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The Top 10 Reasons to Major in Psychology

Are there too many psych majors? Answer: No.

Key points

  • Psychology majors learn the tools to cope with the situation of starting and executing projects with limited information or experience.
  • Psychology majors learn about the development of their own identities, which helps them test their own values, priorities, and goals.
  • Psychology majors learn about the informal and formal workings of organizations.

If you’ve studied psychology in college, or know someone who has, you’ve undoubtedly heard the claim that psychology majors can't get jobs. A recent investigation into the question of whether there are too many psych majors reveals that this is not the case, as published in the report: "Are There Too Many Psych Majors?"

The American Psychological Association and the Florida Psychology Department Chairs, responding to concerns about psychology being “too popular” as a major, prepared this white paper to examine the facts about the employability of psychology majors. The surprising results show that in contrast to the view that it prepares students for very little of practical value, the undergraduate psychology major is one of the best choices a college student can make.

Before we answer the question of why psychology is such a sound choice for a major, let’s tackle the myths about the psychology major that many prospective students believe.

Based on the APA/Florida report, these are the four most common misbeliefs:

You can become a therapist with a bachelor’s degree. Although many students think they may be one or two courses away from being a “Dr. Phil,” the truth is that becoming a therapist does take training. That said, you can pursue many jobs in the mental health field with four solid years, plus practicals or internships, of courses within the major. However, it’s not true that…

You can’t get a job in an area of psychology with a bachelor’s degree. You can’t become a licensed psychologist unless you have graduate training plus additional hours of supervision, but the skills you gain as a psychology major translate well into many jobs, especially in entry-level positions. We’ll talk more about this shortly.

Psychology is an art, not a science. There may be applications of psychology to the arts, but the field is a science, one that is increasingly gaining recognition as a “STEM” (Science-Technology-Engineering-Mathematics) discipline.

Psychology is easy. Many people believe that psychology is nothing more than “common sense” and therefore is an easy field to master. In reality, the study of psychology involves rigorous training in topics ranging from statistics to neuroscience, and all psychology majors must complete a set of in-depth core courses based on this knowledge.

Now that we’ve laid these myths to rest, it’s time to examine the evidence showing the true advantages of majoring in psychology. Workforce analyses of psychology majors show that psychology graduates do get jobs using their degrees. They may not be “psychologists” until they complete their graduate training, but they put their psychology skills to use.

According to the report, over 40% of bachelor’s level psychology degree holders work in for-profit jobs in business and industry. The next largest group, between 20-30%, work in educational institutions. Approximately 15-20% work, respectively, in government and not-for-profit organizations. The remainder are self-employed.

Although fewer than 25% of all psychology majors actually work in the field of psychology after graduation, they do qualify for entry-level positions in fields as diverse as marketing, sales, advertising, rehabilitation or psychiatric services, real estate, social work, child care, parole, and career counseling. According to The College Majors Handbook, and as reported in the white paper, the top 10 occupations that employ bachelor’s level psychology majors include management, sales, social work, personnel, health care, and financial specialists.

Unfortunately, those who work in psychology-related fields directly tend to earn less than those in other science disciplines. In 2006 terms, the median annual salary of bachelor’s level psychology majors was $30,000. In 2010, APA estimated that the starting salary for a psychology major is $36,400. Within related fields, the highest incomes are earned by psychology majors who become medical and health services managers, and the lowest are preschool teachers and teacher's assistants. The median income is admittedly less than the $51,000 earned by a mechanical engineer, and less in fact than other science-related disciplines.

One reason for the lower earnings of psychology majors is not that the degree is worth any less, but that education and many social services fields are severely underfunded. If you want a job with a bachelor’s degree in teaching or human services, you will sacrifice your salary, no matter what your college major.

Fortunately, however, many psychology majors do go on to complete a graduate degree, which will benefit their career earnings potential. The white paper reports that 40% of psychology majors complete some form of graduate training, placing psychology among the highest of all undergraduate majors in post-graduate degree completion.

Psychology’s popularity has grown. In 2007, 90,000 of the over 1.5 million bachelor’s degrees awarded in the U.S. were claimed by psychology majors, nearly doubling from the slightly over 50,000 psychology degrees earned in 1998.

Why do students want this major, even though the salary prospects in psychology itself are not particularly high? You guessed it. Psychology majors want to help people! As the white paper concluded, “Although the traditional introductory course design quickly disabuses students of the belief that psychology is solely about understanding and treating human abnormality, the breadth of introductory course content remains intrinsically interesting to most students” (p. 5). Apparently, we can't squelch the urge of psychology students to want to study psychology.

