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Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 2013

Eye on Psi Chi

Winter 2013 | Volume 17 | Issue 2


The Worthies vs. the Great Unwashed: Overcoming Psychology’s Tier Problem

Jane S. Halonen, PhD,
University of West Florida

View this issue in Digital and PDF formats.

One of a professor’s great pleasures in life involves chance encounters with former students. It is a great opportunity to catch up on the details of what has transpired in the lives of the students: Are they happy? Have they found a partner? Have they been able to realize the dreams they were pursuing as a major? Most of the time, such reunions are joyous. However, for the psychology professor, this encounter can also be unsettling.

A recent chance meeting I had with a former student illustrates my point. Charlene had been a wonderful student in my introductory course. After just a few weeks in the class, she declared the major because she felt so at home in the psychological science world. She remained effective throughout her major, and I was happy to agree to serve as a reference for her at graduation. Then we lost touch. When we ran into each other at a book store, Charlene reported that her personal life was "great!” She seemed happy and healthy, but when I asked what she was doing professionally, she lowered her head slightly and apologized. "Unfortunately, I’m not doing anything with my major,” she asserted. "I’m managing a small business in website design.” She went on to describe that the business was successful and growing and claimed that she enjoyed the challenges of being a manager.

All I could think at the moment was that her psychology teachers, myself included, had failed her. Although she was a very bright student, she was apparently unable to make the connection between the discipline she studied for four years and the kind of skills sets that foster success in the professional workforce. Because she had not pursued a path that formally had the word "psychology” or "psychologist” explicitly in the title, she saw herself as distant from what she had studied and seemed genuinely concerned that her choice would be disappointing to me. Not only was I not disappointed, I was delighted that she had found such a fulfilling professional direction. However, I remain disappointed when we fail the Charlenes of the world, when they end up regretting the choice they made to major in psychology, and perceive their major as having no connection to their lives after graduation.

Fueled by years of teaching and consulting in psychology, I have developed genuine concern about what I describe as the "tiering” problem in undergraduate psychology. Many departments structure the undergraduate major experience with two kinds of specialization options. One of the tracks leads to graduate school; the other track assumes that the psychology major will enter the workforce following graduation. Both tracks offer perfectly legitimate choices because society needs people who understand behavior and mental processes in a multitude of contexts. However, I have observed that many departments treat students differently depending on their perceived potential for graduate work or their declared "track.”

In its worst manifestation, psychology professors express confidence in advising only students who intend to follow the same professional path they pursued. During an academic program review, a seasoned professor once confessed to me, "If my advisees want to become experimental social psychologists, I know exactly how to help them achieve that goal, but if my advisees plan to stop with a bachelor’s degree, then I tell them to go to the career center.” He added, "It is pretty demoralizing to advise those students because you can’t get a job with a BA or a BS.”

This attitude is remarkable not only for its apparent inequitable treatment of students and differential attention, but also because that professor was flat wrong. Students who complete a baccalaureate degree in psychology will have completed an almost ideal workforce preparation and that accomplishment is something about which we should foster pride.

Instead, the implicit message is that only graduate school-bound students are worthy of our attention, and we will relegate collaboration about pursuing other kinds of dreams to our colleagues in professional advising or career advising offices. In effect, we create a second-class citizenship within the major. I have dubbed this tiering effect as a problem of "the Worthies vs. the Great Unwashed.”

That is a little extreme, but it helps to explain why Charlene not only did not see her current work as linked to her psychology major but also why she appeared to be somewhat ashamed that she had not pursued the "higher” calling.

A good liberal arts education should provide a passport into the professional work world. From my vantage point, psychology may be one of the strongest liberal arts majors students can choose to help them prepare for the challenge of professional employment. Some of the advantages that a degree in psychology include these abilities:

  • accurately describe and predict individual and group behavior
  • evaluate the legitimacy of claims about behavior
  • locate, use, and interpret data to solve problems
  • communicate effectively in oral and written modes
  • explain how learning and memory function
  • adapt to change
  • effectively navigate informal and formal channels of an organization
  • manage difficult situations and high stress environments
  • work effectively in teams that include people with diverse backgrounds
  • express insight into problematic behaviors;
  • start and execute projects with limited information or experience
  • exhibit persistence in challenging circumstances
  • engender trust through personal integrity

The "Psychology Advantage” not only should prepare students for the rigors of graduate school, but also should contribute to forming a first-rate employee. However, if we are going to make a dent in the two-tiered culture that has evolved in undergraduate psychology, some systemic changes are definitely in order.

