The Psychology Major Controversy:
According to a recent Inside Higher Ed article, the Sunshine State has launched its second gubernatorial torpedo at psychology in less than four months. The first was unleashed by Florida’s former governor—and now Republican presidential candidate—Jeb Bush when he impugned the employability of psychology majors by saying they end up working at Chick-fil-A. The second was dispatched by current governor Rick Scott, who plans to use his political clout this month to convince state legislators to reform Florida’s college and university system by passing funding strategies whose purpose is to discourage students from majoring in popular disciplines like psychology and anthropology that he says contribute little to Florida’s economy.
As you might guess, my initial reaction to this article was quite negative. I immediately wanted to issue a “call to arms” that would mobilize my colleagues to discredit Governor Scott’s negative assertions about psychology majors’ employability and to oppose his plans to shift funding from psychology programs to other academic programs whose students have better job prospects. However, after cooling off a bit and re-reading the article several times, it occurred to me that a better approach would be a “call to action” that would use Governor Scott’s ideas as a catalyst to:
- own up to some of our own failures to provide psychology majors with effective career-advising
- bring attention to, affirm, and facilitate the implementation of the career-planning strategies that APA has advocated in Goal 5: Professional Development of its most recent set of Guidelines for the Undergraduate Psychology Major.
I also thought my response could serve as an appropriate opportunity for me to share some of the career-planning strategies for psychology majors I have created for my students during the past decade. In essence, when I realized that a major component of Governor Scott’s message is that psychology majors need more and better career guidance, which is completely true, I found myself viewing him more as an ally than an opponent in the challenging campaign to correct this longstanding problem.
Earning Your Education vs Buying a Creducation
I agree with my good friend and colleague Jane Halonen, who was quoted extensively in the Inside Higher Ed article, when she makes the case that, for other than those careers that require a different baccalaureate degree, a postbaccalaureate credential, or a license (e.g., nursing, accounting, or education), “students who complete a baccalaureate degree in psychology will have completed an almost ideal workforce preparation.” The skills employers value in new college graduates (e.g., communication, collaboration, critical thinking, technology, and ethical reasoning) are the same skills taught and emphasized in most undergraduate psychology programs and are also the skills that prepare psychology students success in graduate programs. But without the proper career-advising, students are often unaware of the value of these skills and end up simply buying a creducation (i.e., paying tuition to pass required courses as quickly and efficiently as possible in order to accumulate enough credit hours to receive a diploma), rather than actually earning an education by:
- understanding who they wish to become,
- devising a coherent plan to use their education to develop the skills they will need to create themselves in the image of that person, and finally
- developing the methods (e.g., a thorough job search and well-practiced answers to commonly asked interview questions) to bring these skills to the attention of employers during the hiring process.
I spent my entire career doing all I could to help my students answer the perennial question that seemed to bewilder so many of them: “What can I do with a bachelor’s degree in psychology?” This goal motivated me to spend the last 12 years creating a comprehensive two-part resource to help students answer this crucial question—and to assist faculty to guide them in this process—that consists of more than 2,000 hotlinks that can be used to explore 280 careers, organized into 15 broad occupational categories, that psychology majors can prepare to enter. These two resources can help psychology majors become even more career-savvy when they are combined with strategies I created to help them select mentors who can guide them toward their occupational goals; understand the value of extracurricular activities; create impressive transcripts, cover letters, and resumes; and recognize the crucial value of the covert curriculum, which refers to the job-related skills students can develop as they acquire the knowledge in their required and elective courses (i.e., the overt curriculum). I then combined all these resources and strategies into a class in which my students used them to create a comprehensive career plan. The last resource I can provide is a chapter I wrote for academic advisors—plus a PowerPoint version of this chapter and its accompanying handout—that offers them a data-based strategy to help students become aware of the job-related skills employers value and then provides them with clear and practical advice for students about how to use both the curricular and extracurricular components of their undergraduate educations to acquire and strengthen these skills.
Our Golden Opportunity as Educators
Although I am still uncomfortable with Governor Scott’s fundmental premise that institutions and/or state governments have the right to control what subjects students major in, he has provided us with a golden opportunity to reflect upon our undergraduate programs, our students, and our ability to use our programs to prepare our students for jobs that will benefit them, the people they serve in these jobs, and our states’ and nation’s economies. We need to own up to some of our past shortcomings in these areas by acknowledging the wisdom of the authors of our new Guidelines for the Undergraduate Psychology Major who said that in the past “too little attention was paid to psychology as an appropriate degree for workforce preparation,” and that “departments across the country are experiencing pressure about the legitimacy of the psychology degree as a foundation for a productive career” caused, in part, by their production of so many “psychology graduates who are not only ill prepared for the work-place, but who also demonstrate significant naiveté about the workplace and entitled attitudes that do not breed work-place success.” Their solution to these dilemmas was to urge psychology programs to create and implement strategies to help their students develop “clearer linkages between baccalaureate preparation and the workplace.” The need for these changes was empirically supported by the results of a nation-wide survey of psychology department chairpersons whose results “suggest that psychology programs often do not engage in explicit career preparation activities, and chairs are uncertain as to whether their students are accessing career planning resources elsewhere on campus.”
So the question is this. Should we issue a “call to arms” to oppose the Governor’s challenge and then engage in a counterproductive and combative attempt to maintain our less-than-desirable status quo or should we declare a “call to action” that will inspire us to create new ways to help our students
- become aware of the truly remarkable panorama of occupations they can prepare to enter,
- recognize, value, and act upon the opportunities we already provide them to develop the skills these occupations will require, and
- learn how to successfully market their possession of these skills in today’s increasingly competitive job market.
My 40-year career as a professor, department chair, and director of undergraduate studies and my 5 years of retirement have provided me with abundant opportunities to ponder ways to bring about these positive outcomes and to share the results of my ponderings with my colleagues (see my curriculum vitae).
If you believe that my “call to action” has merit—and you would like your students to be capable of constructing and communicating clear, complete, compelling, correct, and confident answers to the following seven crucial career-related questions, then my final message to you–and to Governor Scott–is “I’m here to help you in any way I can.”