Skills that give psychology majors an edge

When all is said and done, psychology majors know a good thing when they see it. Psychology undergraduates gain valuable skills that give them an edge on the job market. The skills break down roughly to the types of courses that they take, which include rigorous training in statistics and research methods, neuroscience, individual and group processes, memory and learning, and psychopathology.

As outlined in the white paper, these are the 10 skills that psychology majors gain while earning their undergraduate degrees. They can better...

  1. predict and understand the behavior of individuals and groups;
  2. understand how to use and interpret data
  3. evaluate the legitimacy of claims about behavior
  4. know how memory and learning function
  5. have insight into problematic behaviors
  6. demonstrate the capacity to adapt to change
  7. understand and operate effectively throughout the channels of an organization
  8. manage difficult situations and high-stress environments
  9. start and carry out projects with limited information or experience
  10. show persistence in challenging circumstances

This is a formidable set of skills, and you might wonder how the average 22-year-old college graduate can carry these out so well. If you understand how the major works, the answer is not quite so mysterious.

Psychology is the science of behavior, and psychologists learn how to predict, understand, explain, and control behavior. Though not professional psychologists, undergraduates are taught how to look carefully at behavior and gain exposure to basic principles such as motivation, learning, thinking, sensation, and perception. The average college-level introductory psychology course surveys the field and provides students with the background to get them started in the major, no matter which specific area they want to pursue.

With regard to understanding and using data, the basic statistics courses we offer in the major expose students not only to such topics as probability theory, but also the use of statistical software packages that only 15 or 20 years ago required considerable programming mastery. Students can now understand the reasoning behind the statistics that they in fact compute on their own. Many students also complete their own independent research projects (under the advising of a professor or graduate student) or at least participate in a lab to get hands-on experience. This gives them an appreciation not only for how research gets done, but why research is needed to gain a scientific understanding of behavior.

The content areas in the undergraduate psychology major build on these basic scientific skills. The standards that accredited undergraduate programs adhere to ensure that students complete requirements that give them exposure to the major substantive areas, from neuroscience to social psychology. Many students also learn how to conduct their own independent library research. They can choose from thousands of research articles because online databases have become so sophisticated that within a few keystrokes, they can gain access to almost any article on almost any topic. Through required lab sections, students also learn the basic mechanics of collecting, analyzing, and writing up laboratory data.

Psychology majors also learn about the informal and formal workings of organizations through courses in organizational and social psychology, and by becoming involved in the activities of their own schools and communities. Many psychology students naturally gravitate toward campus organizations, community volunteer opportunities, and even involvement in the politics of their local and state governments.

In terms of managing stress and learning persistence, psychology students may not be all that different from their fellow students in other majors who must balance their school obligations with other responsibilities at home and at work. However, psychology students have an edge over their peers because the content of their courses often directly addresses the problems they confront in their daily lives. They are learning in the classroom about such topics as sleep deprivation, stress and coping, family relationships, and the basis of addiction. Gaining mastery of the principles of memory, reinforcement, and behavior modification provides them with tools that they can use to manage their own academic and personal challenges.

Courses in developmental psychology, including the psychology of adolescence, help psychology majors learn about the development of their own identities. Gaining insight into identity development helps these young adults learn strategies to test their own values, priorities, and goals. Focusing their attention inward on their feelings and beliefs are processes that these development and adjustment courses foster, particularly when the courses allow students time for discussion and reflection.

What about the claim that psychology majors can start and execute projects with limited information or experience? Most undergraduates have limited information and experience. However, psychology majors learn the tools to cope with this situation because they learn about such organizational skills as time management and self-regulation (the ability to pace yourself). They also learn about motivation and managing emotions, which are two factors that contribute to the ability to get a job done even when the task is unclear at the outset.

Some potentially contradictory data about the benefits of the psych major came from a 2010 Wall Street Journal report. In a national survey, college alumni who graduated between 1999 and 2010 rated their satisfaction with their career path. Compared to the 54% of chemical engineers who said they were satisfied or very satisfied with their careers, only 26% of the over 10,000 former psychology majors felt positive about the direction their careers had taken them. The title of the article was “Psych Majors Aren’t Happy with Options.” However, the survey didn’t justify this conclusion. There was no direct evidence to show that the former psych majors felt that their college major was to blame for their lack of satisfaction. If the question was worded differently, the surveyors might have directly assessed whether the alums actually regretted their choice of a major instead of being dissatisfied with their careers more generally. We also don’t know if these students 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.

The moral of the story is clear. Parents, guidance counselors, teachers, advisors, and most importantly, students, don’t fear the psych major. Call me biased, but it’s hard to imagine a field that is more intriguing and compelling. And according to the white paper, it’s also hard to imagine a field that gives you more valuable life skills.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2012

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