Guide to College Majors in Psychology

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What is Psychology?

A college degree in psychology gets a student started in one of the most challenging and rewarding professional fields today. Psychologists study mental processes and human behavior, looking for patterns that will help them understand and predict that behavior. Psychological research has contributed to our understanding of the ways in which individuals, groups, organizations, institutions, nations and cultures behave.

Psych majors learn the necessary skills to assist people in improving their mental health; they also gain knowledge and abilities that are valued in many other fields, such as business and politics. Psychology degree programs provide graduates with the skills and tools they need to be successful in a variety of challenging careers. At the bachelor's level, psychology graduates are sought in fields like statistics, probation and corrections, public relations, health education, social work, human resources, recreational therapy, education, physician assisting, and much more.

Career Education in Psychology

A doctoral degree usually is required for independent practice as a psychologist, and a master’s or specialist degree is required to work as a school psychologist. A bachelor's degree in psychology, however, can open the door to assisting psychologists and other professionals in community mental health centers, vocational rehabilitation offices, and correctional programs. Bachelor's degree holders may also work as administrative assistants for psychologists. A graduate with a bachelor’s degree in psychology may also find employment in fields such as sales, service, or business management.

Bachelor's Degrees in Psychology

Bachelor's degree programs in psychology typically begin with current theory, as well as the historical contributions theorists such as Freud, Adler, Jung, and many others. Some more specific subjects of study include self-analysis, dream theory, free association, and transference theory. There is also a strong focus on correct medical procedure and the importance of the adherence to a strong code of ethics. Social and political influences on the field of psychology are also discussed.

The following courses are commonly included in bachelor's degree programs:

  • Introduction to Psychology
  • Psychology Statistics
  • Conditional Learning
  • Physiological Psychology
  • Abnormal Psychology

Undergraduate elective courses may include:

  • Sensation and Perception
  • Motivation, Health Psychology
  • Psychology of Stress
  • Approach to Human Communication

What Can You Do With a College Degree in Psychology?

Psychologists provide mental health care in many different facilities, such as hospitals, clinics, schools, or private settings. Psychologists use techniques such as interviewing and testing to help people deal with problems on a daily basis.

The academic and private segments of the field offer the most opportunity for those who wish to pursue a career in psychology. Many graduates of advanced psychology degree programs choose to pursue a career in academics, teaching future psychologists and extending their own education through research and collaboration with students and colleagues. Those who choose an academic setting are able to draw on their educational backgrounds each day. University psychologists usually have to fulfill teaching, administrative, and research responsibilities. Some psychologists employed in academia also maintain a part-time consulting practice.

Psychologists who choose to go into private practice have a direct impact on their patients' daily lives. The relationship between the psychologist and the patient is highly personal. The psychologist must uphold the doctor-patient contract of confidentiality. Psychology students are taught about the importance of communication and trust. Those in private practice must learn how to separate their professional lives from their personal lives and ensure that they don't "bring their work home." Separation and compartmentalization techniques are vital to the success of professionals in the mental health field.

Working Environment

The working environment of a psychologist depends entirely on his professional field specialization. Many clinical, counseling, and school psychologists choose to develop a private practice, allowing them to create their own schedules. These psychologists often choose to work weekend and evening hours, however, in order to be available to their clients. Psychologists who work in hospitals, schools, and other health facilities may have the option to work regular weekday hours. Some, however, must maintain evening and weekend hours. Many psychologists must at times handle an erratic schedule, due to the pressures and time constraints associated with travel, conferences, research, deadlines, and an overload of work.

Psychology Career Paths

One of the greatest benefits of a psychology degree is the sheer versatility it provides. Students of psychology enter many successful careers with different specializations.

  • Industrial-Organizational Psychology
    Industrial-organizational psychologists use research methods to improve productivity and satisfaction in the workplace. Techniques include applicant training, screening, and research related to management and marketing problems. These professionals may work independently or for the government. The departments they focus on can vary but many are employed in the human resources departments of organizations and businesses.
  • Clinical psychology
    Clinical psychologists work in private practices, hospitals, counseling centers, and clinics. One job of a clinical psychologist is to assist clients who are mentally or emotionally disturbed as they try to heal and to adjust to a regular life. Some clinical psychologists work with medical patients to help them adjust to or recover from an injury or an illness. Clinical psychologists can also work in physical rehabilitation centers, helping people who have suffered spinal injuries or strokes, or who have chronic pain or neurological conditions. Still other clinical psychologists devote their careers to helping people handle emotional crises like death or divorce.

