Considering my future after getting a bachelors in Psychology
August 8, 2016 8:58 PM   Subscribe

I’ve spent the past two weeks really trying to figure out what I can do with my life after graduating with a bachelors in psychology in a year. Here’s what I know. The enjoyment of my work comes first, but while it comes in second, how much I make is also important. Also, I am an anxious person, so I’m trying to avoid something that is super high stress.

What I know about myself is that I am empathetic and I want to help people. If I could create a job, it would be a counseling career where I help people from 15 to 30 years old build up their confidence, and succeed in their social lives (both making friends and romantic relationships). I’ve struggled with that in the past and so I feel like my ability to relate could really come in handy.

I am keeping the idea of counseling psychologist in mind, but the requirement to get a PhD is very daunting, especially given the middle of the road pay of the job.

Next up, I’m looking at school psychology. I feel like I could use the same skills in this job that I listed above. The thing stopping me here is the idea of the high stress of dealing with angry teachers and angry parents, as well as the bureaucracy of the school system bearing down on me. Also, the pay is not all that great.

Then there is I/O psychology. I took a class in this last semester, and certain aspects of it were interesting. Learning how to make employees happier and more motivated, making work more meaningful, and of course that huge pay are all things that interest me about this field. I’m very interested in personality and social psychology as well… I’m not sure how much these come in to play, but I imagine they are important. The thing scaring me about this field is that I was never very business minded. I was always put off by the drudgery of office life and financial statistics and making money for money’s sake. I’m more interested in making people’s lives fulfilling and helping them out when they are having a hard time with life. Another daunting thing about I/O is that it’s hard to put my finger on what exactly I’d be doing since it is so very varied. If I’m to get a masters or PhD, I’d like to have a very clear idea of what I’ll be doing with that degree before I go for it.

All in all, I’m having a very hard time deciding what I want to do because it seems like whatever I try, I’ll have to make a huge investment of time and money on higher education. It’s not one of those things where you just get a masters/PhD in something you think you might like. But that’s the position I’m in… I only have hunches, regardless of how much I research each job.

Do any of you have any insights that can help me out? Do any of you have careers in any of the fields I mentioned, and if so, could you describe what you do on an average day? And does it sound like I may fit in your field?
posted by ggp88 to Education (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
My Bachelor's degree is in psych. I worked for a couple of years in the field, as a glorified babysitter to mentally ill people (which position, incidentally, I could have easily gotten with ANY Bachelor's degree). Lots of responsibility, no decision-making authority. Lots of low- and mid-level psych jobs are that way.

If you want to become a school psychologist, you can get away with having less than a doctorate (from "The majority of states require the completion of a 60 graduate semester credit specialist-level program in school psychology"). If you want to be a "counselor", you could just get a Master's of Social Work. At most, you'll do a PsyD, which doesn't require original research.

I considered I/O many years ago before going into computer programming. I still think it's a good choice--challenging, many different niches (which, to me, is not "daunting", but rather, exciting), and good money. And get this--***you can still help people***! You will be helping them in different ways, perhaps, but it can still be classified as helping, to, for example, make a work environment safer, or a task more fail-proof.

I think you're being naive in thinking that going into counseling is going to just be a bunch of helping people who are having a hard time with life. A lot of people either don't want to or can't be helped, and you'll be giving away little pieces of yourself each time you try to do this. You'll be overworked and underpaid. You will spend a lot of time doing paperwork. You may end up needing help yourself. Burnout is so common as to be pretty much universal. I already was starting to feel burned out after volunteering on a suicide hotline for one year and working for less than two years as a case worker for Family Services. I looked down that road and said HELL NO to the prospect of continuing into counseling psychology like I had originally planned.

You might think that getting a PhD is super high stress, but spending your whole career trying and in many cases failing to help people is hella stressful.

If you go into I/O you can still volunteer for Big Brothers Big Sisters or the like, to give back to your community and work with kids.
posted by mysterious_stranger at 9:45 PM on August 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

My decision, when in the same position as yours - with many of the same motivations - was to specialise in "Human Factors" - now one part of a larger set of disciplines which includes "User Experience" as a specialism. You will need a postgraduate course - but probably not a phD. The line of reasoning is similar to that you have laid out for I/O Psychology: but you will tend to be working with designers and engineers rather than around the world of HR. There are various other AskMe threads which talk about this option.

