This apparently simple question is critical for students because they will not always be undergraduates. The question is also important for faculty because if we don't know about students' abilities, we don't know if students are prepared for life after college.
Recently, the American Psychological Association created a task force that developed a set of learning outcomes for psychology majors. A group of experts in the teaching of psychology developed a list of 10 major outcomes that are critical to an undergraduate major in psychology. Some of the goals are specific to psychology; some are broader and reflect the fact that our discipline is one of the liberal arts. You can see the learning outcomes in Table 1. Some of them are pretty obvious, but some might be a little surprising. It is easy to see that all of them are important. If you are interested in the details of the report, you can access it at www.apa.org/ed/pcue/taskforcereport2.pdf.
Psychology students need to know a lot of content about psychological research, development of theory, and the history of our discipline. But as you can see in Table 1, content knowledge in psychology is a small part of the overall goals for our majors. It is just as important to be able to ask questions and to assess critically the answers to those questions. That is what research is all about. Further, all of our knowledge isn't worth very much if we can't communicate it to others.
On a personal level, we are lucky that psychology can help us develop as people. A solid program in psychology can help students develop career goals and work to maximize success in reaching them. Psychology can also be a force in our interpersonal and intrapersonal development.
Many of these goals and outcomes are very positive sounding when we consider them in the abstract. But what do they really mean when applied to your life? To help address this question, it might be useful to look at the skills and characteristics valued by people who will be evaluating psychology majors after graduation.
One former director of a human services agency I spoke with noted that she looked for analytical skills, curiosity, and confidence in potential employees. In addition, she sought people who had actually completed projects, preferably in a team setting. Additional personality characteristics she looked for were curiosity and confidence, the ability to deal with conflict, and willingness to ask for help when needed. Finally, she thought it was important that employees understand the need to follow appropriate processes in the workplace.
Additional skills that will undoubtedly become increasingly important involve technical ability. You won't necessarily need to be completely conversant with all aspects of technology, but a reasonable level of comfort with technology and a willingness to learn such skills will be a good selling point.1
How does psychology help in the development of these skills? If you take a look at the courses you take in psychology, you can see that problem solving is closely associated with asking and answering research questions. The papers you write in your lab courses provide training in communication skills. If you work on a research team, this provides the opportunity to work with others in reaching your goals.
In addition, content courses like social psychology, sociology, anthropology, and other similar courses can give insight into how to interact effectively with the diverse people you will encounter throughout life. Your statistics and research methods courses will introduce you to some elements of technology as you use PsycINFO to review the research literature and SPSS for data analysis. If you use PowerPoint to create posters or other presentations based on your research, you will have added more elements to your technological tool chest.
The courses you choose to prepare yourself for a career can and should be highly varied. You can look at the career website of Professor Margaret Lloyd of Georgia Southern University (www.psywww.com/careers) for a sense of different courses that will prepare you for life after college. To develop your awareness of knowing how to learn, she recommends courses like Cognitive Psychology, Psychology of Adjustment, and History. Communication skills will relate to courses like Research Methods and Experimental Psychology, as well as courses in journalism and computer science. She gives other course suggestions for awareness of interpersonal skill development, adaptability, and self-management. Fortunately, there are several excellent resources for career exploration in print and on the Web.
For instance, the American Psychological Association has created a brochure on careers pursued by those with bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees in psychology (www.apa.org/students/brochure). It provides a general picture of what psychology students do after graduation. For each job category mentioned in the brochure, you can figure out what courses to take to help you move in the direction you want to go after college.
If you are interested in a graduate degree in psychology, your path through the undergraduate curriculum probably won't be all that different from that of somebody who is not interested in graduate work. Many graduate admissions committees have the same set of priorities as employers. They want interested, motivated, and curious graduate students who can ask answerable questions, solve problems, use technology, and communicate effectively. If you look at the requirements for most psychology graduate programs, you'll see that the courses required for admission typically include only an introductory course, statistics, and research methods. Some programs want students to have one or two additional courses, but the list is not extensive.
To make yourself most marketable, you should focus on taking research-based courses, especially if those courses offer the possibility that you can either make a presentation at a research conference or publish your paper in a journal. According to Purdy, Reinehr, and Swartz (1989), the ideal curriculum for students considering graduate work consists of statistics and research courses, including two lab-based classes. These authors noted that course work is probably less important than letters of recommendation and research experience. If you load up on research courses, you will develop technical skills, learn about the content of your research areas, develop a sense of teamwork, and gain recommendation from professors who will be able to describe your strengths from personal knowledge.2
In addition, to maximize the chance that you will be accepted into a strong graduate program, you should work on developing your quantitative and verbal skills. Math and literature courses can be valuable in sharpening your knowledge in areas important for doing well on the GRE. Without high scores on this test, you may not be as competitive as other students who want to attend the same graduate programs you do.
Is it possible now to answer our question? What should psychology majors know and what should they be able to do? There is no single answer, but your educational choices should be like a puzzle, with each activity being one piece. In the end, each student will have a different picture, but it has to fit together tightly and to create a picture that fits with your goals.
Purdy, J. E., Reinehr, R. C., & Swartz, J. D. (1989). Graduate admissions criteria of leading psychology departments. American Psychologist, 44, 960-961.
1 For further information regarding the skills and characteristics that employers and graduate schools look for in their applicants, you can refer to two articles by Dr. Drew Appleby, previously published in Eye on Psi Chi and now posted on the Psi Chi national website: "Job Skills Valued by Employers Who Interview Psychology Majors" is based on a questionnaire sent to 39 employers who indicated they were willing to interview psychology majors (Eye on Psi Chi, Spring 2000). "Applicant Characteristics Valued by Graduate Programs in Psychology" is based on recommendation forms from the application packages of 143 graduate programs (Eye on Psi Chi, Spring 1999, with coauthors Julie Keenan and Beth Mauer).
2 For further information about the courses that graduate schools in psychology desire their applicants to take, see Dr. John Norcross's article, "Which Course, Which Course? The Undergraduate Courses Expected by Graduate Psychology Programs," which summarizes the answers provided by 559 departments and 2,023 graduate psychology programs in the United States and Canada. This article was previously published in Eye on Psi Chi (Spring 1997) and is now posted on the Psi Chi national website.