The answer is - plenty! While some undergraduates continue their education in graduate school, the majority of students do not go to graduate school (only about 25% of undergraduate psychology majors nationally go to graduate school). This article is about the options, opportunities, and challenges for the rest--the remaining 75% who seek a good job with their bachelor's degree in hand.
At the undergraduate level, many students select psychology as a major because of their interest in someday becoming a psychologist. If you carefully read Eye on Psi Chi articles, talk to other students majoring in psychology, and listen to your professors, you'll understand that you will not be qualified to be a psychologist at the conclusion of your undergraduate training. It's best to think of your undergraduate education in psychology as learning "about" psychology, not learning "to do" psychology. McGovern, Furumoto, Halpern, Kimble, and McKeachie (1991) made this point clear when they stated that "a liberal arts education in general, and the study of psychology in particular, is a preparation for lifelong learning, thinking, and action; it emphasizes specialized and general knowledge and skills" (p. 600). A quality undergraduate education in psychology should prepare you to be a good citizen and a critical thinker. Fortunately, the skills and abilities that psychology majors acquire through their coursework and out-of-class experiences make them marketable for a wide variety of employment options.
Even though the bachelor's degree in psychology is not a professional degree, it is still a good choice in becoming a well-rounded, well-educated citizen and person. Why? Although psychology departments at colleges and universities differ, McGovern et al. (1991) identified
common goals for undergraduate students to accomplish. These goals include:
- A knowledge base. There is a wide array of information in psychology that you need to understand to truly be a student of human behavior. In other words, a future employer might actually expect you to know something about human behavior!
- Thinking skills. Critical thinking and reasoning, analysis of outcomes through experimental methods and statistics give psychology students the tools to make reasoned decisions.
- Language skills. As scientists, psychologists must be able to communicate findings to the broader scientific community; students must develop reading, writing, and presentation skills.
- Information gathering and synthesis. Psychology students need to be able to gather information from a number of sources (e.g., library, computerized databases, the Internet) and be able to synthesize this information into coherent lines of reasoning.
- Research methods and statistical skills. The development of quantitative and qualitative methods of data analysis and interpretation is central to the discipline.
- Interpersonal skills. Psychology students need to be sensitive to the diversity of the environment in which they live and be able to use this increased sensitivity and self-knowledge to monitor their own behavior.
- History of psychology. Psychology majors need to understand the contexts out of which popular ideas and people have emerged. George Santayana once said, "Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it."
- Ethics and values. Psychology majors need to understand the ethical treatment of research participants, to understand conflicts of interests, and to generate options that maximize human dignity and human welfare and adhere to high standards of academic and scientific integrity.
This is an important list. If you want to make the most of your undergraduate education, you should try and accomplish as many of these goals as possible. In fact, you might base curricular decisions (in part) by how well the courses and other experiences help you achieve your goals.
I've covered what educators want to instill in their students. To be successful, instructors hope that our students want to achieve the same skills, abilities, and qualities. But what about employers? What do they want? In an article I wrote with undergraduate student Renee Harrold, we surveyed employers around the country and asked them what skills and abilities are important when hiring psychology bachelor's degree holders. Our list is on the left side of Table 1. On the right side of the table is another listing published by JobWeb. Notice the similarities between the two lists. In our study, we also surveyed students about their perceptions of what they thought employers think is important. Out of these top 10 skills and abilities, students significantly underestimated their importance compared to actual employers. Students need to be aware of these gaps in importance, and if a good job is the goal, better align their perceptions with employer's perceptions.
Now we have an idea of the most important skills and abilities needed, but we need to know who is doing the hiring, in what types of jobs, and what the salary levels are. Schwartz (2000) reported that the top 10 occupations that employ persons with only a bachelor's degree in psychology are:
- Top- and mid-level managers, executives, administrators
- Sales occupations, including retail
- Social workers
- Other management-related occupations
- Personnel, training, labor-relations specialists
- Other administrative (record clerks, telephone operators)
- Insurance, securities, real estate, business services
- Other marketing and sales occupations
- Registered nurses, pharmacists, therapists, physician assistants
- Accountants, auditors, other financial specialists
While the opportunities are available, Schwartz (2000) estimates that only about 25% of psychology undergraduates end up working in a field closely related to psychology. As you can understand from the skills and abilities found in Table 1, these qualities make psychology majors marketable well beyond the boundaries of psychology. Table 2 presents a wide array of job titles suitable for psychology bachelor's degree holders. Note the variety in the opportunities available! This listing might give you some leads and ideas of avenues to pursue that perhaps you hadn't thought of before.
Hopefully there are some items on this list that you've never thought about. It is important to be open to possibilities that you might not typically think of. Psychology majors leave college with a valuable set of skills and abilities, and making the most of your undergraduate experience can help to enhance your marketability. We've had a glimpse of what you can do; now, how much can you make? This is a difficult question to answer because no one organization tracks this information formally and officially. Unfortunately, this leads to great variability in salaries for psychology bachelor's degree holders. The two most current estimates come from Schwartz (2000) and JobWeb (2001b). Schwartz reported that the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that in 1999, the average starting salary for psychology bachelor's degree holders was $20,600. JobWeb reported that the average salary offer to 2001 psychology bachelor's graduates was $30,338. Did the average starting salary really go up $10,000 in one year? No. This variation is due to the different techniques with which the data are collected. Since there is no uniform data collection mechanism, estimates vary. Also, please realize that there are significant regional differences in job offers and in the economy in general. Reality is probably somewhere in the middle of these two estimates.
