|Preparing for Your Career With a Psychology Degree
|Ronald G. Shapiro, PhD
A psychology degree can provide an outstanding background for almost any career you choose to pursue. However, some of these career opportunities may not be obvious, and finding an optimal way to prepare for these opportunities may be challenging. Let’s look at some of these career opportunities and how to prepare for them.
Careers in the helping professions provide an excellent opportunity to help people and organizations, to contribute to basic science, to improve the quality of life and possibly even save lives. Choices are varied and include working as a researcher, practitioner or both in psychology (clinical, counseling, community, school) and social work. The psychology of aging and neuropsychology may well be the most promising career opportunities in the helping professions.
Significant growth oriented positions require advanced degrees such as a PhD, a PsyD or possibly a Master’s (in psychology or social work). Although you also can pursue a career in these areas with a bachelor’s degree, positions typically are not growth oriented, even though they might be enjoyable positions for a few years. In the long term, it may be very frustrating to watch colleagues with advanced degrees grow in the field while you do not. If you select a bachelor’s level undergraduate degree job in psychology, do so with the intent of moving to either graduate school or another career within two to three years.
Teaching at the elementary or secondary school level is another option. Knowledge of psychology is helpful throughout a teaching career. For a public school position, you must achieve certification by taking the requisite courses and completing the required practicums. To teach psychology you must, in most cases, also be certified to teach social studies.
You might also teach at the college level. If you chose to do so full time, you will most likely have research, teaching and service responsibilities at your college or university. Different schools will weigh these three areas differently in terms of importance. In most cases, the most important of these three areas for hiring, retention and promotion is research—establishing a track record of publishing your work in refereed journals. Securing your own funding from contracts and grants is becoming increasingly important at many academic institutions. You might also do part time teaching at a college or university in addition to your full time professional position.
There are numerous career opportunities available in industry. Two of these areas—industrial/organizational psychology and human factors/ergonomics/applied experimental psychology/engineering psychology—have established career paths and are likely to be growth areas as well.
Industrial/organizational (I/O) psychology. In this field, there are a variety of opportunities:
- Design corporate structures and programs to help an organization achieve its full potential.
- Assess employee productivity and morale through observation and surveys, and make recommendations based upon your findings
- Develop new techniques or improve existing techniques to assess job applicants, candidates for promotion, management candidates, and executive candidates.
- Design assessment and/or training programs to help employees, managers and executives to improve their job performance.
By improving corporate performance, the corporate working environment and morale, you might help more people than a private practitioner in a community psychology practice.
To learn more about I/O Psychology take I/O classes offered in most psychology departments and check the websites of the following American Psychological Association (APA) divisions:
Human factors/ergonomics/applied experimental psychology/engineering psychology. The opportunities in this area include:
- Basic research: Develop theory to explain human behavior which practitioners might use to design, develop, and evaluate products and systems to be safer, easier, and more fun to use.
- Practice: Interact with engineers and other technical and business professionals to design, develop, and evaluate products and systems based upon the scientific literature.
Specialties include design of aircraft, air traffic control systems, hospitals, medical devices, automobiles, trains, military systems, home design for aging populations, computers, cell phones, other portable electronic devices, games, web sites, building layout, and educational systems.
In this field you would potentially save more lives and improve the quality of life for more people than if you were a clinician in private practice because your design improvement might, for example, prevent an airplane from crashing. One huge difference between saving lives as a human factors/ergonomics professional and saving lives as a helping professional in private practice is that you will not know whose life you saved as a HF/E professional (it may be your own), much as a medical professional who develops a vaccine that saves numerous thousands of lives would not know whose life they saved.
To learn more about this area of psychology, take an introductory course if one is offered, or read Donald Norman’s The Psychology of Everyday Things (also published as The Design of Everyday Things). The book may be borrowed from most libraries and is easily read in a single evening. Check the following websites.
Other industrial careers. The psychology degree is also excellent preparation for many other careers. Although the psychology degree may not be essential or even suggested for an entry-level position, the knowledge of how people think and behave can be beneficial for better job performance. Some of these careers are listed below.
- customer relations
- systems engineering
- systems development
- software engineering
- systems analysis
- project management
- human resources
- industrial education
- urban planning
- industrial engineering
- systems architecture
- animal behavior
For the above careers additional training (and possibly a dual major) in the specific subject matter would be an asset, if not essential to obtain an initial job. The psychology degree will help you to become established and to grow in the field.
Freedom vs Supervision in Course Work
Perhaps one of the greatest attractions to selecting a psychology major is that you have a tremendous amount of freedom in selecting your course work. You can learn about the breadth of the field of psychology as well as pursue in great depth one or two areas of interest. Unfortunately, most students do not do this, and as a result, these students may not achieve as much as they might like. Indeed, some of them even complain that their degree was of very limited value (or worthless). Since there is freedom rather than supervision in course selection, psychology majors have the obligation to do planning that would often be done for them if they had selected a degree in another discipline such as electrical engineering or chemistry.
Maximizing the Value of Your Psychology Degree
You can maximize the value of your psychology degree by heeding the following suggestions:
- Take research methods and statistics courses as early as possible in your academic career.
- Attend psychology department seminars from day one.
- Get to know selected faculty members well. Can you describe their research in a manner that they would consider satisfactory? If the faculty member has children, do you know their names?
- Become involved in at least one if not two faculty members research to the point that they would consider that you were a very valuable member of their research team.