I am happy to report that the APA Task Force on Learning Goals and Outcomes has addressed this problem in the new proposal regarding the APA Guidelines for the Undergraduate Psychology Major. Although professional issues were included in the first version of the undergraduate guidelines, the new version proposes a much more prominent position on workforce issues. The Task Force believes all psychology programs should ramp up their attention to "Professional Development,” which they designated as the fifth of the five learning goals in the new document. (The other goals include Knowledge Base in Psychology, Scientific Inquiry and Critical Thinking, Ethics and Social Responsibility, and Communication.)

Curriculum design within psychology programs needs to take into account how to provide explicit feedback that will promote development of these skill sets over the duration of the major. For example, students should focus on career preparation in an active manner throughout the major rather than reporting to the Career Center two weeks before graduation to learn how to write a resume. Professional development skills, sometimes referred to as the "covert curriculum,” can be developed and refined both in traditional academic settings as well as through extracurricular involvement. Involvement in Psi Chi, for example, is an ideal way to apply psychology and develop leadership skills. In addition, psychology departments can enlist campus career professionals to support planning and execution of goals related to selecting and pursuing a professional direction. However, psychology faculty should also be well prepared to help students with baccalaureate degrees achieve their dreams as well.

The professional development goal of the proposed revision of APA Guidelines includes the following student learning outcomes:

4.1 Apply psychological content and skills to professional work
Activity in this learning outcome focuses specifically on how knowledge and experience in the psychology curriculum fosters reliance on data-based decision making, working with the diverse beliefs of coworkers, and embracing high ethical standards to build trust in the workplace.

4.2 Exhibit self-efficacy and self-regulation
This outcome emphasizes the development of effective time management strategies, appropriate use of feedback, and the advantages of engaging in selfassessment strategies to improve both the quality of work produced and refinement of problem-solving strategies.

4.3 Refine project management skills
Psychology majors complete a variety of projects, both individual and team-based, throughout the curriculum. They should develop skill sets for defining problems, seeking solutions that effectively take into account resources and constraints, and anticipating and averting developments that will interfere with project completion.

4.4 Enhance teamwork capacity
Students should be able to transfer team experiences in the classroom to team experiences in the workplace, taking advantage of the greater scope of intellectual resources that can be brought to bear on a problem by a group. Teamwork contexts also provide opportunities for the development of leadership.

4.5 Develop direction for life after graduation
Once students begin to forge a goal regarding what life will be like after graduation, faculty need to work actively with students to "reality test” whether the dream fits what they have demonstrated they can do in the class. Students need to be able to describe accurately (both orally for interviews and in resume format) the work skills they have acquired. They need to develop reasonable strategies for coping with the rapid change that is a given in contemporary professional contexts.

Although the economic environment has been discouraging over the past few years, there is no truth to the claim that psychology majors cannot get jobs with a bachelor’s degree.

Our graduates can obtain wonderful jobs in a wide array of settings that involve human services, research and evaluation, management, and sales, among others. Faculty need to embrace the broader workforce demands associated with producing a liberally educated workforce and honor that pathway as legitimate. Any professor claiming not to know about the world of work for which our majors will qualify needs to seek out training from our career center colleagues. They need to revise their perceptions that ultimately undervalue the achievements of the undergraduate majors after they graduate. At minimum, professors need to prepare for the inevitable encounters they will have with their own Charlenes and be ready for one last teachable moment that will help such students truly understand the connection between their experiences in the psychology major and their professional success.


The proposed revision of the Guidelines is available for review and feedback at the following website:

Jane S. Halonen has served as the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of West Florida for the last decade. Her research agenda has focused on critical thinking, assessment, and faculty and program development. Her most recent emphases have been on helping good departments become great ones. She has been involved over the course of her career with helping APA develop guidelines or standards of academic performance from high school through graduate levels of education.Dr. Halonen was named the 2013 winner of the American Psychological Foundation’s Award for Distinguished Applications in Education and Training. In 2000, she won the Foundation’s Distinguished Teaching Award and APA named her an "Eminent Woman in Psychology” in 2003. She served as the chief reader for the Psychology Advanced Placement Reading from 2004-09.

Copyright 2013 (Vol. 17, Iss. 2) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

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