1997-98 Hunt Award Research Report
An Examination of the Career Paths of a Matched Sample of Psi Chi and Non-Psi Chi Psychology Majors
Mathilde Tarsi and Norine Jalbert, Ph.D.
Western Connecticut State University
This project examined the impact of Psi Chi membership on the perceptions, career choices, and career paths of Western Connecticut State University psychology alumni by comparing them with a matched sample of non–Psi Chi psychology alumni. Data were selected from a 42-item survey of WCSU psychology alumni who graduated between 1977 and 1997. This survey was designed to assess alumni attitudes about their educational experiences, their extracurricular experiences (including Psi Chi), and the perceived benefit of these various experiences on their postgraduation activities, particularly employment and/or graduate training. This report is based on 14 items (Table 1) from the larger survey and compares the responses of Psi Chi alumni to non–Psi Chi alumni in three categories: (a) perceived usefulness of the psychology major, (b) perceived value of Psi Chi membership, and (c) postgraduation activities.
The department surveys were mailed to 630 psychology alumni in September 1997 with a follow-up mailing in January 1998. In all, there was a 36% response rate and 226 alumni responded to the anonymous survey. For purposes of this study, survey responses were retained only if the respondent was a member of Psi Chi or had a grade point average at graduation of 3.00 or higher. The final sample for the present study was thus reduced to 125, roughly 55% of the original respondents (55 Psi Chi alumni and 70 non–Psi Chi alumni).
Although all statements in Categories (a) and (b) were based on a sixpoint Likert scale, these items were recoded into three categories (1 = disagree, 2 = neither agree nor disagree, 3 = agree) in order to simplify cross-tabulation of the data. For analysis and discussion purposes, this report only looks at the percentages of respondents in the agreement group. Alumni responses in Categories (a) and (c) were cross-tabulated with Psi Chi membership (yes/no); Category (b) items, which applied only to Psi Chi members, were tabulated for percent agreement with each statement.
Survey items in Category (a) consisted of three items related to the respondent’s perceived value of psychology as a major, and on all three items Psi Chi alumni were more positive than their non–Psi Chi counterparts (Figure 1). On the question of psychology’s usefulness in their jobs, 78 % of Psi Chi alumni versus 69% of non–Psi Chi alumni agreed. Furthermore, more Psi Chi (34%) than non–Psi Chi (24%) alumni believed that their psychology major was an advantage when seeking employment. On the question of psychology being useful when dealing with people, 80% of Psi Chi alumni and 62% of non–Psi Chi alumni agreed. These results reveal that Psi Chi alumni over a 21-year time span continue to value their education in psychology. The fact that they are more positive than their non–Psi Chi counterparts may be an example of the now classic Aronson and Mills (1959) effort justification phenomenon, whereby people who work hard for their goals come to value them more than those who exert less effort. The additional effort to qualify for Psi Chi membership on top of achievement of high grades may serve to enhance Psi Chi alumni attitudes about their educational choices.
Survey items in Category (b) only applied to Psi Chi members, who were asked to respond to statements related to their Psi Chi experience. Of the 55 Psi Chi respondents, 24% considered themselves active members, 25% found Psi Chi activities interesting, 32% considered Psi Chi membership to be worthwhile, 32% agreed it was an asset for graduate school applications, and 26% believed their membership was useful when applying for jobs (Figure 2). The low percentages of agreement for the first two attitude statements (i.e., less than chance) may be a reþection of the historical development of the Psi Chi chapter at WCSU, which for many years viewed Psi Chi membership as primarily honorary in nature. In an environment where Psi Chi membership was an end in itself, the activity level of the chapter exhibited sharp ebbs and flows depending upon the energies of the student officers and the chapter advisor. The lack of coordination of Psi Chi activities with Psychology Club activities may have also contributed to the lower visibility of many Psi Chi functions. In keeping with the notion of effort justification, it seems that relatively low participation and interest in Psi Chi activities is accompanied by low agreement with statements about the value of Psi Chi membership and its usefulness in applying for graduate school or a job (i.e., chance or less than chance). Perhaps the message here is that there must be a variety of chapter activities in which members can get involved so that the effort expended on Psi Chi can be subsequently “translated” into stronger, more positive attitudes about Psi Chi’s influence on their career and occupational choices.
