Society for the Teaching of Psychology
Division 2 of the American Psychological Association

March-April Presidential Post

31 Mar 2014 3:49 PM | Jeffrey Stowell

The Psychology Major at Risk: Part I -- Disciplinary Affordances

R. Eric Landrum, 2014 STP President

Boise State University

We have an interesting paradox before us: we have ever increasing numbers of psychology graduates per year in the U.S. (topping 100,000 graduates for the first time in 2010-2011; National Center for Education Statistics, 2012) yet psychology majors also report high levels of dissatisfaction with the major (Light, 2010).  The main focus of this two part blog entry are those individuals receiving a bachelor’s degree in psychology; in other words, baccalaureates.

I believe there are two major factors at play: the inherent career options afforded by our discipline, and the alignment of student’s understanding about careers and meaningful self-reflection compared to the reality of careers with a bachelor’s degree in psychology (a topic that I have written about previously; see Landrum, 2009).  If you wish, think of these concepts as variables -- the scope of vocational opportunities afforded by study in a discipline and the degree to which there is alignment between students’ reflection about their own vocational preference and their choice of a major.  So in the language of research methods, we have two main effects here: a main effect of disciplinary affordances (generality vs. specificity) and a main effect of alignment of self-motivation and accurate career knowledge (a match between knowing one’s desired outcomes and knowing how to achieve that outcome vs. a mismatch between desires and outcomes).  Although main effects can be interesting, in psychology the interactions often help us to understand the complexity of the real world. In other words, perhaps an interaction can help us explain our opening paradox.  I believe that there currently is an interaction, and that this interaction effect places some psychology majors at risk and provides formidable challenges for psychology educators.  In this blog, I provide some data where it exists, but note that I am bootstrapping current environmental conditions as I see them into a possible explanation or theory; I hope these ideas have heuristic value and motivate additional attention and appropriate research and reflection.

The Disciplinary Affordances of Psychology

According to the American Psychological Association’s Center for Workforce Studies (2013), about 4-6% of psychology baccalaureates pursue doctoral education in psychology, and about 20-22% pursue a master’s degree in psychology.  For those individuals who do earn a master’s or doctoral degree in psychology, they become more specialized, often with the goal of becoming a psychologist.  This graduate-level career trajectory is similar to those of accounting majors becoming accountants, nursing majors becoming nurses, and so on – some psychology majors become psychologists. However, even with this conservative estimate, over 70% of psychology graduates do not pursue additional education in psychology.  This sector of psychology graduates is the primary focus of this blog; that is, those individuals not pursuing a graduate education in psychology.

What is meant by an affordance?  Gibson (1977) described the concept of affordances in regard to the properties of an environment which influence an animal’s behavior (see also Chemero, 2003).  In other words, the environment an animal lives in (the physical characteristics and resources available) influences an animal’s behavioral options; “the affordances of the environment are what it offers animals, what it provides or furnishes, for good or ill” (Gibson, 1977, p. 68).  What I am suggesting here is that the discipline of psychology has career affordances, and students who major in psychology (but do not go to graduate school) have opportunities and limitations afforded them because of their selection of the psychology major.

In the context of selection of and satisfaction within a career, I believe there may be a theoretical continuum of disciplinary-based affordances that ranges from highly generalized to highly specialized.  Different disciplines have different career affordances.  For example, it seems clear that undergraduate students majoring in accounting become accountants, students majoring in architecture become architects, students majoring in nursing become nurses, and students majoring in teacher education become teachers.  But what do undergraduate psychology majors become?  The APA Board of Educational Affairs Task Force on Psychology Major Competencies, led by Jane Halonen from the University of West Florida, developed a list of potential careers with a bachelor’s degree in psychology (J. Halonen, personal communication, 2013).  This listing is presented in Table 1.

