How to become a forensic psychologist in South Africa

I decided to put this up on my website because I get many requests about the issue of how to become a forensic psychologist in South Africa. I hope this information is of assistance. I also get many requests for people to job-shadow me, unfortunately I don’t allow job-shadowing. 

To call oneself a psychologist in South Africa you must be registered with the Professional Board for Psychology (the Board) of the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) as a PSYCHOLOGIST (not counsellor, nor psychometrist). This is a legal requirement in terms of the Health Professions Act. Nobody may call themselves a psychologist or perform any psychologist activities unless registered with the HPCSA as a psychologist. If you aren’t registered and you do so, it is a criminal act. 

This means that it doesn’t matter if a person has a degree in psychology (eg. BSocSci, BPsych, BA Psychology, or an Honours in Psychology). You must have completed your Masters, completed an internship (and in the case of Clinical Psychologists an additional community service year), written the Board exam, and registered (and maintained registration every year) with the HPCSA to use the title psychologist. To maintain your registration, you must pay your annual fees, and participate in continued professional development by obtaining CPD points for accredited activities. 

Even if a person qualified as a psychologist overseas, and was practicing as a licensed/registered psychologist, you would still have to register at the HPCSA before you could practice as a psychologist in South Africa. 

Therefore, the starting point is typically a degree where the person has majored in Psychology. If this is a 3 year degree it would usually be necessary to do a 1 year Psychology Honours degree in Psychology (for example if you did a BA General or BSocSci and majored in Psychology as one of your two majors, you’d need to do the Psychology Honours) before applying for a Masters Degree in Psychology. If you did a 4 year BPsych degree this includes the Honours level, and you could apply directly for the Masters Degree. However, many universities discontinued the 4 year BPSych degree. You need to see what is being offered at the university where you want to study. Some people for example, do BA Social Work, or LLB, and take psychology during their degree or afterwards, up to third year, this would also allow the person to apply for Psychology Honours, because you have a degree (e.g. Social Work or LLB and 3rd year psychology). This is also an interesting way to get exposure to another field, but maintain the ability to continue with psychology to Honours and Masters Degree level. 

If you are interested in forensic psychology, doing an LLB with psychology up to third year, would be very unique. Very often the psychology content at the basic degree level, and even Honours level, is very generic and it doesn’t really matter at which university you do your B-degree or Honours degree, so don’t rule out UNISA as an option. However, at the Masters level you should investigate who the lecturers are, what their field of specialization is (hopefully one or two have an interest in forensic work and can supervise your dissertation), and try to speak to people who studied there recently to see what they thought of the Masters course. The success and quality of the course is greatly dependent on the individual lecturers who present it. Also, important to note is that an Honours Degree in Industrial Psychology won’t let you be eligible to apply for a Masters Degree in Clinical Psychology. 

It is at the Masters degree level where the professional training as a psychologist takes place. It is very difficult to get into a Masters program, Universities usually take about 8-10 Clinical Masters students per year, out of a few hundred applicants. So my advice is to apply at a few places when you are ready for your Masters. Some people apply for years before getting accepted and many never get accepted and have to move on to another career. 

Currently in South Africa you can only register with the Board as a psychologist in one of the following categories:

  • Clinical 
  • Counseling 
  • Educational
  • Industrial
  • Research

As you can see there is currently no registration for Forensic psychologists, Neuropsychologists, or Sports psychologists, or any other type of psychologist for that matter. The Board is looking into creating the additional categories of Forensic and Neuropsychologist, but they are not open for registration yet. So, at the moment nobody can call themselves a Forensic Psychologist, because you may only describe yourself in the category you are registered. This however does not mean that psychologists in South Africa cannot perform activities associated with these other categories. You may just not call yourself a Forensic, Sports, or Neuropsychologist, on your letterhead or business cards or reports. 

Also note that Educational Psychologists train in the Education faculty and Industrial Psychologists train in the Commerce faculty, not the department of psychology. So, you need to choose your academic pathway carefully, and find out if you can move from one field of psychology study, to another, if your interests change. Also, once you are registered as a particular type of psychologist (for example an Educational or Industrial Psychologist) you cannot perform activities in the area of another type of psychologist, you need to stick to the services of the type of psychologist you are registered as. 

What is the best route for someone interested in becoming a forensic psychologist? Please read the other tab in this website where I explain what a forensic psychologist is, because people often have a one-sided, television view of what they think a forensic psychologist is, they usually think it means you are a profiler, or helping the police solve cases. Forensic psychology is a far wider field than just that and very few psychologists perform that particular role. Most are performing services in the family law or civil law fields.  Once you have read that, continue reading further here.

As there currently isn’t a registration category for forensic psychology at the HPCSA, universities aren’t presenting forensic psychology Masters courses. This may change in time, but you would have to follow up with the different universities closer to the time when you are thinking of doing a Masters degree. I often suggest that if you want to do forensic work in the criminal justice field, then try and do a Clinical Psychology Masters degree. During that you could also choose a dissertation (research) topic that relates to the part of forensic psychology that interests you. You could also elect to do your internship at a psychiatric facility that has a forensic unit, and if you need to do a community service year, you could apply to do so at the Department of Correctional Services. These would at least give you some relevant exposure to the criminal justice field. However, it would give limited exposure to the investigation field. Getting exposure to the policing or investigation field is difficult due to the sensitive nature of these fields. You could however go to any court and listen to a criminal court case being prosecuted. All course cases are open to the public, unless the trial be being held ‘in camera’ which means only court staff may be present inside the courtroom. This is often the situation with cases involving minor children, or when the victim of a sexual offence is testifying. The daily court role is posted at the entrance of each Magistrate or High Court, and you can see what cases are being tried in the different courtroom. During an adjournment you can go up and speak to the prosecutor to ask about the case. 

You can also sign up to a website that sends out notifications for various CPD courses being offered, some may relate to forensic work. If you have funds you could also try to attend one of the many forensic psychology related conferences overseas. Locally you could also attend the African Association of Threat Assessment Professionals (AfATAP) annual conference, the first of which will be in October 2020. Other conferences like the bi-annual Criminological and Victimological Society of Southern Africa conference is another area you may get exposed to interesting topics. Also, there is self-study with many academic books and academic journals that you can try and purchase or access. You can also listen to my Podcast on iTunes called ‘Profiler’ or on other platforms as ‘Profiler Africa’.  

Should you go overseas to study forensic psychology? Other countries universities such as the UK and the USA may often have Masters degrees in forensic psychology. However, beware- don’t think that this means you can come back to South Africa and register as a psychologist! As mentioned above, in South Africa the academic exit point for a person to become a psychologist is a Masters degree, whereas in many parts of the world the exit point is a Doctoral degree like a PhD or DPsych. This means that what you might learn in an overseas Masters doesn’t cover the minimum requirements to register in South Africa. Often these Masters degrees tend to be very academic, research focused, and have little practical exposure. You would need to find out if the curriculum overlaps with what the HPCSA requires for registration. Also keep in mind that you may have to do a partial or complete local internship back in South Africa, even if the curriculum is equivalent to a South African Masters degree in psychology. So explore this option carefully before you spend a lot of money to go and study overseas.