If you are naturally inquisitive and want to develop a deep understanding of human behavior and the mind, a psychology degree may be the right academic path for you. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the number of psychology degrees awarded to undergraduates rose by almost 5% from 2011-2012 to 2012-2013 and again by 2.5% from 2013-2014. Career prospects for psychology majors are still strong, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the demand for psychology professionals will grow by 19% through 2024.
As a psychology major, you’ll develop a range of skills that are applicable over multiple industries. There are several areas of psychology from which you can choose a degree emphasis, including social work, human services, education, social psychology, and industrial/organizational psychology. Many psychology undergraduates eventually pursue a graduate degree in a more specialized area, which increases expertise and gives them the opportunity to apply their skills in a clinical setting.
Choosing the right degree path and specialization in psychology is crucial to shaping your career opportunities down the line; we’ve created this guide to help make the process easier. Read on to learn more about what you’ll study, popular career choices in the field, and the degree you’ll need for your professional ambitions.
What is a Psychology Degree?
An undergraduate degree in psychology, which focuses on understanding human behavior and the mind, is offered at most universities and colleges nationwide. Psychology is an interdisciplinary subject that allows you to apply knowledge and skills toward multiple career paths, including applied psychology, teaching, law, medicine, communications, and many others. Undergraduate studies are usually focused on basic psychology principles and psychological research methods. If you’re interested in studying psychology but not certain whether you want to commit to a major, taking an introductory psychology course during your freshmen year can help you decide if the discipline matches your interests.
The Bachelor’s in Psychology
A variety of core concepts are taught in undergraduate psychology programs, including counseling, prevention and treatment strategies, research methods and theories, developmental and cognitive psychology theories, organizational psychology theories, and a range of other topics. You’ll also develop strong oral and written communication skills and interpersonal skills in most psychology programs.
Many universities offer either a bachelor of arts (BA) or a bachelor of science (BS) in psychology. Though there’s a good deal of overlap between the two, a BA tends to cover more liberal arts (general education) coursework while a BS places a stronger emphasis on math and science courses and usually includes more labs and statistical methods classes. In addition, a BS may involve more focus on advanced research methods and applied psychology experiences.
A student’s degree concentration will also dictate many of the classes that they take during the third or fourth years of their program. Concentrations vary by college, but common ones include mental health, child/developmental psychology, industrial/organizational psychology, and exercise/sports psychology. Some of these concentrations are reserved for graduate-level work, but having an understanding of your field of interest can help you select courses that will be most useful to your career path.
- Cognitive Psychology
Cognitive psychology is the study of the brain and behavior, with a focus on neuroscience. Specific topics addressed may include how humans pay attention, acquire knowledge, store memory, and solve problems. Cognitive science is an interdisciplinary field that crosses over with many other disciplines, including biology, kinesiology, and human development.
- Counseling and Clinical Psychology
Counseling and clinical psychology are closely related and may be offered as separate degrees or as a combined degree, depending on the school. Clinical psychology has a stronger focus on psychopathology (training in the use of psychological and other cognitive tests), while counseling psychology hones in on applying practice in a secondary education environment. Both fields of study are typically reserved for graduate students.
- Forensic Psychology
Students interested in clinical psychology may find a particular interest in applying knowledge and methods within the context of the justice and legal system, or forensic psychology. Programs in this concentration include coursework in forensic psychology (such as psychology of violence), law, and criminal justice. An undergraduate degree in forensic psychology prepares students to pursue several careers, including work as academic researchers, law enforcement consultants, correctional or trial psychologists, and more.
- Health Psychology
Health psychology involves research and theories related to health promotion, and prevention or management of stress, illness, and other disorders. This traditionally graduate-level degree concentration prepares students for applying advanced research skills in a medical setting or those working towards a related doctorate. Research topics include (but are not limited to) gender and health, aging, patient advocacy, and self-care, among others.
- Industrial/Organizational Psychology
Industrial/organizational (IO) psychology focuses on the study of human behavior in the context of the workplace, taking a close look at productivity and wellbeing. IO psychology degrees often offer further specialization in a topic of interest, including group and organizational processes, work motivation, training and development, and others. This degree opens career opportunities in many areas, to include human resources, market research, training and recruiting, and more.
