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Eye on Psi Chi: Spring 2012

Eye on Psi Chi

Spring 2012 | Volume 16 | Issue 3


Is a Career in Academia, Research, or Practice Right for You?

Amira A. Wegenek, Saddleback College (CA)

View this issue in Digital and PDF formats.

Most students major in psychology because they are interested in the subject matter or because they want a career in which they can "help people” (e.g., Harton and Lyons, 2003; Marrs, Barb, and Ruggiero, 2007). Many who major in psychology are surprised to find that most of their major course work focuses on psychological research and theory rather than providing training in the practice of helping others with psychological issues. This is because psychology can be broadly separated into two major categories—academic and applied psychology. The types of training required for careers in these two areas differ. The earlier you can decide whether a career in research or practice is best suited to you, the sooner you can start on the appropriate path to attaining your career goals.

Academic psychologists are typically involved in research and/or teaching. Applied psychologists conduct research or otherwise practice psychology (i.e., apply psychological knowledge in real world settings). Clinical psychologists are among those considered practicing psychologists. Though the typical undergraduate program serves to provide the broad background in psychological theory and research that is needed by all types of professional psychologists, psychology undergraduates do not generally receive formal training in the practice of clinical or counseling psychology.

Such lack of training may leave many psychology majors who desire a career in "helping others” wondering how to decide if a career in academia, research, or the clinical side of applied psychology is right for them. This is an especially important question for an undergraduate psychology major to consider before graduation (or at least before applying to graduate school) given that there are two distinct educational tracks that prepare one to work as a teaching and/or research psychologist (in academia or other settings) or as a practitioner. To help you decide whether a career in academia, research, or practice is right for you, an overview of various careers and helpful self-assessment exercises are provided below.

Careers in Academia

Academic psychologists work as professors at academic institutions as professional researchers and teachers. Professors usually hold PhD degrees and their professional duties vary from institution to institution depending upon how much of an emphasis the institution places on teaching vs. research.

Professors who work at teaching-oriented colleges, usually 4-year liberal arts colleges or 2-year community colleges, are not always required to conduct research. They spend the majority of their time completing teaching-related duties, interacting with students, and working on college committees. There are 4-year teaching-oriented institutions that require professors to conduct some research, but the research demands placed on faculty are generally much lighter than what is required of faculty at research-oriented institutions. Many universities that emphasize teaching, however, increasingly demand research and publication as well. Such institutions may encourage faculty to involve undergraduates in their research and respect research and publications on teaching as well as within the faculty member’s subject area.

Professors working at research-oriented institutions teach fewer courses and are expected to continually conduct original research, publish research reports in scientific journals, and devote a large proportion of their time to training graduate students in research and writing research grant applications.

In general, there are many benefits of being a professor, including:

  • enjoying an intellectually stimulating environment,
  • having colleagues who share your enthusiasm for your area of study,
  • being able to share your love for psychology with students, and
  • having a flexible schedule.

Another potential benefit of entering the professoriate is that most teaching-oriented and research-oriented colleges grant tenure, a special status of job security, for faculty after several requirements have been met over a period of years. People who are self-driven and are very curious in nature are most likely to enjoy being a professor at a university or college.

Some challenges also exist for aspiring professors. Those who wish to become professors at teaching-oriented colleges will find that a lot of competition exists for these jobs. Competition is even more fierce for positions at research-oriented institutions because fewer of these positions exist. In fact, many PhD recipients who wish to work as professors at research-oriented colleges first spend a few years as a post-doctoral researcher at an academic institution or other research setting in order to make themselves more competitive in the job market. New professors may also have to move far away from home and/or out of state to find a full-time tenure track position. If the job description and rewards seem especially appealing to you and you aspire to become a professor, be sure to ready yourself for the fierce competition and long road ahead.

Careers in Psychological Research

Professors aren’t the only professionals conducting psychological research. Psychological researchers can work in the private sector (i.e., industry and other nonacademic arenas including government agencies and nonprofit organizations) in addition to working in academia. Most researchers in the private sector hold at least a master’s degree and most often hold a doctoral degree. A doctoral degree allows one to work in more senior, higher-paying positions that involve the direction or supervision of projects (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2006).

