Career Advice for Job Seekers

What to do with my degree: Psychology jobs and salaries

Anna Peters AvatarAnna Peters
October 17, 2017


Psychology is one of the most popular college majors. What kinds of psychology jobs are out there for you if you have an undergraduate degree? Dr. Stewart Shankman, Ph.D. spoke with us about how he prepares his students for their careers, and where he sees them succeed after college. Dr. Shankman is a professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Chicago.

Misconceptions about Psychology majors

The biggest misconception Psychology students have is that they will have to go to graduate school to be able to do anything with psychology. There are definitely jobs for Psychology majors who choose not to further their education beyond undergrad. Dr. Shankman mentions the mental health field as providing plenty of jobs for his students. (More jobs are listed below.)

Even if you want to do clinical work, says Dr. Shankman, “you don’t have to get a doctorate.” In fact, he recommends that students do not pursue a doctorate in clinical psychology. Instead, he advises his students who want to practice in a clinic to get a Master’s in Social Work.  “If you want to be a therapist, get an MSW. Those programs are way less competitive than doctorate programs.”

Graduating with a doctorate in Psychology

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“People don’t realize how competitive it is to get a Ph.D. in Psychology. It’s harder than getting into medical school. At U of I Chicago, we get 300-400 applications just for the Clinical Psych program.” They accept only a handful. “These programs work on an apprentice or mentor model, and most faculty only take 1-2 students per year.” Other aspects of psychology are a little less competitive in terms of the ratio of applications to acceptances, for example, cognitive psychology.

Some students choose to get a Psy.D instead of a Ph.D. The disadvantage of that choice, says Dr. Shankman, is that it will cost you around $50,000/year. And when you look for clinical jobs, you end up competing with MSW degree holders (who will charge less than you). On top of that, you graduate with tons of debt.

If you choose to pursue a doctorate program, Dr. Shankman’s advice is to do research for two years before applying. “Many programs don’t take students straight out of undergrad,” he says.

Also read our interview with a licensed Clinical Psychologist and licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

Skills that Psychology grads possess, and skills they lack

“It’s a liberal arts degree so they have writing skills,” says Dr. Shankman of his students. Written communication skills is very high on many employers’ wish lists.

Psychology majors graduate with an understanding of the biases that people have, which is an important point for potential employers who strive for an inclusive work environment. For example, says Dr. Shankman, students learn about availability bias. We all fall prey to availability bias when we try proving a point by saying “this happened to my friend”, ignoring the data that represent a larger sample of other people’s experiences.

Many Psychology majors graduate with analytical skills, which can be working with data and statistics, or logical thinking. They graduate with a basic idea of research design, so when you combine that with analytical skills, you are able to be critical of news, or other information that people digest all day long. “When you look in the newspaper and you see the results of some study,” you have learned (from your statistics classes, for example) how to consume that information from different perspectives.

One thing Psychology students should work on is communicating their logical thinking through their writing. Thinking analytically is one thing, but especially to impress an employer, you have to be able to articulate your thoughts.

Finally, Dr. Shankman wants his students to improve their general professional development skills. This includes “communication, advocating for yourself, how to stand out without being too demanding, and how to write a professional email.”

Start getting experience to explore where you fit

Get experience to grow your skillsInstead of just taking classes during college, find a volunteer position in a research lab. Not only do you get class credit, you’ll also build professional skills by working alongside faculty. You will build those important analytic skills by looking deeper into data.

To find out whether you’d like a career in research, Dr. Shankman advises his students to do an independent study. If you learn that you love doing research, you’ll already have a foot in the door.

What makes a Psychology degree worth it

“The reward of clinical work,” says Dr. Shankman, is that you get immediate satisfaction. You can say, ‘I helped this person today.’ In the world of research, you still get that satisfaction, but it is more delayed.”

Also, it’s an extremely flexible degree. In addition to options in clinical psychology and research, you can go into business, work with data, and much more. It teaches a broad set of skills.

Common entry-level jobs for Pscyh majors and salary expectations 

Looking for a psychology job

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With a Psychology degree, your salary really depends on the job. “In academia,” says Dr. Shankman, “you don’t get rich. And it’s really hard to get rich in clinical work too. Reimbursement rates are not great. That’s true for health services in general.” What you lack in salary, you make up for in the flexibility and options that this degree affords.

These are common jobs that Dr. Shankman sees his students succeed in after graduating from college (salary data pulled from glassdoor):

About Dr. Stewart Shankman: Dr. Shankman is a professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Director of the Chicago Laboratory of Emotion and Physiology. He is a licensed clinical psychologist and federally funded researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago whose research examines how brain activity relates to emotion and emotional disturbances.

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