How often have you heard: “What can you do with your bachelor’s degree in psychology?” or “Are you really prepared to join the workforce?” Thanks to two excellent resources created by the APA Center for Workforce Studies, you can gain a unique perspective on the first question. The Data Tool: Careers in Psychology graphically presents numerous career options at the baccalaureate, master’s, and doctoral level. The Data Tool: Degree Pathways in Psychology identifies the number of psychology majors who completed a bachelor’s degree, advanced degrees in psychology, and advanced degrees in other fields (APA, 2017). For example, of the 3.4 million people who held a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 2015, 57% stopped at the bachelor’s level, 13% obtained a graduate degree in psychology, and 30% received a graduate degree in a field other than psychology (APA, 2017). I strongly encourage you to explore these Data Tools and discover the many careers that psychology graduates have entered and the pathways they followed, at all levels of education. If you plan to enter the workforce with your bachelor’s in psychology, you should also be very concerned about the second question, namely, your readiness for the workplace.
Are College Graduates Prepared for the Workforce?
A survey entitled What Graduates Need to Succeed: Colleges and Employers Weigh In, conducted by Macguire Associates, Inc. for The Chronicle of Higher Education, may provide some answers to this critical and complex issue (Bourbon, 2017). Data was collected from 359 college administrators and 233 employers representing nine industries and involved in recruiting recent college graduates. The report addressed topics such as workplace preparation, the knowledge and skills graduates need, and selected elements of the job search process. As you read my summary below, ask yourself what you can do to strengthen your readiness for that much anticipated first postcollege job. If you are currently working toward a career-specific minor or double major, the information below will be of special interest. The terms success, readiness, and preparedness are not defined in this report, but they include multiple factors including some topics I address below.
Workplace readiness requires the commitment and resources of your school, as well as your efforts to use those resources optimally. The ratings by employers and administrators of how well colleges are preparing graduates for the workplace are shown in Figure 1 (Bourbon, 2017).
Overall, both employers (70%) and college administrators (78%) believe that colleges are doing a good or excellent job in preparing graduates for the workplace; predictably, the administrators expressed more confidence than employers. However, employer satisfaction varies widely among the nine groups of industries represented by the employer respondents, as Figure 2 illustrates (Bourbon, 2017).
Note the considerable spread in employer satisfaction between the highest and lowest ratings. The Bourbon report does not identify the specific knowledge needed for success in a particular industry, although completing a preparatory internship is a valuable experience in all of them. To learn more about careers in a particular industry, consult your program advisor or career services, and conduct informational interviews with professionals in your intended field. Discover, for example, what components of your coursework are strengths if you seek a career in health care. Or, what elements are lacking if you seek a job in a nonprofit or government organization? In what other academic departments should you complete coursework and gain practical experience via a job or an internship to prepare for one of these industries?
Bourbon (2017) found the following:
In terms of being prepared to work in an increasingly automated and technical world, both employers and colleges have confidence in recent graduates, with 42% of employers rating them “prepared,” and 33% rating them “well-prepared” or “highly prepared.” Colleges rated these elements similarly, with 37% answering “prepared” while nearly half (41 percent) called them “well-prepared” or “highly prepared.” (p. 10)
What Knowledge and Skills Are Required?
When employers were asked to rate the three most important skills college graduates need to succeed in the workplace, they chose communication (45%), relevant technical skills (40%), and problem solving (36%). In comparison, college administrators named communication (87%), collaboration (47%), and problem solving (45%). In addition, when asked about the top three skills graduates actually possess, employers identified relevant technical skills (47%), relevant knowledge (38%), and communication skills (33%). College administrators identified collaboration skills (57%), relevant knowledge (45%), and communication skills (40%). Communications is the only top skill on which the two groups agreed that graduates both need and possess. Other important skills named by employers included collaboration, recent knowledge, adaptability, and analytical skills, in that order.
The employer sample in this report focused only on the top three skills. However, other employer-based surveys include additional important skills besides the five mentioned above. For example, a survey of 400 employers conducted by Hart Research Associates (2015) for the American Association of Colleges and Universities also included in its top skills ethical judgment and decision making; critical thinking and analytic skills; the ability to apply knowledge and skills; the ability to locate, organize, and evaluate information from multiple sources; and the ability to innovate and be creative; among others. What evidence could you provide a hiring manager for your achievement of such skills? In general, they are as interested or more interested in the skills you developed (and your evidence for them) than in the content of your courses.
Should You Focus on Liberal Arts or Career-Specific Knowledge and Skills?
The employer sample in the Bourbon (2017) survey were not asked to rate which majors they value more highly, but they were queried about the overall factors they consider when evaluating candidates and their resumés. They identified academic major (33%), relevance of the coursework to the position (30%), college GPA (23%), and reputation of candidate’s college (14%). In comparison, college administrators named relevance of the coursework to the position (31%) , academic major (29%), college GPA (21%), and reputation of the college (19%).
Did you notice the importance of academic major, relevant skills, and relevant knowledge in these ratings? Being relevant means that employers seek applicants’ who possess specific knowledge and skills that match or approximate the requirements of particular positions. If you have a general idea of the career field you want to enter, your psychology major alone may not be sufficient to obtain a satisfying career-specific job. Chances are that you also need to complete a career-related minor and internship. Such situations address the age-old dilemma that many students face: Which is more important, the liberal arts or a career specific major?
