In any economic climate, is important that individuals pursuing a career in psychology understand how to maximize their major, explore potential career paths, and market their skills. However, undergraduates majoring in psychology are oft en posed the question, "Psychology major! What are you going to do with that?” Th e general public, as well as current majors, are oft en unaware of potential career paths for individuals with an undergraduate psychology degree. Another common misperception is that psychology majors have a narrow and limited array of career options. For example, people frequently assume that psychology majors must pursue graduate training to use their degree. These misunderstandings limit students’ ability to strategically tailor their major to match their personal interests and advance their career aspirations. Th e purpose of this paper is to debunk myths surrounding career paths in psychology and provide practical suggestions for maximizing an undergraduate psychology degree and marketing the degree to potential employers.
Skills Acquired by Psychology Majors
Similar to other individuals with liberal arts degrees, psychology majors are well trained in problem-solving, research skills, contextual awareness, and critical evaluation. Psychology majors are especially well suited for employment in fields that emphasize (a) communication skills, (b) analytical skills, (c) problem-solving skills, (d) teamwork, (e) flexibility, and (f) compassion. It is important that psychology majors are aware that their training is well-suited to a number of careers, and that they market themselves accordingly. Lloyd (1997) identified eight essential skills that employers seek when considering an individual for a job; these include (a) having a sense of curiosity and working well with others (i.e., adaptability); (b) quickly extracting important information from readings and data (i.e., analysis skills); (c) concisely conveying ideas in writing and when speaking; (d) database management skills; (e) ability to judge appropriate behavior (i.e., group interaction skills); (f) ability to achieve personal goals within an organizational structure; (g) ability to absorb new information; and (h) taking responsibility for achieving goals (i.e., self-management). Many of these skills are already integrated into the curriculum of a psychology major.
Regardless of the specialization pursued, psychology majors generally know how to ask good questions, develop ways to test hypotheses, and analyze data in light of coexisting cultural and societal paradigms. Th e training in the scientific method, statistics, and hypothesis testing that forms the foundation of psychological science is highly valuable to employers. Majors are also well trained in recognizing the importance of human diversity and multiculturalism. Psychology majors are oft en well-skilled in "perspective taking” and tend to keep in mind how human behavior is constructed by multiple, complex, interacting, and intersecting influences. Psychology majors also obtain their degree within a larger liberal arts curriculum. The breadth of courses required by liberal arts majors offers students extensive experiences to gain skills in comparative analysis, conducting research, and creating persuasive and well-developed arguments. Furthermore, as a component of a liberal arts degree, undergraduates are oft en required to take classes within the Modern Language Department. Multilingual employees are increasingly in demand. Studying a language abroad can also provide students with a unique immersion experience into a culture different from their own. It can be helpful to keep these experiences and skills in mind when drafting cover letters to potential employers.
Common Career Paths in Psychology and Related Fields
Most individuals who complete a psychology degree do not seek careers in professional practice or pursue advanced training (O’Hara, 2005). Among those individuals who do pursue graduate study in psychology, however, only 50% obtain an advanced degree in clinical or counseling psychology (O’Hara, 2005). Many students are not aware that it is not necessary to obtain a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree in clinical or counseling psychology to practice as a mental health care provider. Completing the Masters of Education (MEd) or Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) degree can also enable an individual to become licensed to practice as a mental health care provider. Other options for career paths in mental health care provision include completing advanced training in marriage and family therapy, social work, or school psychology. It is also important to note that just as many individuals seek advanced degrees in other areas of psychology as seek degrees in clinical and counseling psychology (O’Hara, 2005). These advanced degrees include, but are not limited to, the areas of developmental, experimental, social, industrial/organizational, and cognitive psychology.
Th ere is also a range of potential careers well-suited to psychology majors that do not require advanced training. Because of the breadth of training within the degree, psychology majors seek employment in a wide variety of fields. Ample work is available for individuals with a BA or BS in psychology in the areas of residential care, social and human services, human resource management, or teaching (DeGalan & Lambert, 2006). Psychology majors often seek employment in the following areas: (a) state and national human services agencies, (b) shelters, (c) nursing homes, (d) correctional facilities, (e) juvenile detention centers, (f) group homes, (g) human resources, (h) advertising, (i) business, (j) public relations, (k) student affairs (e.g. admissions, residential life, student activities), (l) education (e.g., child care worker, teacher’s aide), (m) scientific research (e.g., market research, opinion surveys), and (n) academic research and teaching (DeGalan & Lambert, 2006). According to Campbell (2008), most organizations today feel they need employees with a variety of educational backgrounds. Psychology majors’ understanding of human behavior—coupled with their generally strong scientific and liberal arts educational foundation—makes them a particularly desirable new hire (Campbell, 2008).
To work towards employment in the business field, psychology majors may want to explore a few business classes as well as coursework in industrial/organizational psychology. Some majors may consider pursuing a business minor in order to demonstrate to future employers their specific knowledge and training in the business field, as well as their commitment to a career in business.
Exploring Your Interests
Lloyd (1997) suggests that students are often confused and unfocused about their career and academic goals for two reasons: (a) they don’t have much information about the variety of career/academic options available or what these may require, and (b) they don’t know themselves very well, at least with respect to how personal qualities may be related to career options. Therefore, knowing yourself, your interests, and your goals should be the psyche behind the psych major. The wide range of opportunities offered to a psychology undergraduate through a liberal arts degree allows students to explore their interests while building a strong foundation that future employers will find desirable.
