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Eye On Psi Chi: Fall 2015


Eye on Psi Chi

Fall 2015 | Volume 20 | Issue 1


How to Maximize the Blessings and Minimize the Curses of Being a Psychology Major

Drew C. Appleby, PhD, Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis

View this issue in Digital and PDF formats.

Psychology majors are both blessed and cursed. Their first blessing is their ability to prepare themselves for a remarkably wide variety of careers because the psychology curriculum provides so many of opportunities to develop the seven crucial sustainable job-related skills (i.e., communication, collaboration, critical thinking, professional, self-management, technological, and ethical reasoning) that employers value most during the hiring process (Appleby, 2014). These same seven skills also help new hires gain positive on-the-job outcomes (e.g., new responsibilities and promotions) and avoid negative on-the-job outcomes (e.g., reprimands, discipline, and termination; Gardner, 2007). This blessing is the reason why “students who complete a baccalaureate degree in psychology will have completed an almost ideal workforce preparation” (Halonen, 2013, para. 6).

Psychology majors’ second blessing is the knowledge they acquire as they learn about the causes and consequences of human behaviors and mental processes, which are perhaps the most interesting, complex, and important topics addressed in higher education today. The captivating nature of psychological knowledge attracts huge numbers of students to the major, produces more than 100,000 bachelor’s degrees in psychology each year (National Center for Education Statistics, 2012), and prepares psychology majors to enter a wide range of careers that deal with people and their interactions with each other and their environments (Appleby, 2015b).

Unfortunately, there are downsides (i.e., curses) to these blessings. The first curse is that the prospect of making a decision from such a massive set of career choices is a daunting task for many psychology majors. Unlike their education-, accounting-, and nursing-major peers who know exactly what they will become when they graduate (i.e., teachers, accountants, and nurses), only a small percentage of psychology majors continue their education, earn graduate degrees, and become psychologists (Hettich & Landrum, 2014). The rest enter the workforce immediately after graduation in diverse fields such as business, advertising, human resources, social services, health care, law enforcement, technology, education, fitness, recreation, and the military (Appleby, 2015b). The second curse is that psychology is a very popular major. This may initially appear to be a blessing, but it also means that a bachelor’s degree in psychology places psychology majors at risk in the job market simply because so many are competing with one another for jobs. If psychology majors lack the ability to prove the possession of a strong set of job-related skills, they risk job dissatisfaction (Light, 2010), the disturbing belief that their jobs are not related to their major (Borden & Rajecki, 2000), and the very real possibility of having to accept a job that does not require a bachelor’s degree (Rajecki & Borden, 2009), or—worse yet—that presidential candidate Jeb Bush was correct when he stated that psychology majors end up “working at Chick-fil-A” (Mills, 2015, para. 2).

The experience of teaching, advising, and mentoring thousands of psychology majors during my 40-year academic career has led me to conclude that this group is composed of two subgroups: occupationally savvy students and occupationally not-so-savvy students. These subgroups approach their professional futures in profoundly different ways.

Savvy students adopt a proactive, two-stage approach to their collegiate experience by deliberately using it as an opportunity to explore, identify, and refine their career goals. They create and follow a well-crafted plan to acquire the skills they will need—and the evidence that they have acquired them—to attain their post-baccalaureate aspirations. In other words, they intentionally use their undergraduate educations to decide who they want to become and then begin a systematic process to construct themselves in the image of that person.

On the other hand, not-so-savvy students live their undergraduate lives under the ill-fated illusion that they are entitled to, and will acquire, a good job after they graduate simply because they possess a college diploma certifying that they have accumulated enough credit hours to graduate. These are the students who take courses to “get them out of the way,” avoid challenging classes in which they could strengthen important career-enhancing skills (e.g., writing, public speaking, and math), choose easy rather than skill-building electives, and spurn extracurricular opportunities because they believe them to be a waste of time, rather than opportunities to develop valuable collaboration and leadership skills. These unfortunate strategies, paired with the misconception that the work required as an undergraduate student cannot be applied to the “real world” of work, can produce negative consequences. Case in point is the extreme disgruntlement one of my former students described several years ago in The Huffington Post ( who, in debt and without a steady job, attempted to sell his diploma on eBay® for $36,000 plus $3.50 shipping and handling. Perhaps as a result of living out a self-fulfilling prophecy, he was quoted as saying, “Universities are handing out too many degrees that have zero real-world application.”

So how can you maximize these blessings and minimize these curses? I recommend that you become a savvy psychology major (Appleby, 2002) by pledging to take an active approach to preparing for your life after graduation by doing your best to construct honest and accurate answers to the following four questions.

