Psychology is one of the most popular undergraduate majors, with more than 100,000 students receiving degrees in the field every year. Despite its popularity, there are many misconceptions about the types of jobs you can get with a major in psychology, and some may wonder whether it's worth it to get a psychology degree at all.
Some students may not realize that becoming a licensed psychologist in most states requires a doctoral degree in psychology. Others may assume that a bachelor's alone will not prepare them for careers relevant to their major, or that there are no opportunities outside becoming a psychologist.
There are absolutely career paths for students with a bachelor's degree in psychology outside of becoming a psychologist. We often see graduates pursuing careers in business, healthcare, education, and nonprofit social work.
The truth is that a bachelor's degree in psychology could lead to immediate employment in fields like marketing, teaching, or human resources, or it could be coupled with a graduate degree and lead to careers in counseling, social work, or occupational therapy.
Regardless of where students are in their educational journeys, it is important for them to know their options so that they can make informed choices about their careers.
Is a Psychology Degree Worth It?
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the number of people earning a bachelor's degree in psychology has declined slightly since 2013. However, the overall number of psychology degrees awarded has increased from about 87,000 in 2004 to 124,497 in 2017. In 2015, 3.4 million people in the United States held a bachelor's degree in psychology, with 57% reporting it as their highest degree.
In 2015, the APA reported that 64% of American workers who held a bachelor's degree in psychology as their highest degree worked in jobs related to that degree.
Even though psychology is a popular major, some students may wonder whether a bachelor's in psychology alone can lead to a rewarding career that is actually relevant to their degree. In 2015, the APA reported that 64% of American workers who held a bachelor's degree in psychology as their highest degree worked in jobs related to that degree. That number jumped to 87% for those with a master's degree and 96% for those with a doctorate in psychology.
Although a 2017 APA survey suggests that 85% of professionals with a bachelor's degree in psychology are satisfied with their jobs, this figure lags slightly behind job satisfaction in other fields. However, reported job satisfaction was higher among those with doctoral degrees in psychology compared to other fields. Professionals with a master's degree reported satisfaction with certain aspects of their jobs, like their level of responsibility, but were less satisfied with their salaries and benefits.
Whether a psychology degree is worth it or not may depend on your career needs and expectations. For example, the typical salaries and benefits available for bachelor's and master's degree-holders may be unappealing if you need to borrow money to finish school. At the same time, psychology degree-holders reported higher levels of satisfaction when it came to their career independence and contribution to society.
What Jobs Can You Get With a Psychology Degree?
Like many undergraduates, psychology majors often begin their studies without understanding how that degree can lead to a career. For example, there's a popular misconception that a bachelor's degree in psychology alone is useless, which paints an inaccurate picture of a psychology undergraduate's job prospects.
Whitney Baker, an academic advisor at Iowa State University's Department of Psychology, notes that this misconception often leads psychology majors to believe they need to attend graduate school to be successful. However, while careers in clinical and mental health counseling, social work, and school counseling often require master's degrees — and becoming a licensed psychologist requires a Ph.D. or Psy.D. — options exist for students with only bachelor's degrees, too.
[T]here's a popular misconception that a bachelor's degree in psychology alone is useless, which paints an inaccurate picture of a psychology undergraduate's job prospects.
"There are absolutely career paths for students with a bachelor's degree in psychology outside of becoming a psychologist," says Baker. "We often see graduates pursuing careers in business, healthcare, education, and nonprofit social work. Specifically, business is a growing field for our psych majors, because they are qualified to work in recruiting, new employee onboarding, human resources, sales and analyst roles." Baker also noted that she sees "... a large number of students interested in the criminal justice industry, working for prison systems, law enforcement, and/or local, state, or federal agencies."
The APA offers an extensive list of jobs for psychology bachelor's degree-holders, which includes psychiatric technicians, correctional officers, and preschool teachers. Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors are also among the fastest growing jobs in the field.
What to Expect From the Psychology Major
If the career prospects sound promising to you, it's important to understand some basics about earning a degree in psychology. First off, you should know that psychology majors learn about human behavior by applying scientific research methods. They may also design studies involving theory, clinical work, and qualitative and quantitative research.
It's also important to know the differences between a bachelor of science in psychology and a bachelor of arts in psychology. A BS in psychology focuses on quantitative skills, while a BA is more theory-based and requires a broader selection of classes in the humanities and social sciences.
Students do not need to be interested in graduate work to elect to work in a research lab because the skills gained from these experiences — analytical thinking, problem-solving, following deadlines, detail-orientation, and communication — are relevant to a variety of fields.
Some BA programs, like Iowa State's BA in psychology, require students to add a second major or minor in another area. This type of requirement expands a student's area of study and provides more opportunities to pursue careers in fields outside of psychology.
Regardless of whether you choose a BA or BS in psychology, the curricula for these programs focus heavily on research. Baker notes that experience gained through conducting research can be applied to many careers:
"Students do not need to be interested in graduate work to elect to work in a research lab because the skills gained from these experiences — analytical thinking, problem-solving, following deadlines, detail-orientation, and communication — are relevant to a variety of fields."
How Can Graduate School Improve Job Prospects?
While most psychology students do not go on to pursue a graduate degree, the APA has found that earning a graduate degree in psychology is likely to increase rates of job satisfaction and your likelihood of finding employment in the field. The APA also reports that about 25% of psychology baccalaureates go to graduate school in psychology, with another 18% continuing their education in another field.
Some psychology majors may not even know that many occupations related to psychology require a graduate degree. Dr. Randi Brown, a school psychologist, remembers realizing that many of the career paths she was interested in required at least a master's degree.
"Take my job as a school psychologist, for instance," she said. "In most states, including New York, you only need a master's degree, but if you want to conduct a private practice, you must have a license to do so, which requires a doctoral degree." Brown received a doctorate in school psychology from Yeshiva University in 1994.
While most psychology students do not go on to pursue a graduate degree, the APA has found that earning a graduate degree in psychology is likely to increase rates of job satisfaction and your likelihood of finding employment in the field.
A master's in psychology opens the door to counseling careers, including marriage and family therapists or school or career counselors. Students who enjoy designing studies, creating surveys, and analyzing data can also find work as survey researchers with a master's in psychology.
If you have your sights set on a career as a clinical psychologist, then earning a Ph.D. in psychology or a Psy.D. is necessary. Clinical psychologicals earn an annual median salary of $79,010, and jobs in the field are expected to grow 14% between 2018 and 2028 — much faster than the national average.
It's also worth noting that growth rates and wages vary for different specialties within psychology. For example, industrial-organizational psychologists, who study workplace efficiency and often work for private corporations, enjoy annual mean wages of $109,030.
Is Graduate School Right For You?
Considering the high cost of many graduate programs, the decision to pursue an advanced degree should not be made lightly. Baker advises against using graduate school to explore career paths or to delay entering the workforce. She suggests taking a gap year to build skills and gain work experience, which will help clarify your career goals.
"The cost of an advanced degree should be seen as an investment in one's career and passion," Baker said. "If attending graduate school will help a person get to where they want to be professionally, then easily it is worth the cost."
Lastly, it is important to remember that each state has its own requirements for psychologist licensure, and you should research the requirements for the state where you plan to work before deciding whether to pursue a master's or doctorate.
Careers in Psychology | BestColleges
This BestColleges guide contains practical information for those interested in pursuing a career in psychology, including wages and employment numbers by state, academic paths to a career in psychology, and professional resources for psychology majors.
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