More students are heading to graduate school than ever before, according to the U.S. Department of Education, and psychology continues to attract its fair share of high achieving scholars.
In 1997, more than 53,000 graduate students were enrolled in psychology programs, according to a National Science Foundation survey--up more than 10 percent across all subfields from six years before.
What continues to make psychology so attractive at a time when some prognosticators are bemoaning managed care's detrimental impact on practice, a scarcity in research funding and the steep competition in academe?
Many students say they are driven by an interest in helping people or curiosity about the brain. Others view psychology as a vast uncharted territory--a field where there is still room for them to make important discoveries.
And even those students who entered graduate school with little knowledge of the psychology job market are discovering that while opportunities for psychologists have changed, new, exciting options are available to them in multidisciplinary settings, primary care, niche practices, pharmaceutical companies and the technology industry.
"Students continue to thrive in graduate school in psychology because they find that psychology continues to expand into new and unanticipated areas, despite being limited in others," says Marcus Patterson, the chair-elect of the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students (APAGS), which represents 42,000 student affiliate members of APA.
However, new opportunities won't make job hunting less competitive, predict job market observers. But many students are preparing to compete.
"Any concerns that I have about the marketplace, particularly at this point in my graduate career, are greatly overshadowed by my desire to succeed in psychology and have a diverse career," says Bill Hudenko, a second-year clinical psychology graduate student at Vanderbilt University. "That doesn't mean, however, that I am not shaping my education in a way that I feel will make me competitive when I graduate."
While "helping people" is often the top reason students pursue a psychology doctorate, many are also interested in making their mark in a field with so many unanswered questions.
"Psychology is a young field, and there are going to be great discoveries in the next 50 years," says Tamara Duckworth, who is in her third year in the clinical and health psychology program at the University of Florida and is an APAGS Committee member-at-large, education focus. "There is a lot of basic science that still needs to be done, and a lot of good work in terms of practice, such as solving cross-cultural conflict. That's exciting."
Many discovered that psychology linked to another field they were interested in, such as business or law, but offered more diversity and room for creativity than their original choice.
Jessica Bigazzi Foster, a graduate student at Rice University, for example, considered business school, but instead chose industrial/organizational psychology because she was more interested in research than in accounting and number crunching.
"I wanted to delve deeper into the issues related to I/O rather than reading what other people had done," says Foster. "Being in an I/O program allows me to combine the benefits of psychology and business more efficiently than I feel would be possible in an MBA program."
Some students view a PhD in psychology as extremely marketable because they'll have the option to teach, do research, consult or practice--or all four. APAGS chair-elect Patterson, a fourth year student in Boston University's clinical program, had nearly completed a PhD in philosophy when he switched to psychology for that reason.
"Psychology also seemed like a much more challenging philosophical puzzle than what I had been studying," says Patterson.
Hudenko also plans to juggle a practice, teaching and doing research. "The variety is actually very appealing to me," says Hudenko. "I went after a PhD because it would open all those doors," he says.
Graduate study in psychology won out over law school for Shauna Howarth, a first year graduate student at Iowa State University.
"There didn't seem much room for creativity in law," she says. "But the learning curve in psychology is exponential--we are learning so much so fast."
Faculty have their own theories about the new forces pulling students into the field. One is the recent focus in the media on brain research, sparked in part by the Decade of the Brain, says John Salamone, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut. While recruiting for the university at a local high school, Salamone was surprised when a girl told him she wanted to study neuroscience--not a typical response from a 17-year-old.
"Neuroscience is being presented more and more," says Salamone. "And behavioral neuroscience has benefited from that--students are fascinated by the brain and want to learn more about it."
Another force is the increased push for student volunteerism in high schools, says Deborah Best, PhD, Chair of the Council of Graduate Departments of Psychology and the psychology department at Wake Forest University. More high schools are encouraging students to visit nursing homes, tutor children and adults, participate in mentoring programs and build houses for Habitat for Humanity. That's priming students early on for work that involves helping people, she says.
"Students end up liking something about that volunteer activity," says Best. "And then they pursue psychology because it seems to be the closest thing that connects to that."
Job market realities
But are these students going to be disappointed when it's time for them to make graduate school dreams a reality? Not according to recent data.
The 1997 Doctorate Employment Survey recently compiled by APA's Research Office found that nearly 68 percent of 2,116 psychologists who earned their doctorate in the 1996-97 academic year secured their first choice when looking for a job. In addition, 69 percent of respondents were employed within three months of completing the degree.
And, of course, psychology students' job prospects are helped by the overall U.S. economy, which is enjoying low unemployment.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics also has a bright outlook for psychologists. In its 1998-99 Occupational Outlook Handbook, the bureau forecasts that more job opportunities will arise in businesses, nonprofit organizations and research and computer firms for psychologists working as consultants. In addition, the handbook predicts "opportunities for people holding doctorates from leading universities in areas with an applied emphasis, such as clinical, counseling, health and educational psychology, should have particularly good prospects."
Not to say the job market won't be competitive. Many psychologists predict that it will be, and for that reason, Jessica Kohout, PhD, director of APA's Research Office, encourages students to keep their eyes on market trends. She foresees that areas such as technology, cultural diversity and medical delivery will recruit high numbers of psychologists in the coming years.
"Students who are coming out with a knowledge that the market has changed, who work a little harder, and who investigate what those changes are will be in better shape," says Kohout.
Many students are doing just that. Some are laying plans to work in multidisciplinary settings, areas that are becoming popular for psychologists. Some are trying to carve out niche areas for themselves--in research and practice.
"I believe what we need to do to survive the potentially bumpy road ahead is to create our own niche by providing unique services," says Stacy Carmichael, a fourth-year graduate student in the clinical and health program at the University of Florida. Carmichael, who is an APAGS committee member-at-large, communications focus, says her goal is to work as a pediatric psychologist as part of a multidisciplinary team of health-care providers.
"Students are now recognizing the need to be flexible in their goals," says Stephen W. Kiefer, PhD, head of the psychology department at Kansas State University. Kiefer believes his own students are extremely wise to marketplace changes. "They follow it closer than I do," he says.
Wake Forest's Best wonders, though, if students who are planning to juggle roles are being realistic.
"I don't think some of them realize how hard that might be," she says. She says she is often contacted by practitioners seeking part-time jobs in academe. As a result, there may not be enough opportunities to go around, she says.
And many who follow the job market agree that security really depends on the subfield. For example, students pursuing I/O psychology need to worry less than, say, behavioral neuroscience students, says Kiefer.
"There's a backlog of PhDs doing behavioral neuroscience postdocs that are trying to land academic jobs--so it's still pretty tight."
But it's not just I/O students that are optimistic. Students in many subfields say their professors are continually posting job opportunities on e-mail and recent graduates of their programs are reporting success.
"Getting a job is a big concern of mine, but it looks like the job market is okay," says Steven McCown, a fifth-year graduate student in cognitive psychology at the University of Alabama.
Confidence, mixed with a little caution, is healthy for graduate students, says Salamone at the University of Connecticut. The field can only benefit from talented professionals continuing to filter in, he says.
"It's good for them to shoot for their goals--many of them will be able to get something close to them," he says. "You could present students with the voice of realism," Salamone adds, "but graduate school is really about dreams."