- Aim for publication (or in press) as a first or second author on an article or two (or at least a published acknowledgement in several articles) before graduation.
- Become actively involved in Psi Beta or Psi Chi and your psychology club. If your school does not have an active Psi Beta or a Psi Chi chapter, you have the opportunity to work with your department chair to organize or reactivate one.
- Seek out elected or appointed leadership positions. Once you achieve these positions, you should work to achieve a few significant accomplishments.
By following this path you will have learned how to:
- understand and predict human behavior;
- interpret very complex data;
- work in and lead a team (which includes more senior members);
- develop proposals;
- deliver technical talks; and
- write clear prose.
You will have an excellent story to tell as you prepare for graduate school or work applications. Most likely, you also will have among the best recommendations from faculty, which should help you secure a well-funded position in graduate school or an excellent position in industry. And, all of this can be done while still maintaining an excellent school-work-life balance.
Minimizing the Value of Your Psychology Degree
On occasion you may hear students or graduates with an undergraduate psychology degree complain that their degree did not help them at all. Chances are they did everything possible to minimize the value of their degree while in school.
Some of the behaviors exhibited by students which minimize the value of their degree include:
- taking research methods and statistics late in their academic career, perhaps senior year;
- selecting primarily large lecture classes, so that they never really meet the faculty;
- choosing to spend their out-of-class time away from the psychology department;
- avoiding meaningful involvement in Psi Chi, Psi Beta, psychology club and other similar programs, although they may belong and attend an occasional program;
- completing Introduction To Psychology research participation without asking any questions or getting to understand the underlying research;
- avoiding involvement in psychology research beyond course requirements;
- selling their psychology textbooks as the semester ends;
- studying primarily only a few days before exams; and
- visiting faculty members during office hours only if they are arguing about an exam result, trying to recover from their poor academic performance, or trying to schedule a make-up exam.
Preparing Your Career Plan and Resume
Having a career plan or career plans and up to date resume are beneficial for students from middle school to graduate school. If you are not sure what career you would like to explore, prepare a plan for each career. The planning process alone may help you to make intelligent choices.
- Exploration. As a first step explore the careers mentioned earlier in this article. Check with your school counseling office. They will have lists of all sorts of careers (as well as measurement instruments which may help you to narrow some of your choices). Look over the lists and derive your own list of potential careers.
- Basic Research and Investigation—Reading. Read literature on what people do in the careers. For psychology careers check out the above websites. For other disciplines check out their professional organization websites.
- Advanced Investigation—Networking. Network (i.e., meet and talk) with people in the various careers. Faculty and your college/university placement office should be able to help you find alumni or colleagues in the professions you may be interested in exploring.
- Initial Ideal Resume Development. Once you narrow your choice to a single career (or a few careers) prepare a resume for the ideal entry-level job candidate for that profession in the next few years. Write your name at the top of the page. Include a very clear objectives section that explains why the job candidate is the ideal fit for the job. Include lots of meaningful academic and internship experiences. Be very specific about the accomplishments for each of the positions listed. Wherever possible, write in true experiences you have had to strengthen the resume. Review the resume and verify with at least one or two professionals in the field that this resume would belong to the absolutely ideal job candidate.
- Preparation of Your Action Plan. Highlight all of the items in your ideal job candidate resume that do not yet apply to you. Now prepare an action plan which will assure that when you graduate with your terminal degree, be it a bachelors, masters or doctoral degree, the resume will be a true reflection of you.
- Completion of Your Action Plan. Complete your action plan over the next several years, revising and editing the action plan and ideal candidate resume as necessary as you achieve your results. Be sure to keep track of everything you accomplish including the project name, a brief description of the project, an in-depth description of what you did that made the project a success, and how you know it was successful. Include this information on your ideal candidate resume as well as on an actual resume.
- Summers. If your plans call for a career in industry, be sure to spend a summer or two doing an industrial internship, doing work similar to what you would do in your profession. If your plans call for a career in service, spend a summer or two doing a service-related internship. If your plans call for graduate school (other than possibly an MBA), spend your other summers working in a research environment. Now listen carefully! While you would like to get paid well for doing these experiences, it is possible that you may not get paid at all. In any case, do them!!! Long term, financially, completing these types of summer experiences will most likely pay off far better than doing a typical student summer job.
Go for It
Your psychology degree can and should provide you with an outstanding background for a career in academics, government, industry and/or community service. Remember to develop an effective career plan, become involved in research, your psychology department, and Psi Chi so that it will. Let me know if I can be of help to you. Best wishes for a bright future.
Dr. Ronald G. Shapiro is an independent consultant in human factors, ergonomics, and learning and career development. He received his BA from the University of Rochester and his MA and PhD from Ohio State University in experimental psychology. He is a certified human factors professional (CHFP #18, Board of Certification in Professional Ergonomics) and a fellow in APA and the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES). He is a past-president of APA Division 21 (Applied Experimental and Engineering Psychology) and the immediate past secretary-treasurer of HFES. He has managed human factors/ergonomics, technical learning/technical leadership, new employee orientation, employee university education, and career coaching for IBM. Dr. Shapiro frequently accepts invitations to address high school and college psychology students, discussing career development.
He may be contacted at:
Ronald G. Shapiro, PhD, 17 Brookway Road, Providence RI 02906, (401) 272-4664,
Copyright 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 2) 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.
Eye on Psi Chi is published quarterly: