Defending the major: Exploiting the workforce advantage of the psychology degree

Chess. White board with chess figures on it. Plan of battle.

Although the vast majority of students who declare majors in psychology claim that they aspire to continue their education in graduate school, the reality is that most psychology graduates will instead enter the workforce. The Center for Workforce Studies of the American Psychological Association estimates that approximately 73 percent of psychology majors will end up using the knowledge and skills they acquired in some kind of workforce job after graduation (Lin & Stamm, 2018).

Sometimes students know from the outset of their major that a degree in psychology provides just the right background to qualify them for a desirable workforce position. At other times a workforce position may serve as “Plan B” for those who (like me) applied to graduate school and don’t manage to get accepted the first time out. Regardless of the motive for pursuing a psychology-related workforce position, psychology majors should be especially well prepared for any careers that deal with data or with people. It seems to me that that description applies to nearly any career choice.

That high percentage of psychology majors successfully entering the workforce contrasts dramatically with the commonly held misconception that you “can’t get a job with a psychology degree.” One of the curses psychology majors must endure is the chronic excessive concern of friends and relatives who seem compelled to chide their choice of the major (Appleby, 2016). A recent presidential candidate caused a stir by suggesting that job prospects were so bad for psychology majors that their inevitable destination would be the fast food industry. Such observations fuel continuous teasing, such as “The dean should give out a hairnet with each psychology diploma.”

The best defense of the major is a good offense. For years I have argued that the psychology degree is not only not a liability in job seeking, but it actually confers a workforce advantage. In well-designed undergraduate programs, students should become extremely competitive with other job seekers because of the following crucial characteristics that serve as the backbone of the undergraduate psychology degree:

  • Understanding and predicting individual and group behavior.
  • Interpreting and using data.
  • Evaluating the legitimacy of behavioral claims.
  • Designing strategies to solve human problems.
  • Communicating precisely in a variety of formats.

In addition, psychology projects that students complete in the course of their major contribute substantially to the development of a sound work ethic that will appeal to prospective employers:

  • Doing the right things for the right reasons.
  • Designing and executing projects with limited information or experience.
  • Managing difficult situations and high-stress environments.
  • Exhibiting persistence in challenging circumstances.
  • Adapting to change.

Specific courses students take to complete the psychology major also provide support for making good workplace decisions. Just a few exemplars include the following:

  • Showing insight into problematic behaviors that affect the workplace (Abnormal Psychology).
  • Applying how memory works or fails to work (Memory).
  • Navigating informal and formal organizational channels (Social Psychology).
  • Motivating optimal performance (Learning).
  • Boosting creativity to solve problems (Cognition).
  • Designing work stations to promote efficiency and health (Sensation and Perception).
  • Predicting how aging can influence work quality (Life Span Development).
  • Linking quality of healthy lifestyle to work performance (Health Psychology).

What can you do to overcome the biases that some individuals, including prospective employers, may profess about the value of the psychology degree that could limit your opportunities?

    1. Seize the narrative. Do not let others define the choices you have made as limiting your future. There are just too many great examples of successful workforce psychology to let those misconceptions stand. Take advantage of any teachable moment that presents itself to correct misconceptions about what psychology majors can actually do.
    2. Develop a workforce lens. Whether or not your professors provide this exercise, think about how your courses can build your workforce skills. Every psychology class has workforce implications. Think about how what you are learning could make you a top-notch employee.
    3. Own the skill sets. Imagine how impressive you can be in future job interviews if you can provide an articulate answer to the question, “What value will you add to our company if we hire you?” At the end of each course, state what new skills you now can deploy along with examples that provide evidence of the ability. With some practice, you should be ready to make a most persuasive bid for a workforce position.  Don’t just enter the workforce; conquer it.

References

Appleby, D. (March 21, 2016). How to maximize the blessings and minimize the curses of being a psychology major. Psychology Learning Curve: Where Psychology and Education Connecthttps://psychlearningcurve.org/how-to-maximize-the-blessings-and-minimize-the-curses-of-being-a-psychology-major/.

Lin, L., & Stamm, K. (June 4, 2018). Graduating with a degree in psychology? Check out what the data say about careers, workforce demographics, salaries and more! Psychology Learning Curve: Where Psychology and Education Connect. APA Center for Workforce Studies, American Psychological Association, Washington, D.C. https://psychlearningcurve.org/data-on-psychology-workforce/.

Re-posted with permission from the American Psychological Association’s Psychology Student Network.

About the Author

Jane S. Halonen, PhD
Jane S. Halonen, PhD is a professor of psychology and former dean of arts and sciences at the University of West Florida (Pensacola, Florida). She has dedicated her academic career to the scholarship of teaching and learning. Her academic interests include improving student learning, assessing undergraduate programs, helping good departments become great ones and helping the public understand the discipline of psychology.

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