To grad school or not to grad school?
March 1, 2008 10:16 PM   Subscribe

Interesting careers with a social sciences PhD? / Talk me out of grad school!

I love psychology. I annoy my friends because I constantly bring up references to psychology experiments in conversation (its so relevant to life, the universe, and everything!) After pursuing a master's in another field and being supremely unhappy, I've decided that I need to get back into the world of psychology. But what drove me away in the first place was research and academia - though I love answering psychological questions, I don't want to deal with the bureaucracy inherent to academia or be stuck in an ivory tower - and though doing what you're passionate about means more to me than money, I want to be appropriately compensated for my human capital and don't want to come out of a 6-7 year program fighting hundreds of others for a below 50k assistant professorship. On top of all that, I want to apply psychology to real life situations and problems, as idealistic as that sounds.

So, my questions: Is it a bad idea to pursue a PhD when I don't really intend to be an academic researcher? What are other options? What are some private industry avenues for psychology doctorate students? For what its worth, I'm interested social psychology applied to issues like health, stigma, persuasion, and attitudes.

(sock puppeted to not out myself to my fellow public health grad students...)
posted by Sock Muppet Acct! to Work & Money (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I left my PhD program in a social science (with a terminal MA) because I realized I wasn't an academic. It was a painful thing to do, because now I'm stuck re-evaluating what I want. You're already a step ahead - you know you don't want academia.

Any further degree-related thing will require actually doing research. If you hate research, you will be ABD in a PhD program until they throw you out, which, given the way things seem to be going in the US, will be sooner rather than later.

I think your key is to figure out what you want to do, and then find the people who are also doing what you want to do, and do whatever they did to get where they are. All that helping people stuff can run the gamut from softer, like social work, to hard-sciencier, like epidemiology. Good luck.
posted by cobaltnine at 11:08 PM on March 1, 2008

Many students start Ph.D. programs and find that their social and professional networks (as research associates, through faculty mentors) leads to opportunities for interesting work. When they leave their departments, they usually do so with a master's degree (like cobaltnine in the comment above). If you can get a research assistantship that can pay the bills, grad school is an excellent segue into the kind of job you're looking to find, especially if you can get into a respectable program in a big city where lots of things are happening.
posted by Crotalus at 11:49 PM on March 1, 2008

Just a thought... one option for PhD graduates in psychology is to become a psychologist, right? If you want to apply psychology in real-world situations there is no better way than directly helping people deal with their problems. And you could have a nice financially rewarding career by setting up your own practice in the future.
posted by PercussivePaul at 1:13 AM on March 2, 2008

You're going about this the wrong way. Don't look for the jobs that require PhDs; if you do it that way grad school is going to seem more essential than it is. Figure out what job (or jobs) you want. Then research whether you absolutely have to have a PhD for those jobs. For those where it would be beneficial but not necessary, ask whether you would have a better chance with the PhD or with seven years of work experience. You would be off a lot better financially with the latter.
posted by grouse at 2:57 AM on March 2, 2008

Advertising agencies are hiring anthro and sociology PhDs like crazy right now (and some ABDs even, and MAs) to do "ethnography" (as they call it), which means spying on consumers.

Go for it. Just don't sign on to your discipline's ethics pledge, please.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:36 AM on March 2, 2008

By the way, the "bureaucracy inherent in academia" is not much different than in any other profession, certainly any health related profession.

Also, the "ivory tower" does not exist.

You're operating from stereotypes about academia, you know. Lots and lots of people are doing interesting applied work in your field and the related social and behavioral sciences, more all the time. If you can't deal with the time and work and isolation of a PhD program, that's one thing and it's fine for you. But there's more than a hint of insulting people who do pursue that path in phrases like "ivory tower."
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:52 AM on March 2, 2008

If, like PercussivePaul suggested, you do want to go on to be a practicing psychologist, PsyD is another option. It's more clinically and less research based than PhD programs in psychology, so there's an option for getting more towards real world application than academia.
posted by summit at 5:04 AM on March 2, 2008

Response by poster: Some clarifications:

I have done tons of research before and have immersed myself in the field. I keep getting scared away and considering other aspects of psyc to study (read: clinical, which I've realized isn't for me,) but ultimately keep coming back to it because I do like research and can't imagine myself doing anything else. I truly do love psychology, and would love to study it for the rest of my life. I really believe in the power of research to implement change - its just that I've never seen it happen in the research experiences I've had.

I mean no offense by the ivory tower comment, but many graduate students, and some professors, have scared me away from the academic world. I've seen people's very important, well thought out and researched ideas passed over because they weren't "flashy" or hot enough (read: not enough use of fMRI), and I've seen a very good friend beat down by years of misery in graduate school. Of course this isn't everyone's experience, but I just wanted to see if there were alternative routes to following a field I'm passionate about.

