Career Counseling and the Psychology Major

The time to act is now

Posted Jan 12, 2017

Well, the New Year is here and students either have or soon will return to campus for the spring semester. Would be psychology majors will be starting to consider their course options. Many psychology majors will be taking more advanced courses in the major and beginning to think about their future. Others will be looking forward to graduation at the end of the spring and wondering what’s ahead.

Regrettably, our discipline has not done a great job at helping students plan for the future unless that future is focused on gaining admission to graduate programs in psychology or related (often helping-related) fields. If you are a faculty member, ask yourself this question: Does your department provide serious guidance to all students, not just those following in you and your colleagues’ footsteps? We know the vast majority of psychology majors neither become psychologists (whether as practitioners, educators, or researchers) nor obtain employment in careers that are apparently psychological in orientation, such as social work or drug and alcohol counseling, among many other possibilities. We do know that former psychology majors do gain employment in myriad careers and work settings where they do use the skills they have acquired in the major—they often don’t realize this fact, however. Yet their knowledge of experimentation and data, critical thinking and reasoning, writing and speaking, among other skills, are used frequently (see the APA Guidelines for the Psychology Major 2.0 for more detail on these and other skills acquired during the undergraduate years).

We all need to become more focused on working with students who do not plan on going to graduate school in psychology or some other field (or perhaps not for the foreseeable future) by helping them realize what they can do to prepare themselves for the workforce. In turn, psychology majors themselves need to take charge of their education by using available opportunities during their undergraduate years to prepare themselves for the world of work. With the start of the New Year, here are some suggestions that faculty can offer to students and students can pursue now.

Career Center. Virtually all colleges and universities have some sort of career center designed to help students prepare for interviews, to apply for jobs, and so on. The time to darken the door of your career center is now, not a week or two before graduation. Don’t procrastinate: Make an appointment to see what resources are available to you. Minimally, you should find out about internships and have someone help you craft a solid resume.

Internships. Obtaining some internship, whether during the semester or over summer break, is a great way to explore career possibilities or at least to get some work experience on your record. Many psychology departments will offer an internship course or a list of local opportunities in businesses, on campus, or in social service or not-for-profit agencies. Spending a semester learning and working in one of these environments is invaluable, if only because it gives students the opportunity to learn what sort of career settings do or do not interest them. Ask your academic advisor what’s available.

Psychology major or careers course. Many psychology departments are now offering stand alone courses on how to get the most out of the psychology major and to plan for either the world of work after graduation or for graduate school. Most of these courses meet once a week or are linked to another course, often introductory psychology. Many are optional, though some psychology departments require students to take them. Students should find out whether their psychology department offers such a course.

Books on maximizing the psychology major to prepare for work or graduate school. There are quite a few readable, usually brief, books on making the most out of the psychology major while also preparing for post-college life. My colleague, Jane S. Halonen, and I wrote one recently, as have several of our colleagues. These works can be great starting points for students and psychology faculty who want to help students plan for the future (parents often find these works to be helpful, too, if only to relieve their anxiety regarding what their sons and daughters can do with a psychology major).

Leverage leadership opportunities. Students should remember that any leadership roles they have performed on campus, such as organizer of a new group or club officer, could serve as evidence that they can work well with others. Such experiences should be “deep” rather than “shallow”—in other words, pursue a few such opportunities with zeal and do a great deal to further the goals of the groups rather than signing up for many organizations as mere member, which suggests resume padding rather than sincere interest.


Dunn, D. S., & Halonen, J. S. (2017). The psychology major companion: Everything you need to know to get where you want to go. New York, NY: Worth.