If you don't want to let go of your interest in counseling, then there would probably be some opportunities to continue with it as a side interest.
posted by rongorongo at 11:15 PM on August 8, 2016

Some of what I/O psychologists do is support hiring processes by devising or selecting existing standardized aptitude or personality tests, for large corporations. (Which may or may not be a good thing.) I think as far as helping people manage stress at work, ultimately I think it comes down to their insurance arrangements, through which (increasingly) masters-level therapists will be doing that direct work. (Or whatever whim occurs to a senior manager.... it might end up being something like a pamphlet. Or comedy improv classes or white water rafting...) No expert on I/O, though, only took a class or two in it.

I think you could probably be the most helpful to young people (and be least expendable during budget cuts) as a teacher. (Unless there's a glut of teachers in your area, which is the case in some places.) They're the ones who offer day to day support and encouragement, and leave the deepest impressions on kids, because they develop ongoing relationships with them. (When they have an opportunity to.) Maybe not a good idea if you're anxiety prone.

The older I get, the more I feel that meaningful activities and experiences, and practical support that makes a difference for people in tangible ways can go further to boost morale than what we think of as therapy, at least for people who don't suffer severe mental illnesses. Like helping someone get a job. Or providing financial counselling, so they can get a grip on debt. Or helping them find a way to manage physical pain (e.g., with practices of self care and physical therapy. Or by developing a really good app that helps them monitor pain, or meditate). Or teaching a sport, or physical practice, or art, that gives someone a sense of competence, or a venue for self-expression - coaches and drama teachers can make a hugely positive influence on kids' lives, again because of the ongoing relationships, and the focus on supporting incremental competence in particular areas of skill (I think, anyway). Teaching a dance class, so shyer people can learn to move with a partner. Running a wilderness skills course that teaches self-sufficiency.

All those things increase self-efficacy, and in some cases actually address key elements of people's current problems (if not their oldest wounds), and give them tools to move forward on their own.

Psychology defines health by negation, owing to its roots in the identification of pathology - mental health is the absence of mental illness. Or sometimes there is an idea of health, at least implicitly, but insurance companies don't bill for healthy functioning and finding meaning, they bill for illness. They need diagnoses. And people want them, too, because that's how we talk about the effects of the problems of life. So that's what care is organized around.

I think mysterious stranger's points are all spot on. In addition, I would also be a little suspicious of the desire to take the authority of guiding someone towards healing, in a more or less directive way (ideally less, but. "Fixing" people). It's a good thing to do, of course, but I think it's worth asking what you're really thinking you might get out of it.

All that is a personal take, but if it makes sense to you, consider opportunities to be helpful outside of psychology, as well. You can help people doing pretty much anything. Is there something concrete you love to do and want to share? A technology you can imagine? A space you'd like to create? (This might make things harder than they were to start, sorry.) More direct and obvious suggestions: financial counsellor, career counsellor, speech language pathologist, occupational therapist, teacher of any craft, art, sport, skill.
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:26 PM on August 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

Your objectives of "want to make a lot of money" and "want to not be stressed often" don't line up with a career in patient-facing applied psych. Business might be a better situation for you, but know that the insulation from the stress-creating patient responsibility is directly correlated with responsibility for less human-centered business metrics.
posted by SakuraK at 12:13 AM on August 9, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I teach and advise in a social science discipline (though not psychology specifically), and I encourage you to let go of the idea of doing a psychology-specific job and to start thinking about jobs that you can do with any BA or BS in the social sciences. This gives you a lot of choices - everything from university admissions counselor to entry level research associate almost anywhere (look at universities again - for example, we have a center for youth and family studies that employees people from a variety of disciplines and education levels to do research; I have a friend who does hospital quality rankings with a social science degree...) to "helping" jobs that aren't as people intensive as some of your other options that you've mentioned - there's a center for immigration services at the school that I teach at that's hiring a tutoring coordinator, for example, and a BA/BS in psych would totally qualify you for that. Entry level helping jobs of almost any variety are going to just want a bachelors in a social science or human services field.

Don't be afraid of the corporate world, either - human resources, user research, running focus groups, benefits administration...

Also, check out Americorps - pay is terrible, but if you have student loans, they'll help pay it off, and Americorps is a great way to get nonprofit/human services experience.
posted by joycehealy at 7:01 AM on August 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm not in the field, but family members who are have basically reported that a BA in psychology doesn't specifically qualify you to do much besides serve as an aide in a group home, as mysterious_stranger described above. Basically anything that most people would consider a "career" in the field requires at least a masters in psychology or social work. Or, as others have said, look to broader areas where a BA in a social science gets you somewhere.
posted by craven_morhead at 7:59 AM on August 9, 2016

My recommendation would be to put your plans for grad school on the back burner and focus on getting some work experience in the field. There's no point in investing 5+ years of your life on a PhD when you have no idea whether you will like or are suited for the work, not to mention that you will be a much weaker candidate if you have no relevant work experience. Find a way to volunteer or do an internship with a population you're interested in working with.

