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Why Study Psychology if the Salaries are so Low?

Will a psychology degree pay off for you?

The US Census Bureau recently released a study correlating college majors with salaries, and the news was not good for Psychology majors. Psychology (counseling psychology in particular at an average annual salary of $29,000) were among the majors with the lowest salaries (high earning salaries: petroleum engineering at $120,000; business majors at $75,000). But there are other reasons for sticking with that psychology major.

1. Psychology is a good, "general" undergraduate degree. Although a bachelor's degree in psych doesn't lead to defined jobs, like a major in accounting or petroleum engineering might, it provides a good understanding of human behavior, and grounding in social science methodology (yes, those tough research methods and statistics courses will pay off later). A savvy graduate with a psychology bachelors degree can land a career in business, research positions in marketing or program evaluation, and a variety of other careers.

2. Psychology is a good "first step." Psychology majors are welcome in a number of graduate programs, and can go on to get an MBA, a law degree, or a Masters in human resources, social work, and a variety of other specializations. Again, it takes some advanced planning, and you need to use your elective courses wisely to explore some of these fields (and to take prerequisites, or demonstrate an interest in a particular field).

3. Success in a psychology career is up to you. Although the average salaries may be low for many psychology careers, I know many, many psychologists who are able to make a very good living, and a few who are quite wealthy. As in any profession, it depends on how good you are, and how well you perform.

4. It isn't all about the money. Over my many years in academia, I regularly encounter graduates who are unhappy in their high-paying careers, and many of them want to do "meaningful work" or explore a different career where they can help others. I have advised investment bankers, lawyers, executives, and folks from all walks of life, who feel unfulfilled in their high-earning professional careers and want to explore a career in psychology.

So, the message is this: If what you care about most is a high-paying career, odds are, you should look at other college majors (although you can make a lot of money in psychology - check out the salaries of industrial-organizational psychologists, for example). But, if psychology or the helping professions make you happy, then stay put with your psych major, and focus on succeeding once you graduate.

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