Many students enter the psychology major unsure about what career paths there are. I've compiled some tips on what you should do when considering a career in psychology. Most of this has to do with people who plan on going onto graduate school, but if that's not right for you, see here to learn about other possibilities.
Do you want to teach as a professor? Do you enjoy doing research? Do you like working with
people? Do you want to do therapy with clients? Do you want to get hired as a consultant?
Some career psychologists do all of these things, and some do only one. Which of these
sorts of things you want to do will shape the education and experiences you seek, so weigh these carefully.
Disclaimer: These are just my views, based on my experience. I highly recommend that you speak with several professionals and professors you trust to get a wide range of views. Do not base your career decisions on just one website!
Types of Careers in Psychology
Would I Be a Good Therapist?
Most people enter psychology thinking that they will eventually become therapists. Psychotherapy can be a rewarding and even lucrative career. It's also quite versatile: You can have your own private practice, work for a larger institution, work with prisoners, children, people with severe mental illness, relationship issues, addictions, and hundreds of others. There are some important considerations about being a therapist, as it is a position with high burnout. Before committing to a graduate program geared toward psychotherapy, carefully consider the following:
Do you enjoy focusing on other people and listening to their struggles?
Psychotherapists will sit for about an hour at a time with a client or group of clients who talk about themselves and their relationships. You may see as many as 40 clients per week for the duration of your career. Many therapists can get burned out after the unceasing stream of hearing about struggles, abuse, trauma, loss, and so on. Additionally, some clients will have problems that they choose not to solve, despite your efforts to help them see. Other clients will not own up to their mistakes. Some parents may bring in a child they think needs to change, when it may be clear to you that the parents need to be the ones to change. These issues can be frustrating, and many therapists struggle at times with what may feel like failure to help their clients. Good therapists must be able to process their own feelings about clients (sometimes with their own therapist), and must take good care of themselves by having hobbies and interests outside of their work.
Can you be completely nonjudgmental, and simply work to understand another person's situation and views?
Therapists can be of all sorts of personality types, but one thing that is important is that you can be a nonjudgmental sounding board. Clients need to feel free to express their deepest, darkest thoughts, fears, and emotions. To foster that freedom, you must be open to hearing things that you may personally find repulsive. Imagine, for example, that you have a client who is 16 years old and tells you that she is pregnant, but is not sure what to do. Whatever your own stance on abortion is, imagine that she is strongly leaning toward the opposite of your own personal views. Would you be able to be a supportive resource to her, process her feelings with her, and objectively talk through multiple options?
Can you set and keep appropriate boundaries?
A common issue with psychotherapists is boundary issues. The therapist-client relationship is unique, and its bounds must be clear to ensure that you are not doing anything unethical. For example, as you purposefully build emotional intimacy through a trusting and caring relationship, it is not unusual for clients to also develop physical attraction to you, and you may feel the same about them as you work to sincerely connect. However, to engage in a sexual relationship with a client is unethical, and may cause more problems for the client. You must be able to talk openly about feelings like that, but to be firm about keeping your relationship professional. Additionally, some clients' struggles stem from personality issues, and they may be very good at manipulating people into compromising positions. A client may ask you for rides, may try to borrow money, or may ask you to write a letter of support that bends the truth. Navigating these issues can be difficult if you are trying to do what's best for the client, so you need to have the ability to set personal boundaries that you will not cross.
If you want to do therapy or psychological assessments, you must seek a degree that will be eligible for a license as a psychologist. Many degrees focus on making you an expert at the field, but do not qualify for therapeutic practice. License-eligible degrees will typically be clinical psychology (Psy.D. or Ph.D.) and counseling psychology. Learn about the differences here.
If you do decide to work toward a clinical license to practice therapy at the doctoral level, you will also be able to do many other things. A licensed psychologist does not need to do therapy. You could focus your clinical work in different ways, you could focus on clinical issues for research, you could be a professor, or you could consult. For example, many psychologists focus on doing psychological evaluations of people in a variety of settings. A forensic psychologist may assess a criminal defendant for competency to stand trial. A clinical psychologist may assess a student's IQ. Others may simply spend their time finding the appropriate diagnosis for people with mental health needs.
