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Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 2018

Eye on Psi Chi

Winter 2018 | Volume 22 | Issue 2

Careers for Psychology Majors: What Every Student Should Know

James H. Thomas, PhD, Northern Kentucky University

View this issue in Digital and PDF formats.

I have taught psychology at Northern Kentucky University for the past 42 years, many of which were spent as the department’s advising coordinator. About 20 years ago, I realized that, although we did a decent job of making sure students took the required courses, we were woefully lacking in our attempts to help them prepare for a career after graduation. Eventually, I developed a course that I called “Career Planning for Psychology Majors” and convinced my colleagues that it should be a required course in our program. This being my last semester of teaching, I have been reflecting on what I have learned about careers from teaching the course and what I would like to share with all students majoring in psychology.

What I intend to do in this article is to address two career-related questions that I believe every student majoring (or considering majoring) in psychology should ask: What can I do with a psychology major? What will I learn as a psychology major?

I am certainly not the only psychologist who has addressed these questions. In fact, they have been discussed in considerable detail in several excellent books including The Savvy Psychology Major (Appleby, 2010), The Psychology Major: Career Options and Strategies for Success (Landrum and Davis, 2014), and The Psychology Major’s Companion (Dunn and Halonen, 2017). My goal in this article is to provide brief answers to both questions and to help students appreciate that knowing the answers is not enough—they must act on them!

Both questions have a short answer and a longer answer that includes some “ifs, ands, and buts.”
Q. What can I do with a psychology major?
A. Almost anything:

  • IF you decide what you want to do
  • AND you plan and prepare for it
  • BUT almost nothing if you don’t
  • What the short answer means is that the psychology major can lead to interesting and meaningful careers in a wide variety of areas, both within and outside of the field of psychology, per se. About 25% of psychology majors go on to become psychologists. These include many who teach and do research as college professors and many others who work in health care, public school, or business settings. The remaining 75% either pursue careers in the business world or in other helping professions. Psychology majors have successful careers in many areas of business, most often in human resources, management, sales, or market research. In addition, many psychology majors establish careers in other helping professions such as counseling and social work, as well as the fields of art therapy, speech pathology, occupational therapy, nursing, child life, college student affairs and others. Psychology also is among the more common majors for students in both law school and medical school.

    What is important for you to realize, as a student, is that preparing for each of these different types careers requires you to do something more than just take your psychology courses. And, as you might imagine, the types of things you need to do are very different from one career to the next.

    To illustrate this point: If you want to be a psychologist, you will need to be admitted to graduate school in psychology. To accomplish that, here are some things that will be required:

    Good Grades

    Admission to graduate programs in psychology is usually quite competitive so, of course, you will need to make good grades. A high GPA is important, but it won’t get you in; every applicant has a high GPA, so admissions committees also look for other things.

    Good GRE Scores

    If you made a good score on the SAT or ACT, you can probably make a competitive score on the GRE, but only if you prepare for the test. Most students who are admitted to graduate programs in psychology spend between 50 and 100 hours studying for the GRE.

    Good Letters of Recommendation

    These are not character references from your family members or employers; they are academic references from faculty. So, you will have to impress at least three faculty members enough that they will write strong letters for you.

    Research Experience

    You can have good grades, good GRE scores, and good letters of recommendation, and you probably will still not be admitted to graduate school, especially into a PhD program, unless you also have some research experience. This doesn’t mean just taking a research methods course; it usually means doing research with a faculty member and preferably contributing enough to be a coauthor on a paper or conference presentation.

    As a student, you must do these things if you want to become a psychologist, but they will not land you a job in the business world. To enter that field, you will need to be able to demonstrate that you are interested in and know something about business—maybe by taking some courses in the college of business and, almost certainly, by gaining some work experience in the business world, preferably in the area of business in which you would like to work. So, you need to be looking for sales experience, or taking an assistant manager job, or doing an internship or co-op in a human resources department. These are the kinds of things most businesses are looking for. They won’t care much about your GRE scores or your research experience.

