The Psychology Major

  •         Psychology is the second most popular college major in the country, just behind business administration. According to the National Center for Educational Statistic (NCES), 6% of recent college graduates gained a degree in Psychology: that’s over 90,000.

Obviously, if you have an interest in psychology in high school, you should take AP Psychology, AP Statistics, and a strong load of English, history, science classes, and other math classes. Most colleges have a required one-semester introductory course, which, depending on the college you’re attending, can be very large. A lot of none-majors take introduction to Psychology to fulfill general education requirements: about a million students, each year, take Introduction to Psychology.   

What a Psychology major learns: What you gain from a major in psychology is very much dependent on where you study.  Many schools break psychology into multiple majors such as Biopsychology (relationship between brain and behavior), Cognitive Psychology (how people perceive, remember, think, speak, and solve problems), Developmental, Forensic, Industrial-Organizational, Personality, Social, and School…and we’ve barely scratched the surface. There is also the usual question of getting a BA or BS (if a school offers both). It’s probably best to get the BS, which requires more math and science courses.

A comprehensive description of all aspects of a Psychology major can be found on the Whitman College site, in its Psychology Major handbook, http://www.whitman.edu/psychology/handbook2009.pdf. Honestly, if you’re interested in studying psychology, go to your computer and download this free PDF now. It’s an invaluable guide. It contains 10 expected goals for Psychology majors, from basic research and communication, to the capstone senior thesis. It also details what a challenging Psychology major curriculum should comprise: introduction, statistics, research methods, lab, seminars, Sociology, Biology, and Philosophy, capped by a senior assessment for the major (SAM) which includes Major Field Test, senior thesis, and an oral defense of the thesis.

The best Psychology departments:  The unequivocal leader is Harvard, who counts among its erstwhile professorial legions William James (and his seminal classic, Principles of Psychology, published in 1890, which remains, to this day, a must read for every psychology major), BF Skinner, and George Miller: and that’s but a sliver of its psychological heritage.  Other stellar programs can be found throughout the Ivy League, UC Berkeley, UCLA, UCSD, and about 90 other leading institutions.    

Job prospects for a Psychology major: The job growth for all the disciplines across the Psychology field is expected to grow around 12% between now and the end of 2018. Salaries span from, at the lower end, school counselors, to, at the high end, industrial organizational psychologists, who earn a median salary in the low six figures. The most promising job prospects are for those students who elect to gain a PhD. The best advice on how to prepare for graduate school is, again, in the Whitman handbook (referenced above), pages 30-38. Additionally, get a copy of the American Psychology Association’s (APA’s) Graduate Study in Psychology. It contains vital statistics on every program in the US and Canada.

Gaining a place in graduate school to study Psychology, by the way, is no simple matter. It’s advised, by the sage who wrote the Whitman Handbook, that you only consider Ph.D. programs, as all the masters programs have little, if any, financial aid. Yet, be prepared for grueling competition. Specifically, by comparison, if you apply to Stanford Law School, it accepts 1 out every 10 candidates; if you apply to the clinical psychology Ph.D. program at the University of Oregon, it accepts 1 in 70+ candidates. This is not the exception but the rule for most clinical psychology programs.

In short, if you decide to major in Psychology, you’re part of the legions doing so as an undergraduate. Many use Psychology to jump off into other careers, and that’s fine. The hope is that in studying Psychology, you will learn to communicate effectively and gain a sense of how to deal with a wide range of personalities. Should you elect to actually work in the field of Psychology, prepare for a grueling path to and through graduate school, which might challenge even the most psychologically balanced among us.