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Engineering—The Smart Career Choice for People Who Love Psychology

You’re fascinated by psychology. You’ve got top grades. Become an engineer!

Follow your passion. That’s become the mantra of today’s society. It’s also a potential pitfall.

The issue is that people often have similar underlying passions. This means they flock to the same careers. And this means lots of competition—often for very low level jobs centered on our most elementary passions. Recently Eric Auld, a 26-year-old with a master’s in English, conducted an experiment that sheds light on this. He created a fake Craigslist ad to check out the market for secretarial assistants. In twenty-four hours, his ad for a $13 an hour secretarial assistant had received 653 responses. Nearly 250 had bachelor’s degrees.

People develop passions for what they spend time with. We spend time with other people starting from the day we're born. So people—especially more empathetic people—develop an early passion for understanding human behavior. That’s what draws us to disciplines like psychology.

But let’s talk hard facts. In 2008-2009, 94,271 students in the US received undergraduate degrees in psychology. In the entire United States, there are presently only 174,000 jobs for psychologists. The fine print on the Bureau of US Labor Statistics website reveals that these jobs require doctoral degrees. This means every year we’re producing tens of thousands of debt-ridden psychology students who don’t have a prayer of finding a job as a psychologist. Sure, there are things you can do with an undergraduate degree in psychology. But did you really want to spend four to seven years getting that degree in order to be a sales rep or call center employee who makes $30,000 a year? (By comparison, a plumber with a GED makes $46,660 a year.)

There is a better way!

It turns out that many fascinating career fields, like engineering, aren't necessarily encountered by students in their first years in college. This means the power, beauty, and potential of these fields is untapped. Sadly, I’ve met thousands of intelligent students over the years who have been confused by the well-meaning, “follow your passion” advice of their humanities and the social sciences professors. These students can see that their passions are unlikely to lead to rewarding careers. But they also can’t believe their professors could be misleading them.

There is, however, a dirty little secret in academia. The professors best positioned to warn you of the dangers of getting degrees in fields like psychology and sociology are the ones with the biggest motivation for hiding or minimizing those dangers. No wonder some students spend years dithering in college while searching for a career!

Engineers with bachelor’s degrees start at nearly double the salary of someone with a bachelor’s in psychology. Engineers start at $55K per year, while psychologists start at $30K. And remember, just because a bachelor level psychologist has a job doesn’t mean she is working in her profession. In fact, less than one fourth of psychology majors end up working in their field.

Let’s talk about average salaries instead of starting salaries. The median 2010 engineering salary, with its bachelor level entry requirement, is $86K. The median doctoral psychologist salary is $67K. This means that for a psychologist to earn somewhat less than a bachelor’s level engineer, she’d have to get a doctorate. Twice as long in college, in other words, at enormous cost and competitive effort.

Let’s contrast the number of graduates and number of job openings in psychology with those in engineering. It turns out there are some 69,000 engineering graduates per year in the US. This helps fill some 1.4 million engineering jobs. (I counted jobs in the top 16 engineering fields to arrive at that number.) What a contrast with psychology. One third fewer engineering graduates each year to fill eight times as many positions!

The Georgetown careers study “Hard Times: Not All College Degrees Are Created Equal” held wise words. “Today’s best advice, then, is that high school students who can go on to college should do so—with one caveat. They should do their homework before picking a major because, when it comes to employment prospects and compensation, not all college degrees are created equal.”

Of course, your psychology professor has a vested interest in telling you that engineering is a boring, rote field. I’m here to tell you that's not true. In fact, a degree in engineering opens all sorts of exciting possibilities. This is because employers realize that a degree in engineering indicates an unusually broad and useful skillset. To get a sense of this, read my co-edited book Career Development in Bioengineering and Biotechnology. This book is valuable for anyone who is an engineer. I’ll bet you didn’t know that engineering can help provide great preparation for careers in forensic psychology, politics, and fashion design!

I’m a licensed professional engineer with years of experience in the field. (I also have a bachelor’s degree in Slavic Languages and Literature. I used to work as a Russian translator. But that’s another story.) Take it from me—a good engineer knows people’s psychology just as well as she knows engineering. In fact, the difference between a good and a great engineer often lies in people skills.

So if you’re smart, you love people, and you want to study psychology, do yourself a favor. Avoid well-meaning advice from humanities and social science professors to “follow your passion.” Instead, run the other way and develop new passions. Explore the idea of getting an engineering degree. You can stand out from the typical engineering student by taking extra courses in psychology. If your goal is a doctorate in psychology, few things will prepare you as well for creative, independent thinking as an undergraduate degree in engineering. And an engineering degree also gives you a nice fallback career if psychology doesn’t pan out for you.

Base your career decisions on a true understanding of the pluses and minuses of your choice. You’ll be glad you did.

More from Barbara Oakley Ph.D., P.E.
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