How to Maximize the Blessings and Minimize the Curses of Being a Psychology Major

Psychology majors are both blessed and cursed.

What is a psychology major’s first blessing?

Your ability to prepare yourself for a remarkably wide variety of careers because the psychology curriculum provides so many opportunities to develop the seven crucial sustainable job-related skills (i.e., communication, collaboration, critical thinking, professional, self-management, technological, and ethical reasoning) that employers value most during the hiring process. These same seven skills also help new hires gain positive on-the-job outcomes (e.g., new responsibilities and promotions) and avoid negative on-the-job outcomes (e.g., reprimands, discipline, and termination). This blessing is the reason why “students who complete a baccalaureate degree in psychology will have completed an almost ideal workforce preparation”.

The second blessing?

The knowledge you acquire as you learn about the causes and consequences of human behaviors and mental processes, which are perhaps the most interesting, complex, and important topics addressed in higher education today. The captivating nature of psychological knowledge attracts huge numbers of students to the major, produces more than 117,000 bachelor’s degrees in psychology each year, and prepares you to enter a remarkably wide range of careers that deal with people and their interactions with each other and their environments.

Unfortunately, there are downsides (i.e., curses) to these blessings.

What is the first curse of a psychology major?

The prospect of making a decision from such a massive set of career choices is a daunting task for many psychology majors. Unlike your education-, accounting-, and nursing-major peers who know exactly what they will become when they graduate (i.e., teachers, accountants, and nurses), only a small percentage of psychology majors continue their education, earn graduate degrees, and become psychologists (Hettich & Landrum, 2014). The rest enter the workforce immediately after graduation in diverse fields such as business, advertising, human resources, social services, health care, law enforcement, technology, education, fitness, recreation, and the military.

The second curse?

Psychology is a very popular major. This may initially appear to be a blessing, but it also means that a bachelor’s degree in psychology places you at risk in the job market simply because so many are competing with one another for jobs. If you lack the ability to prove the possession of a strong set of job-related skills, you risk job dissatisfaction, the disturbing belief that your jobs are not related to your major (Borden & Rajecki, 2000), and the very real possibility of having to accept a job that does not require a bachelor’s degree (Rajecki & Borden, 2009), or—worse yet—that presidential candidate Jeb Bush was correct when he stated that psychology majors end up “working at Chick-fil-A”.

blessings and curses 3

The experience of teaching, advising, and mentoring thousands of psychology majors during my 40-year academic career has led me to conclude that this group is composed of two subgroups:

  • occupationally savvy students and
  • occupationally not-so-savvy students.

These subgroups approach their professional futures in profoundly different ways.

Savvy students:

Savvy students adopt a proactive, two-stage approach to the collegiate experience by deliberately using it as an opportunity to explore, identify, and refine their career goals. You create and follow a well-crafted plan to acquire the skills you will need—and the evidence that you have acquired them—to attain your post-baccalaureate aspirations. In other words, you intentionally use your undergraduate educations to decide who you want to become and then begin a systematic process to construct yourself in the image of that person.

Not-so-savvy students:

On the other hand, if you are a not-so-savvy student, you will live your undergraduate under the ill-fated illusion that you are entitled to, and will acquire, a good job after you graduate simply because you possess a college diploma certifying that you have accumulated enough credit hours to graduate. You will take courses to “get them out of the way,” avoid challenging classes in which you could strengthen important career-enhancing skills (e.g., writing, public speaking, and math), choose easy rather than skill-building electives, and spurn extracurricular opportunities because you believe them to be a waste of time, rather than opportunities to develop valuable collaboration and leadership skills. These unfortunate strategies, paired with the misconception that the work required as an undergraduate student cannot be applied to the “real world” of work, can produce very negative consequences.

Case in point is the extreme disgruntlement one of my former students described several years ago in The Huffington Post  who, in debt and without a steady job, attempted to sell his diploma on eBay® for $36,000 plus $3.50 shipping and handling. Perhaps as a result of living out a self-fulfilling prophecy, he was quoted as saying, “Universities are handing out too many degrees that have zero real-world application.”

Interested in becoming the savvy psychology major I have described in this blog? Read my full article here to find out how. 

From “How to Maximize the Blessings and Minimize the Curses of Being a Psychology Major,” by D. C. Appleby, 2015, Eye on Psi Chi, 20(1), pp. 16–19. Copyright 2015 by Psi Chi,the International Honor Society in Psychology. Adapted with permission.

Additional References:

Borden, V. M. H., & Rajecki, D. W. (2000). First-year employment outcomes of psychology baccalaureates: Relatedness, preparedness, and prospects. Teaching of Psychology, 27, 164–168. doi:10.1207/S15328023TOP2703_01

Hettich, P. I., & Landrum, R. E. (2014). Your undergraduate degree in psychology: From college to career. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

Rajecki, D. W., & Borden, V. M. H. (2009). First-year employment outcomes of U.S. psychology graduates revisited: Need for a degree, salary, and relatedness to the major. Psychology of Learning and Teaching, 8, 23–29. doi:10.2304/plat.2009.8.2.23

About the Author

Dr. Appleby received his BA from Simpson College in 1969 and his PhD from Iowa State University in 1972. During his four-decade career, he chaired the Marian University Psychology Department, was the Director of Undergraduate Studies in the IUPUI Psychology Department, and served as the Associate Dean of the IUPUI Honors College. He used the results of his research on teaching, learning, advising, and mentoring to create strategies that enable college students to adapt to their educational environment, acquire academic competence, set realistic goals, and achieve their career aspirations. He published over 100 books and articles (including The Savvy Psychology Major); made over 600 conference and other professional presentations (including 24 invited keynote addresses); received 44 institutional, regional, and national awards for teaching, advising, mentoring, and service; and was honored for his contributions to the science and profession of psychology by being named a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, the Midwestern Psychological Association, and as the 30th distinguished member of Psi Chi (the International Honor Society in Psychology). Most importantly, during his 13 years at IUPUI, he was designated as a mentor by 777 graduating psychology majors, 222 of whom indicated he was their most influential mentor by selecting the following sentence to describe his impact: “This professor influenced the whole course of my life and his effect on me has been invaluable.”