Why would you want to major in that?

Demystifying your psychology major.

By Jane S. Halonen, PhD

You know the drill. You sit down for a meal at a family gathering when the conversation inevitably turns to how you are doing in college. When you reveal that you are pursuing a psychology major, you may encounter rolling eyeballs and one of three responses:

  1. “How will you ever get a job with a psychology major?”
  2. “Are you going to analyze me?”
  3. “Did you go into psychology to fix your problems?”

It is frustrating to experience so little enthusiasm from your loved ones about your choice of major. However, as William Shakespeare said in “Henry V,” “All things are ready, if our mind be so.” With a little preparation, you can provide a dazzling explanation for your major and demystify the psychology major for those with limited background. 

The psychology major as a workforce degree

About 40 percent of students who get a baccalaureate degree in psychology move into graduate school or professional training of some kind. This statistic means the majority of majors will be in the job market upon graduation. Although want ads may not specify “only psychology majors need apply,” people who are savvy about how to address challenges in human behavior should be able to find employment even in tight job markets.

The American Psychological Association recently revised its Guidelines for the Undergraduate Psychology Major (hereafter referred to as Guidelines 2.0) in a manner that should provide some assistance in your efforts to educate family and friends about the psychology major. The document identified psychology as a premier choice for versatile career preparation. Among other objectives, Guidelines 2.0 produced a succinct overview of the skills an undergraduate major should foster, including:

  1. An expert background in scientific explanations of human behavior.
  2. Refined critical thinking skills.
  3. Effective communication skills in speaking and writing.
  4. Ethical and social responsibility in a diverse world.
  5. Professional development.

Assuming your program adheres to the guidelines advocated by APA, you should be getting the right background that will make you competitive for the workforce.

Monetary concerns often underlie your relatives’ questions about job preparation in the major. Unhappily, psychology majors who move into entry-level positions do tend to garner some of the lowest salaries in the workforce. However, this fact should not dissuade you from pursuing a major you love. Entry-level salaries merely open the door on a career that may be rich in opportunities for promotion and substantial pay increases over time. Although the average starting salary of a psychology major is less than $40,000 (Rajecki & Borden, 2011), the capacity for earning a larger income will improve with successful work performance.

Another strategy is to point out that the psychology degree provides other satisfactions beyond generating income. Many students who elect to study psychology wish to do so because it enhances the meaning of their lives by preparing for careers that will be directly useful in helping others. Satisfaction can be derived in a helping career, whether that help is rendered in direct service (e.g., mental health, sales, human resources, education) or through the application of research skills to solve human problems.

On analyzing others

Psychology students are often better-than-average observers of human behavior. They can apply the theory of mind to decode motives and predict possible courses of action that others might take. However, Guidelines 2.0 clearly states that undergraduate psychology students will not be ready to take on the challenge of providing individual therapy with only a baccalaureate degree. Graduate programs are happy to provide that level of training. So for now, your relatives should be safe from any special analytic powers your undergraduate degree might confer.

On healing the self

Although students may be able to develop insights into their own psychological make-up as a function of the major, little in the undergraduate curriculum directly targets that outcome. The primary focus of the undergraduate degree is the development of understanding concepts, principles and theories from a scientific standpoint. A more direct route for deep self-insight is therapy, not undergraduate education.

I encourage you to take a look at Guidelines 2.0 before your next family gathering and to give some thought to your unique interests being served by your major. A more enlightened response from you can not only take off the pressure, it can go a long way toward demystifying the major.

References

  • Baldwin, D. A., & Baird, J. A. (2001). Discerning intentions in dynamic human interaction. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 5, 171-178.
  • Rajecki, D. W., & Borden, V. M. H. (2010). First-year employment outcomes of U.S. psychology graduates revisited: Need for a degree, salary, and relatedness to the major. Psychology Learning & Teaching, 8(2), 23–30.

About the author

Jane S. HalonenPsychologist Jane S. Halonen is professor of psychology at the University of West Florida where she recently completed a decade of service as the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Her research agenda has focused on critical thinking, assessment, and faculty and program development. Her most recent emphases have been on helping good departments become great ones. She coauthored “Your Guide to College Success” which is in its seventh edition published by Cengage. She has been involved over the course of her career with helping APA develop guidelines or standards of academic performance from high school through graduate levels of education, including chairing the Task Force on Psychology Major Competencies. She was named the 2013 winner of the APA Distinguished Contributions of Applications of Psychology to Education and Training award. In 2000, she won APF’s Distinguished Teaching Award, and APA named her an “Eminent Woman in Psychology” in 2003. She served as the chief reader for the Psychology Advanced Placement Reading from 2004-09.