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Eye on Psi Chi: Fall 2016

Program Your GPS:
Guidelines to Proficiency in
Skills for Work and Career

Paul Hettich, PhD, DePaul University (IL)
View this issue in PDF and Digital formats.

To what extent are you prepared for the workforce with a baccalaureate degree in psychology, and what can you do to strengthen your readiness? This article explores the roles that skill development occupies in your journey to your first post college job.
Skills Triumph Over Content in the Workplace
The great majority of knowledge you gain in the classroom consists of the content of psychology—its diverse concepts, theories, and research. Because mastery of psychology’s content is emphasized in graduate psychology programs and is a measure of professional competence, naturally your instructors transmit this body of knowledge to you. The content of your coursework forms a critical component that you carry to the workplace and life. In addition,  while you gain knowledge of psychology, you also develop several skills at various levels of competence through the assignments you complete, along with your internships and nonacademic experiences.
Yet, many teachers (perhaps a majority) do not articulate the particular skills embedded in their assignments. For example, when your instructor assigns your class a group research project that must be written APA style and presented orally in class, how often does the teacher articulate (or ask you to identify) the specific skills you can acquire from that assignment? (There are several involved such as collaboration, decision-making, critical thinking, problem-solving, and oral and written communication.)  It is essential that you master not only the content of your courses but also
know the particular abilities and skills you acquire from them,
estimate your level of mastery of these skills, and
search for careers in which they can be applied.
When you interview for a job, chances are the recruiters will not ask about the theories you studied or the textbooks you used; they have a general understanding about the nature of a psychology major. Instead, they are likely to ask about the skills and abilities you acquired, the evidence you can present to support them (have your skills e-portfolio available), and how you might apply those skills to the job you are seeking (research the position in advance). Recognize, however, that knowledge you gain in certain courses also facilitates skill development such as in statistics, research methods, and behavior modification courses. In general, whereas most teachers emphasize course content over skills, recruiters tend to emphasize skills over content. As a job applicant, you should extrapolate the skills embedded in your college coursework and related experiences, and attempt to apply these skills to the needs of the job you seek. If the company has previously hired graduates from your program, recruiters may assume that you have acquired the appropriate knowledge and skills, provided your GPA is sufficiently high.
Following the Guidelines [APA]
What Skills Can You Acquire From Your Psychology Major?