Would I Make a Good Professor?
Good professors come from a variety of backgrounds and personality types. You can be extroverted and energetic, or you can be introverted and cerebral. The type of work you may do as a professor can vary, so consider what you want to emphasize.
As a general rule, teaching is a major part of what professors do. A professor typically teaches 2 to 4 courses each semester, and these courses may be general (e.g., introduction to psychology) or specific to your specialization (e.g., sensation and perception). Course preparation takes a good deal of time - for each hour of class time that you have, you should plan on about 2 to 4 hours of preparation (at least for the first time you teach it). A good teacher is generally entertaining, engaging, creative, and passionate about the subject. If that sounds like you, you may be interested in teaching. Naturally, with the increasing demand for online courses, there are more opportunities to teach without ever being face-to-face with a student, so that's something to consider.
Most professors also spend some of their time mentoring students. That is, aside from just teaching material, they meet individually with undergraduate or graduate students and offer support with academic needs. You'll likely tutor students on subjects you teach, advise them on career plans, share your own professional experiences, and offer opportunities for students to prepare for graduate school; perhaps through advising them on preparing application materials, writing letters of recommendation, or offering them research experience.
Most professors in institutions of higher learning are expected to maintain active research. The expectations vary depending on the employer. A research-oriented university may expect you to publish a minimum amount each year, whereas a community college may have no expectation to publish. I explain more about research in a career lower on this page.
The course preparation and research involved with being a professor means that the majority of a professor's time is spent reading textbooks, academic research, and finding useful media to help teach material, as well as writing for any research you are conducting. For this reason, it can be an introverted sort of position, except for the classroom experience.
Working at a university or community college carries with it the expectation to serve in other capacities at the university besides just teaching, advising, and researching. There will also be the requirement to serve on university or department committees that deal with changes in curriculum, admissions or graduation requirements, budgeting issues, hiring of other professors, and so on. You may also eventually serve as the dean of a college or in other administrative positions where you focus primarily on keeping the institution running smoothly.
Would I Prefer to Focus on Research?
Good researchers can have many different traits, but some important characteristics are that they are self-starters, thorough, analytical, patient, and persistent. Here are a few questions to consider as you ponder whether research is right for you.
Do You Work Well With Independence?
Research positions may be at a university, government agency, or private company. Some research positions allow virtually unlimited freedom and flexibility, whereas others are highly structured. For example, a researcher at a university usually chooses their own projects, seeks funding on their own from whatever source they choose, and decides where and how to disseminate their findings. In contrast, a state department of corrections often employs a team of researchers to collect and analyze data on its employees or prisoners to answer specific questions they may have to assist in making policy changes. In that case, the department would determine what projects the researcher does.
Do You Enjoy Variety?
Exactly what your research experience would look like depends very much on the area of focus, how big of a project it is, whether you have laboratory assistants or collaborators, and several other things. Your project may be in a lab, outdoors, observing people in their natural environment, or spending hours with individuals, gathering lots of information on them. If you enjoy variety, and you choose a position that is relatively independent, you can keep several avenues of research running simultaneously, and they may each be unique enough that you get a great deal of variety.
By the same token, if you do research, you should expect to spend a lot of your time reading and writing. You will read hundreds of research articles to help you design a study, and you will go through dozens of drafts of a manuscript that you intend to publish.
Are You Patient, Thorough, and Analytical?
The publication process can be a struggle, as you will find that you put years of work into a project, and then it gets rejected (sometimes multiple times). You will then need to revise it again, and keep trying.
A research project, depending on your precise design, takes about 2 years from the point it is conceived until the time it is published, but it may take even longer. Patience is a necessity during the research process.
You must be thorough as a researcher. When working on a research idea, you need to scour the existing literature relevant to your project, and leave no stone unturned. You need to then consider all of the the angles of how to apply past findings to a new project. You will also need to think through how to take into account dozens of variables to ensure that your methods are sound enough to pass peer review, as well as meeting ethical standards.
A researcher should also be analytical. Aside from thinking critically about science, you also need to be familiar with statistical analysis methods. Statistics requires advanced understanding of probability, and you will probably need to become familiar with one or more software programs to assist with running sophisticated analyses.