- Social Psychology
Social psychology investigates human behavior at the intersection of the social, community, culture, and individual levels, with an emphasis placed on issues of race, gender, socioeconomics, and other social phenomena. Students in this program are usually offered opportunities to apply these theories into real-world settings through internships or practicums. This degree lays the foundation for those interested in further study or a career in social work, community psychology, social or public policy, and related fields.
Job Skills Developed within a Psychology Degree
Understanding human behavior in a professional environment is useful to any firm or company, and is an attractive skill set when applying for jobs outside the traditional psychology field. Being able to understand not just psychological principles, but also how to perform and analyze research and use statistical analysis is also cited by psych graduates as one of the most important factors in a successful career, regardless of field or industry. You’ll also benefit from the strong communication skills you’ll develop in school.
- Attention to Detail
Psychology by its very nature requires a thorough look at the human mind and behavior, and learning to pay attention to small details is a byproduct of coursework in the field. This is a beneficial skill for any job; there are endless examples, but helpful contexts include communicating with a boss or a colleague, finding and evaluating information (such as research or evidence), identifying problems in a system, and observing and recording statistical and qualitative information.
- Communication Skills
Knowing how to communicate effectively is a highly valued skill in psychology. Undergraduates are often required to take at least one communications-specific course and are presented with several other opportunities to develop their collaborative and listening skills (in group work), oral skills (presentation of research), and written skills (researching and synthesizing ideas into papers or other written material). The ability to work well with others requires effective communication, which is often cited as one of the most highly valued skills in almost any industry. Knowing how to express your ideas and thoughts well in the workplace allows you to better solve problems, manage conflicts, work well with co-workers.
Problem-solving skills are important in any field, and they’re a cornerstone of psychology and a key component of the extensive focus on research methods and applications. Psychology majors are often equipped with some of the best problem-solving skills because they’ve learned how to look at an issue from multiple angles and consider the various approaches and methods that can be used to solve a problem. Solutions or steps to solutions can then be presented based on careful observation and research findings. An individual who can effectively help analyze and present solutions to clients or to a range of different problems (social or logistical) in the workplace is highly valued.
- Research Ability
Research is a core component of psychology, and undergraduate students are introduced to the fundamentals of research methods, including research design, data analysis, interpretation, and presentation. Psychology majors are exposed to a variety of research methods and approaches, and are trained to choose the appropriate method for a particular area or type of study. As with all other skills, research ability overlaps with problem-solving, and students will learn how to identify a problem and apply research in order to reach a solution or conclusion. In the workplace, this skill can be applied to evidence-based decision making, from deciding on an appropriate treatment path for a client to choosing the best public relations campaign for a political candidate.
What are the Best Careers for Psychology Majors?
What can you do with a psychology degree? Deciding on a career path is an important decision, though it can be a challenging task when you’re interested in multiple areas or are uncertain of which psychology degree jobs appeal to your interests. Researching potential paths and networking with professionals who have a background in psychology early on can help you sift through and identify the best trajectory for you.
While having a BA or BS in psychology prepares you for a long list of potential careers, the following sections highlight some of the top traditional jobs for graduates with a psychology degree, as well as “out-of-the-box” professions that allow psychology majors to creatively employ their knowledge and skills.
The Core Occupations
The following psychology degree jobs are examples of more traditional career paths. While this list is not exhaustive, it does provide ideas for how individuals can directly apply the knowledge and skills gleaned from their coursework and field and internship experiences in the real world. Many of the following professions encompass a variety of types or specializations, providing a range of choices for people interested in pursuing one of these careers.
There are different types of counselors, but two of the most popular professions are mental health counseling and family and marriage therapy. Both involve helping people address, manage, and overcome challenging mental, emotional, and relationship problems and disorders. Counselors and therapists directly apply many of the skills learned in clinical and cognitive behavior psychology coursework, such as encouraging and helping people process their thoughts and emotions, or helping them diagnose or treat a disorder. A psychology degree allows counselors and therapists to effectively work face-to-face with people and to study behavioral patterns first-hand.
