Wall Street Journal

Wall Street Journal

I got to work today, and a friend of mine forwarded me an article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal on October 11, 2010, titled "Psych majors aren't happy with options." A survey done by PayScale.com found that psych majors rank lowest in their overall satisfaction with their majors of the 21 different majors surveyed. Only 26% of the psychology majors were happy with their major after entering the workforce.

All of the people surveyed were those who had jobs that paid well and that they found satisfying, so it wasn't that the psych majors couldn't find jobs. They just didn't find their major to be that helpful in getting that job.

What is going on here? Does this mean that fewer people should major in psychology?

To my mind, this all comes back to the vast gap between what the science of psychology has learned over the past 50 years and people's perception of what psychologists do.

When most people think of psychologists, they may conjure up an image of a patient lying on a couch talking out their problems. If not, they think of someone like Dr. Phil or Dr. Laura dispensing advice to a national audience by addressing the problems of people who call in or come on the show.

This vision of the field reflects what I call the helping professions of psychology. Certainly, a lot of people study psychology because they want to help people overcome significant psychological problems or to help others manage the day-to-day stresses of life. Unlike the homespun advice often dispensed on popular shows, though, a lot of treatment options provided by psychologists are rooted in science.

Components of a Psych major

Components of a Psych major

The thing is, psychology is a lot more than just the helping professions. Over the past 50 years, the field has learned a lot about thinking, motivation, organizational behavior, and communication. If you look at the faculty on college campuses, it is teeming with people using psychological methods and drawing on psychological research.

There are people studying engineering design who are searching for better ways to help people create new products. There are people in operations research exploring how to provide engineers with better techniques for making decisions. There are researchers in schools of information (what used to be called Library and Information Schools) who are interested in developing better user interfaces to help people search for information and to use products and websites more effectively. There are researchers in marketing who are interested in how consumers make choices and how they are influenced by persuasive messages. There are researchers in Advertising who want to know more about how people are affected by their exposure to ads in the media. There are researchers in architecture who are concerned with the ways that people traverse public spaces and how the design of buildings affects the ways that people use those spaces.

These are all psychology questions, and people who major in psychology are provided with the theories, tools, and methods to make contributions to these areas.

And yet, most psychology majors are blissfully unaware that their major has all of these uses.

Most faculty in psychology and most advisors in psychology departments do not tell their students about all of the opportunities that could be out there for people with a background in psychology. We do not do outreach to companies to let them know the value of a major in psychology. In that way, we are failing our students, and as a result, only one in four psychology majors actually finds that what they learned in college was helpful after they got out.

But that does not mean that there should be fewer psychology majors. The management guru Peter Drucker wrote 40 years ago that we have entered a Knowledge Economy. We expect people to think for a living and to do it effectively. But few people in that knowledge economy actually know anything about the psychology of thinking and motivation and how to use that knowledge to achieve their goals.

Survey from Payscale.com about satisfaction of Psych majors

Survey from Payscale.com about satisfaction of different majors.

We actually need more people who know about how their minds and brains work. But, those of us in the field also need to make it clearer to everyone what you can do with this knowledge.

And so I'll repeat a call I have made to my colleagues in the past. If you know something about psychology, I urge you to tithe to the cognitive sciences. Give 10% of your time to bringing the insights from psychological research to a broader community of people. Give talks to your local community. Write a blog. Do interviews. Teach others that there is real value to understanding the way the mind works.

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