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New psychology graduates are more likely to thrive financially if they begin planning for the future while students, said presenters at an APAGS-sponsored workshop on salaries in psychology during APA's 2005 Annual Convention.

In fact, it's never too soon for students to research their earning potential, understand their debt load and think about the lifestyle they want after graduation, advised William Pate and Jessica Kohout, PhD, of APA's Research Office. Their office is the only agency that collects salary and debt data specific to psychology, although several other organizations also gather salary data.

Navigating the numbers

Just as research studies have their limitations, so do salary surveys, noted Pate.

When examining salary data, he advised, ask:

  • Who was surveyed? APA's salary data include PhDs and PsyDs, but many other surveys only include PhDs. Also, some surveys lump bachelor's, master's and doctoral recipients into the same figures--and in psychology, these degree recipients have significantly different earning potential.

  • How is salary defined? Are benefits, such as health care and tuition assistance, included? For academic positions, are the salaries for nine or 12 months? For practitioners, does the salary take into account taxes and business expenses?

"Look at the technical index or technical appendices of these reports and sources of data to see how they're defining things so that you're sure the information you're getting is applicable to you," advised Kohout.

  • Are the data broken down by experience? Some surveys only provide an average of participants. But the salary you can expect as an early-career psychologist is probably less than that. Look for data specific to recent graduates.

Moreover, noted Pate, other considerations can affect salary offers, including geographical area (to calculate cost of living differences, try the Council for Community and Economic Research's tools at www.coli.org) and the kind of setting. For example, community mental health centers usually pay less than for-profit businesses.

Plus, job candidates can bargain for more than salary, he noted: Consider the value of leave, flexible scheduling, health-care plans, continuing-education funding, tuition assistance, dependent care and other benefits. (For more on job negotiations, see www.gradpsych.apags.org/jan05/worth.html.)


Solving the equation

Once you have an idea of your earning potential, factor in your debt load, including student loans: Will your salary allow you to pay down your debt?

Two-thirds of 2003 doctoral-level psychology graduates carry debt, according to APA's Research Office. In fact, 24 percent have graduate loans of more than $75,000. Students in health-service provider subfields are more likely to have debt than those in research tracks, he noted. (For more on student debt, see www.gradpsych.apags.org/apr04.)

If the numbers look tighter than what you've set as your personal goal, map out a plan to boost your income. One way to do that, said Pate: Diversify your skill set. For example, private practitioners can supplement their incomes by consulting, giving workshops and conducting forensic evaluations--but only if they have the right training and understand how to market their skills.

Now is the time, he noted, to tap the training necessary to develop a varied--and financially successful--professional life. The benefits are two-fold, Pate added: Income from multiple sources puts you on solid financial footing if business slows in one area, and the varied work can help prevent professional burnout.

In fact, in 2004, at least 50 percent of full-time clinical psychologists worked in two or more settings.

Salary data sources

How much are you likely to earn as a recent grad? These sites can help you find out:

  •  APA Research Office  

The office collects comprehensive data on the psychology work force. Its reports include the Doctorate Employment Survey, Faculty Salaries Survey (see page 7), Salaries in Psychology, Survey of Graduate Departments in Psychology and an employment survey of master's, specialist's and related degrees.

The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System collects data from providers of postsecondary education.

The Survey of Earned Doctorates, funded by several federal agencies, collects data on recent graduates from science and engineering fields, and the Survey of Doctoral Recipients covers doctorates at all levels.

Division of Science Resources Statistics reports include Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering, the National Survey of Recent College Graduates and the Science and Engineering Doctorate Awards.

  •  Public information and networking

Public sector salaries--such as at public universities and in the state and federal government--are often published. Also, tap your network to evaluate the going rates in your area, though APA Research Office staff cautioned against flat-out asking people their salary. Instead, they advised, ask whether a certain amount might be appropriate for someone with your experience.

-D. SMITH BAILEY