According to the National Center for Education Statistics, psychology is one of the most popular undergraduate majors in the United States. It’s an academic discipline that, at its core, helps students understand how and why people behave in the ways that they do. With human behavior being a universal concern in any context, the popularity of the major owes a lot to the wide variety of career opportunities psychology offers.
While some people use their psychology degree to work as a clinical psychologist or licensed therapist, psychology students develop communication and critical thinking skills that are critical in any profession that requires an understanding of human behavior — and that’s pretty much any job or career you can imagine.
With further training, people with psychology degrees can pursue careers in teaching and research or work with companies to improve workplace morale and organizational performance. A psychology degree is the first step toward careers such as clinical psychology, forensic psychology, industrial-organizational psychology, and school psychology. In short, the degree is a door-opener to a wide variety of career options.
What is Psychology?
“Psychology is the study of the thinking, emotion and behaviors of humans and other animals,” says Dr. Frank Hammonds, Psychology Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychology at Troy University. “In plain language: what do people do and why do they do it?”
Dr. Hammonds says that psychology is broadly appealing because everyone wonders about what drives human behavior. “How do people think and why do they think that way? How do people’s emotions work and why do they work that way? Psychology helps answer those questions,” he says.
In addition to helping students understand human behavior and our relationship to our social environments, a psychology degree also gives graduates the practical skills to help people experiencing emotional or behavioral problems. That can be applied in other settings besides the therapist’s office. “It’s not always just dealing with people with specific identifiable problems,” Dr. Hammonds says. “It’s also helping people perform better, and helping people do their jobs better.”
What Jobs Can I Get With a Psychology Degree?
One popular image of a psychologist is the therapist who invites patients to lie on the couch in their office and talk about their problems. That stereotype paints a narrow picture of the career potential of a psychology degree.
Dr. Hammonds says that a psychology degree can prepare graduates for a wide range of jobs and not everyone who earns a psychology degree ends up pursuing a career in psychology. “People who study psychology work in pretty much every kind of setting you can come up with because it’s always about human behavior,” Dr. Hammonds says.
Dr. Hammonds says a relatively small percentage of people who earn a psychology degree work as licensed psychologists. A recent study by the American Psychological Association found that students who earn a psychology degree have many skills in demand by a wide variety of employers. These include analytical thinking, critical thinking, creativity, strong oral and written communication skills, ethical decision making, empathy and cultural sensitivity.
As a result, a psychology degree can prepare graduates for careers in fields including criminal justice, social work, education, law enforcement, government and business, to name just a few. “The job prospects are very good, partly because there are so many fields you can go into,” says Dr. Hammonds.
A psychology degree is also useful for people who want to pursue careers in fields like marketing, advertising, communications or human resources — professional careers that hinge on understanding how people work, think and behave. “You certainly wouldn’t call that person a psychologist, but they’re using their psychology training,” Dr. Hammonds says.
What Does a Psychologist Do?
There are several branches of psychology, including clinical psychology, school psychology, industrial-organizational psychology and forensic psychology, all of which allow for different careers in psychology and generally require training beyond a bachelor’s degree and licensing.
Dr. Hammonds says that people who study psychology and practice it as a profession tend to go into one of those career specialties. Some graduates might pursue jobs in the helping professions, which include clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors and other types of therapists. “There’s a lot of overlap between psychology and counseling,” Dr. Hammonds says.
For Sheridan O’Brien, who graduated from Troy University in May 2014 with a Bachelor of Science in psychology, that overlap influenced her career decisions. O’Brien knew she wanted to study psychology, but TROY helped her decide which field to focus on.
“I originally wanted to pursue a psychology degree to prepare myself to better serve individuals with special needs. I was interested in pursuing occupational therapy, vocational rehabilitation or counseling. After taking the Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) course at TROY, my plans changed in pursuit of a master’s degree in ABA,” O’Brien says.