Strategy #1: Narrow your interests and develop a tailored degree. As an undergraduate, learning what you don’t like to do is just as important as learning what you do like to do. Psychology majors have significant freedom to explore classes in many different departments. Opportunities to choose courses from other departments (e.g., cross-listed courses) aren’t to be thought of as a lack of scope in the degree, but rather an opportunity to discover multidisciplinary interests. The field of psychology has considerable overlap with several other disciplines, especially sociology, criminal justice, women’s studies, and mathematics. Enrolling in cross-listed courses may help students discover ways to tailor and personalize their major. For example, math and computer science courses may have useful overlap for students interested in cognitive psychology. Social work classes may be especially intriguing to students interested in clinical and social psychology. Pursuing a minor in a related field can also assist majors in tailoring their degree. Some majors may learn early on that they are interested in child and adolescent development, behavior, and psychopathology, and can build on this knowledge by pursuing volunteer, research, and employment opportunities that allow them to gain advanced training.
Strategy #2: Develop mentoring relationships. College campuses offer a seemingly endless array of individuals with diverse and extensive expertise. Connections with mentors can be very valuable for career development. Beyond simply fulfilling requirements for graduation, a mentoring relationship can help to ensure that you are making the most of your degree. Thus, it can be helpful to develop one with an advisor or another relevant professional early on in the undergraduate degree process. Even if your advisors are not a match for your career interests, they can help to connect you with other professionals who have similar interests to your own. Additionally, it has been our experience that graduate students, although very busy, can also beparticularly helpful when it comes to providing feedback on navigating the graduate school application process, helping students to realize various career paths in psychology, and providing an insider’s view on what graduate training is like. Aside from helping you to explore and narrow your career interests, mentors can also serve as references for future employers or write letters of recommendation. The quality of a recommendation or reference reflects how well your mentor knows you, as well as the quality of your work and demonstrated desire and motivation for future employment.
Strategy #3: Pursue additional research, volunteer, and leadership opportunities. In addition to helping you test drive a career, an internship gives you relevant job experience to include on your resume. You not only learn more about the particular field, but you also gain a job reference (O’Hara, 2005). Participating in such a position will help you determine if your specific interest is a reasonable choice. For example, some may find counseling very interesting, but later learn that they have difficulty being patient with individuals. It is helpful to understand what the practical components of a career choice will be like before applying for your first position or committing to graduate study!
Working in a research laboratory is an excellent way to discover likes and dislikes in the field of psychology. And notably, faculty and graduate students are often searching for help from undergraduates to assist with data processing, data entry, or participant recruitment for experiments. A simple expression of interest via email to a faculty member or graduate student will likely initiate this process. The primary objective of laboratory research is to see a behind-the-scenes view of how psychological research is conducted. Students will also realize whether the research is of interest to them. Dealing and caring for collected data is also an essential learning experience in a laboratory, and requires patience, persistence, and a careful work ethic.
Being proactive in the laboratory can provide you with not only the nuts and bolts of psychological science, but also exposure to how a psychological research program functions and evolves over time. We encourage undergraduates who volunteer in the laboratory to (a) stick with it to learn the basic skills of laboratory work; and then (b) be proactive about pursuing additional responsibilities, developing their own research projects with advisors and graduate student mentors, and gathering an array of laboratory experiences beyond working on one project. After establishing yourself as a reliable contributor to the research laboratory, larger opportunities to work more collaboratively with faculty or graduate students will often present themselves. These opportunities may come in the form of facilitating a peer-based intervention, assisting on a poster or paper presentation, or collaborating with a professor or peer on an article for publication. All of these opportunities, although time-consuming, can expand your repertoire of skills and help you hone in on your career interest.
Joining an organization such as Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology, or becoming a student member of a national, regional, or specialized psychological organization, not only demonstrates your commitment to the field of psychology, but also provides a range of helpful career relevant resources. Participation in group activities around campus can also help to develop your people skills. Even if these groups or activities are not psychology related, they still reflect a willingness to be involved with group tasks. If you are an events planner or hold a position within a campus organization (i.e., treasurer, activities chair), for example, you may also show how these skills are a good match for the requirements of a desired position (O’Hara, 2005).
Strategy #4: Be strategic. Employers tend to believe that your past academic and professional behavior can predict your behavior in the work setting. Because there are so many opportunities for undergraduates, it is important to pick the ones that are the best fit for you—and not just the most convenient! Therefore, be strategic in locating opportunities that are a good match for further developing your interests. Successful applicants—for a job or graduate school—should be able to communicate in their application why they are driven to the position, what training experiences and classes have taught them about being a good fit for the particular specialization, and also in what area of psychology they would like to develop an expertise through the position.
There is no one way to pursue a psychology major! The strong science background of a psychology major prepares students to pursue a range of careers, and the flexibility of the degree enables students to tailor their degree to reflect their specialized career interests. Nonetheless, students can maximize their psychology major by knowing the strengths of the major, taking advantage of diverse, cross-disciplinary course offerings, partaking in training experiences, networking among faculty, volunteering in laboratory research or clinical activities, and joining peer organizations. By being strategic about the courses that you take, the types of activities you engage in throughout your college experience, and persistent in exploring new interests and expanding existing passions, you can maximize your psychology degree to make yourself a competitive candidate for the career path of your choice.
DeGalan, J., & Lambert, S. (2006). Great jobs for psychology majors. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.
Campbell, D. (2008). Career information—What you can do with a major in psychology. Retrieved from Humboldt State University, Psychology Department Website: http://www.humboldt.edu/~campbell/psyc.htm
Lloyd, M. A. (1997). Entry level positions obtained by psychology majors. Retrieved from PsychWeb website: http://www.psychwww.com/careers/entry.htm
O’Hara, S. (2005). What can you do with a major in psychology? Real people, real jobs, real rewards. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishing.