What can I do with my Psychology degree?
- by Professor Johann Louw
This document addresses the question: “What can I do with a major or an Honours or a Masters degree in Psychology”? It argues that the full range of opportunities available is best understood if one approaches it from an applied psychology perspective. You can read the document as one integrated piece, or you can click on the links below to access various sub-sections.
Table of contents
“What can I do with a major or an Honours or a Masters degree in Psychology?" This is a question all of us who teach psychology face on a regular basis. Often one detects a note of despair in this question, as if the answer is already known, and that the options are limited; Or that apart from two answers, "clinical work or research", there is not much else. I would like to convince you that people with psychological training do not have to (and do not) work only in traditional counselling and mental health care service jobs, or in the academy, but that there are excellent opportunities in what we can call “applied psychology".
If one looks at what people with training in psychology actually do, the range or variety is amazing. After all, psychology involves all areas of life, and therefore is one of the most popular areas to study. This is why I thought it might be useful to write about jobs in psychology in a very general sense, to show students (and others) what is possible with a degree in psychology. I hope that the information will alert you to career options and educational pathways that you may not have known about or thought to consider.
I am not going to write about two categories of employment for psychologists: as academics, and as private practitioners. I believe most people know enough about these two possibilities. Also, I am not going to write about the categories of psychologists in South Africa: almost all students of the discipline will know that there are seven professional categories in this country: industrial/organisational, clinical, counselling, educational, neuro-, forensic, and research psychology; And that you need at least a Master's degree in an accredited programme to be able to register as a psychologist in this country. The Professional Board for Psychology registers psychological practitioners in three main categories: psychologists, registered counsellors, and psychometrists. You can find more information about professional psychology in South Africa on the website of the Health Professions Council. If you want more information about the professional psychology categories, in a more user-friendly format, take a look at this document. It will also guide you through a number of decisions you have to make when deciding about your studies.
Instead, I would like to take a look from the other side, from where people end up in terms of the jobs they do, not in terms of their professional training. Because the point is that training in psychology prepares you for so many possibilities, that it is impossible to predict where you might find yourself in a few years’ time. In the examples of young people in jobs I give later on, you will see that I don’t say what kind of psychologist they were trained as. Because it is clear that the specific training did not matter so much in terms of what they do now, and I assure you that their training background includes all seven of the professional categories. And not to forget: for the majority of people it does not matter that they are not professionally registered psychologists. Certainly, for the jobs I give examples of, none required professional registration. If they did, I will indicate that. Indeed, this is perhaps the most important message of this piece: that professional registration is required for very few of these jobs.
My approach is to write about jobs in what we can call applied psychology, as I said above. Of course, one of the major, if not the major area of application of psychology is in mental health – hence the fact that clinical psychologists dominate the field in most countries. But clinical psychologists themselves frequently use their knowledge and skills to work outside the mental health field.
What I have done is to identify interesting and personally rewarding career opportunities that involve psychological knowledge and its application.
What are the practical or applied fields in which you will find psychologists? There are too many to mention here, but the International Association for Applied Psychology has the following divisions, and this will give you a very good idea of broad fields of work in which psychologists are active.
- Organisational Psychology
- Psychological Assessment and Evaluation
- Psychology and National Development
- Environmental Psychology
- Educational, Instructional and School Psychology
- Clinical and Community Psychology
- Applied Gerontology
- Health Psychology
- Economic Psychology
- Psychology and Law
- Political Psychology
- Sport Psychology
- Traffic and Transportation Psychology
- Applied Cognitive Psychology
- Counselling Psychology
Our department here at UCT is one of the few in South Africa that offers professional training in Neuro-Psychology. At present there are two broad fields in which Neuro-Psychologists may work. Firstly, those interested in pursuing a career in Neuro-Psychological research work exclusively at academic institutions. University posts most commonly entail teaching and administrative responsibilities, in addition to research. Some pure research posts do exist, both at universities and at research organisations. Secondly, those interested in pursuing a career in clinical practice work either in the state or private sectors. Because Neuro-Psychology is a new practise category in South Africa, the state is currently in the process of setting up posts. In the private sector, Neuro-Psychologists work in private practice. Clinical practice entails a range of work, from diagnostics to case management. Practitioners may focus on particular areas of specialist knowledge, for example, pediatrics, epilepsy, or dementias, to name a few.
