By Stacie M. Spencer, PhD, MCPHS University, Boston, MA
Now more than ever, students, parents, employers, and the media are questioning the value of the bachelor’s degree. The term “return on investment” (ROI), once used figuratively in higher education to refer to intellectual growth and increased potential for employment, is now used literally as the financial relationship between the cost of education and future earnings. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) recently used U.S. Department of Education College Scorecard data (net price, median debt, median earnings ten years after first attending college) to rank-order 4500 colleges and universities in terms of financial ROI (Carnevale, Chesh, & Van Der Werf, 2019). The Washington Post report of the Georgetown CEW report was titled “Is College Worth It?”
You might be thinking, “Of course college is worth it!” You also might be wondering what ROI has to do with you, one instructor who only teaches a course (or a few) within the curriculum. Although you do not determine college costs or establish wages, you do have the ability to prepare students to succeed in the workforce and to help students make explicit connections between the knowledge and skills gained through coursework and employer expectations. Professional development, one of the five goals for undergraduate psychology majors established in Guidelines 2.0 (APA, 2013), includes career exploration and the development of transferable skills. Career exploration is the iterative and nonlinear process of determining which occupations best fit an individual’s work values, interests, and skills. Transferable skills include the cognitive, communication, personal, social, and technological skills developed through the psychology major that cross employment domains and are valued by employers (Naufel et al., 2018).
Professional development belongs in the curriculum. You do not have to be a career expert or seasoned faculty member to facilitate career exploration and skill development; you just need to create opportunities for students to engage in these processes. Think about the courses that piqued your interests. Perhaps you remember as an undergraduate thinking, “I love this course! I wonder if I could find a job related to this!” For most psychology students, that line of thinking typically ends by adding “psychologist” to the course title. You might have heard students say (or said yourself) “I like social psychology, I want to become a social psychologist” or “I like human development, I want to become a child psychologist.” These course-career connections are perfectly reasonable and are easy to mentor when in alignment with your training; however, only 14% of psychology baccalaureates earn a graduate degree in psychology and only 4% earn doctoral degrees in psychology (APA, 2018). We need to mentor the remaining 86–96%.
The best way you can support career exploration in your courses is to engage students as active participants in the process of connecting course content to real-world applications and job opportunities. Simple and effective ways to engage students in identifying real-world applications are to send them to the Divisions of APA webpage, the APA Monitor, and the APS Observer to look for ways in which course concepts are used in diverse settings. To identify course-related job opportunities, challenge students to locate bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral level job postings using job search engines (e.g., Glassdoor.com, Indeed.com, Monster.com, SimplyHired.com). Prior to sending students on the search mission, establish search terms and criteria (Tip: for maximum search results, avoid using “psychology” as a search term).
When students share the information they gather, their appreciation of the breadth of applications of course content and the diversity of job opportunities grow exponentially. Working together to organize the applications discovered through the APA and APS websites, students improve their abilities to articulate concepts and examples. Writing job titles on the board and talking about respective roles and responsibilities provides a powerful illustration of the diversity of job titles and helps students see the connections between the major and potential job opportunities. Taking this one step further, identifying additional courses, volunteer, internship, and/or research opportunities that will prepare them for jobs provides the opportunity for students to take control and continue career exploration and skill development after the course ends.
Skill development is just as important as career exploration and is often less intimidating for instructors to infuse into their courses. You can assess how well you are incorporating skill development in your courses by reviewing the five domains (cognitive, communication, personal, social, and technological) and seventeen corresponding skills described in The Skillful Psychology Student: Prepared for Success in the 21st Century Workplace (Naufel et al., 2018). If you already include activities and assignments that facilitate the development of employer-valued skills, you should make these connections explicitly clear by including skills in course learning objectives, connecting course content to skills (e.g., discuss how group think concepts can be used to improve group projects), and providing opportunities for students to reflect on skill development (Naufel et al., 2019).
Another way you can support professional development is to design assignments that yield portfolio artifacts (i.e., evidence of skills). Artifacts can include traditional course assignments, such as APA-style research papers and slides for oral presentations; however, most employers are interested in products that more closely resemble non-academic tasks. Generating workforce-relevant assignments does not mean eliminating traditional and important assignments. For example, rather than replace the research paper, you can have students use the information submitted in the research report to create an infographic for a specific audience. Whereas the research report demonstrates critical source synthesis and writing, the infographic assignment demonstrates the ability to communicate concisely and visually with non-academic audiences.
When designed well, professional development assignments help students identify interesting career paths, develop and demonstrate employer-valued skills, and assess the value of their investment in the bachelor’s degree as a positive ROI. For you, adding professional development assignments to your courses will result in an incredible set of student-generated examples you can use in mentoring beyond the classroom. As more departments seek ways to incorporate professional development across the curriculum, you will also be a strong candidate for faculty positions.
American Psychological Association. (2013). APA guidelines for the undergraduate psychology major: Version 2.0. APA. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/ed/precollege/undergrad/index.aspx
American Psychological Association. (2018). Degree pathways in psychology. [Interactive data tool]. APA. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/workforce/data-tools/degrees-pathways
Carnevale, A. P., Chesh, B, & Van Der Werf, M. (2019). A first try at ROI: Ranking 4500 colleges. Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Retrieved from https://1gyhoq479ufd3yna29x7ubjn-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/College_ROI.pdf
Naufel, K. Z., Appleby, D. C., Young, J., Van Kirk, J., Spencer, S. M., Rudmann, J., Carducci, B. J., Hettich, P., & Richmond, A. S. (2018). The skillful psychology student: Prepared for success in the 21st century workplace. APA. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/careers/resources/guides/transferable-skills.pdf
Naufel, K. Z., Spencer, S. M., Appleby, D. C., Richmond, A. S., Rudmann, J., Van Kirk, J., Young, J., Carducci, B. J., & Hettich, P. (2019, March). The skillful psychology student: How to empower students with workforce-ready skills by teaching psychology. APA. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/ed/precollege/ptn/2019/03/workforce-ready-skills
Additional ResourcesHalonen, J. S., & Dunn, D. S. (2018). Embedding career issues in advanced psychology major courses. Teaching of Psychology, 45, 41-49. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628317744967
Spencer, S. M. (2019, October). One course, two courses, three courses, more? Providing career support throughout the undergraduate curriculum. APA. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/ed/precollege/ptn/2019/10/career-support-undergraduate-curriculum
Strohmetz, D., & Ciarocco, N. J. (2019, December 9). Enhancing skill development: The potential of high impact practices. GSTA Blog. Retrieved from https://teachpsych.org/page-1784686/8225861
Stacie M. Spencer, PhD, is professor of psychology at MCPHS University (formerly known as Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences), director of the BS in health psychology program, and recipient of the MCPHS Trustees’ Award for Teaching Excellence. She earned a BA in psychology from Allegheny College and PhD in experimental social and personality psychology from Northeastern University. Dr. Spencer completed a post-doctoral fellowship in behavioral medicine at the University of Miami and a post-doctoral fellowship in psycho-oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. Her current research focus is on professional development and interprofessional education.