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Should You Major in Psychology?

The Data Doctor answers a question about psychology as an undergraduate major.

Dear Data Doctor,

I would love to become a psychologist and psychoanalyst (I love psychology ) and I wanna know more about this major.

--Tia N.

Dear Tia,

Of course, I'm a big fan of being a psychology major! It's a terrific, flexible degree that teaches a lot of different skills in science and human behavior. Here are some things to know.

Psychology majors are not just about, or even mostly about, training therapists. This was a surprise to me when I was in college and I've seen it surprise a lot of people.

The undergraduate major in psychology focuses on teaching people the basics of human behavior. This includes animal models of human behavior.

At most universities, Introduction to Psychology ("Psych 101") covers a wide range of topics, including the basics of the human brain and nervous system; the way we develop as we age, especially as babies and children; the influence of our peer groups and other social groups on behavior; and the basics of scientific approaches to research. You will probably learn something about abnormal psychology—types of psychological disorders and their characteristics.

Other common classes our Developmental Psychology, Social Psychology, Cognitive Psychology, Community Psychology, Industrial/Organizational Psychology, and Neuroscience. These days, classes in Positive Psychology and Health Psychology are common too. The closest common one to the teaching of therapy is Abnormal Psychology, but that one mostly describes various psychological problems and has less on treatment. In recent years, the two courses I have taught are Psychology of Gender and Psychology of Violence. I cover treatment issues in both but it is not a focus in either.

Psychology is a science and majors usually have to take classes in statistics and research methods. These are often some of the most hated classes in the undergraduate major, but they are important. Super important. Science is the main tool we have to fight stereotypes, biases and misconceptions. Science is also the main tool we have to identify what truly works and what just seems like it is working or might feel helpful in the moment but really doesn't change anything.

To give a few examples from other fields that people are familiar with, we used to use leeches to draw out "bad blood" and instead often made people who were weak from infection even weaker. Even today, physicians over-prescribe antibiotics when patients come in with viruses, even though antibiotics have no impact on viruses. People will say they got better in a few days and think it was the pills, but in fact it is just because colds and most other viruses tend to go away in a few days anyway.

Psychology has its history of mistakes too. For example, at one time some people thought that the shape of your head influenced your personality—so-called phrenology. Totally bogus.

In this vein, psycho-analysis has a complicated position in modern psychology. I say this as a fan of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Anna Freud and many of the early psychoanalysts. Many of these people were clearly geniuses and I still rely on many of their ideas. I probably make reference to Anna Freud's description of defense mechanisms almost every day.

That said, they were also limited by the scientific knowledge of their time. We knew very little about the brain then and no one today thinks that there is an id, ego, and superego inside your head in the way that Sigmund Freud did. Freud also made some other big mistakes too, such as refusing to believe his patients' disclosures of abuse and thinking that women's personalities were inferior to men's because we didn't go through castration anxiety (well, it's a little more complicated than that, but in brief terms).

As a result of these and other forces, you are not likely to hear that much about Freud or psychoanalysis in most undergraduate classes. They would not even be considered relevant to classes in community or positive psychology, for example—subfields that developed decades after Freud died. Courses in psychoanalysis and even in personality have declined to make room for other offerings in the major.

You hear way, way more about psychoanalysis on TV than you do on a college campus. There are only a few parts of the United States, mostly large cities such as New York, Chicago, and Boston and large college towns such as Chapel Hill, NC, where it is even possible to find people who are still offering traditional psychoanalysis.

Some undergraduate programs offer courses in counseling or behavior modification that will give you a basic introduction to therapy skills. It is important to realize that for the most part, the field of psychology still thinks that therapy training is something that should be reserved for graduate school, not undergraduate classes. It is not accidental that these classes are not offered often—licensed psychologists do not want 21 or 22 year olds with a few psych classes under their belt thinking that they have all the tools they need to offer therapy to people with serious mental health problems.

Strangely enough, psychoanalysis is far more influential in some other fields today than it is in psychology. For example, psychoanalysis is relied on heavily by some literary critics and you might hear it talked about more in English and other humanities classes than you will in the psychology department!

When you graduate with a psychology degree, what you will have is a broad understanding of all the forces that shape human behavior and the skills to know the difference between stereotypes and real scientific knowledge. My students have gone into a range of fields, including therapy, all forms of health care, business, public health, and many have gone on to become college professors themselves.

Good luck and enjoy your education! There are few things more wonderful than the chance to devote yourself to learning.

The Data Doctor

Notes: Have a question for the Data Doctor? Send an email to or or put it in the comments.

The Data Doctor appears on Tuesdays.