Feature

The ebbing recession is making the job-hunt a little tougher on this year's college graduates, but despite the downturn, psychology majors should find jobs with relative ease across a range of fields. They owe that continued demand to the major's emphasis on wide-ranging, flexible skills, market watchers say.

If this year's 73,000 to 75,000 psychology graduates follow the pattern of their predecessors--as found in surveys by APA's Research Office--most will join the work force immediately, though some will also attend graduate school part time, and others will earn a higher degree later.

To be sure, the recent economic downturn means jobs will be scarcer for this year's graduates, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). The association predicts new hiring will be down 20 percent.

Still, as in years past, most majors can expect to find entry-level jobs in everything from education and social services to business, government and health care, NACE data indicate. Starting salaries across these areas span $18,000 to $45,000, depending on the job type and location.

Of course, those entering business earn considerably higher salaries than those entering social services and nonprofit areas, says Barney Beins, PhD, APA's director for precollege and undergraduate programs. But he notes that, across all areas, salaries increase as students gain higher administrative positions or earn higher degrees.

As for how majors land jobs, it takes strong knowledge of their own interests and skills, adeptness at fitting those interests and skills to employers' needs and plenty of contacts inside and outside academe, say Beins and other career advisers. Such preparation, they add, will be handier than ever in this spring's tight job market.

"When employers ask, 'Why should I hire you?' they want to hear about outstanding characteristics," says Drew Appleby, PhD, director of undergraduate psychology studies at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis. "They're not looking so much for what you know as what you can do--social and interpersonal skills, critical thinking, working collaboratively on teams, showing persistence and initiative, oral and writing skills."

What's hot

Psychology teaches all those skills in its undergraduate curriculum, notes Appleby, giving its majors a leg up on many other job seekers. Such "soft skills," together with the quantitative strategies students learn through research, prepare students for jobs as diverse as real estate agents, accountants and kindergarten teachers.

However, starting salaries are typically lower for psychology than for other more applied or professionally oriented areas. NACE, for example, pegs the average salary for psychology majors at $29,952 for 2001-02--though that number seems inflated to career analyst Betsy Morgan, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin- La Crosse. She notes that the Bureau of Labor Statistics quotes a salary range of $21,900 to $27,200 for 2001 psychology majors. And the National Science Foundation lists an average starting salary of $25,000 for 1999 psychology majors.

Also, in 2001, psychology majors received the most offers in the areas of management ($30,488), teaching ($25,378), counseling ($24,724), social work ($26,988) and sales ($34,451), according to NACE.

More generally, APA and NACE list the most common psychology employment areas and salaries as:

  • Health care and social services, $20,000 to $25,000. Job tasks include counseling, administration and research.

  • Education, $17,000 to $25,000. Job responsibilities include teaching, research and provision of student services. Child care pays the lowest salaries--typically below $20,000.

  • Management and business, $25,000 to $40,000. Such work includes employee development and training, consulting, merchandising, banking, customer service and office work. Banking and consulting earn the highest salaries and customer service and office work the lowest.

  • Federal, state and local government, $20,000 to $29,000. Duties include law enforcement, legislative support and administrative work.

How to land the job

Perhaps because majors find such a variety of jobs, a large number of them consider their work unrelated to psychology, says Morgan. In alumni surveys of her department's majors, for example, three-quarters say their postcollege jobs are not related well, or are only somewhat related, to psychology.

That finding bothers Morgan, who thinks many students underestimate psychology's relationship to their work. Appleby agrees, again pointing to the useful "soft" and quantitative skills that psychology majors gain--"those learning-how-to-learn skills you apply in any job."

Understanding and communicating those strengths is key to landing a first job, psychology faculty say. Other job-search tips they share with students include:

  • Know yourself and your career goals. Start with your strengths and interests, then match potential jobs accordingly, Creighton University professor Mark Ware, PhD, advises students. Many students approach job searching the opposite way, pursuing high-pay, high-demand jobs based on statistics. "But that's putting the cart before the horse," says Ware. "The plethora of computer jobs available doesn't do most psychology majors a bit of good."

  • Get more comfortable with business and finance. Many psychology majors count out careers in business because they consider it unrelated to their skills and "people" interests. But, not only do their skills apply in business jobs, says Ware, but financial skills prove important in human services areas as well--indeed in every area of work and life.

  • Pitch yourself to employers. Make a case for what you offer that other majors don't, says Margaret Lloyd, PhD, an APA Board of Educational Affairs member who's compiled a career resources Web page (www.psywww.com/careers). What, for example does a psychology major offer that a business major doesn't? For one thing, interpersonal skills and understanding, says R. Eric Landrum, PhD, who teaches a career course at Boise State University.

  • View the first job as a testing ground. Consider it a steppingstone to the next project. "You're going to have to start at the bottom of something," says Landrum. "Unless your name is Gates, you will need to work your way up."

  • Join in extracurricular activities and tap job resources. Sign up for student clubs, honors and research programs, and career services, advises Appleby. Besides taking the career classes many departments offer, get to work early on career networking and planning, he says.

Doing so paid-off for one of his 2001 graduates, Veronica Bannon, 22. Her involvement in Psi Chi, student council, peer advising and practicum led to contacts that not only landed her a job helping providers deliver integrated services to people with serious mental illness but also doing paid service-learning research for a former professor.

"And I didn't have to knock on any doors," says Bannon. "Through the connections I'd made, jobs were already open to me."

Further Reading

For more information on psychology careers and market trends, check out the online Occupational Outlook Handbook from the Bureau of Labor Statistics at www.bls.gov/oco/ocos056.htm.