Just like anything, you get better at research and writing about research with practice. It also helps to collaborate with more experienced researchers. If you want to teach and do research, you should pursue a Ph.D. in any psychology specialty from a reputable institution. It also helps to get your feet wet, so to speak, in research early on by volunteering in a lab as an undergraduate.
Consulting as a Psychologist
Consulting usually means that another party pays you for your time and expertise in advising them or providing a service. For a psychologist, this might be as an expert witness in a criminal case, you might assess someone for IQ who needs documentation of a disability, you may assist a company as they formulate a new initiative by offering findings from psychological research, you could evaluate such a program after it has been in place for a while, and hundreds of other possibilities (which is basically doing research as a consultant). As you might imagine, consulting is possible with any doctorate degree, but what type you do will depend on your expertise and whether you are licensed to practice psychotherapy and do assessments.
Would I like to be consultant?
Working exclusively as a consulting psychologist is relatively rare, but certainly possible. You would likely need to be self-employed, and form relationships with the types of organizations you would expect to consult. If you like independence and variety, and you are very self-motivated and have some entrepreneurial zest in you, then consulting may be right for you. A lot of consulting psychologists do it only part time, as a side project while their day job is in teaching, therapy, or research, so it's certainly possible to get some consulting experience even without seeking it out.
Consulting can be quite lucrative, depending on what sort you do. An expert witness hired for work on a criminal case may charge as much as $300 per hour. Others who do contracted research for a larger organization might bid for a project, estimating how much time it will take them and how much to charge. Contracts could be a few hours of work, or several years, and you may have several clients or just one. You may also include other research assistants in the billing considerations, work by yourself, or subcontract elements of the project to other collaborators. For example, as part of my master's degree, I was hired to conduct the statistical analyses for a project funded by the federal government. Someone else designed the study and collected the data, while I analyzed them and wrote up the report.
If consulting interests you, I recommend someone who does it and discussing the details of what they do and how they got into it.
Options with a Bachelor's Degree
If graduate school really doesn't sound like the right choice for you, but you still feel passionate about the field, there's no need to dismay. There are plenty of jobs out there for which a psychology major is appropriate, you may just need to think outside the box, because the jobs may not seem very related to psychology on the surface.
It may be helpful to pin down what you like about psychology. Is it the understanding of what drives people? Is it the inner workings of the brain? Is it the chance to help people in need? Is it the ability to solve real-world problems? Once you know which of these elements really speaks to you, you can start to find them in other job areas as well.
Psychology studies how mental experiences and behaviors are related. This has application to everything where humans are involved, but some specific fields have more direct application, and are more open to psychology majors. A common job avenue for psychology majors is Human Resources, for example. In that sort of position, it's important to understand personalities, have basic clinical skills, be good with conflict resolution, and understand what motivates people. All of that is psychology: it's just applied in a business setting.
Other options include marketing and sales. Marketing is an interesting mixture of psychology, economics, and business. In fact, one of the most important behavioral psychologists of the 20th Century, John B. Watson, made a career out of applying behavioral psychology theories to marketing. He did a lot of work to get the public to form mental associations between a product and an emotion or idea like quality, happiness, relaxation, comfort, and so on. Understanding what motivates a person to spend money on a product or service, given variables like the state of the economy, the packaging of the product, its features, and so on, is all very much psychology.
If you always thought of doing something like therapy, but a path to licensure is not attainable or practical for you, consider similar types of work. For example, parole or probation officers, addictions counselors, teachers, and positions like those have shared elements with therapy in that you work to understand the people in front of you, you need to establish trusting relationships with your clientele, and you guide them toward growth or rehabilitation by finding what works for them. These positions usually require only a bachelor's degree, and possibly some post-graduation certification. Like therapy work, they can be very rewarding as you see clients make progress and changes in their lives, and it can also be very emotionally challenging as you see some of them fail or fail to try.
No matter what you decide to do, it's probably helpful to speak with people who have already taken that path. Reach out to someone in one of those positions and find out what they like and don't like about it, and ask advice on how to get into the field. Do some reading on the job demand for those positions, find out where the job market is growing, learn about the starting salaries, and so on.