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Jonathan Golding, Ph.D. and Anne Lippert, PhD
Jonathan Golding, Ph.D. and Anne Lippert, PhD

Get Up and Start Preparing for a Psychology Career

Some tips to help you start planning your career path.

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What I am seeing over and over again are individuals (often students in their junior and senior years) totally unprepared for a psychology-related career. I am not talking about a person unsure about getting a Masters degree in Family Therapy versus Counseling Psychology. I am talking about those who have done little to nothing with regard to career planning. Of course, this is a major mistake that typically leads to a great deal of anxiety and frustration with each passing day.

What should these individuals be doing? Before anything, they need to get a better handle on the idea that career planning: (a) starts sooner versus later (e.g., immediately upon entering college); and (b) requires a lot of time and effort. In some ways career planning is a never-ending process until one really gets immersed in a career path (e.g., attends graduate school). It is unclear whether these individuals thought a career was going to be thrown into their laps.

Once a person gets a clue that career planning is a process that requires a lot of time and effort, they need to take heed of this blog post’s title—get off their butt and be an active participant in their career planning. There are people who can help with career planning, like professors and careers counselors, but the real nitty-gritty of career planning requires a person to move forward on their own. In my mind, one can be planful in their career-planning approach by navigating a series of steps. Keep in mind that these steps are not sequential, and overlap in certain ways. Here we go:

(1) Take Certain Courses

Whether you are taking formal courses on a college campus, or completing online courses, there are certain courses you should consider that go well beyond typical psychology courses (intro, research methods, stats), and that will group together based on your career direction. For example, someone focused on a career in mental health may select courses like personality, abnormal psychology and child psychopathology. However, someone with an interest in Law may select forensic psychology, psychology & law, and other law-related courses in other majors (e.g., political science, criminology). I should note that if you plan on going to graduate school or professional school the selection committees will also like to see that you took challenging courses (e.g., math and science courses).

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​(2) Do Well in Your Courses

Whether it is a graduate school or job, selection committees want to see good grades. It’s pretty simple, if you were choosing someone, who would you pick, the person with the higher or lower GPA. Remember that your record is evaluated on a number of grading dimensions: grades in certain courses, overall GPA, psychology GPA, minor (if you have one) GPA, last two years in college GPA, and maintaining a high GPA from your freshman year on. I will add that if you do not get an A or B in a course you should probably repeat the course, especially if it was a psychology course.

(3) Don’t Just Go to Class

It is important that you highlight your motivation and interest in psychology outside of your classroom or job. One way you can do this is to get involved in research. I can hear some of you now arguing that research is not what you want to do—you want to do therapy. The key is that getting involved in research (not even in the exact area as your main interest) shows you are motivated and interested in psychology. Moreover, you should never forget that psychology is a science and is totally invested in research, and this includes clinical psychology. Getting involved in research can also possibly increase your GPA if your research is part of a course. Finally, by conducting research you get to know a faculty member who can write you a strong letter of recommendation when you are ready to apply to graduate school or for a job.

Other ways to get involved in activities outside of the classroom are through an internship, involvement in extracurricular activities (e.g., volunteering), joining a psychology organization (Psi Chi—the National Honor Society In Psychology or any psychology club), and/or work experience related to psychology.

(4) Develop Critical Skills

Whatever career path you take will require you to have critical skills over and above your general knowledge. It will be important for you to develop skills in computers, writing, and oral communication that will supplement what you already know. Such skills are invaluable for whatever you do in the future. Start developing these skills right away!

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(5) Visit the Career Center

If you are on a college campus, is there a career center? Do you know where it is located? Have you ever visited the career center? For most students, it is sad to say that the answer is probably “no” to all of these questions. But, the career center is a definite place you should visit—probably more than once. The professional staff at a career center can help you write a resume, give you advice on cover letters and personal statements, and offer an amazing array of resources on career issues like internship possibilities, job openings, entrance exams, and graduate and professional schools. In most cases, you pay for the Career Center—use it!

(6) Get on the Internet

We all know that the Internet is our friend. In the case of career planning, it is your best friend. There is simply so much information on the Internet that you should be spending a significant amount time searching out career-related information. First, you can read through various online career sites, such as my own site, Of course, there are a variety of other online sites, but be wary of sites that emphasize a lot of for-profit schools. Second, there are government sites that give a lot of information on various career paths—check out the Bureau of Labor Statistics). Third, every school that has a graduate/professional degree program will have a site. Fourth, a lot of good sites exist about preparing for entrance exams (GRE, LSAT, MCAT, etc.). These exams are not to be taken lightly, and can be the difference between getting accepted or not accepted to a school. One last thought on searching the Internet. Make sure you take your time searching—do not think you will accomplish everything in an afternoon. There is a lot of information you will have to read through, so plan accordingly.

(7) Interact With Professors (If in College) or Your Boss (If Working)

To move forward with your career requires having the support of superiors. Gaining this support will require your superiors to actually know you. Think about it, how can your professor or your boss write you a letter of recommendation unless they know something about you. Thus, start interacting with your superiors. Talk to them. For example, you might make a contribution in class or just visit your professor during office hours and have a conversation about issues in their field of study. These interactions can lead to certain jobs, hearing about job openings, and (of course) a letter of recommendation. I know it might be tough talking to a superior, but it is really important to get over your fear and interact. You’ll be surprised how easy it is, and you will reap the benefits.

Now that you know the things that you should be doing, I hope you will get off your butt and start doing them. The time is right to start moving forward with your career plans. Summer is right around the corner, and it is a perfect time to get started. Remember, the future is yours and it is definitely bright. You just need to take the initiative and start on your career path!

Please note that the comments of Dr. Golding and the others who post on this blog express their own opinion and not that of the University of Kentucky.

Check out our website on careers in psychology

College causing you headaches? Take a look at Dr. Golding's blog on how to succeed in college.

About the Author
Jonathan Golding, Ph.D. and Anne Lippert, PhD

Jonathan Golding, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky. Anne Lippert, Ph.D., is a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Kentucky.