Category (c) consisted of six items, three of which were biographical (year of graduation, age at graduation, and gender) and three of which dealt with activities after graduation (postgraduation activities, current occupation, and current salary). The cross-tabulation of postgraduation activities (Figure 3), career choices (Figure 4), and current income (Figure 5) with Psi Chi membership revealed similar paths for the alumni regardless of Psi Chi membership. The data on postgraduation activities reveals that a larger percentage of alumni went into nonpsychology graduate programs than psychology ones. Unfortunately, the data do not reveal whether this pattern occurred due to self-selection or to the competitive nature of psychology graduate programs, especially PhD ones. There is also a problem with the data on postgraduation activities in that respondents answered the question inconsistently. Some respondents checked “all categories that applied” as they were instructed, while other respondents checked only one category even though other responses on the survey indicated that they should probably have checked more than one. Future attempts to gather this kind of information will separate the question into multiple items.
The data on current occupation reveals that Psi Chi alumni are slightly more likely than non–Psi Chi alumni to enter the health or social service professions, whereas they are less likely to enter psychology occupations or education. The unexpected lower percentage of Psi Chi alumni in psychology occupations was unexpected, and we hope to do a follow-up study to verify this finding. Consistent with their human-service–oriented occupational choices, the current incomes of the alumni tend to be $50,000 or less, and, once again, there is little variability between the Psi Chi and non–Psi Chi alumni.
An examination of the data on age at graduation and gender provided interesting food for thought. Fifty-eight percent of the Psi Chi alumni were nontraditional students older than 31 and 90% were women, compared to non–Psi Chi alumni 40% of whom were nontraditional students and 75% were women. As far back as the 1970s increasing numbers of nontraditional students have entered college, and research suggests that these adult students tend to place greater value on their college experience (e.g., Kay, Jensen-Osinski, Beidler, & Aronson, 1983). Additionally, it appears that women make up a greater percentage of the nontraditional college population. In our sample of 125 psychology alumni, 81 % were women and 61 % of these women were Psi Chi members. Research on nontraditional women students documents their varied obstacles to higher education (i.e., family responsibilities, insufficient educational background, lack of financial resources, lack of social support, etc.), but also their higher performance on academic tests and their stronger goal orientation (e.g., Tittle & Denker, 1977; Nunn, 1994). The fact that so many of the WCSU Psi Chi alumni were nontraditional women students, coupled with the Psi Chi alumni’s more positive attitudes about the usefulness of their major, leads us once again to point out the relevance of Aronson and Mills’ effort justification phenomenon.
The fundamental lesson to be learned from this alumni survey is the validity, perhaps, of the truism that “you get out of it what you put into it.” Two earlier studies funded by Psi Chi’s Thelma Hunt Awards reported (a) that a large percentage of students who gave research presentations at regional or annual psychology conventions stayed in psychology and went on to graduate programs in psychology (Carmody, 1998) and (b) that a large percentage of students who participated in organizing an on-campus psychology convention went on to careers related to psychology (Young & DaPrada, 1998). If membership in Psi Chi is to have an enduring influence on members, then this and other chapters will need to find ways to increase participation of members across this wide array of activities and connect these activities with Psi Chi.
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Carmody, D. P. (1998) Student views on the value of undergraduate presentations. Eye on Psi Chi, 2(3), 11–14.
Kay, E. J., Jensen-Osinski, B. H., Beidler, P. G., and Aronson, J. L. (1983). The graying of the college classroom. Gerontologist, 23, 196–199.
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Tittle, C. K., & Denker, E. R. (1977). Re-entry women: A selective review of the educational process, career choice, and interest measurement. Review of Educational Research, 47, 531–584.
Young, J. R., & DaPrada, T. (1998). Twenty-five years of the Hunter College Psychology Convention. Eye on Psi Chi, 2(3),15–17.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS: Mathilde Tarsi received her BA in psychology from Western Connecticut State University in May of 1997. She is currently working on a master’s thesis at Southern Connecticut State University, where she has been awarded a graduate assistantship, and plans to graduate from the master’s program in psychology in December 1999. She has received three contribution awards from Psi Chi during the last two years, and is grateful to Psi Chi for the opportunities it has provided to her.
Norine Jalbert, PhD, is a professor of psychology at Western Connecticut State University and is a former Psi Chi advisor to the WCSU Chapter. Dr. Jalbert served as Psi Chi Eastern Regional Vice-President from 1990-93 and as Psi Chi President-Elect, National President, and Past-President from 1994–97.