Subjects to Study for a Psychology Major

As an undergraduate, the subjects you study, such as humanities, are requirements that are meant to underpin a general education in the area of liberal arts. Once you get into the core of your psychology classes, usually in your third year of study, you will beging to study specific areas and subjects in the field. You will start by focusing on a broad overview of the field, and foundational courses, and then you'll progress to specific elective courses which hold the most interest for you, or would best further your career goals.

Throughout your schooling it is vital to work with a career or academic counselor. These professionals can provide guidance and insight and can assist you in selecting classes that support your major, career choice, and timeline. After all, you don’t want to waste time or money on superfluous classes that won’t support your major.

Example: Psychology Major's Handbook (pdf)


From the invention of the light bulb and antibiotics to the beauty of Michelangelo’s David, the psychology of human creativity continues to amaze us. Classes in creativity may or may not be core essentials for your psychology major, but they will provide interesting insight into the brain and the creative process. You may wish to consider taking this elective if you have aspirations to work in neurological, clinical, or developmental psychology or psychoanalysis.

Class content in creativity courses depends largely on the instructor. However, most professors will at least touch upon creative theorists and their theories. These behavioral theories study our creative nature and its uniqueness to humans as a species. Popular behavioral theorists such as Skinner, Simonton, and Geschwind use frameworks to help us understand these human actions and behaviors.

Subjects to Study for a Psychology Major

Current issues and life applications may pose an excellent debate topic in a creativity class. Consider any current headline that affects the nation – each person has his own solution to the debate. These solutions are influenced by brain function, cultural background, emotional state, and cognitive capacity – basically the psychological make-up. Psychology majors start to flex their skills in analysis by dissecting aspects of creativity such as its biological, psychological, and social stimuli.

This class is a valuable elective for those yet undecided on a career path, as it provides a general elective that may encompass many different sub-specialties in psychology. You might explore the cognitive relations between creativity and brain structures, like in neuropsychology; or levels of creativity as depicted in developmental psychology. If you are interested in psychoanalysis or counseling, creativity classes may help you sharpen your own teaching and assessment skills.

Less-traditional courses may might encourage creative expression – effectively making you, the student, explore your own creative abilities through audio/video projects or works of art. You could then dissect the sequence of your own creation and analyze the variables among choices, styles, and levels of creativity among peers.

Researching case studies and famous contributors of invention may help the student relate creativity to historical events and make an intangible concept tangible. Throughout history, human creativity has been linked to personality, intelligence, and even sexuality.


Although we have come a long way since the Rorschach inkblot test, behavioral theorists remain divided on the motivating and defining factors of our personalities. Basic courses in psychology touch on the evolution of our individual personality, its social ramifications, and the impact on treatment options.

This subject provides a well-rounded introduction to the aspects and facets of why we are the way we are-–our personality. As laymen, we analyze personalities daily, perhaps even subconsciously, by using words to describe acquaintances such as conscientious, controlled, extroverted, friendly, or even disagreeable.

College psychology courses define personality and explore the aspects of each trait, such as controlling. The central traits that make up personality can indicate behavioral patterns, which may shed light on a client’s strengths and weaknesses in counseling. You may have already heard references to different personality types, such as a “type A” personality, which is little more than a grouping of collective traits. Many psychology careers benefit from a firm grasp of personality, including psychoanalysis, developmental psychology, and organizational research.

Science cannot yet define the origin of personality, but all agree that it is affected by both external and internal factors. Psychologists employ any or all of the five schools of thought in personality theory including biological, humanistic, cognitive, behavioral, and of course Freudian theory. Students may align their beliefs with one or more of the theories to better understand the cultural, social, and situational aspects of personality.

Personality courses spend a great deal of time discussing these theories. Freudian theory tries to prove that a basic part of our ego, called the id, generates a need for gratification affecting personality development and disorders. Cognitive theorists purport that traits are the effect of each individual’s environment, whereas biological theory supports the nature plays a bigger role than nurture.

As opposed to the aforementioned Rorschach test, psychologists’ exploration of personality traits is now more subtle. In most settings, practitioners use self-report questionnaires to gain insight into one’s character and decision-making process. Once certain traits of the personality are analyzed, behavior-modification techniques and treatment options are created based on the evaluations.