Table 1

Potential Careers with a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology

Activities Director

Admissions Evaluator

Advertising Sales Representative

Alumni Director

Animal Trainer

Army Mental Health Specialist

Benefits Manager

Career/Employment Counselor

Career Information Specialist


Child Development Specialist

Child Welfare/Placement Caseworker

Claims Supervisor


Community Organization Worker

Community Worker

Computer Programmer

Conservation Officer

Correctional Treatment Specialist

Corrections Officer

Criminal Investigator (FBI and other)

Customer Service Representative Supervisor

Data Base Administrator

Data Base Design Analyst

Department Manager


Disability Policy Worker

Disability Case Manager

Employee Health Maintenance Program Specialist

Employee Relations Specialist

Employment Counselor

Employment Interviewer

Financial Aid Counselor

Fund Raiser

Health Care Facility Administrator


Human Resource Advisor

Information Specialist

Job Analyst

Labor Relations Manager

Loan Officer

Management Analyst

Market Research Analyst

Mental Retardation Aide

News Writer

Occupational Analyst

Patient Resources and Reimbursement Agent

Personnel Recruiter

Police Officer

Polygraph Examiner

Preschool Teacher

Probation/Parole Officer

Project Evaluator

Psychiatric Aide/Attendant

Psychiatric Technician

Psychological Stress Evaluator

Psychosocial Rehabilitation Specialist (PSR)

Public Health Director

Public Relations Representative

Purchasing Agent

Real Estate Agent

Recreation Leader

Recreation Supervisor

Recreational Therapist

Research Assistant

Retail Salesperson

Sales Clerk

Social Services Aide

Substance Abuse Counselor

Systems Analyst

Technical Writer

Veterans Contact Representative

Veterans Counselor

Victims’ Advocate

Vocational Training Teacher

Volunteer Coordinator


Individuals who seek employment and a career with a bachelor’s degree in psychology have a wide variety of choices available, leveraging the high generalizability of the psychology baccalaureate.  I would also contend that those who continue for graduate education in psychology become more specialized and focused on more prototypical, “psychologist-type” careers.  In addition, I believe there are collegiate majors which afford high specialization in an undergraduate context.  In fact, for each of the ‘high specialization’ examples used in this essay (accountant, architect, nurse, teacher), there is a national licensing examination and an accrediting organization.  See Table 2 for the specifics.

Table 2

Examples of Highly Specialized Undergraduate Degree Programs

Undergraduate Major/Program

Licensing Exam

Accreditation Body

Prototypical Job Title


The Uniform Certified Public Accountant (CPA) Examination

National Association of State Boards of Accountancy



Architect Registration Examination (ARE)

National Council of Architectural Registration Boards



NCLEX (National Council Licensure Examination)

National Council of State Boards of Nursing


Teacher Education


State Departments of Education (40 states)


So based on my own intuitions and without data from various disciplines, I would tend to place the undergraduate disciplines in Table 2 (accountant, architect, nurse, and teacher) toward the right side of the graphic below, and the undergraduate psychology major toward the left side of the graphic below.

High Generalization Careers Afforded by Undergraduate Major

High Specialization Careers Afforded by Undergraduate Major

Please remember that my depictions, hypotheses, and theories are mostly anecdotal; actual results may vary.  But if there is any validity to the notion of disciplinary-based affordances with regard to career options might be captured from an empirical standpoint, the ideas provided in Table 3 may help to motivate researchers to collect data and analyze trends with may support or refute the notion of career affordances.

Table 3

Potential Behavioral Indicators/Variables Which Might Validate That Disciplines Have Affordances That Influence the Generalization or Specialization of Careers


High Generalization Afforded by Undergraduate Major (e.g., psychology)

High Specialization Afforded by Undergraduate Major (e.g. accountancy, architecture, nursing, teacher education)

Number of job openings, available, number of applicants

Wide variety of job openings available with much competition from many sources and educational backgrounds

Tendency for fewer job openings available for specialized careers with competition from similarly licensed individuals

Accreditation of undergraduate education

Tend to not have undergraduate accreditation requirements

May have undergraduate accreditation body; typically require credentialing/licensing

Number of credits required for graduation

Typically the minimum institutional number to graduate

Often exceeds the institutional minimum number of credits to graduate

Ease of switching careers after graduation

Easier due to generalist/liberal arts focus; additional training (without return to formal education) may suffice for career switch

Not as easy due to specific training for specific career; may require more formal education (additional training alone may not suffice)

