Psychology Major Introduction
If you have an analytical mind and are fascinated by human behavior you may be an excellent candidate for a psychology major. This branch of mental science is extremely diverse with applications in a wide range of settings including private practice, schools and colleges, clinical counseling, research, and experimental studies. It focuses on the study and interpretation of the brain and its relation to emotions, behavior, coping, and functions such as memory or attention.
Psychologists fall under the medical group of mental health professionals. We turn to them when our natural coping and defense skills cannot help us through a given situation. A mental health professional’s relational and communication skills must be excellent, as many of the clients they treat are in the throes of embarrassing or life-altering situations. Psychologists work closely with many medical disciplines including doctors, nurses, and psychiatrists to treat each client in an individual, holistic manner.
The opportunities for psychologists are only as limited as your imagination. In clinical or private practice, psychologists provide therapeutic counseling in times of crisis such as a divorce or unemployment. They use their communication skills, intuition, and education to pull clients through stressful or traumatic events. School psychologists can work with gifted or challenged children or those with behavioral issues that impair their educational advancement. Neuropsychologists may work in hospitals or private practices helping people with physical trauma to the brain that can result in impaired thinking, memory, and concentration. These few examples provide just a small taste of the opportunities available. See our page about psychology job opportunities for more detailed information.
Being a psychologist requires at least a master’s degree and a period of professional internship to work at the junior college educational level, as a school counselor, or as an organizational mental-health professional. If you wish to run your own practice or enter the field of psychology research, you will need a doctorate degree, such as a PhD, which will require at least five years of graduate study and one to two years of monitored practice, called an internship. The required length of an internship varies by state and is regulated by the board of psychology in each state.
Choosing a School for Psychology
Unlike psychiatrists, psychologists are not medical doctors. Possessing a doctoral degree is not the same as attending medical school. The subjects you study may include human development, the physiology of psychology, personality, creativity, and counseling. Psychiatrists, however, are medical doctors who diagnose and treat mental illnesses. As a psychologist you may work with a psychiatrist to provide therapeutic counsel to patients who suffer mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder.
Once you have decided to obtain your major in psychology the next important step is choosing a school. Your professional role in psychology depends on your education. For instance, if you stop at your master’s degree you can only teach at the junior-college level, because a doctoral degree is required for university instruction. Take your time and learn about the educational requirements for your specific career goals.
Research your school options carefully. Some universities may have more developed or advanced programs in psychology that can take you from your bachelors all the way to your PhD in this profession. Consider the location of the universities you choose – you may have to commute, live on campus, or move to another state for the program. The cost and length of each program depends on the university you choose. Most universities charge a set fee per credit hour, and the amount of prerequisites and types of courses you must take depend will vary by school.
Think about what type of educational setting will work best for you. Traditionally, the courses required for your major are available in a classroom setting on the university campus. Nontraditional courses, such as distance or online learning, may be the perfect option for some older adults returning to the educational system. A chunk of your prerequisites, undergraduate, and graduate-level education can be completed in on-line classrooms at your own convenience whether you seek traditional or distance learning.
Perhaps the most important consideration in choosing your school is taking an honest look at your potential. Some of us may wish to go to an Ivy League university, but our high-school or undergraduate performance may not support this dream. Learn about the program prerequisites and how many new students it accepts annually. If you have less than a 3.5 grade point average (GPA), you may have trouble getting in to some of the more sought-after universities.
Basic Education Required
Regardless of the university you choose, some basic courses are required for the major in psychology. Until this fundamental education is complete you cannot move forward in your major. How well you perform, including your grades and testing scores, will determine your opportunities at the next level. Each level of education starts with prerequisites – a high-school diploma for undergraduate studies and bachelors in arts degrees, and aptitude testing for graduate studies. You will have a head start if you did well in high school and on your undergraduate testing such as the SAT, GRE, or MAT. All is not lost if you hold a general equivalency diploma (GED) or a high-school diploma equivalent, but you may have a longer journey ahead of you.
Let’s first explore the road to your psychology degree. The lowest level of education required is a high school diploma or GED. This is where the journey to your major splits – those with an excellent GPA and high school diploma can sit for their SATs and apply to a number of universities that may take them all the way to their doctoral degree. Students with a GED will need to apply to community colleges and establish a creditable GPA before moving forward with their bachelor’s.
Your high school education and achievements are vital to gaining acceptance into the bachelor’s or master’s programs at most universities. Some psychology programs have a GPA cut-off and will not consider an application to a bachelor’s program if the student’s GPA is less than 3.5. If you fall into this category you may want to start by earning an associate’s degree at a community college and bringing up your GPA. After you have the associate’s degree you can reapply to universities with psychology bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral programs.
Keep your end goals in sight while working toward your graduate program. To gain acceptance into a master’s or doctoral program you must have a certain number of credit hours and clinical and didactic experience. Make these credit hours count by choosing classes in your chosen area of specialty. For instance, if your end goal is to work in a school environment, you may choose undergraduate electives in human development and behavior.
Some universities are highly selective in student admissions. They consider multiple facets of your intelligence and dedication to this major that may include GPA, aptitude testing scores, community or volunteer work, and professional recommendations. If your GPA is lower than 3.5 you will want to trump this with high aptitude scores, copious volunteer hours in mental health, and glowing professional recommendations -- all of which will prove your dedication to this profession.