Aware of the growing public and student concern regarding the value of a college education, a task force of the American Psychological Association published the Curriculum Guidelines for the Undergraduate Psychology Major: Version 2.0 (APA, 2013). The Guidelines identified five learning goals for the undergraduate psychology curriculum. These goals should be reflected in your department’s offerings.
Goal 1: Knowledge base in psychology. “Students should demonstrate fundamental knowledge and comprehension of the major concepts, theoretical perspectives, historical trends, and empirical findings to discuss how psychological principles apply to behavioral phenomena” (p. 17).
Goal 2: Scientific inquiry and critical thinking. “The skills in this domain involve the development of scientific reasoning and problem solving, including effective research methods” (p. 20).
Goal 3: Ethical and social responsibility in a diverse world. “The skills in this domain involve the development of ethically and socially responsible behaviors for professional and personal settings in a landscape that involves increasing diversity” (p. 26).
Goal 4: Communication. “Students should demonstrate competence in writing and in oral and interpersonal communication skills” (p. 30).
Goal 5: Professional development. “The emphasis in this goal is on application of psychology-specific content and skills, effective self-reflection, project management skills, teamwork skills, and career preparation” (p. 33).
The five goals collectively generated 19 outcomes; that is, statements beginning with “Students will …”. In addition, the goals yielded 95 sets of developmental indices including foundation indicators (i.e., the skill level and content equivalent to a psychology minor or community college associate degree) and baccalaureate indicators (i.e., skill level and content expected at the completion of a major). To the extent that students complete these indicators successfully, up to 62 personal attributes (stated as skills or characteristics) can be inferred. (APA, 2013). In short, the revised APA Guidelines for the Undergraduate Psychology Major: Version 2.0 consist of one content goal and four skills-based goals. The goals reflect objectives or expectations for a psychology department to meet in its instruction and for students to achieve in their studies.
Skills Employers Seek [Hart/AACU]
To What Extent Do the Skills-Based Goals of the Guidelines Match the Skills Employers Seek?
In a study conducted for the Association of American Colleges and Universities (Hart Research Associates, 2015), a sample of 400 executives and 613 students were asked to rate the importance of a series of college learning outcomes for success in the workplace. Table 1 shows the proportion of employers and students who rated each learning outcome as very important (i.e., a rating of 8, 9, or 10 on a 0 to 10 scale).
Did you note the points of agreement between the college learning outcomes and APA’s four skill-based curriculum goals? The skills employers seek include those you can acquire from your psychology major, although—and this is very important—the contexts for learning and applying these abilities may differ widely (i.e., college versus workplace). Liberal arts majors such as psychology are traditionally designed to teach broad, cross-cutting skills such as those in Table 1, rather than prepare students for specific careers at the baccalaureate level such as business, nursing, or engineering.
Employer Versus Student Perceptions of Workplace Preparedness
In spite of a general level of agreement between employers and students on the importance of these learning outcomes, employers gave college graduates surprisingly low scores for their actual workplace preparedness on all 12 outcomes listed in Table 1. For example, whereas 66% of the students felt well-prepared in critical/analytical thinking (Guidelines, Goal 2), only 26% of the employers agreed. Regarding the application of knowledge and skills (Guidelines, Goal 5), 59% of the students felt well-prepared, but only 23% of employers concurred. For communications skills (Guidelines, Goal 4), 62% and 65% of the students believed they were well-prepared in oral and written communications skills, respectively, but only 28% and 27%, respectively, of the employers agreed (Hart Research Associates, 2015). The discrepancies between student and employer perceptions of proficiency are disturbing because, as an individual advances, the importance of those skills increases.
These discrepancies should give students and teachers serious cause for concern: Students, generally, are not nearly as prepared for the workplace as they think. Perhaps their perceptions are powered by their optimism, pride in their accomplishments, inexperience in the workplace, and other factors such as unrealistic expectations or the differing organizational cultures (issues beyond the scope of this article to explore). Research is needed to understand the perceptual gaps so that universities can explore possible remedies.
What Can Students Do to Strengthen Workplace Preparedness?
Employers in this sample emphasize the importance of acquiring applied learning experiences. Between 61% and 94% of the employers indicated that a company would be more likely to consider hiring a recent graduate if they possess the following experiences, in the order from most to less frequently mentioned (Hart Research Associates, 2015).

Internship/apprenticeship with a company or organization 

Senior thesis/project demonstrating knowledge, research, problem-solving, and communications skills

Multiple courses involving significant writing

Research project done collaboratively with peers

Service-learning project with community organizations

Field project in diverse community with people from different backgrounds/cultures

Study abroad program
These recommended applied experiences are readily available on most campuses and should be an essential component of your educational planning. Note that some experiences such as thesis, research, and writing courses are weighted toward development of “hard skills,” while service learning and field projects focus on interpersonal and collaborative skills, often referred to as soft skills or people skills. Coursework is essential to workplace success but so are experiences outside the classroom. You should try to complete as many of these experiences as your schedule permits, but recognize that they are not a “silver bullet” for being hired or for a successful first year in the workplace. A single internship, senior thesis, or field project does not usually establish skills firmly. Also, colleges and corporations differ significantly in their organizational cultures; your ability to adapt to those differences (not just your skills and prior experiences) will play a critical role in your success. Finally, your liberal arts and psychology coursework, especially the skills/outcomes acquired from them, are valued in most workplaces as Table 1 indicates, but they may not be enough. Most employers also seek knowledge and skills, and preferably work experience, in a particular occupational or career field.
  The majority of employers think that having both field-specific knowledge and skills and a broad range of skills and knowledge that apply to a variety of fields is important for recent college graduates to achieve long-term career success at their company (Hart Research Associates, 2015, p. 2).
Consequently, you should also gain field-specific knowledge and skills through internships, jobs, and a career-related minor or double major. To learn more about various perspectives, advantages, and disadvantages regarding double majors consult Hettich (2014).  I will address specific options for acquiring career-related, field-specific knowledge and skills with a psychology major in a subsequent article.
Psychology Alumni Perceptions of Workforce Readiness
[Landrum, Hettich, & Wilner]