    You can see that these activities are quite different from those that are required for graduate school in psychology—and they are also quite different from the things you will need to do to enter another helping profession. Requirements for these careers actually vary considerably from one profession to the next. Consider some examples:

    1. If you want to enter a master’s program in counseling or social work or find a “starter job” in one of these areas with your bachelor’s degree, your psychology major will make you a viable candidate. But you will likely also need some courses in “applied” areas of psychology or in the counseling or social work departments, and you will definitely need some work or volunteer experience in a helping field. Most graduate programs in these fields will expect you to have a reasonably good GPA, but they will not be likely to care much about your GRE scores, your research experience, or the job you had as assistant manager at Applebee’s.
    2. Graduate programs in several professions have specific lists of required coursework that you must complete in order to be considered— and they are quite different from each other. For example, you can get into medical school with a psychology major, but only if you complete the “premed” requirements that include specific courses in biology, chemistry, and mathematics. You can be admitted to a master’s program in art therapy, but only if you complete a number of art courses and are able to present a portfolio of your work. Graduate programs in speech/language pathology and occupational therapy also admit psychology majors, but each requires its own specific set of prerequisite courses, as do “second degree” bachelor of science in nursing programs, which also are open to psychology majors. Any of these sets of prerequisites can be combined with a psychology major, but, of course, you can’t do all of them at once.
    3. Some of the other helping professions require specific cocurricular activities. For example, to get into a graduate program in college student affairs you need to have been active on campus as an undergraduate. Becoming a child life specialist, another interesting career, requires completion of an internship of nearly 500 hours in child life at a children’s hospital.

    Now, let’s revisit the answer to the question: What can I do with a major in psychology? You can, indeed, establish a career in a wide variety of interesting and meaningful fields, but they all require different kinds of preparation. Therefore, you need to decide what direction you want to go so you can begin to prepare for it. If you don’t make this decision, if you just take your psychology courses and complete your degree requirements, you will likely find that when you graduate, your degree will not be much help in finding a career.

    Of course, the earlier you make this decision, the more time you will have to complete the necessary preparation, but there is a catch: You have to make the decision that is right for you! If you make a bad decision, you will likely waste a lot of time doing things that are not really necessary and not doing the things that are necessary to get you where you really want to be. So, you want to be sure that you make an informed decision. To do this, you will first need to spend considerable time and energy exploring the various career possibilities and also exploring yourself; that is, getting in touch with your own interests and values and skills so that you can see how they match up with the various careers you are considering. It is this process of exploration that you must take seriously and not put off. You will need to seek out people and other resources that can enhance your knowledge and help you sort out the information that seems contradictory and confusing to you. It is important to keep an open mind as you do this; don’t rule anything out until you have given it a fair consideration. And, don’t rush into making a decision until you have the information you need. But get started right away!

    Now, how about the second question?
    Q. What will I learn as a psychology major?
    A. You will learn a set of skills that will make you a valuable employee in virtually any career.

  • IF you recognize the importance of developing these skills
  • AND you do the things that are necessary to master them
  • BUT almost nothing of any real practical value if you don’t
  • There are several interesting papers describing the skills that psychology majors acquire. For example, Appleby (2000) describes five groups of skills that prospective employers look for, and Slattery and Forden (2014) identify “10 skills that any employer will appreciate.” I want to focus on three types of skills that I consider especially valuable:

    First, a psychology major is part of a “liberal arts” degree (as opposed to a “technical” degree like accounting or engineering or computer programming). Liberal arts degrees require a concentrated area of knowledge (i.e., a major), and also a broad array of coursework that focuses on developing certain important skills. Basically, liberal arts degrees are designed to help you develop the capacity to read and write and speak and think. Unfortunately, it is often possible to “skate through” college and get a degree without really developing these skills. You can do this by avoiding courses that require a lot of reading or a lot of writing, and those that require oral presentations or demand that you think critically about material instead of just memorizing it for the tests. If, instead, you recognize that these skills are important, and you choose a curriculum that that requires you to develop the ability to acquire knowledge by comprehending what you read and what you hear, to express yourself clearly and persuasively, both orally and in writing, and to think logically and creatively when considering various issues or problems, then you will have a set of skills are valued by employers in any professional career.