A college degree is a special accomplishment. Only 13% of the United States population holds a college degree. This achievement puts you in the educationally elite in this country. Additionally, your degree tells employers much about you. You have the ability to set a goal and achieve it, and you did not give up on a long-term goal that had hurdles to overcome (Aubrecht, 2001). At the same time, psychology is a popular major. For the past few years there have been over 70,000 psychology bachelor's degree graduates each year. Remember, most of you will be competing with these graduates for the best jobs. What will you do to make yourself stand out in the competition? This article is the first of a three-part series, and in later articles I'll offer some concrete advice on how you can set yourself apart from the crowd, gain the skills and abilities that you need, and increase your marketability to achieve success.
One important lesson to remember is that in almost every type of job, you have to start at the bottom and work your way up. That is, you are not going to land the perfect job the first time you apply for it. You may think that your first job after completing college is beneath you. This is not a healthy attitude to have if you want to achieve long-term success. Be patient as you practice and perfect your set of practical skills and abilities while establishing your track record. This is a time during your employment career to show others your work ethic and establish a solid work history. It's easy to enjoy and succeed at a great job--can you find a way to enjoy and succeed at a job that is not as great as you want? Remember, when Bill Gates started Microsoft, he wasn't the world's wealthiest person. It took time, hard work, and some luck to be in the right place at the right time. You know what you need to do--now make it happen!
Appleby, D. (1999, April). Advice and strategies for job-seeking psychology majors. In S. VanderStoep (Chair), Good jobs with a bachelor's degree in psychology. Symposium conducted at the meeting of the Midwestern Psychological Association, Chicago, IL.
Aubrecht, L. (2001, Winter). What can you do with a BA in psychology? Eye on Psi Chi, 5, 29-31.
JobWeb. (2001a). What employers want. Retrieved July 11, 2001, from http://www.jobweb.com/catapult/guenov/comp.html
[webmaster's note: the URL for this link has changed to http://www.jobweb.com/Resumes_Interviews/resume_guide/comp.htm]
JobWeb. (2001b). Salaries to new college grads climb in spite of slower economy. Retrieved August 8, 2001, from http://www.jobweb.com/employ/salary/01summer.htm
[webmaster's note: the URL for this link is no longer available; the most recent salary information can be found here: http://www.jobweb.com/SalaryInfo/03fallss.htm]
Landrum, R. E., & Harrold, R. (2001). What employers want from psychology graduates (and what students think employers want). Manuscript submitted for publication.
Lloyd, M. A. (1997). Entry level positions obtained by psychology majors. Retrieved July 29, 2001, from http://www.psychwww.com/careers/entry.htm
McGovern, T. V., Furumoto, L., Halpern, D. F., Kimble, G. A., & McKeachie, W. J. (1991). Liberal education, study in depth, and the arts and sciences major-Psychology. American Psychologist, 46, 598-605.
Occupational Outlook Handbook. (1998). Social and human service assistants. Retrieved September 20, 1998, from http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos059.htm
Schwartz, S. K. (2000). Working your degree. Retrieved January 16, 2001, from http://cnnfn.cnn.com/2000/12/08/career/q_degreepsychology/
Shepard, B. (1996). Employment opportunities for psychology majors. Retrieved March 30, 1998, from http://www.cs.trinity.edu/~cjackson/employ.html#employ-top
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Eric Landrum, PhD,
is currently a professor of psychology at Boise State University, where he served as chair of the Psychology Department from 1996-2000. He received his PhD in cognitive psychology (with an emphasis in quantitative methodology) from Southern Illinois University in 1989. His research interests center around the study of and understanding of educational issues, specifically, identifying those parameters that best facilitate student learning. The underlying theme is to understand the learning process of students and design situations and environments that maximize students' opportunity for success. Much of this work has also examined the development of psychological instruments capable of measuring and quantifying concepts such as attitudes concerning diversity, measuring grade inflation, student retention, learning materials, etc. He has made over 100 professional presentations at conferences and over 25 professional publications in scholarly, peer-reviewed journals. He is the coeditor and author of two chapters in Protecting Human Subjects: Departmental Subject Pools and Institutional Review Boards
(1999, APA Books), author of A Guide to Teaching Introductory Psychology
(1998, Harcourt Brace), and Introduction to Psychology: A General Guidebook
(2nd ed., 1997, Kendall-Hunt), and lead author of The Psychology Major: Career Options and Strategies for Succes
s (2000, Prentice Hall).
He is a member of the American Psychological Association and a Fellow of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology (Division Two), Midwestern Psychological Association, the American Society for Training and Development, the Idaho Academy of Science, and the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators. He recently completed his two-year term as national president of the Council of Teachers of Undergraduate Psychology.