Researchers in the private sector work in many different settings including pharmaceutical companies, high-tech companies, consulting firms, healthcare companies, large corporations, and private and public agencies (Wegenek and Buskist, 2010). Many companies hire psychology researchers who conduct research on human behavior as it relates to their specific industries and products. Psychologists whose research takes place in real world settings and/or addresses real world problems are considered to be applied psychologists. To read about research related careers outside of academia in fields such as forensic psychology, sports psychology, statistical consulting, and more, visit these websites: and

Although the duties of a researcher may differ depending on one’s position and one’s particular area of study, typical day-to-day activities related to conducting research can include collecting and analyzing data, writing reports, and giving research presentations. Senior level researchers may be involved more with the planning of research projects including designing studies, training personnel to collect data, and writing reports.

In recent years, there has been significant growth in areas such as human-computer interaction, software development, product usability, marketing research, and industrial-organizational psychology. This makes the job outlook for research in the private sector look promising (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2006).

If you are wondering if a career in research might be right for you, the best way to find out is to become involved in research yourself. You can contact professors at local colleges to find out if you can work in their laboratory as a research assistant. In fact, some colleges even offer college credit for this type of research experience. You should also be sure to take courses in research methods and statistics and those that contain a laboratory component if these are available to you. In addition, you should consider your answers to the questions provided below.

These are some of the questions that Wegenek and Buskist (2010) pose as important questions for students to ask themselves if considering a career in research (in either the private sector or academia):

  • Am I a naturally inquisitive person who often asks why things occur?
  • Do I truly enjoy the process of solving puzzles? Or do I become easily flustered and give up?
  • Do I enjoy reading and learning?
  • Do I like giving presentations?
  • Do I enjoy writing?
  • Can I handle criticism of my work?
  • Do I enjoy planning long-term projects?
  • Can I make my own work schedule and stick to it?
  • Am I willing to move myself and possibly my family for my career if necessary?*
  • Am I self-driven and highly motivated?*
  • Especially important to those interested in a research career in academia.

According to Wegenek and Buskist, if you answer "yes” to many or most of these questions, then you may be well suited for a career in research.

Careers Related to the Practice of Psychology

There are many careers that involve working in the practice of psychology. The first such career that usually comes to students’ minds is clinical psychologist, or maybe a counseling psychologist. Licensed psychologists hold a doctoral degree from programs that train graduate students to apply therapeutic techniques to help individuals cope with psychological or emotional issues.

Licensed psychologists can work with many different populations depending upon their job setting. Typical job settings for psychologists include group practices, hospitals, counseling centers, clinics, schools, universities and colleges, substance abuse facilities, and correctional facilities (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2006).

Providing therapy requires many skills including patience, listening, and social skills. There are many different approaches to therapy. A therapists’ role is not to give advice or solve clients’ problems. One common approach for therapists is to lead clients through their own process of self-discovery based on their client’s therapeutic goals. Another common approach is to help the client to identify and to modify maladaptive behaviors. Therapists must be professional and able to handle listening about difficult situations with an empathetic, yet objective ear.

Students are often surprised to learn that many other professions involve job duties similar to those of clinical or counseling psychologists but do not necessarily require a doctoral degree. Social workers, marriage and family therapists, counselors, and other professionals may help individuals on a daily basis. The distinction between many helping professions is not always clear for two reasons: professional duties may be similar across professions and individuals working under the same title (e.g., social worker) may fulfill very different roles depending upon their work setting and experience level. Work duties vary depending upon position and work setting, of course, but can include assisting individuals who may be having difficulties personally, socially, educationally, or occupationally.

Other common job duties may include conducting client interviews, administering diagnostic tests, and maintaining clients’ case records. Table 1, below, provides a list of several common job titles that involve helping others and a brief description that explains job duties and educational/licensure requirements. To learn more about what it might be like to work in these professions, read the first-person professional perspectives provided at

If you are wondering if a career related to the practice of clinical psychology might be right for you, consider your answers to the questions below. These are some of the questions that Wegenek and Buskist (2010) pose as important questions for students to ask themselves if considering a career that involves helping others:

  • Am I sensitive to individual differences in cultures, values, and religion?
  • Do I relate well to people interpersonally?
  • Do I have extremely high levels of patience?
  • Can I accept the fact that I cannot "cure” everyone?
  • Can I separate my professional life from my private life very well (i.e., Can I leave the day’s job at work when I go home)?
  • Is helping others rewarding to me?
  • Am I willing and able to complete a graduate school program to obtain the training necessary for a helping career?

According to Wegenek and Buskist, if you answered "yes” to many or most of these questions, then you may be well suited for a career in helping others and the practice of clinical psychology.

There are many other careers involving the practice of psychology that are not clinical in nature. Careers in applied psychology are diverse, are likely to involve working in various real-world settings, and often contribute to improving the human condition (Donaldson, Berger, Pezdek, 2006).