The Bourbon (2017) survey sought employers’ opinions about the importance of broad versus specific knowledge and skills. On a continuum where broad-based knowledge is 0 and specific, technical abilities is 10, the average rating of the college administrator sample was 4.92 while that of employers was 6.18. Employers in this study generally preferred specific skills, although not totally. When Hart Research Associates asked employers about the importance of general versus specific career skills, 60% indicated that both were important. “The majority of employers continue to say that possessing both field-specific knowledge and a broad range of knowledge and skills is important for recent college graduates to achieve long-term career success” (2015, p. 1). Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown Center on Workforce Studies leans toward broad range knowledge and skills. According to Bourbon (2017):
The demand for general skills has increased dramatically and will come up more for employers. In the end, it’s the general skills that count if you want to promote people. Most CEOs have a bunch of competent people working for them, but would they make them a vice-president? No. A manager? No. In order to be a manager you must have general skills. (p. 15)
But it is often difficult to reach a significant management position without some prior knowledge of and experience with the organization’s core specialties, procedures, and related components.
Perhaps you can have your cake and eat it. According to Burning Glass Technologies (BGT), a labor market analytics firm, “By coupling a field-specific skillset with the soft skills that form the foundation of a liberal education, Liberal Arts graduates can nearly double the number of jobs available to them” (2013, p. 2). From an analysis of its data, BGT identified eight such categories of jobs/skillsets including marketing, sales, general business, social media, graphic design, data analysis, computer programming, and IT networking. These jobs are open to liberal arts graduates IF you have completed additional coursework such as a minor and (ideally) an internship in one of those areas (Burning Glass Technologies, 2013). The good news for psychology students is that many of these career areas are substantially influenced by psychological concepts.
In short, in today’s complex and rapidly changing workplace, the real issue is not liberal arts or career specific majors, but liberal arts (your psych major) and career-specific preparation. Your education should prepare you for work and for life. If you want a career in psychology, you must plan on attending graduate school in psychology. If, instead, you want a career using your psychology major at the bachelor’s level, you have numerous options to choose from (consult the APA Data Tools named above), but your chances of success are greatly enhanced with the addition of coursework and experiences in a career-specific field.
Job Search Factors
Possessing the knowledge and skills that employers seek is one major hurdle that you must surmount; having the job search skills is another. In the Bourbon (2017) survey, employers reported that 64% of recent graduates were either prepared, well-prepared, or very well-prepared to succeed in the job search process, yet 36% disagreed. Colleges were far more optimistic about their students, convinced that 82% of their graduates would succeed in their search for a job.
The most important nonclassroom experiences employers look for on a resumé (Bourbon, 2017) include internships (34%), employment during college (32%), extracurricular activities (17%), and volunteer activities (17%). In basic agreement but going further, the Hart Research Associates survey (2015) reported that employers expressed greater willingness to hire recent college graduates if they completed an internship (94%); a senior thesis or project that demonstrated knowledge, research, problem-solving, and communication skills (87%); multiple courses involving significant writing (81%); and a collaborative research project (80%). Service learning project with community organizations, a field project in a diverse community with people from different backgrounds or culture, and a study abroad program were also identified. For many employers, the career- or industry-specific internship is a critical requirement for employment. You probably don’t have the time or resources to complete all these activities, but they are the applied learning experiences that hiring managers will search for on your resumé and ask about in an interview. So, get ready and set to obtain such experiences, if you want to be hired.
The Bourbon report provided data about one job search factor that other reports omit. Most employers (67%) investigate their candidates’ social media presence. Between 72% and 74% check LinkedIn, Facebook, or conduct an Internet search; 42% check Twitter, and 9% ask for passwords (Bourbon, 2017). How professional is your social media profile? Does it contain material you don’t want to share with prospective employers?
Other aspects of the job search process such as resumés, interviews, and networking were not addressed in What Graduates Need to Succeed: Employers Weigh In. Consequently, you should work closely with your advisor and career services to develop the necessary skills in these areas. In addition, Eye on Psi Chi contains numerous articles devoted to careers and job search issues. Go to the Publication Search page and select Career Preparation from the dropdown menu (currently showing–Select one): https://www.psichi.org/?Publications_Search. Also, consult the incredibly useful Appleby (2016) online career exploration guide for psychology majors.
In conclusion, before you graduate, you need to be ready and set to go for your postcollege employment. That takes time, preparation, and persistence. So, create a plan for that goal and view it as an ongoing job that you hold in addition to your job of completing academic requirements along with the job that helps pay the bills. Don’t wait until the last semester to start, or you’ll be among the last to leave the starting block.
American Psychological Association. (2017). Careers in psychology [Interactive data tool]. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/workforce/data-tools/index.aspx
Appleby, D. C. (2016). An online career exploration resource for psychology majors.
Society for Teaching of Psychology, Office of Teaching Resources. Retrieved from
Bourbon, J. (2017). What graduates need to succeed: Employers weigh in. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://iris.nyit.edu/~shartman/graduates.pdf
Burning Glass Technologies. (2013). The art of employment: How liberal arts graduates can improve their labor market prospects. Boston, MA. Retrieved from
Hart Research Associates. (2015). Falling short? College learning and career success. Washington, DC. Retrieved from Association of Colleges and Universities website. http://www.aacu.org/leap/public-opinion-research
|Paul Hettich, PhD, Professor Emeritus at DePaul University (IL), was an Army personnel psychologist, program evaluator in an education R&D lab, and a corporate applied scientist—positions that created a “real world” foundation for his career in college teaching and administration. He was inspired to write about college-to-workplace readiness issues by graduates and employers who revealed a major disconnect between university and workplace expectations, cultures, and practices. You can contact Paul at firstname.lastname@example.org
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