The Hart Research Associates survey reveals a clear link between college learning outcomes and employer needs. For students whose job experiences and extracurricular involvement have been limited, focusing on the learning outcomes/skills acquired should help them articulate their skills in a job interview. However, there are additional perspectives on transferable skills. For example, in a survey conducted of psychology major graduates, Landrum, Hettich, & Wilner (2010) asked 78 alumni respondents to rate 54 workforce readiness items on a 3-point scale (1 = low, 2 = medium, and 3 = high) according to the level of preparedness that was expected when they were hired. The ratings varied from a mean of 2.75 to 2.93 for the following items (from higher to lower levels expected), indicating a high level of readiness expected of graduates upon entry.

Possess self-discipline, including punctual attendance and dependability

Act responsibly and conscientiously

Work well with others

Meet the needs of others, such as clients or customers

Set priorities and allocate time efficiently to meet deadlines

Identify, prioritize, and solve problems

Make defensible and appropriate decisions

Possess the ability to work without supervision

Work independently

Manage several tasks at once
An additional 27 items were rated at a mean of 2.5 to 2.73, indicating a medium to high level of preparedness expected in those areas. Compared to the learning outcomes identified in Table 1, the workforce readiness items focus on personal attributes and behaviors that may be characterized as skills or skills-related. To the extent a student exhibits and internalizes these behaviors during college, they are likely to practice these marketable attributes in the workplace.
What Attributes Do Employers Seek on a Resumé? [NACE]
In their annual survey of employers, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE, 2015) asked respondents to identify attributes employers seek on a job applicant’s resumé. Typically, the resumé is used to determine whether an applicant should proceed to the interview stage. Between 53% and 80% of the 201 respondents identified the following attributes (in order of frequency).


Ability to work in a team

Communication skills (written)

Problem-solving skills

Communication skills (verbal)

Strong work ethic


Analytical/quantitative skills


Technical skills

Interpersonal skills (relates well to others)