Today, O’Brien is the Clinical Director for the Autism in Motion Clinic in Hoover, Alabama, and serves as Adjunct Faculty for the University. The Autism in Motion Clinic provides ABA therapy to individuals with autism, both at the early intervention level and the focused level for school-age children.
Clinical psychologists work directly with clients, usually in a private practice or clinic. They could also work in campus wellness centers at colleges or universities or in a hospital. There are also opportunities to specialize within clinical psychology. Some psychologists might choose to work with developmental psychology focused on children and adolescents, while others may focus on seniors and aging. Others might focus on couples or marriage counseling.
“A clinical psychologist is someone who’s going to be seeing clients and helping them with specific mental, emotional and behavioral problems,” Dr. Hammonds says.
Clinical psychologists help clients with both short- and long-term issues that are both situational and chronic. They provide individual, family, or group psychotherapy and design behavior modification programs to help clients achieve their goals. They work on issues such as interpersonal relationships, substance abuse and eating disorders. They also work closely with other health care professionals. Most clinical, counseling and research psychologists need a doctoral degree.
Dr. Hammonds says that there will always be a need for licensed psychologists. “There are a lot of people out there who need help and it takes advanced training to do that,” he says. “I think you’re always going to have opportunities there.”
Dr. Hammonds adds that anyone interested in becoming a licensed clinical psychologist or therapist will almost always need to earn at least a master’s degree and often a Ph.D. Graduate education in psychology usually requires an internship or practicum where students gain hands-on experience. Students also need to pass a licensing exam, and the exact requirements vary by state, he says. “To be called a psychologist, that typically means you’re approved by the state to practice there as a professional,” he says.
Psychology is the kind of profession where learning doesn’t end with the completion of a degree. Licensed psychologists also need to earn continuing education credits through additional training throughout their careers to stay up-to-date on developments in the field and knowledgeable about the latest research.
School psychology is another area of specialty. These psychologists practice in a school setting to help students of all ages with social and emotional learning. They work closely with students with disabilities and help develop individualized education plans. They might also help address larger issues such as bullying and counsel students who may be in crisis. School psychologists usually need to earn a master’s degree.
Industrial or organizational psychology is a branch of the psychology profession that is applied in a business setting and addresses workplace issues. This specialty might focus on helping to improve employee performance, assist with organizational restructuring, improve worker productivity and retention, and increase customer satisfaction.
As defined by the American Psychological Association , forensic psychology is the application of clinical psychology to the legal field. These professionals often examine or evaluate individuals involved in the criminal justice system and help law enforcement, attorneys and judges understand the psychological implications of a legal matter. They are often the specialists who are called upon to testify as expert witnesses in civil, family or criminal cases.
Other graduates use their training and psychology degrees to teach or do research, which usually requires a Ph.D.
Professional salaries vary depending on location, employer, industry and specialty. In 2019, the median salary for psychologists was approximately $80,000 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The median annual salary for an industrial-organizational psychologist was $111,150 in 2019, according to the BLS. Counseling and school psychologists had a median salary of approximately $78,200. The BLS projects overall employment in the field to grow by 3% through 2029.
What Does It Take to Become a Psychologist?
Dr. Hammonds says that many students decide to pursue a psychology degree because they are interested in helping others or working with people to improve challenges in their lives.
For those interested in working directly with clients, people skills are an absolute must. Dr. Hammonds says, “It takes a person who is truly dedicated to that kind of work, who has the right kind of personality, in terms of interacting well with other people and showing concern for other people. That’s important in any sort of personal relationship like that, where you’re trying to help someone with their problems.”
Dr. Hammonds says that psychologists and therapists need to develop strong communication and critical thinking skills and demonstrate empathy and compassion for the people with whom they work. “Some people might truly care, but it doesn’t come across,” he says. “That’s a skill you have to develop.”
