What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

Possible Futures for Psychology Students

Posted Jun 09, 2015

In 2002 or so, at our university’s Open House, parents of slightly nervous and mildly awkward high school kids would ask me, “Will there be a JOB waiting for my kid when he (or she) graduates from your program? Huh?!” Back then, the honest answer was something like this: “Well, I hope so. There may be! He (or she) will likely have to get a graduate degree - and even then there are no guarantees. But our undergraduate psychology major will make your kid very intellectually versatile …”

Now it’s 2015. I’ve been at over a dozen Open Houses on our campus over the years. And my answer now is more like this: “You bet! If your son or daughter succeeds in our program, he or she will have an outstanding chance of getting into a solid graduate program that will lead to a field with many needs and employment opportunities.”

Why do I say this? I’m not just making stuff up! For better or worse – and for various reasons, there has been a steady increase, for years, in mental health cases in our nation (see CDC report of 2013). And job markets have tracked this trend – with continued and steady growth in employment opportunities for various kinds of bright young behavioral scientists and practitioners (see Novotney, 2011. And this fact may well relate to the steady increase in the popularity of psychology as a major at colleges and universities across the nation that we have now also seen for years (see Munsey, C., 2008).

I no longer shy away from parents when they ask me if there will be jobs for their often-awkward, nervous 18-year old kid. I tell them the truth. There is a growing demand for skilled, educated young behavioral scientists and practitioners – and if that kid’s got a good work ethic and a willingness to take advantage of opportunities, we’ll get him or her onto a great career path. THIS is the current state of the field.

From the perspective of someone who has been a psychology professor since 1997 and the department chair of psychology at a state school (that has a ton of psychology majors) since 2009, here are my thoughts on career trajectories of this generation of psychology majors:

A high proportion of our students – about 50% - go onto terminal master’s programs within a year or two of graduating. Terminal master’s programs are programs in which the end goal is the master’s degree. These programs include degrees in:

  • School counseling (formerly called “guidance counseling” – leading to clearly specified jobs in school districts)
  • School psychology (with a focus on testing students in need and providing guidance on plans for students with various psychological issues in school contexts)
  • Mental Health Counseling (a degree that usually leads to state licensure to practice psychotherapy with various kind of clients)
  • Social Work (allowing individuals to work with state, county, or other agencies to help provide guidance to individuals and families who are dealing with a multitude of issues)

I’d say that about 50% of our students who obtain a bachelor’s degree in psychology go onto one of these kinds of programs – and guess what? They tend to get jobs and contact me years later telling me all about their great career!

  • Several of our students each year go onto Psy D. programs – clinical psychology or counseling programs that focus on the practitioner role. This doctoral degree is highly valuable and leads students to jobs that focus on helping clients in clinical settings – often leading to state licensure to practice therapy – and often leading to important and fulfilling careers.
  • And some go onto PhD programs in clinical psychology, counseling psychology, or counselor education – which allow graduates to not only hone highly valued clinical and counseling skills, but also to work as researchers and teachers at the college level.
  • Several of our graduates enter master’s programs that focus on basic research in a number of areas (e.g., neuroscience, experimental psychology, evolutionary psychology, etc.). Sometimes a student who graduates with a bachelor’s degree likes research, but is not sure how far he or she wants to go with it – or has not yet achieved enough to get into a PhD program. There are lots of master-level psychology programs with a focus on research that help students develop skills needed to work in research settings (e.g., in offices of institutional research or for departments that need researchers, such as departments of education or health). These same programs often help make students highly marketable for PhD programs in research or in the applied (often clinical) areas. These master’s programs are often great stepping stones.
  • Several of our graduates enter specialized master’s programs in such fields of industrial/organizational psychology (helping students prepare for the world of business) or health psychology (helping students prepare for working in health settings).
  • Several of our graduates enter PhD programs in specialized areas of research psychology (such as cognitive psychology, social psychology, developmental psychology, etc.). These degrees prepare students for research and teaching careers within academic contexts.

Of course, a standard psychology major has all kinds of more abstract benefits, such as leading to great statistical and methodological skills and a strong ability to synthesize, analyze, and report on scientific research findings.

In modern times, a psychology major is a wise choice. Not only does it lead to great intellectual skills – but it also leads to jobs! These days, I can look parents of those high school students who have the “psychology wannabe” thing going on right in the eyes!

If you are a young adult / big kid and have the drive, work ethic, and intellectual hunger that's needed – and are interested in an important and steady career that will allow you to do something great, you can’t do much better than a psychology major!

If you’re interested in potentially majoring in psychology and you’ve got questions, shoot me an email (geherg@newpaltz.edu) – my career is all about helping individuals like you get educated and reach the next level. Like psychology professors in general, my goal is to help people like you acquire much-needed skills and confidence in your abilities – and to help you make a positive mark on the world.

                                              References and Additional Resources

Geher, G. (2014). Five bits of guidance for up-and-coming psychlogists. Psychology Today.

Munsey, C. (2008). Charting the future of undergraduate psychology. Monitor on Psychology. 39, p. 53. http://www.apa.org/monitor/2008/09/undergraduate.aspx

Novotney, A. (March, 2011). APA Graduate Psychology Magazine. Psychology job forecast: Partly sunny. http://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2011/03/cover-sunny.aspx

Perou, R. et al. (2013). CDC Special Report. Mental Health Surveillance Among Children — United States, 2005–2011. http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/su6202a1.htm?s_cid=su6202a1_w