Computer skills

Detail oriented
As you study this list, identify the attributes that are similar to: (a) the four skill-based goals contained in the APA Guidelines (2013); (b) the college learning outcomes contained in the Hart Research Associates study (2015); and (c) ratings from the Landrum et al. (2010) alumni survey of workforce readiness. In short, the NACE (2015) list reflects employers’ priority for hiring applicants who exhibit both hard skills (e.g., problem solving, written communication, analytical/quantitative, technical and computer), soft skills (e.g., leadership, team work, verbal communication skills, and interpersonal skills), and internally driven attributes such as initiative, strong work ethic, flexibility, and adaptability.
Other Elements in the Hiring Process
Work experience. Although job experience was not explored in the Hart Research Associates (2015) and Landrum et al. (2010) surveys, 91% of employers in the NACE (2015) sample preferred to hire candidates with work experience. For the part- or full-time jobs you hold, be sure to inventory the skills you practice. In addition, seek to understand the individual and organizational dynamics that operate in your work environment so that you can transfer your experiences to future settings. If you have little or no job experience, be sure to obtain it because most employers will expect your resumé to reflect previous employment.
GPA. Some students believe that graduating with a summa or magna cum laude GPA is an automatic ticket to a good job. Other students may believe their sub- 3.0 GPA is an automatic sentence to a low paying job. Neither belief is necessarily true. Most employers seek evidence of hard and soft skills, not just a GPA. However, according to NACE (2015), 69.3% of employers screen for GPA, and of those employers, 70% use a GPA of 3.0 as a cutoff score. Although GPA is important (and more significant in some jobs than others), it is not usually the most important criterion for hiring.
Identify Your Skills
But how do you know what specific skills you are acquiring and the competency level of each? Because your judgment will likely be subjective, I strongly recommend that you work with a career counselor. One tool that many counselors use is a card sort technique called SkillScan, (SkillScan, 2015). SkillScan consists of 60 cards—each describes a specific skill. Cards are grouped in six categories: relationship, communication, management/leadership, physical/technical, creative, and analytical. The process typically includes the following steps.
You sort the shuffled cards according to your perceived proficiency in each skill: high, moderate, and no/low proficiency.
Then you sort the 60 cards according to the role you want to assign each skill in a job you seek: major role, secondary role, minor role, or unwilling to use the skill at work.
You sort the no/low proficiency cards by those skills you need to develop for a particular job or career (a “gap assessment”).
You create a personal skills summary of the skills in each category that you want to occupy major, secondary, or minor roles in your future work.
From this summary, you construct a skill wheel that organizes the 60 skills into 18 skill sets that can be used to identify careers that optimize your strengths.
During the card sortings, a career counselor is likely to ask questions and help you clarify and interpret your choices. Other counselors may use different techniques for exploring your skills. Regardless of the process used, your goal should be to have a clear understanding of your skills, your proficiency in each, and an idea of how to use them in a job or career. Without this information, you are likely to flounder in an interview and make inappropriate decisions regarding your work. When you work with a career counselor, also seek assistance in creating an e-portfolio of your accomplishments and skills—information which most employers will want to examine.
In conclusion, most employers are more interested in knowing the skills you bring to a job than in the concepts and research you mastered in your psychology major. Consequently, it is essential to know in advance the skills you developed during college, your competency level in each (recognizing that academic and workplace contexts often differ widely), the skills you prefer to use most, and careers that enable you to apply and expand them. In short, create a skills pathway to guide the knowledge you have acquired (and need to acquire) during college for job and career. Do this now, not after you graduate!
American Psychological Association, Task Force on Psychology Major Competencies. (2013). APA guidelines for the undergraduate psychology major. Version 2.0. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Retrieved from
Hart Research Associates. (2015). Falling short? College learning and career success. Washington, DC: Hart Research Associates. Retrieved from Association of American Colleges and Universities:
Hettich, P. (2014, Winter). To double major or not to double major: That is the question. Eye on Psi Chi, 18(2), 6–7. Retrieved from
Landrum, R. E., Hettich, P. I., & Wilner, A. (2010). Alumni perceptions of workforce readiness. Teaching of Psychology, 37, 97–106. doi:10.1080/00986281003626912
National Association of Colleges and Employers. (2015). Job outlook 2016. Bethlehem, PA.
SkillScan. (2015). Card deck and assessment report. Martinez, CA.
Note: I am grateful for the comments provided on this article by staffing professionals John Jameson (Creative Financial Staffing) and Jon Keil (The Salem Group).

Table 1
Proportion of Employers and College Students Who Rated Each College Learning Outcome as Very Important

Learning Outcome (ability/skill)
% Employers  % Students
The ability to effectively communicate orally
The ability to work effectively with others in teams
The ability to effectively communicate in writing
Ethical judgment and decision-making
Critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills
The ability to apply knowledge and skills to real-world settings
The ability to analyze and solve complex problems
70 73
The ability to locate, organize, and evaluate information from multiple sources
The ability to innovate and be creative
Staying current on changing technologies and their applications to the workplace
60 68
The ability to work with numbers and understand statistics
The ability to analyze and solve problems with people from different backgrounds and cultures
Note: Adapted with permission from Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success. Copyright 2015 by the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Paul Hettich, PhD, Professor Emeritus at DePaul University (IL), was an Army personnel psychologist, program evaluator in an education R&D lab, and a corporate applied scientist—positions that created a “real world” foundation for his career in college teaching and administration. He was inspired to write about college-to-workplace readiness issues by graduates and employers who revealed a major disconnect between university and workplace expectations, cultures, and practices. You can contact Paul at


Copyright 2016 (Volume 21, Issue 1) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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