What employers seek in job applicants: You’ve got the skills they want
By Tara L. Kuther, PhD
At one time or another nearly every undergraduate student in psychology wonders what to do with their degree. Perhaps the best way to demonstrate the career value of an undergraduate degree in psychology is to take employers’ perspectives. What do employers seek in new hires? National surveys of employers show that they value skill sets such as critical thinking and problem solving more than specific majors (Hart Research Associates, 2013; National Association of Colleges and Employers, 2012). Psychology majors’ training places them at a distinct advantage over other graduates. Let’s take a closer look at some of the skills valued by employers and how they compare to the competencies students acquire through the psychology major.
Critical thinking skills
Employers want to hire applicants who can “think on their feet” and analyze what they encounter in the workplace. The psychology major provides plenty of opportunities to engage in critical thinking. Introductory psychology students, for example, are quickly immersed in a sea of perspectives on the causes and nature of human behavior. Soon students realize that research often supports several theoretical explanations and that their task is to weigh multiple points of view, compare and contrast evidence and make reasoned explanations for behavior. Don’t underestimate the value of these skills.
Employers need staff that can solve the range of small and large problems that arise daily in the workplace. Psychology students learn how to identify questions, frame them, devise and carry out procedures to test them and analyze the data to draw conclusions. Courses in research methods and statistics help students develop skills in scientific problem solving that are transferrable to everyday settings such as the workplace.
Oral, writing and interpersonal communication skills
Over their undergraduate years, psychology students write a great many papers and enroll in courses that require discussion and debate. They learn how to substantiate arguments by referring to evidence from empirical research. Group assignments give students the opportunity to practice interpersonal skills and cooperate with others to solve problems. Courses in clinical psychology, social psychology and persuasion, for example, provide students with specific information about interpersonal communication, team work, leadership and conflict management.
Ability to locate, organize and evaluate information from multiple sources
Success in the workplace requires the ability to manipulate and use information productively. Psychology students learn how to find and extract information from multiple sources, summarize it, critically evaluate it to determine its credibility and relevance to the problem at hand and synthesize it into a coherent and persuasive argument. The ability to understand, present and apply the results of empirical research to address problems is a skillset in which psychology majors specialize.
Appreciation of diversity and individual differences
Employers value an awareness and sensitivity to issues of culture, class, race and ethnicity. Successful employees are comfortable working with colleagues and customers/clients of diverse backgrounds. These topics are often front and center in psychology classes as they are inextricably tied to understanding how we grow, change and function throughout our lives.
Potential for continued learning and professional development
Learning is a lifelong endeavor. Employers seek graduates who are interested and able to pursue their own professional development by acquiring knowledge and outside experiences to enhance their skillset. Training in cognition and perception helps students develop an understanding of how the mind works including attention, memory and the mechanics of learning. This knowledge and the ability to apply it to enhance your own learning are valuable in and out of the workplace.
Innovation and creativity
Cliché as it sounds, employers want to hire people who can “think outside the box.” The ability to creatively use existing resources in order to efficiently complete tasks is valued. Successful employees are flexible, able to evaluate options to determine the best approach for a given situation and adapt accordingly.
Ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings
Employers seek job applicants who can apply their school-based knowledge in everyday settings. Hands-on, practical experience can be obtained through cooperative education, internships, practica, part-time jobs or summer work experience. Employers list obtaining applied experiences as one of the best ways applicants can distinguish themselves from the pack. They list the following as specific ways students can enhance their employment prospects:
- Acquire hands-on collaborative research experience (for example, with a professor and/or lab).
- Develop research questions and conduct independent research (under faculty supervision).
- Complete a project that demonstrates the knowledge and skills you have acquired (for example, compile a portfolio, construct a literature review paper or prepare proposal for a prevention/intervention program).
- Participate in an internship or community-based experience.
In sum, the psychology curriculum imparts the competencies and skills employers want. Prepare yourself for landing a job with your psychology degree by seeking opportunities to develop creative-thinking, problem-solving and communication skills. Also seek opportunities to apply what you have learned in research and community settings. Finally, remember that not every employer is aware of the broad set of competencies obtained by psychology majors. Be prepared to talk about your education and experiences and how they illustrate the valued competencies listed above. You have acquired the skills that employers want: Now sell them.
Hart Research Associates (2013). It takes more than a major: Employer priorities for college learning and student success. An online survey among employers conducted on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (PDF, 156KB). Washington, D.C.
National Association of Colleges and Employers. (2012). Job Outlook 2013 Survey. Washington, D.C.: National Association of Colleges and Employers.
About the Author
Tara Kuther is a professor at Western Connecticut State University, where she has taught since 1996. Kuther earned her PhD in developmental psychology from Fordham University. She is author of "The Psychology Major’s Handbook," "Surviving Graduate School in Psychology: A Pocket Mentor" and "Careers in Psychology: Opportunities in a Changing World" (with Robert Morgan).