Social Psychology

As an elective or a core class contributing credits to your major, social psychology provides fascinating insight into the correlation between social relations and mental health. Regardless of your career goals, this subject will help you understand the social systems and their impact on humanity, benefiting any psychology career from private practice to research.

Depending on the department of psychology at each university, social psychology classes may comprise just a few credit hours or multiple classes. If multiple classes are offered on the topic, start your initiation to this vital subject with an introductory course. The introduction to social psychology will provide an overview of the topic and establish a broad understanding of the role that social hierarchy and relationships play in our lives.

Progressive classes may include social cognition, development, or group dynamics. These classes go into further depths and sublevels of social psychology, taking the student on a journey into specific aspects of relationships and behavior affectation. (These classes are more frequently found at the graduate level.)

One common class topic is the science behind behaviors in social situations. Whereas certain people are outspoken, others may exhibit conformity to the point that it becomes subservience. Scientists strive to explain how we learn and apply the intangible concepts of morals and ethics and the impact that society has on these values.

Your syllabus in social psychology may touch on social systems, or hierarchies, and the struggle for power and authority within the system. Learning about these roles and interpersonal struggles provides skills that may apply to careers in organizational or management careers, advertising, and behavioral counseling. The idea of psychologists working in advertising may sound far-fetched, but they are frequently employed to study preferences and to research methods of social persuasion.

Some instructors may focus on the topics of aggression, problem attitudes, and discrimination in social psychology. These social behaviors are collectively referred to as “stereotypes” and represent an unhealthy social development dynamic. Conversely, the topics of love and adult relationships also fall under this subject’s versatile umbrella. By nature we are all social beings – learning to grasp that concept starts in this class.

Life-Span Human Development

The courses falling under the subhead of life span and human development are myriad and are core essentials to any psychology major. Although the meaning of the term life span is evident, human development in psychology does not refer to the growth pattern through life, rather the theories supporting the never-ending process of human development. Courses teaching about this subject range from introductory classes through specific challenges at each life stage.

After completing any prerequisites, such as a basic psychology class, an introductory to human development course is a core essential for completion of this major. Rather than focusing on specific stages of development, the introductory class covers every aspect of the human life span.

Progressing in chronological order, the next developmental class focuses on early childhood. This preschool period usually covers development from birth through six years of age. Topics in early childhood education may touch on imagination and magical thinking as well as attachments, bonds, and confidence. Healthy social and cognitive development is taught as well as psychological disorders such as autism. Language development skills are explored at length, as they incorporate both children’s social and cognitive learning abilities.

School-age and adolescent development classes will cover the next decade of the human life span. Professors teaching school-aged developmental psychology classes may focus on the development of social and behavioral skills, both normal and abnormal, while incorporating family and cultural dynamics. Adolescent stage classes focus on self confidence, identity, and the emotional and social challenges faced by this age group.

With improved access to health care and an growing elderly population, development across the remainder of the life span has recently been subdivided into both adult and mature adult--or elderly-- challenges and development. Conflicts and development do not stop at adolescence or young adulthood; adults face their own host of maturity and development challenges. Courses focusing on the adult life span may incorporate stressors of work, relationships, and families.

Regardless of where or how you intend to put your psychology major to work, you will encounter developmental challenges. Even if you do not intend to enter childhood counseling, an older adult may present with problems centered on their children or family. If you work in industrial psychology or management, a grasp of adult challenges and levels of maturity may influence your research or organizational skills.

Counseling Skills

A good tool for your psychology toolbox is a sharp set of counseling skills. Depending on your ultimate career path, you may be able to choose how many of the myriad counseling classes you must take for your major. After your introductory and prerequisite classes you will have the opportunity to get into the clinical portion of your education – advanced counseling skills are developed in the lab before they are practiced in real life.

Sit down and talk with your academic or career counselor. There are layers of courses related to counseling. Learn which ones are essential before throwing away money on useless credits. Your academic counselor can help you organize these classes, as most clinical courses have a host of prerequisites for lab time. Consider calling different psychology departments if you have not chosen a university for your academic studies. The faculty of each department controls the clinical and counseling experiences. You may be able to learn about the counseling topic choices before making a commitment.

Introductory courses to counseling may include foundations of psychotherapy and group or individual dynamic didactics. These courses provide the mental infrastructure and understanding of theories, interpersonal communications, and applications you need before flexing your verbal skills. Beginners or entry- level counseling courses also help you establish competence while building self confidence.