Your question gives the impression that your lack of knowledge about the field has left you with a skewed/pollyanna-ish impression about what the work actually entails. Which is understandable! Learning about the concepts in college could not be more different from actually getting out there and doing the work. If you want to commit to it you have to be reconciled to the idea that your dream job as stated above will be a long time coming if it ever happens-- very few people work with the ideal of high functioning clients with relatively minor problems, and when they do it's after years if not decades of putting in their dues working with those who are most ill/in need of services. I can't think of an area you could work in where you aren't being frustrated by bureaucracy at every turn. Clients may get mad at you or lash out at you, sometimes for no fault of your own. You cannot "fix" or "save" people, and sometimes clients will never significantly improve despite your best efforts. Whether these are deal breakers or just downsides is something that you can determine when you've experienced it for yourself.

If after all this you're still interested in a career in counseling I would suggest pursuing a masters over a PhD unless you really want to do research. A licensed clinical social worker or mental health clinician can do most things a psychologist can. Pay attention to what degrees people have when you're at work, and take advantage of your alumni network to see what people with various degrees actually wound up doing with their careers.
posted by fox problems at 9:21 AM on August 9, 2016

If you even think you might possibly go to grad school, you need to make appointments or go to office hours of at least 4 of your professors (and one grad student, if they have those at your school) and discuss this with them, because a) advice and guidance is part of what you're paying for b) this is literally the conundrum of every one of us who signed up for the major first and didn't think about the consequences until later c) if you are going to go to grad school, you will need references and as much experience as possible, even if that experience is just formatting documents or collating research stuff for them. See if they can hook you up with some alumni to speak to, once you've established a relationship.*

You're also going to want to at least take a peek at grad programs at schools you might be interested in, to see what the chances are these days of getting fully or partially funded or if you're going to have to pay the whole thing yourself. You should take that under consideration. Also make sure your GRE scores are going to get you where you want to go. You should probably take the GRE as soon as possible, if you haven't.

If you decide after those conversations that grad school is definitely not for you, I would strongly strongly urge you to consider getting an appointment with an advisor in the School of Business and change your major. Because, here comes the asterisk:

*A bachelor's degree is psychology is an English degree. It means you can read and write and follow instructions and stick with a long project like "graduating from college." It means you know how to look things up. It may mean you know statistics words and how to run SPSS or whatever the school standard is today, and how to format a paper to a professional style guide. But it's a survey degree, which means you have learned about the many types of psychology but not how they actually work or what it feels like to participate in them or, for the most part, what the actual career options related to them are. It means nothing except a baseline intelligence to employers, and it tells your teachers almost nothing about you except whether you show up to class and have study skills and can follow directions. So most of your professors are not getting invested in students except for the ones who make a point of standing out, displaying interest. Because 90+% of your peers are just Getting A Degree, not going into the field, so nobody's going to strain themselves to help until you have proved your interest and willingness to dig in.

I myself spent a "gap year" after graduation as a glorified admin on one of my professors' research projects, figured out I was much more interested in this new "internet" thing than going to grad school, and have worked in software for 20 years, and there are a bunch of us out there in technology in general. A number of my peers worked their way up through McOfficeJobs for a few years and then got MBAs. Some worked in admin in the medical field and then went to nursing school, one that I can think of decided on an MSW instead of master's in counseling.

The thing that finally shut the book on grad school for me, for counseling, was figuring out that empathy without incredibly hard strong boundaries was a defect rather than an asset. The realization that from a business and mental health standpoint it would be incredibly difficult to maintain a large enough client base to not starve to death. Having people dependent on me in a way that would make it difficult to turn it off at night was not something I was ultimately comfortable with as a lifestyle choice.

I have moments I'm sorry I didn't go into I/O. My school had one professor with a secondary interest in it, and he taught an overview course, but whatever that dude's main thing was I never figured it out and never really got any guidance from him. I have friends now in Human Factors, and I think I would have enjoyed that as a career...but if I had gone that route I should have minored or double-majored in business, and honestly I think that might be true for school/educational psychology too because at it's highest level that's a budgeting job. (Everyone should have to minor in business, honestly; even art majors have to send out invoices.)

