When you come to a fork in the road, take it
By Paul Hettich, PhD
Baseball great Yogi Berra was not the first to utter this puzzling statement, but he certainly received most of the credit for it; later, I will explain what he meant. Life is a journey with many forks in the road, and you are on a road whose direction you cannot predict with certainty. One fork you encounter is the decision about what to do with your bachelor’s degree in psychology. About 20-25 percent of psychology majors follow the fork that leads to graduate or professional school. As the remaining students choose the road most traveled and enter the workforce upon graduation, I will sketch a rough map for that choice.
Coursework alone is insufficient
Because you will enter the workforce in a highly competitive, high-tech, global economy that is far different from the one your parents encountered, you can no longer assume the knowledge and skills gained through college coursework are sufficient for success. You need to supplement your classroom learning with additional knowledge and skill-building activities.
You must possess the kinds of skills Tara Kuther described in the September 2013 issue of Psychology Student Network (feel free to peruse this article before you continue). Be prepared, however, to support each skill you list on a resume with hard evidence because interviewers will seek verification. Traditional “hard skills” such as critical/analytical thinking, problem solving, written and oral communication, research and evaluating information are the vital skills of your psychology major. However, do not expect many of your teachers to discuss the skills they teach because that is not part of the liberal arts teaching tradition. Teachers focus on content (concepts, theory and research), so you must become proactive in identifying, developing and applying these transferable skills on your own.
Work experiences and “soft skills” (e.g., interpersonal communication, teamwork and leadership) are needed to supplement your coursework. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE, 2012), 91 percent of employers prefer job candidates with work experience (71 percent prefer relevant work experience while 20 percent prefer any type). So if you have a limited work record, get a part-time job, even if you receive substantial financial support. If you currently hold a job, take it seriously. Assess yourself on the extent that you: possess a strong work ethic, are reliable and consistent, can accept constructive and destructive criticism, collaborate well with coworkers, can perform routine tasks effectively under stress and are developing transferable hard and soft skills. Customer service, wait-staff, retail and other positions requiring substantial face-to-face interaction are good jobs for learning critical soft skills.
Most employers value internship experiences, but internships can vary widely in terms of the quality of supervision (from none to excellent), the level of tasks you perform (from boring to challenging), being credit-bearing (or not), reimbursed (zero to acceptable) and other dimensions. Consequently, be sure to research the opportunities thoroughly and work closely with your advisor, career center and organization. Because internships are very important to employers and to your personal and professional growth, make it your goal to complete at least one internship before you graduate.
Your soft skills are essential, but most courses are not suitable venues to establish them strongly. Your part-time job could be an excellent source of instruction, but if time permits join a campus organization whose activities you enjoy and make it your goal to hold a leadership position by your junior or senior year. In large, challenging campus organizations, the officers plan and conduct meetings, collaborate, encounter conflicts, interact with diverse individuals and deal with ambiguous situations having uncertain outcomes — just like the typical workplace. It is far better to learn the soft skills in a supportive college setting than in your first full-time job where costly mistakes can lead to career setbacks. Volunteering and service learning can also teach similar skills, depending on your level of active involvement; being an RA (resident assistant) is a great skill builder.
Be sure to complete courses in public speaking, writing (beyond APA style), technology and business (e.g., economics, management and marketing) because the knowledge and skills they impart will help you succeed in the workplace. Consider completing a minor or double major in an applied field to complement your psychology major.
In summary, supplement your coursework with thoughtful attention to your part-time job, internships, extracurricular activities, other job-related courses and, of course, regular visits to your career center for self-assessment instruments, advice and skill-building activities. These and other suggestions are expanded in Hettich & Landrum (2014) and other resources listed below that address careers with the psychology major.
Each fork in the road, whether to graduate school or the workplace, generates challenges
Some students believe that classmates who plan to attend graduate school receive preferential treatment from their teachers. Students with graduate school plans may be easier to advise than other students because they articulate specific goals about which teachers are usually quite knowledgeable. Students who choose, for whatever reasons, to enter the workforce often do not know what they want (but some do) and can be more challenging to advise given the numerous occupational options about which most teachers have limited advising expertise. You learn in your introductory psychology course that you cannot call yourself a psychologist without graduate degrees, but that does not mean you can’t use your psychology baccalaureate in a gainful occupation. To learn more about occupations/careers for baccalaureate graduates, log on to “An Online Resource to Enable Psychology Majors to Investigate 172 Psychology and Psychology-Related Careers” (PDF, 532KB) (Appleby, Millspaugh, & Hammersly, 2011), Chan & Gardner’s illuminating report “An Arts & Science Degree: Defining Its Value in the Workplace” (PDF, 782KB) (2013) and other publications listed at these websites. Valuable resources that focus on graduate school and workplace issues may be found in the APA Books & APA Videos catalog sections on Student Resources and Career Resources, APA’s gradPSYCH magazine and in the Eye on Psi Chi magazine columns “Three Heads are Better Than One” (about graduate school) and “Wisdom From the Workplace” (about the workplace).
Whatever fork in the road you choose will challenge you. The graduate school-bound student will face higher standards of intellectual, professional and personal growth (and more debt), yet that individual remains in a familiar academic organizational culture and structure studying psychology. The baccalaureate graduate who enters the workplace has exchanged the familiar academic routine and daily encounter with psychological topics for a very different organizational culture that is embedded with different perspectives, new tasks, new roles and diverse coworkers. This person works in a setting far away from textbook psychology in which the challenges are mostly organizational. Either fork on this road is formidable, so choose wisely. Incidentally, it’s not unusual for baccalaureate graduates to work a few years, establish specific goals and then return for postgraduate education. When Yogi Berra remarked “When you come to a fork in the road, take it,” he was telling a friend that either road would lead to Berra’s house (Quote Investigator, 2013). Is it possible that either fork you choose can ultimately lead you to where you truly want to go?
- Appleby, D. C., Millspaugh, B. S., & Hammersley, J. J. (2011). An online resource to enable undergraduate psychology majors to identify and investigate 172 psychology and psychology-related careers (PDF, 532KB). Office of Teaching Resources in Psychology.
- Chan, A., & Gardner, P. (2013). An arts & science degree: Defining its value in the workplace (PDF, 782KB). (CERI Research Brief 5-2013). East Lansing, Mich.: Michigan State University Collegiate Employment Research Institute.
- Hettich, P. I., & Landrum, R. E. (2014). Your undergraduate degree in psychology from college to career. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications, Inc.
- Kuther, T. L. (2013). What employers seek in job applicants: You’ve got the skills they want. Psychology Student Network, 1(2).
- National Association of Colleges and Employers. (2012). Job outlook 2013. Bethlehem, Pa.: Author.
- Quote Investigator. (July 25, 2013).
About the author
Paul I. Hettich, PhD, professor emeritus at DePaul University, Ill., was an Army personnel psychologist, program evaluator in an education R&D lab, and a corporate applied scientist — positions that created a “real world” foundation for his career in college teaching and administration at Barat College (Lake Forest. Ill.). He was inspired to write about college-to-workplace transition issues by graduates and employers who revealed a major disconnect between university and workplace expectations, cultures and practices.