For example, industrial organizational psychologists apply psychological principles to improve work place settings. They may work in corporations, public agencies, or other organizations to address such issues as improving management, leadership, teamwork, or work place safety. To learn more about industrial organizational psychology, visit the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Division 14 Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology Web site:

Human factors psychologists also work to improve the world in which we live. They design products (e.g., computer systems and consumer products) and create work settings that optimize productivity and communication and decrease safety concerns. To learn more about human factors engineering and engineering psychology, visit the APA Division 21 Applied Experimental and Engineering Psychology Web site:

Psychologists can be found applying psychological knowledge in the legal system as well. Trial consultants may assist with jury selection, develop effective trial strategies for a prosecution or defense team, create compelling exhibits, work with witnesses, provide expert testimony regarding a criminal’s state of mind or defendant’s ability to testify, and more. To learn more about forensic psychology, visit the APA Division 41 American Psychology-Law Web site: or the American Board of Forensic Psychology Web site

For many more examples and descriptions of careers in applied psychology (e.g., school psychologist, trial consultant , health psychologist, science writer, and more), visit these Web sites; and

Perhaps the best way to determine if a career in applied psychology might be right for you is to get some hands on experience. Volunteer positions related to psychology can be found in a wide range of settings. You should try to choose a setting in which you are considering working. For example, if you are interested in clinical or counseling psychology, you may be more interested in a volunteer position related to psychological health. However, a volunteer position that involves working in a hospital might be better suited to you if you are interested in social work. It is best to try to work with the kinds of people who you think you may want to serve in the future.

A volunteer position can provide you with invaluable experience. It can enable you try out a potential career before committing to it and also provide you with some new skills to prepare you for graduate school or future employment. This is true no matter what psychology related career you may be considering.

There are many possible ways to contact a potential volunteer site:

  • Look up contact information in the phone book.
  • Contact your local county governance offices to find out if they have a volunteer placement program linked to the community services that they offer.
  • Find out if your campus has a referral or placement service at its career services center.
  • Check the many Internet-based volunteer services that help match volunteers with volunteer sites (e.g., the US Government National Volunteer web page, Smart Volunteer
  • Refer to books written specifically about professional development activities available to psychology majors (e.g., Silvia, P. J., Delaney, P. F., & Marcovitch, S. (2009).
  • Inquire within your college’s psychology Department
  • Inquire within your own college’s chapter of Psi Chi or Psychology Club

Although psychology majors are not traditionally taught about all potential career opportunities in their courses, psychology students can be proactive and learn on their own about the many possibilities that exist. Go for it!


Donaldson, S., Berger, D., Pezdek, & K. (Eds.). (2006). Applied psychology: New frontiers and rewarding careers. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Harton, H. C., & Lyons, P. C. (2003). Gender, empathy, and the choice of the psychology major. Teaching of Psychology, 30, 19-24.

Marrs, H., Barb, M. R., & Ruggiero, J. C. (2007). Self-reported influences on psychology major choice and personality. Individual Differences Research, 5, 289-299.

Silvia, P. J., Delaney, P. F., & Marcovitch, S. (2009). What psychology majors could (and should) be doing: An informal guide to research experience and professional skills. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2006). Occupational outlook handbook. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Wegenek A. R., & Buskist W. (2010) Insider’s guide to the psychology major: Everything you need to know about the degree and profession. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Amira Rezec Wegenek, PhD, is a professor of psychology at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, CA. Dr. Wegenek has taught, mentored, and advised undergraduates at the university and college level for more than a decade. She has received numerous awards for teaching and leadership, including the Psi Beta National Honor Society in Psychology’s National "Rising Star” Award for mentoring undergraduates in scholarship, research, and service. Her students have won national recognition for their researchand service activities as well.

Dr. Wegenek’s publications span the areas of sensation and perception, cognitive psychology, and teaching of psychology. Her writings include a student-centered psychology laboratory manual. Currently an active member of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology, she conducts research related to student retention and success. Her most recent book, entitled Insider’s Guide to the Psychology Major: Everything You Need to Know About the Degree and Profession (Wegenek and Buskist, 2010), is published by the American Psychological Association and is aimed at informing and motivating psychology undergraduates.

Dr. Wegenek’s Web site,, offers resources related to careers in psychology for students and faculty including multiple testimonials from professionals in psychology.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to: Amira A. Wegenek, Saddleback College SBS, Department of Psychology, 28000 Marguerite Pkwy., Mission Viejo, CA 92692. Email:

Copyright 2012 (Vol. 16, Iss. 3) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

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