    Now, of course, those skills won’t separate you from all the other liberal arts majors, but as a psychology major, you will have a special opportunity to develop some other valuable skills as well. In studying psychology, you will acquire some keen insights into why people behave and think and feel the way they do. Understanding how people are shaped by reinforcement and punishment and appreciating the social, developmental, and cognitive processes that affect their behavior can allow you to understand people better and relate to them more effectively. Although this knowledge, in and of itself, will not give you good “people skills,” it certainly can help. To develop these skills, you will have to put that knowledge to use as you work with people in a variety of situations and roles, but if you can demonstrate that you can work with others as a team member and as a leader, and that you can empathize with as well as motivate others, then you will be the kind of person that most employers want to both hire and promote.

    Finally, as a psychology major you will learn to think like a scientist and to apply that style of thinking when dealing with issues involving human behavior. In virtually every career field, organizations need to make evidence-based decisions about questions involving human behavior. As a psychology major, you will recognize that these are empirical questions and that the way to answer them is to look at the data. In addition, you will know how to go about collecting the appropriate kinds of data and how to examine the data that is presented and determine what conclusions can be drawn from it. That is, you will be able to do these things if you actively engage in your research methods course and in all your classes when research is being described and if you grasp the fact that the “methods of science” we use in psychology represent a way of thinking about “real world” issues and acquiring knowledge about them. If you can be the person who helps others to recognize the importance of basing decisions on sound empirical data and guides them in the process of doing so, then you will become a valued member in any organization.

    So in summary, what does every psychology major need to know about careers?

    First, the psychology major can lead to a wide variety of meaningful careers, but you have to get involved in the process of self and career exploration so you can decide what you want to do and take the additional steps needed to prepare for it.

    Second, that the psychology major can help you to build a set of skills that will be valuable in any career, but you have to recognize the importance of these skills and do the things that are necessary to develop them.

    Third, that if you will do these things, you can find a great career that fits your interests, values, and skills and then you will realize that psychology has been a great major for you.


    Appleby, D. C. (2000, Spring). Job skills valued by employers who interview psychology majors. Eye on Psi Chi, 4(3), 17. Retrieved from http://www.

    Appleby, D. C. (2010). The savvy psychology major (4th ed.). Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.

    Dunn, D. S., & Halonen, J. S. (2017). The psychology major’s companion. New York, NY: Worth.

    Landrum, R. E., & Davis, S. F. (2014). The psychology major: Career options and strategies for success (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

    Slattery, J. M., & Forden, C. L. (2014, Fall). What psychology students learn: 10 skills that any employer will appreciate. Eye on Psi Chi, 19(1), 14–17. Retrieved from

    James H. Thomas, PhD, is now Professor Emeritus from the Department of Psychological Science at Northern Kentucky University (NKU). He spent his entire academic career at NKU, joining the faculty after earning his PhD in developmental psychology from the University of Virginia. During his career, Jim has served as president of the Faculty Senate and chair of the Athletic Council, and he won the university’s first Outstanding Academic Advisor Award in 2002. He was the advising coordinator in Department of Psychological Science for many years and spent several years as faculty advisor to the department’s award-winning Psi Chi chapter. He originated and taught the department’s required career planning course, and his research conducted with colleagues Cyndi McDaniel and Robin Bartlett has shown that students in the course increase in both self and career exploration, in both self-perceived and actual career-related knowledge, and in confidence in their ability to make a good career decision, as well as moving toward the achievement of a vocational identity and showing a reduction in several types of career decision-making difficulties.

    Copyright 2018 (Vol. 22, Iss. 2) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

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