, then I strongly urge you to learn a language like Xhosa or Zulu. If you do get into clinical masters and you end up working as a psychologist in a South African hospital then you are going be ahead of the game if you speak the language of your patients because it is a huge disadvantage to not have that ability. In fact it is a disability. For the Western Cape and parts of Gauteng like Pretoria and the East Rand, it is also a good idea to have Afrikaans. My Afrikaans is poor and I really felt disabled by being an arrogant, uni-lingual English speaker.
For really awesome Xhosa courses check out Ubuntu Bridge.
Myth #7 You have to know everything there is to know about psychological theories or therapeutic techniques.
This is probably good advice for anyone going into an interview for an internship or apprenticeship where you are applying specifically to be trained in something that you do not yet know about. It is not going to impress anyone if you try and pretend to know everything or if you boast about a certain theory or attempt to “perform” some skill or technique.
As mentioned previously, I had no clinical experience when I applied. At UCT, the selection process involves two stages. You first complete a lengthy application form and then you get shortlisted and have to come in to be interviewed by a panel as well as performing a mock therapy session (the “client” is played by a masters student). I remember sitting in the waiting area before my interview and being freaked out by another candidate who was verbally rehearsing the “steps of the counselling interview”. He was saying things like: “First you must introduce yourself and then you must talk about confidentiality and then you must reflect what the client tells you…” etc. It felt weird to me that he was rehearsing in this way and it also did nothing for my nerves because I suddenly questioned whether I knew what the hell I was doing there with absolutely zero experience. Needless to say, he was not accepted and I was.
The truth is that they’re not looking for someone who is a master of their craft. They want to be able to teach you, mold you. And to that end they need someone who is open. Rather than coming to the interview telling them how you are as a counsellor or trying to demonstrate your skills, come with an attitude of openness, curiosity, and humility. These three qualities are probably the most important while sitting with clients anyway. During my observed role-play, I made lots of technical errors, said the wrong things, and felt hopelessly out of my depth. But when asked how it went, I (again) could reflect on this process. I could say with humility how helpless I felt, how inadequate I felt, and I had the capacity to observe myself, to analyse myself in the moment and make sensible appraisals of my performance.
So what is it that they’re looking for? Well firstly let me just say that there is no they. Each university is different, each has different individuals sitting on the panel and each year there is a different combination of individuals. The people in charge of selection have one thing that separates them from the other people in your life who tell you how amazing you are and that you’re going to make an excellent psychologist – they have experience. They are psychologists themselves, they have trained students before you and they have seen who has what it takes and who doesn’t. And they get it wrong. They will select people that they think will make it who won’t and they don’t select people who they think aren’t suitable who would make excellent psychologists. But they are what is standing between you and becoming a psychologist and so you have to respect their judgement and trust that if it’s your time then it is and if not then there must be another step in your journey that you have to take.
Truth #1 It’s about who you are
This is probably the most frustrating reality. If you look at the above myths and you add up all the reasons why you can’t automatically disqualify yourself based on xyz, then it becomes that much more elusive. In essence, from my experience, those selected have a certain combination of personality traits, academic credentials, life experiences, and empathic potential that form an alchemic concoction that could be described as a kind of X factor. And from my experience, there are probably only 1 in 5 people selected who are truly made for the job and most psychologists (I’m sorry to say) are not really the kind of people that I would trust with my deepest secrets.
For me, a good psychologist is a person who is able to be honest with themselves. A good psychologist is not immune to pain and suffering. A good psychologist is not more capable or makes less mistakes. A good psychologist doesn’t get it all right or lay claim to being perfect. A good psychologist is someone who is able to accept the good and the bad – in her/himself, in her/his clients, in all of humanity. A good psychologist listens, cares, accepts, and is prepared to “be with” all aspects of humanity. These qualities can be taught, to a degree. But I think you’re either the kind of person that endeavours to be this way or not.
Truth #2 Self-awareness is everything
As I said earlier, life experience does count. There are myths about needing to have experienced some kind of life tragedy in order to be accepted. People were honestly worried they wouldn’t get accepted because they hadn’t experienced a distinct personal tragedy in their life. But the truth is that it’s not about the experience as much as it’s about how you reflect on the experience. To this end, having been in therapy is the best way to score brownie points in your selection interview. If you can talk about your own therapeutic process with maturity and insight into your internal dynamics then you will surely impress them. Being self-aware is probably one of the most valuable attributes because it will get you through the selection process and through the gruelling evaluation processes that you have to endure during the course itself. You are not expected to be perfect but you are expected to know yourself. For example, they will see you in a poor light if you tell them you’re not nervous when asked while sitting anxiously playing with your fingers. Conversely, if you can reflect on how anxious you are feeling and how you are aware that you are babbling because “I always talk when I’m nervous” then you will impress them because you can demonstrate awareness of a pattern.
Truth #3 Nobody becomes a psychologist only because they want to help people
You are going to be asked why you want to become a psychologist. It is a standard question that appears in every application form and will be asked in every interview no matter where you apply. Do you know how many people are going to say “because I want to help people”? Not only is it unoriginal but it shows a huge lack of insight into the complexity of this massive undertaking. Being a psychologist is no joke. Think about your darkest moments when you felt sad, depressed, crazy even. Think about the times when you felt the most shame, the most fear, the most disgust, the most anger. How easy is it to be you in those moments? How much fun is that? Well this job entails sitting with people during those moments, day after day. It’s about choosing to hear story after story of abuse, pain, suffering, trauma, and loss. It’s about being with all of these emotions, all of these experiences. So why do you want to do this job?
Most people are motivated by very complex reasons. There is usually some family history or childhood trauma that directs one towards this work. Or if not, there is an internal dynamic towards heroism, a kind of saviour complex that resides within your psychology. Additionally, being a psychologist is a hugely powerful role. One in which you have the opportunity to dominate and control the other person. So you better have thought about that, you better have worked with those dynamics within yourself, and you better have thought about the kind of control and power issues that motivate you. If you want to think a bit more about these concepts, start with the archetype of The Wounded Healer.
If you would like to ask me a question, go over to the page Ask Carly Anything. I might write a whole post in response!