  1. What general area of work would you like to enter (e.g., business, education, health care, or social services)?
  2. What specific careers in that general area would you like to explore to determine if they would be “good fits” for you?
  3. Which of these careers can you enter with a bachelor’s degree, and which will require you to earn a graduate degree?
  4. What specific skills are required for successful performance in these careers?

I have created a resource to help you answer these crucial questions that consists of more than 2,000 hotlinks you can use to explore 280 careers (organized into 15 broad occupational categories) that psychology majors can prepare to enter (Appleby, 2015b). Persons employed in 56 of these careers are psychologists who must hold the appropriate graduate degree. Persons employed in the remaining 224 psychology-related careers (that require the demonstration of psychological knowledge and skills, but which do not carry the title of psychologist) are divided almost equally into two categories: those that can be entered with a bachelor’s degree and those that require a graduate degree. To access this resource, visit

Once you have used this resource to construct the answers to these four questions, your next step should be to meet with your academic advisor. Explain your answers to these questions during this meeting, and then ask your advisor to help you create a plan for the remainder of your undergraduate education that will enable you to enroll in classes and engage in extracurricular activities (e.g., internships, service learning, and leadership opportunities) that will enable you to develop the skills and knowledge you will need to prepare yourself for the career you have chosen. The final step will depend upon if your career requires you to earn a degree beyond the bachelor’s. If it does, seek the aid of a faculty mentor who can help you create and obtain the documents you will need to apply successfully to a graduate program (i.e., a curriculum vitae, a personal statement, and at least three strong letters of recommendation from appropriate people). If you can enter your chosen career with a bachelor’s degree, visit your career center where a professional employment counselor can help you create the necessary documents and information you will need to be hired (i.e., a resumé, a cover letter, and effective answers to challenging interview questions). It is also prudent to create a Plan A and a Plan B—one requiring graduate school and one requiring a bachelor’s degree—to make sure you have an alternate career strategy if your preferred plan does not produce your desired results. The approach to professional development for undergraduate psychology majors that I have presented here is based on Goal 5: Professional Development of the American Psychological Association’s most recent set of Guidelines for the Undergraduate Psychology Major (APA, 2013). The authors of this goal clearly state that there are entirely too many “psychology graduates who are not only ill prepared for the work-place, but who also demonstrate significant naiveté about the work-place and entitled attitudes that do not breed work-place success” (p. 10). The solution provided by Goal 5’s authors was to urge psychology programs to create and implement strategies to help their students develop “clearer linkages between baccalaureate preparation and the workplace” (p. 10). I hope you take full advantage of my resource to help yourself develop professionally. If you find it to be a useful tool in this endeavor, I also hope you will bring it to the attention of your faculty by directing them to An Introduction for Faculty to an Online Career-Exploration Resource for Psychology Majors (Appleby, 2015a), so they can become aware of how to utilize my resource when they teach and advise other psychology majors in your department. In closing, I would like to share three very relevant quotations. The first is by Dr. Monique Valcour (2013) from an article she published in the Harvard Business Review titled “Craft a Sustainable Career.”

Imagine crafting a sustainable career for yourself. Year after year, you perform work that makes full use of your skills and challenges you to develop new ones. Your work not only interests you, it gives you a sense of meaning. You enjoy opportunities for learning and development. You work with people who energize you. You are confident that your skills and competencies make you valuable and marketable and that you can access opportunities through your network. You are able to fit your work together with the other things in your life that are important to you, like family, friends, and leisure (para. 1).

The second quote is from Dr. David Shapiro, the coauthor of a soon-to-be published book titled Uncover Your Calling: Work Reimagined, who said,

"We make three very big distinctions in the book. There are jobs, which pay the bills; careers, which help us progress financially and personally; and callings, which really give us a full sense of fulfillment, engagement and energy that we don’t have in the other two” (Newcott, 2015, para 8).

The third quote is from Shapiro’s coauthor, Richard Leider, who further clarified the concept of a calling by saying,

"When we uncover our calling, we never have to work again . . . we are always doing what we want to do” (para 11 & 14).

My fondest desire is for you to use my resource to identify, investigate, prepare for, obtain, and succeed in the kind of occupation that fits the description of both Valcour’s “sustainable career” and Leider and Shapiro’s “calling.” The best way to do this is to make a firm commitment to engage in the following six-step professional development strategy.1

  1. Choose a broad occupational field in which your work would be a good match for your interests, values, and goals.
  2. Examine several careers in this field and choose one whose description makes you excited about obtaining it.
  3. Investigate this career carefully to determine the skills and knowledge you will need to succeed in it.
  4. Work with your academic advisor to develop a plan to use both the curricular and extracurricular components of your undergraduate education to acquire this knowledge and these skills.
  5. Collaborate with your faculty mentor or a professional career advisor to create strategies that will convince employers to hire you or graduate school admissions committee to accept you.
  6. Finally, do everything in your power to carry out your academic plan and to put your strategies to work when it is time to make your transition from college to the next stage of your professional development.