A field in which psychologically-trained people are making an increasing impact, is programme evaluation and monitoring. Because training at all levels of psychology usually include quite a lot of attention on research methodology, psychology graduates move into this field quite easily. Many social, health, and community programmes and interventions furthermore are based on psychological theories and research. In fact, departments of psychology nowadays often run postgraduate courses in programme evaluation. Here at UCT the Department of Psychology offers a module in the Master of Arts in Psychological Research programme in Programme Evaluation Methods. In the Section for Organisational Psychology, in the UCT Commerce Faculty, there is in fact a Master’s programme in Programme Evaluation.
Donaldson and Christie (2006) identified a broad range of settings where psychologists do programme evaluation work: non-profit organisations, educational settings, health-care settings, government settings, and corporate settings. The situation in South Africa is not very different – advertisements for programme evaluation specialists appear on a weekly basis. One indicator of the importance given in South Africa to programme evaluation is that there is a Department of Performance Monitoring and Evaluation in the State President’s office. You can see more information of its work here.
The Human Capital Initiative of the American Psychological Society predicted that six areas of concern would be where applied psychologists could make substantial contributions. One can look at these broad fields as predictors of where opportunities for growth and employment are going to be in the future.
Area of Concern
- Productivity in the workplace
- Schooling and literacy
- Drug and alcohol abuse
It is not hard to see how all six these areas are also at play in our country. Take health for example. Given South Africa’s HIV/AIDS crisis, this is a field where many psychologists find work locally, as counsellors, researchers, programme managers, and such. You will find them in settings like the Health Systems Trust, the Human Sciences Research Council, various government departments, at universities (for example the Institute for Social Science Research at the University of Cape Town), and non-governmental organisations (for example, the Western Cape AIDS Training, Information and Counselling Centre [ATICC]).
Sport Psychology also relates to health and wellness, as well as to elite athletes taking part in high performance sport. Many people who are thinking about a career in psychology are attracted to this element of the discipline. Take a look at this website of a local psychologist who is involved at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa in Newlands.
Drug and alcohol abuse is in the news on an almost daily basis, and psychologists play a very active role in efforts to address it. The Medical Research Council has a specialised unit on Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Research, that is staffed almost completely by people with psychological training.
If you look at the areas of concern (and there are more of course), you can see how they can be regarded as psychology’s growth careers. In other words, areas in which people with psychological training are in demand, or will be growing in demand in future. Some time ago the American Psychological Association identified some of these – see how they tend to overlap what I have said above:
- Programme evaluation - The website of the UCT Section for Organisational Psychology I referred to above will give more information.
- Working with older adults - The Albertina and Walter Sisulu Institute of Ageing in Africa (IAA) was established at the University of Cape Town in April 2001. It incorporates the University’s division of Geriatric Medicine, the Neurosciences, Neuro-Psychology, Old Age Psychiatry, and a Gerontology Programme.
- Government service - people trained in psychology enter government service in South Africa at all levels: from ministers in the national cabinet to researchers in parliament and project managers in national and provincial departments.
- Applications in the workplace - where Industrial-Organisational (I/O) psychology has long been a popular and lucrative area, and it is an area of growing importance. Take a look at the Society for Industrial & Organisational Psychology of South Africa for more information.
- Courtroom expertise - Forensic Psychologists conduct psycho-legal evaluations and offer their opinions as expert witnesses in criminal, malpractice and other cases. The HPCSA states on their website that forensic psychologists conduct psychological assessments and provide expert evidence or opinions, amongst other things.
- Practice niches - psychologists in independent private practice, referred to in the opening section, are always on the lookout for special areas where expertise is required.
- Multidisciplinary applications - there is a strong trend toward multidisciplinary research and applications in, for example, health services. In social science research projects in such areas as obesity, elder self-neglect, stroke neurorehabilitation and health disparities, multidisciplinary teams are often the preferred method of working. It has been said that psychology is a "hub" science, one that connects to virtually all of the social, behavioural, mathematical and biological sciences. This is an aspect you can take advantage of when looking at careers in, for example, the Human Sciences Research Council and the Medical Research Council.
