You don't want to go into private practice. A life in a psychology lab doesn't hold much appeal. And you're not sure how you feel about teaching Psych 101 to a classroom of freshmen. So what will you do with your graduate degree?
Anything you want.
Although your degree has prepared you well for a career in the traditional triumvirate of psychology career paths--practice, research and education--your hard-earned psychology skills also have prepared you for plenty of other careers, both in and out of the field.
PICK A CAREER, ANY CAREER
Psychologists leave graduate school with highly marketable skills, including the ability to gather information, evaluate it and organize it, says Tara Kuther, PhD, one of the editors of "Life After Graduate School in Psychology: Insider's Advice from New Psychologists" (2005, Psychology Press).
"The ability to synthesize information is incredibly important in the business world," she notes.
For instance, writing reports, evaluating behavior and analyzing statistics are valuable skills in many industries, such as marketing and advertising, points out Kuther. You may also want to put your quantitative skills to use in data mining and database administration. Your writing skills could pay off as a grant writer, a technical writer or a science journalist, she adds. Psychologists also can--and often do--bring their research skills to a company's market research or product development departments, she notes.
You don't have to leave psychology to break out of the mold: Clinicians and researchers can work for the military or government as contractors, Kuther points out.
And psychologists are increasingly tapping into people's interest in understanding themselves and others by writing books for the general public or providing expert commentary on radio or television, notes Kuther's co-editor, Corey Habben, PsyD.
"We tend to box ourselves into being 'just therapists' or 'just academics,' but there are a lot of things we can do," says Habben. There's a lot of unexplored territory for psychology, he adds. For instance, many psychologists now work in areas that were uncommon in the past, such as hospitals, the courts and athletics.
Your options are open, agree Kuther and Habben, but first you need to evaluate your skills.
"Ask yourself, 'What am I interested in? What can I do with my expertise?'" says Habben. Talk to people, search the Web, make contacts and seek experience.
It worked for psychologist Kristen Lukas, PhD.
IT'S A ZOO OUT THERE
By the time Lukas was a senior at Bowling Green State University, she knew she wanted to work with animals, thanks to an animal behavior class she took as part of her psychology major. She decided to become a zookeeper, and found an internship at the Toledo Zoo cleaning out the ape house.
There was just one problem, she says: "I realized I was allergic to hay!" Still interested in working with primates--particularly gorillas--Lukas asked for work outside the house. The zoo's curator of mammals asked Lukas to study how the gorillas' behavior changed in captivity.
To get started, she drew from work by psychologist and former Zoo Atlanta Director Terry Maple, PhD, who directs the Center for Conservation and Behavior at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
The experience drove Lukas to apply to Georgia Tech, where she studied under Maple and earned her PhD in experimental psychology. But instead of following a traditional career path and applying for a job at a university, she went on to become the first primate curator at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, and is now the curator of conservation and science at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.
In her nontraditional career, she uses her psychology background in various ways. For instance, at Lincoln Park, Lukas helped design new housing for the gorilla and chimpanzee populations. The redesign was based on research she and her colleagues at the zoo conducted on animal and visitor behavior, which took a close look at how zoo-goers felt about the gorilla habitat.
The researchers found that visitors preferred more natural-looking habitats. Preliminary data from a study conducted since the new habitat opened suggests that the new design also helps visitors appreciate wildlife as part of the environment. Seeing the animals in a setting that resembles nature gives people a sense of where the animals came from--that they don't just exist in isolation in some cage or building at the zoo, but in the wild, as well, says Lukas.
In her position at Cleveland Metroparks, Lukas works with other curators to make decisions on how to house and care for all the zoo's animals. She also coordinates the zoo's conservation projects, such as monitoring and enhancing a local butterfly habitat. Lukas administers the conservation budget as well-evaluating the scientific merits of conservation projects and research proposals to make decisions about which grants the zoo will fund, and what is the best use of funds. She helps bring students to the zoo who are earning degrees in the biological sciences, and is an adjunct biology professor at Case Western Reserve University and an adjunct anthropology professor at Kent State University.
By combining her zoo duties with teaching and side work with the Species Survival Plan for Gorillas-the plan all U.S. zoos use to manage gorillas--Lukas is continuing to follow her own advice to current graduate students: "Get as much experience as you can." Make the most of unusual opportunities, she says, and be willing to work for free. Any experience can be a launching pad.