David E. Copeland
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
The psychology major is unique in that there are a wide variety of paths that students can pursue. While having many options can be great, it can also lead to students being unsure about their future. In addition, those that are confident in a path that requires more schooling may not know how to properly prepare for graduate programs. I can relate to this because during my undergraduate years I was initially lost as to what I wanted to do -- and if that was not bad enough, once I thought about what I might do, I was not sure how to prepare!
I designed an Introduction to the Psychology Major course to address these issues, so that students can start planning for their future while in college by getting the most out of the major (Copeland & Houska, 2020). Importantly, I try to set students up for success so that they continue to prepare for careers and graduate school after they finish working with me in my course. In the sections below I first explain why it is important for students to plan their future path, and then I follow that with how I help them with the process and why more programs should offer this course (Norcross et al., 2016).
Why Should Students Plan Out Their Future?
Students should plan their future so they can tailor their college experience to help prepare them for their goals. Those who need to pursue a Ph.D. for their career goals will want to take advantage of opportunities to get involved with research. Students with interests outside of psychology may want to add a minor or a second major – for example, students interested in marketing might want to minor in business or take part in a summer internship.
Another reason is that it can help to take action early. If students want to dive into graduate school after commencement, then they should be applying to programs during their senior year. If students want to start a job right away, they may want to submit applications while wrapping up their courses -- this will improve the odds of having a job lined up. Failing to take these actions early enough in college may lead to an unwanted gap of time after graduation.
Explore the Possibilities
Over the years, I have encountered students at different levels of certainty (or uncertainty) about their career path -- some have one selected, some have no idea, and others fall in between. For example, students in this last group might want to do something related to mental health treatment but may not have thought much about the details. If students do not have a passion about what they want to pursue, make sure that students know that this is okay. Passion can be developed by learning about a field and getting more immersed in it.
Regardless of students’ confidence, I start by presenting them with a list of career possibilities to explore. I also have them fill out career interest/personality tests that are available online or through a campus career center -- however, I warn them that the results are merely suggestions they might consider. Because I know that not every psychology student wants to pursue a career in psychology, I have put together materials about ways that psychology can help prepare students for careers in other areas (e.g., business, medicine, law). A final approach is to encourage students to think about careers that they have noticed in the world around them, but they should know that some careers are not always portrayed accurately in television shows or movies (Smith et al., 2011).
Learn More about Possible Choices
At this stage, I encourage students to learn as much as they can about their possibilities. This includes learning about the career itself, pros and cons of that path, and the skills and degrees that are needed. I find that some students are surprised when they dig more deeply -- for example, some students who originally say that they want to pursue clinical psychology later find that therapy or counseling are better fits for them.
Students can easily find career websites online, but two of the best are O*Net and the U.S. Department of Labor’s CareerOneStop. Students can also access some excellent books about psychology careers. There are some great books that cover mental health paths such as clinical psychology, counseling, therapy, or social work (e.g., Metz, 2016), and there are others that provide perspectives about a variety of careers in psychology (e.g., Sternberg, 2017).
Students can also schedule a meeting with their campus career center to discuss their interests and to learn about resources. Students should be encouraged to utilize their career center regularly -- they should not think about it as a one-time visit. Not only can career centers help them think through career possibilities, but most can help with other preparation such as improving a resume or practicing common interview scenarios.
I have students take things further by building and utilizing a network. One approach is to connect them with fellow students who have similar interests so that they can share information and ask questions (a classroom or online discussion can work for this). In addition, I push students to talk with other high achievers at Psi Chi events. Students should also expand their networks into the professional world by conducting at least one informational interview. Ideally these can be done in person, but with more technological tools available, students have options for communicating with others. To help them out, I provide a set of starter questions that they can use.
Map Out Helpful Experiences and Accomplishments
After students have settled on a small number of career possibilities, they should map out their plans to get there. Students can think about the necessary degrees, skills, and experiences. In addition, I also tell them to identify possible obstacles in their path (e.g., finances, competitive graduate programs) and whether or not they can overcome them.
Mapping out their path serves two big goals. First, students can learn whether a career path is possible -- if not, they should consider other options. Second, it allows students to explicitly plot out what they need to accomplish as they move forward. For example, if they know that they need volunteer or internship experience, they can start making plans now. If they need to earn a Ph.D., they can look for research opportunities. If leadership is important, then they might get involved as a student club officer. I also encourage non-traditional students and those who are working while in school to look at ways in which they are developing skills and building accomplishments in their work environment.
If graduate school is needed, students can reach out to current graduate students. This is helpful because students can hear directly what graduate school is like and whether it would be a good fit for them. Current graduate students can also inform them about what an undergraduate needs to accomplish in order to be an attractive applicant. Some students mistakenly think that a solid grade point average is all that they need to get into graduate school -- it is important that they learn what else graduate school admission committees’ value.
Topics and Assignments
I help them with this entire process by discussing resources and experiences that are related to the psychology major and teaching them the basics about graduate school preparation (Copeland & Houska, 2020). For the former, I teach them about student groups, professional organizations, research opportunities, internship or volunteer positions, and psychology courses. For the latter, I let students know about what graduate programs value, including the importance of letters of recommendation.
An assignment that helps to reinforce the mapping process is to have my students create a Superstar CV -- this also teaches them how to document their accomplishments too. Students start by listing their current accomplishments but take it a step further by adding experiences and achievements that they want to have when they graduate. To distinguish this from their actual CV, I have them use the title “Superstar Curriculum Vitae” at the top and I also have them write their goals in a different font color (to signify that these are not actual achievements. . . yet).
I require some of the activities I described in this article (e.g., Superstar Activity, mapping out their career paths) in my course. However, because not everyone is following the same path and not everyone is at the same stage in their career preparation process, I also create a menu of activities and students choose which of those they want to complete (e.g., visit the career center, attend a Psi Chi event, conduct an informational interview). This way students can take actions that fit their goals.
Continue to Seek Out Information and Refine the Plan
One of my big goals is to encourage students to strive for continuous improvement by learning and acting after they finish my course. I push them to regularly visit the career center for different types of career preparation. I also let them know that their career choices do not have to be etched in stone -- it is okay for them to change their mind. For example, students might complete a summer internship in their desired field only to learn that the field does not seem to be the right fit for them -- I tell them that this is perfectly fine as it is better to learn that now rather than years down the road.
I am a big believer in the idea that we need to be helping students prepare for their futures. Some students might already have career ideas or help from parents, but many first generation students are unaware of the importance of planning for their future path. I have lost track of how many times students have finished my course and told me “I really did not know what to expect from a class like this, but this course was the most impactful class that I have taken -- I now have an idea of what I want to do and what I need to do to get there!” I strongly encourage faculty to develop an Introduction to the Psychology Major course to help prepare their students for the future!
Copeland, D. E., & Houska, J. A. (2020). Success as a psychology major. Sage.
Metz, K. (2016). Careers in mental health: Opportunities in psychology, counseling, and social work. John Wiley & Sons.
Norcross, J. C., Hailstorks, R., Aiken, L. S., Pfund, R. A., Stamm, K. E., & Christidis, P. (2016). Undergraduate study in psychology: Curriculum and assessment. American Psychologist, 71, 89-101. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0040095
Smith, S. M., Stinson, V., & Patry, M. W. (2011). Fact or fiction? The myth and reality of the CSI effect. Court Review: The Journal of the American Judges Association, 47, 4-7. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/ajacourtreview/355
Sternberg, R. J. (2017). Career paths in psychology: Where your degree can take you. American Psychological Association.