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Eye on Psi Chi: Spring 2019

Eye on Psi Chi

Spring 2019 | Volume 23 | Issue 3


Planning Your First Postcollege Job: Underemployment and What to Do About It

Paul Hettich, PhD,
DePaul University

View this issue in Digital and PDF formats.

The initial job a younger person takes can profoundly influence the direction of a long-term career. Graduates who accept or who are forced into subbachelor’s-level jobs early in their careers suffer significant long-term consequences; they may be consigned to underemployment for years to come. The first job is a high-stakes decision, and both educators and graduates should treat it accordingly . . . This is particularly true for women, who face a greater challenge here, as in so many other aspects of the job market (Burning Glass Technologies and Strada Institute for the Future of Work, 2018, p. 30).

This conclusion from The Permanent Detour: Underemployment’s Long-Term Effects on Careers of College Grads, is a wake-up call to all workplace- bound baccalaureate psychology majors. It should also concern their teachers, advisors, and psychology department heads because 56% of baccalaureate psychology majors are workplace bound (APA, 2018), and we need to help them succeed in their first job.

I will summarize the report’s methodology and basic findings, but the multiple issues involved in this topic are complex; I strongly encourage you to consult the complete online report listed in References. Teachers may find this thought-provoking report appropriate for discussion in career planning, research methods, and I/O courses.


The authors define underemployment as “bachelor’s degrees holders working in jobs that do not require a bachelor’s degree” (Burning Glass Technologies and Strada Institute for the Future of Work, 2018, p. 7). In contrast, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) defines underemployed workers as “those who prefer fulltime employment but are involuntarily working part-time” (p. 7). Both definitions are limited in how each addresses issues such as individual circumstances and the connection between education and task demands, but the data presented here is based on the Burning Glass definition.

Underemployment is a common workplace condition but one that is currently in a state of flux because of changes in the economy, changing job skills especially in technical occupations, the prevalence of contract or “gig” (part-time or temporary) work, and the practice of upcredentialing. That is, some hiring managers intentionally seek college graduates for jobs that do not require a college degree because of the large pool of applicants and, I may add, at a time when many jobs are being automated. From an employer perspective, college graduates possess more desirable credentials (i.e., higher levels of achievement, persistence, and maturity) compared to most high school or associate degree graduates. Employers’ demands for higher credentials has grown rapidly over the past five years—almost twice as fast as the growth in all bachelor’s-level jobs. Clearly, upcredentialing contributes to underemployment (Burning Glass Technologies & Strada Institute for the Future of Work, 2018), and it could happen to you.

Burning Glass used its database of over 800 million online job postings to obtain specific information about the skills that employers seek; their sources include daily access of job postings from nearly 50,000 online job boards, newspapers, and employer sites. “If more than 50% of job postings for an occupation over the past three years (2015–17) requested a bachelor’s degree or higher we considered it a college-level job” (Burning Glass Technologies & Strada Institute for the Future of Work, 2018, p. 14). Using this definition, the authors redefined 45 occupations from noncollege level, as determined in the O*NET classification (the government database Occupation Information Network), to college level. Examples of upskilled occupations of possible interest to psychology students include human resources specialists, event planners (meeting and convention), sales representatives (wholesale and manufacturing, technical and scientific products), and postsecondary vocational education teachers.

Among the 18 occupations the Burning Glass analysis shifted from college to noncollege are community health workers, psychiatric technicians, occupational health and safety technicians, recreation workers, and patient representatives (Burning Glass Technologies & Strada Institute for the Future of Work, 2018). Burning Glass did not use the occupational profiles developed by the government for jobs for which college degrees are not required because it believes those descriptions are slow to update as market conditions change. In summary, underemployment occurs when a person is not working in a job for which a college degree is required, and a college-level job is one which more than 50% of the job postings from 2015–17 required a college degree.

Establishing the Long-Term Effects of Underemployment

The authors were also interested in the career paths, progress, and outcomes of American workers over time. Burning Glass used four million resumés mined from its database of over 80 million resumés, plus federal surveys and administrative data sets related to degree completion, academic majors, and workers earnings. To be included in the study, an individual’s resumé had to meet the criteria of possessing a bachelor’s degree and at least five years of work experience.


Following are the basic findings from the analyses of the job postings and resumés.

1. Appropriately employed versus underemployed. The good news is that 87% of the workers who were appropriately employed (their position matched their educational level) in their first job continued to hold an appropriate position five years later. In addition, 91% of those appropriately employed remained at that level after 10 years. The bad news is that, across all majors included in this study, 43% entered jobs that placed them in the underemployed category, using this report’s definition of underemployment. After five years, 29% of them remained underemployed; even after 10 years, 21% were still underemployed.