Students, even after they have graduated with a Bachelor’s, Honours or Masters degree, say that they don’t know what they have actually learnt that they can do; what they can offer to prospective employers. Perhaps because psychology graduates find such a variety of jobs, they often consider their work unrelated to psychology. But it is more likely that many graduates, or current students, underestimate psychology's relationship to their work. We at universities contribute to that, because we don’t tell students explicitly what knowledge and skills they are acquiring via their psychology degrees. We often fail to recognise what skills psychologists have, or find it very difficult to articulate what these are. Yet psychology majors gain a range of skills that are asked for by, and can be applied to, almost any job.
It is not a bad idea to take a skills orientation to both your studies and your later career. Think of your courses not only as ways of learning about particular subjects but also as learning experiences which refine a variety of specific skills. So let us look at “skills” as something a little different from “knowledge”. First, we look at the skills that employers seek in graduates, as suggested by the American Psychological Association (APA).
- Critical thinking skills – the ability to “think on your feet” and analyse what you encounter in the workplace.
- Problem-solving skills – you are able to solve the range of small and large problems that arise daily in the workplace: how to identify questions, frame them, devise and carry out procedures to test them and analyse the data to draw conclusions.
- Oral, writing and interpersonal communication skills, including presentation skills.
- Ability to locate, organise and evaluate information from multiple sources - success in the workplace requires the ability to manipulate and use information productively.
- Appreciation of diversity and individual differences - employers value an awareness and sensitivity to issues of culture, class, and race.
- Potential for continued learning and professional development - employers seek graduates who are interested and able to pursue their own professional development by acquiring knowledge and outside experiences to enhance their skills set.
- Innovation and creativity - employers want to hire people who can think creatively in order to complete tasks. Successful employees are flexible, able to evaluate options to determine the best approach for a given situation and adapt accordingly.
- Ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings - job applicants who can apply their university-based knowledge in everyday settings are valued.
How does one obtain such applied experiences? The APA lists the following as specific ways students can enhance their employment prospects:
- Acquire hands-on collaborative research experience (for example, with a professor and/or lab).
- Develop research questions and conduct independent research (under supervision).
- Complete a project that demonstrates the knowledge and skills you have acquired (for example, compile a portfolio, construct a literature review paper or prepare a proposal for a prevention/intervention program).
- Participate in an internship or community-based experience. In South Africa numerous organisations make use of volunteers: Childline, Rape Crisis, Nicro, Famsa, and Attic, for example.
Linda Richter and her colleagues at the University of KwaZuluNatal studied job advertisements in South African newspapers toward the end of the 1990s, and established a list of skills and duties required for advertised jobs for graduates.
Advertised Skills and Duties
- Training or teaching
- Administration or management roles
- Research (broad)
- Data analysis – access, analyse, interpret
- Labour/industrial relations
- Social scenario interpretation (interpret social trends)
- Counselling/group facilitation
- Person evaluation/testing
- Advocacy and public relations
- Organisational development
- Community organisation
- Welfare activities
- Understand labour environment
You can find this out easily for yourself, by looking at the job advertisements in the weekend newspapers, to see what knowledge, skills, and abilities employers require.
But Richter and colleagues draw our attention to a number of important conclusions, all still valid today I believe:
- When graduates enter the workforce, many are going to be expected to train and/or teach people, take on administrative and managerial tasks and roles, be numerate, and understand the labour environment and the changing social environment.
- Most jobs were advertised in human resources, manpower, organisational development, and industrial relations, followed, in descending order, by education, research, social development, welfare, and health.
- The finding that the majority of jobs advertised ask for a generalist tertiary qualification, or one in the social sciences (and later the human sciences), and not professional registration, contains an important lesson. It is that the employment environment in South Africa reflects a need for more generalists, where students are able to adapt to changing skills demands, and be innovative in the way they position themselves in the job market. Preoccupation with the five professional registration categories and the territorial marking that accompanies it might be injurious to the profession, and more importantly, less beneficial to graduates in psychology.