- Human Resource Specialist
Human resource specialists hire employees, provide guidance in employee relations, and often manage compensation, benefits, and employment records. Though most positions require a combination of the two, some may focus more on strategic planning and hiring than administrative tasks, depending on the company. Because human resource specialists oversee employees’ general welfare, they need to have strong decision making skills, and be good listeners. Understanding how to interact with different personality types and behaviors, as well as how to help mediate and resolve employee-based conflicts, is also important.
When most people think of careers in psychology, they often envision psychologists. Becoming a psychologist usually requires at least a master’s degree, and usually a doctorate and a professional license, though a BA or BS in psychology is a useful stepping stone along that path. Psychologists study the cognitive, behavioral, and emotional characteristics of individuals and groups within their environment. They gather information through a variety of techniques — including surveys and interviews — and assess behavioral and emotional patterns while addressing problems and disorders. There are different specializations, including school psychologists, developmental psychologists, forensic psychologists, and a host of others. While undergraduate psychology programs will introduce students to the integral research methods and analytical techniques required in the field, further study will help students master these skills and narrow their area of focus.
- Social Worker
Some social workers help people identify and cope with problems, and then adjust to challenging life changes. Clinical social workers can also diagnose and treat mental, emotional, or behavioral disorders, though this usually requires a doctorate degree. Other social workers may work with community or governmental organizations to implement policies and programs to improve social conditions. Social workers may work in a variety of other environments, including schools, group homes, or healthcare settings. Advocating on the part of clients or for particular social programs or policies is a particularly important aspect of being a social worker. Psychology programs help equip graduates with many of the skills that are required for social work, including strong interpersonal skills, communication skills, and problem-solving skills.
- Special Education Teacher
Special education teachers work with students who have diagnosed learning, physical, mental, or emotional disabilities. Their work goes beyond teaching to assessing students’ performance and tracking their progress in both academic and emotional/behavioral aspects. They help students develop and take ownership of daily life skills, implement individual education plans (IEPs), and collaborate with general education teachers (if in an inclusive classroom), families, and other resource personnel, among other responsibilities. Psychology degrees provide a wealth of related background knowledge useful for this position, particularly through cognitive and developmental psychology coursework. While most special education teacher positions require a minimum state-level teaching certification or license, those who enjoy teaching and working with children may find that completing these requirements is well worth the effort and an ideal fit for their interests.
Out of the Box Career Paths
Not every psychology graduate goes on to work in one of the more traditional jobs with a psychology degree. Because psychology is an interdisciplinary field, individuals with a psychology background are likely to find work in a number of non-traditional positions. Below, we’ve identified a few common “out of the box” opportunities for psychology graduates.
Advertisers and marketers create interest among potential customers for a product or service. One of the primary tasks in advertising and marketing is to understand the mindset and behavior of customers and potential customers. In addition to integrating this knowledge with essential market research, careers in advertising and marketing involve planning promotional and advertising campaigns, making necessary contacts in various media outlets, discussing budgets, negotiating contracts, meeting with clients to provide technical or marketing guidance or advice, evaluating risks, and other related tasks. The strong written and oral communication, attention to detail, and analytical skills psychology majors have are also essential in advertising and marketing.
Strong businesses are always looking for ways to improve the efficiency of their operations and the effectiveness of their processes and output, which is where management analysts and market analysts are crucial. Management analysts (or management consultants) gather information about a company, in particular regarding an issue that needs a solution or a procedure or policy that requires an overhaul. Market research analysts focus on an organization’s products and services, paying close attention to market conditions, sales trends, and competitors in order to assess demand in the market. Both jobs require research and informed decision-making. Psychology majors are uniquely trained in this type of research and analysis, and are likely to do well in either one of these careers.
- Criminal Justice and Law
Psychology majors who have a particular interest in criminal justice and law may consider becoming a probation officer or an arbitrator, mediator, or conciliator. Probation officers and correctional treatment specialists work with offenders who have been released from prison on probation; their ultimate goal is to provide people with the rehabilitation resources and guidance needed to prevent them from committing additional crimes. This also involves meeting with probationers and their families and friends. An arbitrator, mediator, or conciliator helps mediate discussions and negotiations and facilitate solutions amongst parties with conflicts, outside of court.