    It's common for clinical psychologists to evaluate their patients' conditions through interviews and diagnostic tests. They may treat individual, family, or group patients through the development of programs designed for behavior modification. Clinical psychologists often work in collaboration with physicians to develop treatment programs for mutual patients. Those who work in academic settings, like a college, university, or medical school, devote their careers to teaching graduate students about the psychology field. Some clinical psychologists work in the field of public health, designing and implementing mental health programs for communities.

The field of clinical psychology also has its own specializations. They are:

  • Health psychology: Health psychologists design health counseling programs that are meant to help individuals reach particular health goals, such as weight loss and the cessation of smoking.
  • Neuropsychology: Neuropsychologists often work with stroke and head injury patients, studying the relationship between the brain and human behavior.
  • Geropsychology: Geropsychologists specialize in the particular psychological problems of the elderly population. New Mexico is currently the only U.S. state in which clinical geropsychologists are permitted to prescribe medications to patients. In order to obtain this permission, however, clinical psychologists in New Mexico must receive special training and education. In states other than New Mexico, clinical psychologists must work with other medical professionals when developing a treatment for a patient that involves medication.
  • Developmental psychology: Developmental psychologists focus on the cognitive development and social development of people at all stages of life. Some developmental psychologists focus on infant, child, or adolescent behavior, while some focus on adult and elderly behavior. Developmental psychologists may also study the effects of developmental disabilities.
  • Counseling psychology: Counseling psychologists help patients solve interpersonal problems. Counseling psychologists employ many strategies, including group sessions, hypnosis, and one-on-one interviews. Today's techniques go far beyond the traditional "couch therapy" and can cover a wide range of topics. A good rapport between the counselor and the patient is essential for the counseling programs to be successful. Individuals with strong positive self-images and personalities are well equipped to be successful in this psychological field.
  • Forensic psychology: Forensic psychologists are experts at the psychological evaluation of criminals. They are often called upon to evaluate the psychological fitness of individuals who must stand trial. This specialized field requires the psychologist to be of sharp legal mind and be able to evaluate legal situations. Forensic psychologists must state and defend their psychological evaluations in court.
  • School psychology: School psychologists help students with learning and behavioral problems or differences. School psychologists may work in elementary, middle, or secondary schools. They work with teachers, parents and administrators to develop and implement strategies to improve classroom management and student performance. They work with students who are disabled and with students who demonstrate particular gifts or aptitudes. School psychologists also evaluate the results, benefits, and effectiveness of many different kinds of school programs and services.
  • Social psychology: Social psychologists examine the interactions between people and between individuals and the larger social environment. They may focus their studies or professional careers on the effects of group dynamics, leadership skills, individual attitudes, and qualities of perception on market research, systems design, or other specialized fields of psychology.
  • Experimental or research psychology: Experimental and research psychologists focus their research careers on behavioral patterns, specializing in such aspects of behavior as motivation, learning, memory, attention, sensory processes, thought, and the effects of genetics, neurology, and drug and alcohol abuse on behavior. Experimental or research psychologists usually work in private centers of research, private businesses, government organizations, nonprofit organizations, and colleges and universities. Experimental and research psychologists often use human volunteers and animals such as rats and monkeys to conduct their research.

Diversity in Psychology

As the field continues to grow, the number of female and minority students pursuing a degree in psychology is increasing. As the recognition of societal issues related to gender and race continues to grow, women and minorities are uniquely equipped to deal with the issues their clients may bring to their practice.

Psychology Outlook

Psychologists held about 170,200 jobs in 2008, with 29 percent of those employed in non-teaching roles at educational institutions, such as counseling, testing, research, and administration, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). About 21 percent were employed in healthcare, primarily in offices of mental health practitioners, hospitals, physicians' offices, and outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers. Government agencies at the State and local levels employed psychologists in correctional facilities, law enforcement, and other settings.

Employment of psychologists is expected to grow 12 percent from 2008 to 2018, the BLS reports, but growth will vary by specialty. The fastest growth is expected to be among industrial-organizational psychologists, at 26 percent; clinical, counseling, and school psychologists are expected to see 11 percent growth; and jobs for all other psychologists are expected to grow by 14 percent.

Certification and Licensure

Psychologists who offer any type of patient care—including clinical, counseling, and school psychologists—must meet certification or licensing requirements in all states and the District of Columbia. Licensing laws vary by state and by type of position and require licensed or certified psychologists to limit their practice to areas in which they have developed professional competence through training and experience. Clinical and counseling psychologists usually need a doctorate in psychology, an approved internship, and 1 to 2 years of professional experience. In addition, all States require that applicants pass an examination. Most state licensing boards administer a standardized test, and many supplement that with additional oral or essay questions. Some states require continuing education for renewal of the license.

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