By now I am sure you have sensed that the skills that employers want are exactly the things that an education in psychology delivers. In the next section I present a list of such skills, which I drew from a number of sources, as you will see. Of course, many of those skills are generic to university education, but psychology is unique in the number and variety of skills it imparts. The British psychologist, Nicky Hayes (1996), had this to say about it: “One of the important factors that makes psychology special is not the psychological skills themselves, which are often relevant to other disciplines as well, nor the specific items of knowledge. It is the sheer number of skills and range of knowledge that makes psychology special. Psychology is distinctive in that it equips its graduates with an extremely rich and diverse portfolio—providing a variety of forms of expertise, which are found in few other disciplines and which can equip psychology graduates to undertake many different types of work”.
- by Nicky Hayes (1996)
- Highly literate.
- Trained to write in more than one literacy format.
- Concise writing within a pre-set format.
- Highly numerate.
- Interpret data summaries.
- Understand probability statements.
- Familiar with a wide range of statistical procedures and processes.
- Generally computer literate.
- Relevant statistical packages for the tasks they are required to carry out.
- Trained to search through a range of ways of obtaining information.
- Explicitly trained in research methods. A range of different techniques:
- experimental methods
- observational methods
- survey and sampling techniques
- qualitative analyses
- Learn how to operationalise the measurement of complex processes.
- Principles of psychometric measurement.
- Questionnaire design.
- How to develop other measurement tools.
- Know how someone's environment can influence their behaviour, such as:
- stimulus-response perspectives
- nonverbal signalling
- habit formation
- social appropriateness
- Learn about mechanisms of social communication and potential sources of interpersonal conflict.
- Systematically trained in problem-solving skills.
- Ability to tackle a range of different types of problems.
- Learn how to apply different strategies and approaches to understanding problems.
- Learn how to identify the practical steps to implement a solution.
- Operate on a macro-level, or at a more basic level in terms of choosing appropriate methods and techniques.
- Training in scepticism:
- to appraise evidence
- to evaluate the quality of an argument
- to identify the shortcomings and pitfalls of a particular line of action
- to anticipate problems or difficulties
- Ability to examine issues from multiple points of view.
- Explore phenomena using different schools of thought.
- Skilled at spotting recurrent patterns in human activity.
- Notice similarities between situations that seem to be quite different.
- Able to extract general principles.
- A pragmatic approach to work and problem-solving.
It is one thing to have such a list of skills, but employers will want to see how you put these skills into action: can you provide examples of what you have done to obtain those skills, or to exercise them? Think of the applied experiences I referred to above. Don’t forget the other, often-neglected opportunities that your time at university offers: tutoring or mentoring other students; find and do an internship; assist a staff member with research; volunteer in an organisation; become active in student societies at your university; attend the seminars that your department organises; and so on.
To repeat a point that should be obvious by now: the skills imparted by a degree in psychology can be valuable for many types of work apart from the profession of psychology itself. Perhaps the most generalisable of those are:
- Information gathering skills.
- Analysis and synthesis skills (for example, figuring out why a certain problem occurs and how to minimize or eliminate it).
- Methodological skills.
- Statistical reasoning skills (for example, using statistics, tables, and graphs to analyse problems and communicate relevant findings);
- "People skills" (for example, communicating with and relating to individuals from diverse backgrounds).
- Writing skills (for example, writing a logically developed report).
Although all of these skills may not be acquired by all graduate students in the course of their study, graduate students may acquire these skills by a thoughtful selection of courses and experiences. Here is what a group of young psychologists from all over the world had to say about the value of their psychology degrees:
- “I constantly draw on the knowledge and skills I learnt from university. I would not be as effective as I am without my degrees.”
- “Most important in maximising my career prospects would be skills in psychological assessment and intervention, interpersonal skills, report writing and the ability to work effectively as part of a team.”
- “Working within a university environment was instrumental in developing analytical, problem solving and research skills. It was enormously beneficial to have also gained such a breadth and depth of theoretical and statistical knowledge”
- "The psychology degree has provided me with essential research and communication skills, which have enabled me to work in a job for which I had no prior content knowledge”
- “The quality of the grounding which I received during my Psychology degrees has provided a solid foundation to enable me to succeed in an entirely new field.”