Thanks everybody so far!
posted by Sock Muppet Acct! at 7:29 AM on March 2, 2008

I'm with you - I love, love, LOVE psychology, but hate, hate, HATE the thought of a career in academentia. A PsyD. is one good option, as that is more "real-world" oriented than ivory-tower. What I am doing is getting a Master's in Organizational Psychology. This way I can do the psychology that I love, while preparing for a more business-oriented career (in coaching and group process management, in my case).
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 7:43 AM on March 2, 2008

Well, if you are interested in social psychology one option is to pursue a PhD from a business school in a Management department. About half of all Management scholarship is really just social psychology applied to business situations (and much of it is not that linked to business). In the field of Management, we call this research "micro" because scholars are studying individuals rather than entire organizations. The job market is much better than in psychology and the pay is a lot better. Plus, because you will be teaching business students you will be forced to deal with people who consider the real world every day. If you want more info here send me a MeMail.
posted by bove at 8:30 AM on March 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Think outside the box:

1. [mentioned upthread] Ethnographer for an inhouse research group (think Microsoft, Nike, GM, Georgia Pacific... pretty much every large multinational needs to know what people are doing with their consumer products and thinking about their products). There are also a bunch of consultancies that specialize in understanding consumer behavior.

1a. Lots of online agencies (and even the biggest websites, like yahoo / google / amazon) have people that try to infer mental states from the clickstream of folks looking at the web pages. This is pretty analytical work (love anovas, t-tests, confidence intervals?), but has resulted in some really interesting results.

2. [mentioned upthread] Life coach.

3. Business Process Consultant. Plenty of these folks have psychology degrees. The big team includes lots of finance wonks and streamlining nerds, but many teams also include psychologists.

4. Product Design. Some of the bigger companies (frog, ideo) keep psychologists and anthropologists on staff.

5. Further afield (which is fine... you don't always have to be using your PhD everyday to make it worth having), think about things like: Behavioral Economics (modeling humans in order to help the quants make better trades), Foundations, NGOs, Think Tanks, Research Organizations, Social work, Community Organizing.

p.s. - please stop talking about how your dinner parties are like psychology experiments. You already know it's annoying you friends.
posted by zpousman at 8:44 AM on March 2, 2008

But what drove me away in the first place was research and academia - though I love answering psychological questions, I don't want to deal with the bureaucracy inherent to academia or be stuck in an ivory tower -

I took about 5 years off between undergrad and grad school, thinking I hated academia & wanted to escape the "ivory tower". What I learned was that every industry is its own kind of "tower" - I worked in advertising for a while - I'd much rather be stuck in the ivory tower than the gold or aluminum or whatever-it-is tower that is graphic design. Things get specialized, people talk to each other about what they know, certain aspects of life get familiarized within a certain framework. But I really got it through my head that I needed to head back to the tower least unpleasant to me when I was stuck at a weekend sales conference in new jersey watching powerpoint presentations and the head guy gave a speech about how we had to think like the CEO of coca-cola, who had once proclaimed that he wouldn't rest until everyone on earth was drinking coke instead of water.

So yeah, academic conferences can be boring, trite, unfair, run by politics, yadda yadda yadda, but it can be MUCH worse. Basically I don't blame academia per se - it's just that they keep hiring homo sapiens, y'know?

and though doing what you're passionate about means more to me than money, I want to be appropriately compensated for my human capital and don't want to come out of a 6-7 year program fighting hundreds of others for a below 50k assistant professorship.

To make 50K doing something you love, with 3 months vacation per year is actually pretty sweet. That's why there's so much competition... I understand the fear, and it is good to be thinking ahead, but it's generally agreed to be a pretty good job. (And for that matter, so is yr private practice option...)
posted by mdn at 3:28 PM on March 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Got a PhD in psychology and I've been happiest doing "applied" work -- program evaluation, for example (that's what I do now). Public health type settings (e.g., CDC, county or state health departments) offer lots of opportunity to evaluate all kinds of health-related initiatives. Lots of researcher types in these departments have MPH's and a background in epidemiology -- those are good subject areas to learn in grad school. I think psychologists have a lot to contribute because so many contemporary health issues have psychological underpinnings (e.g., lifestyle choices like alcohol, smoking, etc.). On the downside, government departments can get pretty bureaucratic.

Private evaluation firms are also a good resource for this kind of applied work. Never worked in one myself, but I know several people who have. Money seems to be good, but the time demands sound like they can get brutal.

I also was on the faculty at a university that did HIV-prevention research, and that felt good, though there's something about academic settings that attracts and rewards big egos and politics and turf wars which can get tiring.

If you're interested in learning about program evaluation, visit the American Evaluation Association website or drop me a Mefi mail.
posted by jasper411 at 9:58 PM on March 2, 2008

« Older Coding alone in a fog   |   Help determine cause of my Internet shut-outs. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.