The 43% level of underemployment for the first post-college job is consistent with that reported by economists Abel and Deitz (2017) who placed it at 43.5%. They maintained that underemployment is common during good and bad economic cycles, that this condition is currently trending downward (as is unemployment), and that underemployment is a normal college-to-workplace transition issue as graduates search for the right job. However, Abel and Deitz did not report on the consequences relating first jobs to long-term underemployment.

2. Earnings. The annual average earnings of graduates in appropriately employed jobs was $47,470 compared to $37,330 (27% less) for those considered underemployed. Women’s salaries were lower than men’s, but specific differences were not reported. No other relevant information on earnings was provided.

3. Gender differences. Women college graduates are more disadvantaged then men graduates in their first post-college job: 47% of the women are initially underemployed compared to 37% men. After 5 years, 31% of the women and 23% of the men were underemployed; after 10 years, the situation remained the same for 23% of women and 17% of men. The gender differences persisted for women regardless of the academic major chosen.

4. STEM graduates. STEM graduates are in the lowest category of underemployment. However, the probability of being underemployed differs among majors (from lowest to highest levels): 29% engineering; 30% computer and information sciences and support services; 39% mathematics and statistics; 40% physical sciences; and 51% biological and biomedical sciences. The probability of being underemployed in the first job and five years later for each STEM field is 18%, 18%, 26%, 27%, and 35%, respectively. Female STEM graduates are more likely than male STEM graduates to be underemployed 5 years and 10 years later.

In summary, college graduates, especially women, who are underemployed in their first job are likely to be disadvantaged in terms of career and financial upward mobility, and could remain that way for years. The authors emphasized that: Early employment choices are a dress rehearsal for the rest of life. Young adults underemployed after graduation can’t consider it just a phase that they’ll escape from in a few months because a few months can easily turn into a few years and eventually an entire career (Burning Glass Technologies & Strada Institute for the Future of Work, 2018, p. 8).

Majors Matter

At this point you are very concerned about the differences among academic majors and whether psychology was the right choice for you. The authors presented first-job and five-years-later data for several academic majors in terms of the probability of being underemployed. For the sake of brevity, I included data for selected majors (in addition to STEM) but a complete list appears on page 20 of the report. The probability of being underemployed with one of these majors in a first job and five years later are: social sciences, 44% and 28%; business management, marketing, and related support services, 47% and 31%; health professions and related programs, 49% and 36%; education, 50% and 36%; psychology, 54% and 70%; and homeland security, law enforcement, firefighting and related protective services, 65% and 50%.

After you recover from the shock of seeing psychology’s 54% underemployment probability level, notice that: (a) majors that are most in demand in the workplace (i.e., engineering and computer related) also reflect a surprisingly high (to this writer) level of underemployment, and (b) several majors are separated by only a few percentage points. Psychology’s position in relation to, for example, social sciences is puzzling because psychology is often grouped with social sciences, which here reflects 44% probability of underemployment. Except for the STEM disciplines, no comments were offered regarding one major’s position in relation to others. You are encouraged to explore these findings with your career services professionals, advisors, and others knowledgeable about employment issues at

What Is Missing From The Permanent Detour? Individuals and Situations

The findings in this report strongly suggest that long-term underemployment is caused by first job choices and potentially is a serious problem for all academic majors, and especially for women. That could be true. However, other variables may operate to influence underemployment that were not addressed in this report; perhaps they were beyond the scope of this study given its “big data” methodology. The Permanent Detour does not provide data about the workers’ individual situations. For example, was that first job the only one available to the applicants, given their local employment conditions, family responsibilities, work history, or related circumstances? How much planning, skill, and effort did the individuals exert researching the job, preparing a resumé, and interviewing? Did some hiring managers upcredential the job, or were they less than honest in describing education, experience, and skill sets required? Did the chosen job provide particular benefits (e.g., health insurance, paid leave, or flextime) or a desirable culture unavailable in an appropriately employed position? To what extent do workers in a lower level job perceive they are underemployed and still enjoy or tolerate the work even if it is not at the baccalaureate level? The report focused on jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree, but how many underemployed-level jobs required at least an associate degree, that is, situations that may mitigate some negative aspects of underemployment?

These and similar questions are relevant when considering the complete picture of underemployment. However, despite these possible rival hypotheses and their unknown effects, readers should still be seriously concerned about the report’s findings.

How to Avoid Underemployment!

In some situations (personal circumstances, the labor market, geographical location), you may have no other choice than to accept a part-time or full-time job that is below your level of education. Yet, there are steps you can take during college to improve your chances of avoiding underemployment. None are silver bullet solutions but acting on this advice NOW will likely increase your odds of joining those appropriately employed workers who use their education and enjoy their job’s benefits.