- “The psychology degree provides a much stronger theoretical basis on which to understand what organisational psychologists do and why, and the limitations and the contributions that we can make. It provides a set of ethical principles within which to work and a scientist-practitioner perspective.”
- "The coursework that I found most useful for my career includes everything I learned about the scientific method, which I find is an advantage that other social scientists do not share with us. I also benefited from learning a variety of different analytic methods. The ability to combine a theoretically driven foundation to a practical problem is what I have found to be most valuable in my day-to-day life."
- "Both academic and applied career paths require a strong grounding in research principles, methods, statistics, and psychological science. However, an applied career can require greater breadth of knowledge and experience across a variety of topics and domains than an academic career. For example, in my current position I have worked on projects dealing with preschool, child abuse and neglect, early literacy, parent support and assistance, child health and nutrition, breast feeding, health insurance, child care quality, as well as programme evaluation, non-profit management, capacity building, and community strengthening."
- “There is not just one path to an applied career. Rather, students should seek a wide range of experience in applied settings. Develop writing skills, and take statistics and research methods courses. Grant writing is likely to be a useful skill in most applied settings. Networking with faculty and fellow students is important, as connections are likely to be useful in the future. However, students and faculty need to understand that an advanced degree is not enough; graduates still must prove their value by applying their knowledge and skills effectively. Work experience in applied settings helps students develop their understanding of how they can contribute most successfully.”
Earlier I said that it is useful to study the job market, or careers, from the point of view of people who already hold jobs in which they use the knowledge and skills imparted by an education in psychology. It is now time to look at such jobs.
The first thing you will notice is the immense variety that exists. This should not come as a surprise, given what I have said so far about skills. In the USA, even the CIA regularly advertises for psychologists, and they ask for areas of expertise like these: research methodology and experimental design, attitudinal survey development and implementation, advanced statistical analysis, test validation and development, job performance measurement and evaluation, personnel selection and placement, human-computer interface issues, organisational analysis and development, database design, development and manipulation.
Second, keep in mind that these people landed in their current jobs via a very circuitous route. Starting out, you can expect to move in and out of jobs and organisations. Your degree therefore is a platform to start off from, but it is almost impossible to predict where you are going to end up.
Third, the jobs and job advertisements mentioned below are a mixture of high level, senior posts, and posts that require little experience. I don’t discuss entry level posts much, because what I want you to see is the end point. But the skills I referred to above are exactly the kinds of generic skill entry level jobs typically ask for. Psychologists (and other professionals and graduates too) are expected to perform tasks and duties that go beyond narrow job functions and specialist applications.
A sample of job titles held by South African psychology graduates include the following:
- Minister and deputy-minister in the national cabinet
- University vice-chancellor
- Director-general in government departments
- A director in the National Intelligence Agency
- Consultant to a commercial bank
- Applying psychological principles to health and sport at the Sports Science Institute
- Human resources specialist at a brewery
- Change management consultant at a private consulting firm
- Recruitment officer in a clothing retailer
- Project writer for a university foundation
- Researcher for a consulting firm
- Senior scientist at the Medical Research Council
- Researcher in the South African Parliament
- Manager of Organisational Development in an insurance company
- Executive Director and Director at the Human Sciences Research Council
- Project Manager of People Development in a clothing retailer
On the APA website, they list what they call interesting careers, and they give details of what it is that each person does, and how they got there:
- Acquisitions Editor
- Research Psychologist in a Medical School
- Research Director for a Non-Profit Organisation
- Experimental Psychologist in a Behavioural Science Research Firm
- Medical Error Consultant
- Social Psychologist in Rehabilitation Technology
- Psychology Emerges in a Multimedia World
- Engineering Psychology in Research and Development
- Becoming a Science Writer
- Technology Consultant in the Telecom Industry
- Social Science Analyst in the Public Sector
- Research Psychology at Microsoft
- Human-Computer Interface Designer
- Cognitive and I/O Psychologists in the Technology Industry
- Highway Safety Research Analyst
- Policy Scientist as an Independent Consultant
- International Market Research Consultant
- Human Factors Expert
- Statistical and Methodological Consultant
- Psychologist in the White House
- Police Psychology in the Federal Government
- Clinical Neuro-Psycho-Pharmacologist
- Market Research Consultant
- Human Factors Psychologist in Aviation
- Academic Research Administrator
- Science Museum Education and Research Specialist
- Chemical Senses Scientist
- NASA Research Psychologist
- Design Psychologist
- Forensic Psychologist in the FBI
- Human Resources Research Organisation
- Corporate Investment Strategist for the Military
- Federal Drug Science Specialist
- Executive Search Consultant
- Organisational Development Consultant
- Trial Consultant
- Expert Witness in Employment Discrimination Cases
The same APA website also lists tasks that psychologically-trained people perform in these jobs. I am sure that a survey of South African psychologists will produce a very similar picture; indeed, if you look at the list of skills and duties from Richter et al.’s study (1998), you will see the similarities. This is not surprising, because psychology in this sense is truly an international discipline, so that one gets qualified to do very similar things, no matter where you qualified.