Communication skills play a large role in TROY’s psychology program. One goal of the program is to enhance a student’s writing skills. “Under the guidance of psychology department faculty, I had the opportunity to publish two manuscripts during my undergraduate career,” says O’Brien. “Now, I am grateful for my writing fluency every day when composing treatment plans and reports for my clients.” Of course, cultivating people skills is emphasized in the program. “I also feel like I gained a lot of opportunity to practice empathy and interpersonal skills, which are crucial to my ability to effectively mentor and supervise my team in the clinic,” she says.
How Do I Earn a Psychology Degree?
Troy University offers a four-year bachelor’s degree in psychology. Dr. Hammonds recommends that anyone interested in pursuing a psychology degree should take the introductory course in psychology, which also fulfills TROY’s general studies requirements. He adds that it’s a popular course among students of all majors because it teaches the basics of human behavior — knowledge that’s applicable to anything they do after graduation. “It’s a good way to gauge your interest in psychology as it covers a variety of distinct topic areas,” he says. “We spend a few days talking about topics such as intelligence, memory, emotion and psychological disorders. And you get a pretty good overview of the discipline.”
Students earning a psychology degree at TROY have to take several required courses, including statistics and research methods. Early on, students also begin to keep an eye to their futures. “We have an orientation to the major course where we talk about career options, so they’re thinking ahead,” Dr. Hammonds says.
The orientation course helps students become familiar with various careers in psychology as well as the basics of psychology writing and citations. In addition to general psychology and developmental psychology, students can choose between courses such as psychology of learning, evolutionary psychology, comparative psychology, psychology of women, principles of counseling, family violence, social psychology and forensic psychology.
O’Brien credits her TROY classes with giving her career a direction. “I would have never known about ABA if I hadn’t taken that course while I was at TROY. It is not a therapy I had heard about at the time,” O’Brien says. “Similarly, I think Evolutionary Psychology and Psychology of Learning helped me understand a lot more about human behavior and how the consequences of our environment have such an impact on our learning and how we choose to live. I also still find myself referring back to Developmental Psychology as I design treatment plans to help children with autism meet developmental milestones,” she added.
TROY also offers students the opportunity to minor in applied behavior analysis, psychological research, or substance abuse education. Non-psychology majors can also earn a minor in general psychology. Dr. Hammonds says psychological research is a good option for anyone planning to go to graduate school. Others who are interested in working in treatment for people with autism and developmental delays might consider the applied behavior analysis minor. Substance abuse education prepares students for careers such as drug treatment or addiction counseling.
For many students, psychology is a gateway to other helping professions. Hannah Hastie was a senior in high school when she decided that she would pursue a psychology degree at TROY. “I took an AP psychology course and became immediately interested in the workings of the human mind,” says Hastie. After graduating in spring 2020 with a Bachelor of Science in psychology and a minor in Applied Behavior Analysis, she has successfully progressed to a graduate program and is putting her psychology background to good use.
“My psychology degree gives me a diverse perspective in this field that other students lack,” Hastie adds. “I am grateful for my background in psychology because it not only put me ahead in certain classes but also allows me to approach clients with a different understanding.”
Psychology majors at TROY have the opportunity to participate in a number of undergraduate research opportunities. In Dr. Hammonds’ experimental psychology class, students design a research project that has to be approved by the University’s Institutional Review Board.
Students can also do an independent research project with psychology faculty members. Dr. Hammonds is working with student Addison Meeks looking at the “CSI effect,” investigating how television shows might influence the expectations that people have for evidence presented at criminal trials.
Class size at TROY is also a benefit. “The small class sizes allowed for a personal relationship with the professors. Every professor went out of their way to ensure I was understanding the material and offered help whenever it was needed. They knew my name and made it easy to approach them,” Hastie says.
Dr. Hammonds says that the psychology degree at TROY prepares students for careers in psychology or a wide variety of other professions. “We have a really strong undergraduate psychology program here at TROY,” he says.
Illustration by Madelyn Flanagan © 2021 Troy University.