Healthcare offers a number of viable careers for psychology majors, particularly those who hold a BS in psychology rather than a BA. Two different positions to consider include a genetic counselor or a medical and clinical laboratory technician. Both likely require further study in the medical field, but a psychology degree lays a foundation for many of the skills needed to be successful in either one of these careers. Genetic counselors assess an individual or family’s risk for inherited genetic or hereditary conditions or disorders; this requires professionals to both interview people and evaluate other sources of information, while also counseling individuals and families. This position requires a high level of interpersonal and communication skills. Medical and clinical laboratory technicians collect bodily samples to evaluate the health of body fluids, tissues, and blood cells. A technologist is a more advanced form of a technician, and there are many different types, including blood bank, immunology, microbiology, and others.
- Public Relations
Strong interpersonal, organizational, problem-solving, and communication skills are valuable in psychology coursework and the field of public relations alike. A public relations specialist (also called a communications or media specialist) helps create a positive image for a company or organization, and works to preserve and shape that image. PR specialists help their clients communicate effectively with the public through press releases, speeches, and interviews. They may also evaluate advertising or marketing campaigns and monitor the public’s opinion of a brand or person. This role is a particularly good fit for psychology majors with a talent for assembling many pieces of information into a cohesive message that delivers value for their client.
Dr. Eliza Belle is a Licensed Psychologist who has been working in the field of mental health and wellness for 11 years in several arenas including community counseling, school testing and assessment, college and university counseling, drug/alcohol rehabilitation, Veterans Affairs, and chronic mental illness, among others. Dr. Belle currently serves as a chief psychologist at Bryce Inpatient Psychiatric Hospital through the Alabama Department of Mental Health. She received her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Xavier University of Louisiana, a master’s degree in counseling from Loyola University of New Orleans, and a doctorate in counseling psychology from The University of Georgia. She is also a National Certified Counselor, and Certified Forensic Examiner. Dr. Belle also has a private outpatient practice in Birmingham where she assists clients with making positive changes and enhancing their quality of life. She also serves as a consultant and advocate for mental health services at the local and national levels.
I learned in school that “psychology is an art, not a science”, and that stuck with me.
What do you find most fulfilling about your career as a psychologist?
Simply put, I like to help people. I find that getting to “help” as an everyday work assignment is very fulfilling. It never feels like work. I enjoy the opportunity I have to help those who may have lost hope. Also to help continue to represent a more relatable view of mental health, and reduce the negative stigma attached to the field at times through creative techniques and advocacy. I love being able to train other professionals looking to contribute to the field.
What were the strongest skills you built upon/developed throughout your academic career?
Perseverance — the doctoral journey was an arduous one, but a rewarding one. I learned patience, open-mindedness to the differences of others (given that I had many classes, professors, advisors, and supervisors over the ten years total that I was in school), and self- awareness (as my views, biases, beliefs, and skills were all brought to the forefront of my work often throughout the process). All of these skills I believe helped me to become a better psychologist and professional. They also helped me to better understand and empathize with the journey of others who are seeking a goal or going through a challenging process in their lives.
What was the job outlook like after earning your degrees/licensure? How long did it take you to establish your career after graduating?
My field requires professional licensure to be able to work in job positions delegated to psychologists. There is a national exam required as part of this licensure and I had not taken this test upon graduation. So when I first graduated with my doctorate, I started working within six months in a substance use/co-occurring residential program but not as a psychologist, rather a different clinical title and role. I was more administrative and less hands-on, as well as professionally limited by my lack of license. It was not until a year and a half after my graduation that I was hired for a job as a psychologist with the Dept of Veterans Affairs. There are often many jobs in mental health (i.e. counseling, social work, marriage/family therapy), but your specific degree/level of training position may be difficult to find depending on the area’s need. If you are geographically and professionally flexible, the opportunities may be more abundant. There are also opportunities for student loan reimbursement if you choose to work in rural and/or underserved areas, so that is always an option and perk.