Tasks performed by psychologists in South Africa:
- Event Planning/Activities Coordination
- Personal Assistant
- Negotiation Analysis
- Performance Evaluation
- Assessment of Public Policy
- Business Process Engineering
- Recruitment and Selection
- Computer/Human Interface
- Safety Data Analysis
- Sensory Evaluation/Perception
- Design Software Engineering
- Strategic Planning
- Stress Evaluation
- Experimental Design
- Monitoring and Evaluating
- Time-Motion Study
- Work Design
- Focus Groups
- Market Research
- Change Management
- Customer Satisfaction Measurement
There are large-scale changes happening in the world that affect all of us in the jobs that are available to us, and what we do. This is especially true for psychologists, because two of those fundamental shifts apply directly to psychology: one is a shift to the services industry, and the other is the reliance on knowledge, what people generally refer to as the knowledge economy (You sometimes will see advertisements, for example, for jobs related to knowledge management, a job category unheard of until recently). A consequence of these shifts, and others I have mentioned, is that students find it difficult to identify and understand what the career opportunities available to them are in this regard. And not just students – all of us find it difficult! If you look at the job advertisements in the newspapers, it certainly does not seem as if there is much for the psychologically-trained graduate to go for.
But it is all in the way you look at it. You have to look first at the job title, normally a pretty good indication whether it is something for you. Then of course you look at the job requirements and tasks that you will have to perform – and here is where the surprises lie for you. Hopefully I have convinced you the kinds of skills now required by jobs advertised in South Africa (and elsewhere of course) are exactly the skills that a degree in psychology provides you with. These are skill-sets and expertise that are highly valued by employers in many spheres of working life.
There certainly is a trend toward more diverse careers, also and perhaps especially so involving psychology. In short, “a range of rewarding and exciting new career opportunities for those with Bachelor’s, Masters or Doctorate degrees in psychology await you” (Donaldson & Berger, 2006, p. 17). Indeed, these authors say that “opportunities for students entering the field of psychology have never been greater than today” (p. 6).
I have referred in the text to the websites and publications I found useful in drawing up this document. Here I list some of them again, plus a few extra. Obviously, there is a huge amount of information available nowadays, and I suggest you do your own search through that landscape.
Donaldson, S.I., Berger, D.E., and Pezdek, K. (Eds.). (2006). Applied psychology: New frontiers and rewarding careers. Mahweh, NJ: Erlbaum Associates.
You can access the two chapters I referred to in the text on the web:
- The Rise and Promise of Applied Psychology in the 21st Century
- Emerging Career Opportunities in the Transdiscipline of Evaluation Science
Hayes, N. (1996). What makes a psychology graduate distinctive? European Psychologist, 1, 130 -134.
Kuther, T., and Morgan, R. (2012). Careers in psychology: Opportunities in a changing world. Independence, KY: Cengage.
Richter, L.M., Griesel, R.D., Durrheim, K., Wilson, M., Surendorff, N., and Asafo-Agyei, L. (1998). Employment opportunities for psychology graduates in South Africa: A contemporary analysis. South African Journal of Psychology, 28, 1-7.
Search for specific job titles on a website run by the Department of Higher Education and Training