When I run into former students, most of them excitedly tell me what they’re doing. They’re working in the criminal justice system. They’ve graduated from a counseling program and are doing therapy. They’re in graduate school.
Sometimes, though, they hang their head and say, “I don’t work in the field.” Sometimes they tell me that they’re not using their education.
You don’t work in the field? You’re not using your education? Really?
Students in psychology make clear connections between their undergraduate careers and certain kinds of jobs, especially those in the mental health field. However, only about 25% of psychology majors end up working in a psychology-related field immediately after graduation because most “psychology-related” jobs require a graduate degree (LearnPsychology, 2017). People with at least a bachelor’s degree in psychology who enter a nonpsychology related occupation become, in order of frequency, teachers, managers, doctors, lawyers, education administrators, and nurses (LearnPsychology, 2017).
What Have You Learned?
The skills needed in these fields are embedded in the psychology major, although psychology students may not recognize them. These skills—writing, critical thinking and analytical skills, communication skills, and an appreciation of diversity—are taught covertly: psychology courses are often named for their content rather than their skills.
Assignments that teach skills clearly linked to psychology-related occupations have face validity, but many faculty have larger goals: to teach students to think and approach their world in ways that will prepare them for an unpredictable future. Kalt (2016), for example, argued, “Critical thinkers can accomplish anything.... A critical thinker is a self-learning machine that is not constrained by memorizing commands or syntax” (para. 4). Such critical thinking skills taught in the course of a psychology major are invaluable in a range of situations: on the job, of course, but also while buying a house, choosing a mortgage, or going to the voting booth. Or, as Lagemann and Lewis (2012) argue,
| Educated citizens must be able to listen intently and empathetically to other people; to analyze rationally what is said, read, and observed; to present thoughts clearly and to debate their merits vigorously; to confront unsupported assertions head on, rather than to dismiss or ignore them, or to talk past them with equally unfounded assertions; and, when appropriate, to identify reasonable strategies to take necessary action. (p. 29)
Most faculty approach teaching with these larger goals in mind. When faculty work with students on APA Style, for example, we are teaching the writing style of our field, but also the importance of presentation, form, and attention to detail. When we ask students to summarize and analyze a research study, we are helping students learn to think critically and evaluate explanations for behavior. When we assign students to give group presentations, we are helping them develop the teamwork skills they will need in the future and the oral communication and presentation skills that will serve them well across fields: psychology, law, business, politics, research, education, and medicine.
What Do Employers Want?
In fact, in a study performed by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (Adams, 2014), researchers surveyed employers of 161 companies in industries ranging from agriculture to energy to retail. On a 5-point scale, they ranked a variety of nontechnical skills including problem solving (4.7), oral communication (4.6), information literacy (4.6), and quantitative reasoning (4.4) higher than technical skills in their field (4.2). Employers want more than technical skills in the field and seem to believe that people with these other skills can develop the technical skills.
Certainly I can empathize with parents and students who want their investment in college to pay off financially. Like Birge (2016), however, I am troubled “that parents and students often don’t understand it is not the degree that gets the job offer, but the education that positions the student to be the most competitive in the labor market” (para. 11, italics added).
Many psychology students and employers fail to recognize the skills that psychology majors build over the course of their education. I keep this in mind as I work with both students and employers. Throughout their undergraduate careers, I ask students to consider why I have given particular assignments: “Why have I assigned this?” I want my students to recognize our goals so that they can intentionally build them. Even if your professor does not ask this, ask it of yourself.
When I write letters of recommendation for psychology students entering other fields, I stress the skills that they have been building over the course of their educational careers. As a result, my students have successfully gone on in clinical psychology, business, law, medicine, criminal justice, and more. My seniors complete an assignment in our capstone course where I ask them to identify these skills so that they, too, can communicate them effectively and clearly to employers, parents, members of the community, and potential employers.
Recognizing the relationships between skills obtained in college and those needed in another setting can lead to your success there. How does your psychology major prepare you for a career in medical sales, for example? Psychology teaches students to recognize other people’s goals, communicate clearly with other people, and recognize (and use) social influence strategies effectively. Psychology helps students read and evaluate research and recognize its strengths and pitfalls. It teaches students to discuss that research with an interested, but less informed audience, in this case, the physician.
Critical thinking, writing, oral communication, empathy, respect for diversity, and an understanding of and appreciation for research are not skills solely built in psychology—although perhaps this combination of skills is more intentionally built here. Nonetheless, these skills position psychology majors well for success in a variety of fields—when students can articulate these skills well. As you reflect on your education, consider the skills you’re building. Consider how these might be useful to employers and others. Find ways to communicate these skills meaningfully in job interviews and with other parties. Rather than apologizing for your psychology major, proudly note the way that it has prepared you to contribute well to everything you do.
Adams, S. (2014, April 16). The college degrees and skills employers most want. Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/susanadams/2014/04/16/the-college-degrees-and-skills-employers-most-want/#575dfd843fd2
Birge, J. F. (2016, May 31). James F. Birge: A liberal arts education for the 21st century. Berkshire Eagle. Retrieved from http://www.berkshireeagle.com/columnists/ci_29961305/james-f-birge-liberal-arts-education-21st-century
Kalt, D. (2016, June 1). Why I was wrong about liberal-arts majors. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://blogs.wsj.com/experts/2016/06/01/why-i-was-wrong-about-liberal-arts-majors/
Lagemann, E. C., & Lewis, H. (2012). Renewing the civic mission of American higher education. In E. C. Lagemann and H. Lewis (Eds.), What is college for? The public purpose of higher education (pp. 9–44). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
LearnPsychology. (2017). Psychology majors: After-graduation guidebook to non-psych jobs. Retrieved from http://www.learnpsychology.org/psychology-major-job-guide/
Jeanne Slattery, PhD, is a professor of psychology at Clarion University, where she serves as advisor to Psi Chi. In addition, she is a clinical psychologist with a small private practice, and has written two books, Counseling Diverse Clients: Bringing Context Into Therapy, and Empathic Counseling: Meaning, Context, Ethics, and Skill. She currently is writing Trauma, Meaning, and Spirituality: Research and Clinical Perspectives.
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