Aptitude Testing for a Major in Psychology
We’ve all heard the acronyms--the SAT or GRE--in relation to graduate studies and collegiate choices. You may inadvertently brush off these aptitude tests without a complete knowledge and understanding of how they affect your college choices. Certain colleges select their psychology graduate students based on a combination of GPA and aptitude test scores. These scores complement your grades and extracurricular activities and could give you that edge needed to get into the college of your choice.
The first aptitude test that affects your college education is the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or the SAT. Many students will leave high school and enter community colleges without ever taking the SAT because this test is not mandatory. Volunteering to take the test and doing well can open the doors to many colleges that offer graduate course work in psychology. Optimally, high school students will register to take the SAT in their junior or senior year. The benefit to taking the exam twice is that you can choose which score to use. If you happen to score higher in your junior year, you can disregard your senior testing scores. There is a nominal fee associated with the SAT ranging from $40 to $50 depending on where you take the exam. The SAT tests you on basic high-school concepts such as reading, writing, and math. Prepare for the exam with online study, SAT-geared texts, and high-school study groups.
After your undergraduate or bachelor’s degree work is completed, you will need to enter a graduate program for your master’s and doctoral degrees in psychology. These programs can be very competitive, accepting only a fraction of the students who apply. The State University of New York’s Department of Psychology states that it accepts only 30 of the 250 applicants to its master’s program . One of the contributing factors to acceptance is the student’s Graduate Record Exam or GRE score. This aptitude test is a prerequisite to graduate program acceptance and may help balance the scale if you had a lower GPA in your bachelor’s studies. Unlike the SAT, the GRE tests for abstract thinking and challenges your critical thinking and reasoning skills.
Some universities accept the Miller Analogies Test, or the MAT for graduate
studies. This test is very similar to the GRE in testing intelligence and aptitude for success in
graduate studies and psychological professions. However, it is not as widely accepted as the GRE. Check
with the admissions office of the universities where you apply before choosing which test to prepare for
Decide on Career Goals
In psychology, you should loosely define your career goals before you start your educational journey. Think about what you want to do with your psychology major – and what kind of a work environment you would prefer. Setting goals will help you choose relevant electives, research, and community work that will add to your undergraduate or graduate work experience. Your career goals will also dictate the length of your educational journey. A doctoral degree may take up to seven years to complete in addition to your master’s, but it is essential for a career path in clinical work.
Career goals may remain fluid as long as you have a general idea of how you want to practice. Some students discover new areas of interest in psychology through varying classes and professional introductions. Perhaps a student interested only in clinical psychology will find she has a penchant for research. Her goals change shape at this point and her future class choices should reflect that change.
Let your experiences determine your preference by keeping an open mind. Choose activities such as volunteer work and classes that help you define your career path choice. You won’t know if clinical psychology is for you unless you see it in action. Talk to paraprofessionals who can provide honest insight into the daily activities of the careers you are considering. The department of psychology in your university will have career counselors and professors who can discuss these choices with you.
Take care when arranging your schedule, especially during undergraduate work. This is a good time to explore and put out feelers for potential areas of interest. Organize your electives around these interests. For instance, a student considering industrial and organizational psychology may elect to take business courses to supplement his knowledge of the industry. A student interested in the research avenue may take courses in math and statistics to strengthen her core skills and complement her career choice.
Turn your assessment skills inward while deciding on career goals. Make an honest assessment of your
financial status and intellectual capabilities. Not everyone is PhD material, and doctoral degrees carry
a hefty price tag in tuition costs and salaries foregone. Some careers, such as owning a
private practice or teaching at the university level, must be backed by advanced degrees. However, many psychologists stop at the master’s
level of education and do clinical research, teach in a community college, or provide organizational or
Research Schools Available
Choosing a school for your psychology major is a big step that may define the complexion of your career. Your school will determine the degree and quality of your education. Degrees from certain schools may open doors for your professional career and affiliations. Optimally, you would start this research before or during your collegiate experience. However, it is never too late to research schools and available options.
Start your research by having clear career goals in mind. If you are using a psychology major as a stepping stone to another career such as business, your school should have a strong program supporting your intended profession. If you want to put your psychology major to work after graduation, consider the program’s strengths and each school department’s emphasis. Each university’s psychology program will have a different area of strength. One school may specialize in industrial psychology whereas another might focus on the social and personality aspects of this profession.
Request school catalogs and pamphlets and browse university websites – specifically the department of psychology’s page. If you like what you see you can contact the department with more-specific questions. Ask about the areas of emphasis in the programs that interest you, and any faculty research that you would like to get involved with during your education.
It is vital to choose an accredited school. Check to see if the schools you are considering are accredited through professional affiliations such as The American Psychological Association. Institutional accreditation is awarded by the U.S. Department of Education and is vital for professional licensure; you cannot sit for a licensure exam if you have not attended an accredited school.
Check the schools’ admission procedures and requirements. For undergraduate education, most schools have a GPA cut-off and basic expectations for test scores. Take a realistic look at your GPA and SAT scores and narrow down your school choices based on these entry qualifications. Do not completely rule out schools requiring GPAs slightly above your own, however, as your letters of recommendation or test scores may turn the tables in your favor. When in doubt, talk to someone in the university’s admissions office.
Consider the cost and location of each school you have chosen. Research their affordability and
contemplate both in-state and out-of-state schools to broaden your options. If you need financial
assistance, contact the university’s loan office to learn about available options. Consider scholarships
and fellowships, and learn about financial aid programs that are specific to each university.
Last Updated: 08/20/2013