  • Complete an academic minor or additional coursework plus an internship in your anticipated career field, in addition to your psychology major. Career/job-related internships are an employer’s most preferred type of job preparation (Burning Glass Technologies, 2013). In addition, students who completed an internship report that the experience positively impacted their career readiness skills such as professionalism/ work ethic, teamwork, communication, critical thinking/ problem solving, and leadership (NACE, 2018).
  • Monitor the specific skills you are developing in and out of the classroom including your job and extracurricular activities. Include evidence of skill development in an e-portfolio so you can articulate your skills and experiences on resumés and to a hiring manager during a job interview. Do not expect most teachers to tell you the specific skills they teach because they assume that you can identify them.
  • Work closely with your academic advisors and career services professionals. Develop a mentoring relationship with an experienced individual whom you respect. In addition, conduct informational interviews with persons working in fields that interest you.
  • Create a job search plan several months in advance of graduation and regard the search process as a time-intensive job. I have discussed these issues in previous columns of Eye on Psi Chi—specifically in the Fall 2016; Winter and Spring 2017; and Spring, Summer, and Fall 2018 issues. To obtain these articles, go to, enter my name in the Search Authors column, and view issues by date.
  • Cautiously and objectively consider applying to a graduate or professional program or seek college-level certification in your preferred specialty area to increase your chances of obtaining full and satisfying employment. According to Lin, Ghaness, Stamm, Christidis, and Conroy (2018), 64% of baccalaureate-level psychology graduates work in jobs that relate to their degree, but that level increases markedly for master’s graduates to 89%, and to 95% with a doctorate. Fourteen percent of baccalaureate psychology grads obtained a graduate degree in psychology; another 30% obtained a graduate degree in a field other than psychology (APA, 2018). Seeking an advanced degree will likely increase your debt obligations, but in a low-paying underemployed-level job your debt could require decades to pay off. However, before deciding on advanced education, you should possess a solid understanding of your values, your long-range personal and professional goals, and data that clearly point to job and career options with advanced training. Your primary motive should not just be to avoid underemployment, but rather to achieve professional opportunities and personal growth.
  • Do not wait until the second semester of your senior year to complete these tasks because it may be too late to obtain college graduate-level employment.
  • If there is no occupation or career field that interests you, you can hope to discover one during your first job, but be prepared to accept lower level work (and pay) beyond a few months, perhaps for a year or more. Taking a gap year is an option for exploring your long-term goals if you can afford it, and if it is thoughtfully designed to prepare you for an occupation or career.
  • When you interview for a job, ask your potential manager questions that directly address advancement such as career development opportunities, benchmarks used to assess advancement, the typical tenure of individuals in that position, and what former workers in that position subsequently do.
  • If you find yourself underemployed, remain positive and engaged in your work. If you become disengaged, you risk low performance evaluations and possible termination. Seek alternative employment, build or enhance your network of contacts, and seek activities and support groups that help maintain a positive attitude to reduce frustration from being underemployed. Also remember, in the words of one highly experienced career counselor, that you can do everything right in your job search and still not get the job you seek, and you can make mistakes along the way and still get hired.
Concluding Comments

The Permanent Detour: Underemployment’s Long-Term Effects on the Careers of College Grads raises serious concerns for baccalaureate psychology graduates as they seek their first post-college job in a complex and changing labor environment. In addition to summarizing the report’s “big data” findings, I raised questions about variables pertaining to individuals and their situations that the authors did not address—factors that could influence the choice and outcomes of your first job. I identified specific steps you can take to avoid underemployment. In closing, I offer the wisdom of nineteenth century physician, writer, and poet Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (1858) who observed:

I find the great thing in this world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving: To reach the port of heaven, we must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it—but we must sail, and not drift, nor lie at anchor.


Abel, J. R., & Deitz, R. (2017, May 19). ‘Hey economist! Is now a good time to be graduating from college?’ Liberty Street Economics. Retrieved from Federal Reserve Bank of New York:

American Psychological Association. (2018). Degree pathways in psychology. [Interactive data tool]. Retrieved from

Burning Glass Technologies. (2013). The art of employment: How liberal arts graduates can improve their labor market prospects. Retrieved from

Burning Glass Technologies & the Strada Institute for the Future of Work. (2018). The Permanent Detour: Underemployment’s Long-Term Effects on the Careers of College Grads. Retrieved from

Holmes, O.W. (1858). The autocrat of the breakfast table. Boston, MA: Phillips, Sampson, and Company.

Lin, L., Ghaness, A., Stamm, K., Christidis, P., & Conroy, J. (2018, October). Do psychology degree holders work in psychology jobs? APA Monitor on Psychology, 49(9), 19. Retrieved from

National Association of Colleges and Employers. (2018, October 24). Students: Internships positively impact competencies. Spotlight. Retrieved from

Note. I am very grateful to Camille Helkowski and Jon Keil for their helpful comments and suggestions.

Paul Hettich, PhD, 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

Copyright 2019 (Vol. 23, Iss. 3) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

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