What advice would you give undergraduate students who are on the fence about earning a graduate degree in psychology?
Psychology is essentially a broad field, there are many options for career direction across various professions. So having an idea of what you would ultimately like to go into becomes more important than if one was seeking a degree with a specific focus (i.e. accounting, engineering). Know that psychology does not just mean mental health. There are also options for teaching, conducting research, organizing systems of business culture, and more. An undergraduate degree in psychology will most likely not put you directly into the workforce with a job in the field after graduating. A graduate degree will almost be required to do any direct work related to psychology. Choosing whether to further your education after undergrad is a good decision to make early on.
What type of person excels in the field of psychology?
One who has a heart for working with others, knowing that you will see, hear, learn about, and work with some challenging cases and situations. One who is open to everything not always being black and white. I learned in school that “psychology is an art, not a science”, and that stuck with me. While there are research- and evidenced-based methods, theories, and foundation for the work we do, the fact that every person and group is uniquely different guides us in being open to the “gray areas” when we need to be. Also, one who is not seeking a career that is money-driven, because at times there may be positions that don’t pay as much as you would like. A person that has compassion for those in pain, systems that may be broken, or minds that may be chemically imbalanced.
What additional advice would you give to a student pursuing a degree in the field?
There is a great deal of diverse work opportunities in the field of psychology. The need for mental health services, psychology educators, etc. is growing by the day given our ever-changing society and challenging events that occur regularly. It’s exciting to me that I can use my degrees to work in numerous areas at any given time. I never feel the need to change careers, because the field is so open with unique opportunities whether working for a Fortune 500 company as a consultant, at a medical hospital, a college/university, a small community clinic, or more! Just know that your journey to that type of career freedom and flexibility may take a while given the education and training requirements. Having patience for the greater reward will be imperative as you move along the path. Seek guidance! I benefited greatly from the advice and direction of mentors already in the field. Seek out your professors for more support, community professionals who may have insight, or join the American Psychological Association as a Student Member even in undergrad and receive all kinds of resources and support regarding psychology academic training and job outlook. Being informed helps!
- Psychology Degree 411: This site provides daily updates of jobs for psychology majors nationwide. Search options allow you to narrow down by state as well as by job status, i.e. full time, temporary, internship, etc.
- Psyc Careers: What can you do with a psychology degree? Graduates can find an updated job board with featured positions around the country, updates on local job fairs, along with links to other career resources.
- PsychologyJobs.com: A comprehensive database of careers for psychology majors that allows you to post resumes and search for positions according to category. For example, filters allow you to find jobs only related to forensic psychology or mental health jobs.
- Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers (APPIC): While the APPIC is a membership association for agencies only, students and postdoctoral candidates can take advantage of the APPIC Match and APPIC Directory Online to find matching internship opportunities and postdoctoral training positions.
- American Psychological Association (APA): APA is the largest association of American Psychologists and it offers membership to students. Psychology majors can find internship opportunities with APA, as well as other career opportunities through the PsycCareers Job Center online.
- Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP): SPSP is a membership organization that organizes annual conventions in the field and posts updates on other relevant, non-SPSP professional events. The site also hosts a job board, funding opportunities, and other career resources.
- Association for Psychological Science (APS): APS members receive an online and print subscription to a number of field publications, including Current Directions in Psychological Science and Observer, as well as discounts on leading field journals and the association’s annual convention. APS also offers an online employment network, which includes both job and postdoctoral opportunities.
- American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP): The ABPP offers annual conferences and workshops open to nonmembers. Psychologists can also apply to become board certified, which indicates a high level of specialty expertise.
- Association of Black Psychologists: The Association of Black Psychologists recognizes the unique historical experiences and cultural values that are an inherent part of the African American tradition, and works to serve individuals who are part of this community. The site includes a career center and information on public policy, and members can find local chapters and event information.
- National Latino/a Psychological Association (NLPA): The NLPA is a national organization focused on advocating for the unique needs of the Latina/o population in the United States. Members can find updates on training and fellowships and a directory of pre-doctoral internships, along with association-specific events.