The Ethical Professor

Thinking well and doing good in academia.

Is It Possible that Some Psychology Majors Are Unhappy?

Let’s reason a little more about reasons to major in psychology

This was too coincidental to be ignored: On the same day last week, two students recommended the same PsychologyToday.com blog entry, published over a year ago! Susan Krauss Whitbourne developed an eloquent and persuasive case for the psychology major. I want to look just a little more closely at this wonderful entry.

Whitbourne cited a White Paper called “Are There Too Major Psych Majors?,” published by a well-respected psychology professor in collaboration with the American Psychological Association (APA) and the Florida Psychology Department Chairs. The White Paper showed, in Whitebourne’s words, that “the undergraduate psychology major is one of the best choices a college student can make.” I agree!  The psychology major is a great major even for those not wanting to go into psychology!

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Whitbourne dispelled several myths that psychology majors (and perhaps some faculty!) seem to believe. One myth is that you can’t get mental health jobs with a bachelor’s degree. The reality is that you can get (entry level) jobs in the field. Another important reality is that 60% of psychology majors do not go on for advanced training, and most of them get jobs outside of psychology, in management, sales, and other business areas as well as in the government, education, and non-profit sectors.

Here’s where I want to present a slightly different interpretation of something Whitbourne wrote. She cited a 2010 Wall Street Journal report of a survey (done by payscale.com) that found that “Psychology Majors Aren’t Happy.” The survey found that only 26 percent of psychology majors reported being “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their career paths; the rates of satisfaction for the other majors ranged from 40% (economics and environmental engineering) up to 54% (chemical engineering and management information systems).

Whitbourne called these findings “potentially contradictory.” She took issue with the implication that the psychology major was the reason for respondents’ low satisfaction. She noted that the survey did not ask whether people regretted their choice of major, and concluded, “Had the article’s authors taken a course in psychological research, it’s quite likely they would have avoided this fatal flaw in their logic.”

As it turns out, my first-year seminar, called “How to Think Like a Psychologist,” has read and critiqued this very Wall Street Journal report! Our class agreed that the survey could have been better. As Whitbourne correctly pointed out, the survey did not explore why psychology majors are dissatisfied. It could be, as she stated, that some “chose psychology because they couldn’t think of a better alternative, leading them to a less focused career path than students who majored in engineering, business, or computers.” It could also be, as discussed in the article, that some psychology majors were unpleasantly surprised that there were fewer opportunities in psychology than they thought. Our class also noted that the details of the survey were sketchy; for example, we don’t know how the sampling was done. The original survey was not available.

(Our class also looked up payscale.com, and found that they are in the business of providing data to companies about salaries. Payscale.com has professional researchers on their staff—maybe they were former psychology majors?—and they didn’t appear to have an obvious bias against psychology majors—or in favor of chemical engineers.)

The survey was imperfect, but the fact remains that, for whatever reasons, psychology majors reported being less satisfied with their careers than did other majors. My class didn’t conclude that these data should be ignored just because we don’t know all the methodology or all the reasons.  Also, I don’t believe that the data about satisfaction contradict the other data Whitbourne presented about how wonderful the psych major is. For example, the data are consistent with the idea that students continue to believe one of the myths that Whitbourne discussed, that “you can become a therapist with a bachelor’s degree.” One implication is that regardless of the actual number of legitimately dissatisfied psych majors, advisors might be able to reduce that number (with the help of Whitbourne’s blog entry!) by explaining to potential majors that the opportunities with the major are very broad. The skills students learn in the major prepare them to be professionals, not just psychologists—skills such as communication, quantitative literacy, and critical thinking.

In the last paragraph of her entry, Whitbourne, said, “Call me biased, but it’s hard to imagine a field that is more intriguing and compelling.” I wouldn’t necessarily call her biased—especially because I share that bias! But I will note a couple points that my first-year seminar class will probably make next year, when we read Whitbourne’s piece. First, the authors and sponsors of the White Paper were all psychologists, who have an interest in more majors. The APA is, after all, a lobbying group in addition to being a professional organization. Second, Whitbourne presented no data that the psychology major is better than others. Third, when authors find “fatal flaws” in the logic (or methods) of research that appears to contradict their hypotheses, it is incumbent upon them to take an equally careful look at the logical (or methodological) flaws in the research they present in their favor. 

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Mitch Handelsman is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver and the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach(Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).  He is also an associate editor of the two-volume APA Handbook of Ethics in Psychology(American Psychological Association, 2012).

© 2013 Mitchell M. Handelsman. All Rights Reserved

Mitchell M. Handelsman, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology and a Colorado University President's Teaching Scholar at the University of Colorado Denver.

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