Starting salary and first job expectations

Vague understanding of first job expectations; lower starting salaries due to high competition from others with analogous skill sets

Good understanding of first job expectations; higher starting salaries due to specialized skills, credentialing, licensure

There are some available data that are from psychology researchers and from the general literature that provide support from some of these contentions.  Regarding psychology baccalaureates, salaries tend to be lower as compared to preprofessional and technical program graduates (Rajecki & Borden, 2011) and graduates report lower levels of job preparation as compared to other fields (Borden & Rajecki, 2000), perhaps due to the wide variety of jobs available (i.e., high generalization).  In a direct comparison of psychology baccalaureates to graduates from nursing, business, engineering, and education, psychology majors (a) more frequently had jobs that did not specifically require a college degree, (b) had lower salaries, and (c) reported lower ratings of job relatedness compared to undergraduate degree program (Rajecki & Borden, 2009).  Carnevale, Cheah, and Strohl (2012) reported that majors that are closed tied to specific occupations tend to experience lower unemployment rates, but that the specificity of a major can backfire.  Recent architecture graduates experienced a 13.9% unemployment rate, believed to be linked (in part) to drastic reductions in construction-related efforts.  Menand (2011) characterized it this way: “…advanced economies demand specialized knowledge and skills, and, since high school is aimed at the general learner, college is where people can be taught whey they need in order to enter a vocation.  A college degree in a non-liberal field signifies competence in a specific line of work” (¶ 33).

In summary, the broad flexibility afforded to psychology baccalaureates in selecting careers with high levels of generalization may be both a blessing and a curse.  It may be a blessing because there are a wide variety of options available and the importance of understanding human behavior is pervasive throughout every workplace.  It may be a curse because the opportunities are so generalized that students do not know what they can do with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, they do not have a clearly identifiable job title, accurate career advising may be a challenge, and competition for non-specialized jobs and careers may be elevated.  You’ve heard the phrase “jack of all trades, master of none” – perhaps the modern-day less-eloquent equivalent for psychology baccalaureates is “jack of many different career paths, specialized training in none.”  That is not necessary a good or bad situation, but students need to know that it is what it is so that they can have accurate expectations and plan accordingly.  In the next blog entry, I’ll explore the “other” main effect mentioned at the beginning of this blog -- student alignment, in the context of self-perceptions and self-reflections.


American Psychological Association. (2013).  What percentage of undergraduate psychology majors continue on to earn graduate degrees in psychology?  Center for Workforce Studies.  Retrieved from

Borden, V. M. H., & Rajecki, D. W. (2000). First-year employment outcomes of psychology baccalaureates: Relatedness, preparedness, and prospects. Teaching of Psychology, 27, 164-168.

Carnevale, A. P., Cheah, B., & Strohl, J.  (2012).  Hard times: Not all college degrees are created equal.  Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.  Retrieved from

Chemero, A.  (2003).  An outline of a theory of affordances.  Ecological Psychology, 15, 181-195.

Gibson, J. J.  (1977).  The theory of affordances.  Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Landrum, R. E.  (2009).  Finding jobs with a psychology bachelor’s degree: Expert advice for launching your career.  Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Light, J.  (2010, October 11).  Psych majors aren’t happy with options.  Wall Street Journal.  Retrieved from

Menand, L.  (2011, June 6).  Live and learn: Why we have college.  The New Yorker.  Retrieved from

National Center for Education Statistics.  (2012).  Degrees in psychology conferred by degree-granting institutions, by level of degree and sex of student: Selected years, 1945-50 through 2010-11 [Table 330].  Digest of Educational Statistics 2012.  Washington, DC: U. S. Department of Education.

Rajecki, D. W., & Borden, V. M. H.  (2009).  First-year employment outcomes of US psychology graduates revisited: Need for a degree, salary, and relatedness to major.  Psychology Learning and Teaching, 8, 23-29.

Rajecki, D. W., & Borden, V. M. H.  (2011).  Psychology degrees: Employment, wage, and career trajectory consequences.  Perspectives in Psychological Science, 6, 321-335.


Note. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Psychological Association, APA Education Directorate, APA Division Two (Society for the Teaching of Psychology), or Boise State University.  But they should.

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