If you're in your last year, you need to put some hustle in your information-gathering processes. I agree that a break to work in the real world is a very good idea (almost nobody wants/needs a 24-year-old counselor who's never even had an office job), but that means you'll need to start and maintain relationships with professors for long enough to get their help after your gap. You'll certainly not have this much access to actual professionals and their network of students and colleagues once you graduate, so take advantage of it.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:57 AM on August 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank all of you for the replies so far.

"Your question gives the impression that your lack of knowledge about the field has left you with a skewed/pollyanna-ish impression about what the work actually entails. Which is understandable! Learning about the concepts in college could not be more different from actually getting out there and doing the work."

Fox problems, you really hit the nail on the head. It's so frustrating how little I have learned and how ignorant I still am about what all is out there. All my classes have been is learning theory after theory. Not one of my classes have prepared me for post graduate life.

I have visited with multiple professors and reached out to more through email. Every time I meet, I don't even know the right questions to ask. I tell them my interests and they say, "well, what do you want to do?". And of course, it all goes back to "I don't know."

I have gone to my university's career counselors, but they have never been able to help me either. It's as if they need me to have a definite vision in mind so that they can help me formulate a plan to get there. But I have no vision in mind.

I'm so ignorant about everything. I don't know what's out there. It's scaring the hell out of me. The anxiety is unreal. Especially when, as Lyn Never said, I have to hustle in my information gathering process. I've been trying to figure this out for years now, with no avail.

One thing I do know after hearing it from you guys (and it confirmed a fear that I had) is that I don't think I would enjoy counseling. I like talking to people and getting to know them, and of course I have empathy, but this career sounds too stressful, too demanding, and most of all, too emotionally draining. And, yeah, I do have trouble setting borders, which is another reason I should write this off.

And Lyn Never, I can't go back and change my minor to business. I am almost maxed out on the hours I can use financial aid for (I have been in college for a long while), and I don't want to acrew any more student debt. Otherwise, it absolutely would be a great idea.
posted by ggp88 at 1:58 PM on August 9, 2016

Response by poster: I have flirted with the idea of market research or consumer psychology before. Again though, my ignorance on the subject leads me to believe that it is much more focused on the nitty gritty of crunching statistics.

Joycehealy, I looked up how people conduct focus groups, and it actually sounds like something I would really enjoy doing. It's research, but it involves talking to people and getting to know their ideas to gather qualitative information. I could imagine this being involved in market research, consumer psychology, and I/O. In I/O, I could talk to employees and ask them about different aspects of their job... what they think about the lighting, what they think about the leadership, what they like about their jobs, what they dislike, etc. That could then be used in research.

But I have no idea if that is even a job I could have or if it's even done like that. If I've learned anything, it's that the world almost never works the way I want it to. I wouldn't be surprised if that kind of information is collected via anonymous sent out surveys, and the job duty would be to crunch enter that quantitative information.

I'm not the most charismatic person around. I'm alright, but not one of those people who people instantaneously want to be best friends with. But I am very curious about people... what they think, how they view the world, their beliefs, etc. That's what drew me to psychology in the first place. That's why the videos I watched of conducting focus surveys piqued my interest.

Are there any more careers that utilize this curiosity in people?
posted by ggp88 at 2:16 PM on August 9, 2016

Response by poster: I just wanted to add that conducting focus groups is an activity. Same with user research, which I'm watching videos about now and which sounds interesting. But they aren't careers. My question is, what careers (that are easily searchable in google so I can do more research about them) utilize these activities?
posted by ggp88 at 2:31 PM on August 9, 2016

Best answer: Human Factors does that (I know someone who works in video games, for example, with a doctorate in it), and there are graduate programs in actual marketing psychology (also consumer psychology) and there are aspects of User Experience and Content Strategy that look to behavior predictions and research, there's also psychometrics (and really just plain old clinical psychology masters/doctorate programs often offer several flavor of emphases with a research base).

In my prehistoric days there was a dictionary-sized book published by the APA that summarized every accredited graduate program in the United States with entry requirements and deadlines. That book, or an electronic form of it, *must* still exist. Go dig around their website. If it's a paper book, see if you can find it in the library or buy one (even one that's a used previous edition) used on Amazon. Read it. The whole thing. Figure out what programs and sub-programs are being offered right now - at the best schools, at the second-tier, at the workhorse state schools. Think about what you're seeing, and go find out more about any that intrigue you.

Put together 3-5 good questions to ask these professors. Like "what do you think are the three most in-demand non-academic jobs in the field right now?" "What do you think are the most interesting graduate programs going on right now?" "Where do you think the industry will be in ten years?" "Do you know someone 5-10 years out of school working outside academia I might have an informational interview with?"
posted by Lyn Never at 5:15 PM on August 9, 2016

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