Begin this strategy now, not tomorrow, not at the end of the semester, and absolutely not until after you graduate. Just remember the 100,000 other psychology majors who will graduate with you. They all want good jobs too, but until they read this article, you will be the only one who has my resource and a six-step strategy to obtain a sustainable career.


American Psychological Association. (2013). APA guidelines for the undergraduate psychology major: Version 2.0. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from

Appleby, D. C. (2002, Fall). The savvy psychology major. Eye on Psi Chi, 7(1), 29. Retrieved from

Appleby, D. C. (2014). A skills-based academic advising strategy for job-seeking psychology majors. In R. L. Miller & J. G. Irons (Eds.), Academic advising: A handbook for advisors and students, Volume 1: Models, students, topics, and issues (pp. 143–156). Retrieved from

Appleby, D. C. (2015a). An introduction for faculty to an online career-exploration resource for psychology majors. Society for the Teaching of Psychology’s Office of Teaching Resources. Retrieved from

Appleby, D. C. (2015b). An online career-exploration resource for psychology majors. Society for the Teaching of Psychology’s Office of Teaching Resources. Retrieved from

Borden, V. M. H., & Rajecki, D. W. (2000). First-year employment outcomes of psychology baccalaureates: Relatedness, preparedness, and prospects. Teaching of Psychology, 27, 164–168. doi:10.1207/S15328023TOP2703_01 Gardner, P. (2007). Moving up or moving out of the company? Factors that influence the promoting or firing of new college hires. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University. Retrieved from

Halonen, J. S. (2013, Winter). The worthies vs. the great unwashed: Overcoming psychology’s tier problem. Eye on Psi Chi, 17(2). Retrieved from

Hettich, P. I., & Landrum, R. E. (2014). Your undergraduate degree in psychology: From college to career. Los Angeles, CA: Sage. Light, J. (2010, October 11). Psych majors aren’t happy with options. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from

Mills, C. (2015, October 24). Jeb Bush: Psych majors work at Chick-fil-A. Washington Examiner. Retrieved from

National Center for Education Statistics. (2012). Degrees in psychology conferred by degree-granting institutions, by level of degree and sex of student. Digest of Education Statistics 2012. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from

Newcott, B. (2015, September). Life reimagined: The tools to find the work you’ll love. AARP Bulletin / Real Possibilities. Retrieved from

Rajecki, D. W., & Borden, V. M. H. (2009). First-year employment outcomes of U.S. psychology graduates revisited: Need for a degree, salary, and relatedness to the major. Psychology of Learning and Teaching, 8, 23–29. doi:10.2304/plat.2009.8.2.23 Valcour, M. (2013, July 15). Craft a sustainable career. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from

Drew C. Applyby, PhD, received his BA from Simpson College in 1969 and his PhD from Iowa State University in 1972. He served as the Chair of the Marian University (IN) Psychology Department, the director of Undergraduate Studies in the Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) Psychology Department, and the Associate Dean of IUPUI’s Honors College during his 40-year career. He has used the results of his research on teaching, learning, academic advising, and mentoring to create strategies to enable college students to adapt successfully to their educational environment, acquire academic competence, identify and set realistic goals, and achieve their career aspirations. He has published over 100 books and articles including The Savvy Psychology Major and made over 600 conference and other professional presentations including 20 invited keynote addresses. He created the Society for the Teaching of Psychology’s (STP) Project Syllabus, transformed STP’s Mentoring Service into an online clearinghouse, and founded and served as the director of the Indiana High School Psychology Teachers Conference. He was honored for his outstanding contributions to the science and profession of psychology by being named a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, the Midwestern Psychological Association, and a Distinguished Member of Psi Chi. He has received 44 national, regional, and institutional awards and recognitions for teaching, advising, mentoring, and service. His work with IUPUI’s varsity athletes led him to be named “My Favorite Professor” by 71 student-athletes, and he was designated as a mentor by 777 IUPUI psychology majors, 222 of whom indicated that he was their most influential mentor by selecting the following sentence to describe his impact: “This professor influenced the whole course of my life, and his effect on me has been invaluable.” Dr. Appleby retired from IUPUI in 2011 with the rank of Professor Emeritus.

Copyright 2015 (Vol. 20, Iss. 1) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

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