The clinical or lab portion of these courses may start with a class in observations. Students may observe real-time counseling sessions through one-way mirrors or simulated sessions for educational benefit. The didactic portion of your clinical may focus on exploring the scientific method including the techniques used in effective communication and establishing rapport with clients.

Advanced counseling classes will build on the foundation of knowledge established at the introductory level. These courses may provide multicultural or age-specific insight. Some examples of these course types are aggression counseling, adolescent challenges in communication, and correctional facility psychoanalysis.

Methods of Inquiry

Courses that focus on research skill development are essential to the psychology major. Whether you are completing your undergraduate or graduate course work, a method-of-inquiry class is a must. Although it may not be so obviously named (some courses are titled as research in psychology or research design), all such classes provide the same sort of empirical research education needed for graduation.

As with every course you consider for your major, sit down with your academic counselor and discuss the timing, relevancy, and prerequisites for this class. University requirements vary by college for prerequisites, although an introductory psychology class and a course in statistics is typically sanctioned.

Roll up your sleeves and get ready for a challenging mix of clinical and didactic work. The methods- of-inquiry class will require active participation in learning the scientific method of inquiry through observation, correlation, research, and lab or fieldwork. Relevant to every scientific profession, the scientific method in psychology is employed to gather and compile objective data that is used to support behavioral theory.

In the lab you will get introduced to field techniques, such as observation skills, that will be needed to formulate your objective data. Instructors will show you how to construct research methods for reproducible results – the only kind that matter in science. You will learn how to write research reports, and many courses conclude with your own research project, from conception to data-gathering to a completed report.

In the classroom, instructors may focus on teaching the various methods used in psychology research and theory construction. You will need a basic understanding of statistics as you learn about qualitative versus quantitative analysis. Learning about statistical probability and correlation techniques will help you understand research design and the works of those before you.

Obviously, if you desire a profession in psychology research this course is just the start of your journey – similar to an introduction to the scientific method. However, the skills you build in methods of inquiry are relevant to a number of mental health professions and tasks, including supporting treatment and counseling efficacy, development of tests and questionnaires, and education and developmental interventions.

Physiology Psychology

The term physiology refers to the combination of a structure and its function in anatomical terms. More commonly referred to as the field of neuroscience, physiology psychology courses teach the correlation between the anatomy of the central nervous system and behavior. Although this course may not be included in the university’s core curriculum for a major in psychology, neuroscience can be a minor, or even a stepping-stone to careers in neuropsychology.

Consider taking a neuroscience course as an elective to broaden your educational experience and explore your future career options. But be forewarned: Most college-level physiology lab work will include animal dissection to better appreciate the anatomical structure of the brain, eyes, and nervous system. This lab work is preceded by didactic education of the structures. Check with your university or career counselor as to what prerequisites, such as introductory psychology and biology, you may need. If you are considering a career path in neuropsychology your counselor may suggest taking courses such as chemistry, physics, and calculus concomitantly.

Anatomy and physiology of the brain and eyes will provide education about the structures of the brain, such as the right and left cerebral hemispheres and their corresponding physiological functions. You will learn about the correlation of sensory functions, such as between the eyes and the occipital lobe of the brain, or hearing and the tympanic lobes. In advanced classes you may learn about the damaging effects of stroke, cerebral vascular accidents, or traumatic brain injury and their impact on behavior.

The anatomical education will also explore the remainder of the nervous system including its autonomic functions. The autonomic system controls our unconscious behaviors – like breathing – as well as the fight-or-flight system, commonly referred to as an adrenaline release. Students of psychology can learn about the impact of our subconscious nervous system on our conscious behavioral choice.

The applications of physiology in psychology are myriad. Research may focus on the chemistry of addiction or the pharmacological impact of medications for psychological disorders, such as depression. Injuries or diseases that result in brain damage, such as traumatic brain injury from a concussion, can now be identified, studied, and treated because of the biological advancements of psychology.

Psychology Research

Psychology research may include either course work supporting your major or a project that is required as part of your matriculation. Courses in research are plentiful in this field as research provides the scientific basis and evidence of fieldwork. Real life applications may start with a student’s graduate thesis or research project; you could affect the world of psychology before you even graduate.

The graduation research requirement is eminently dependent on the faculty in the department of psychology at your chosen university. Undergraduate students may not have a research project requirement, but if they are considering master’s or doctoral programs, active participation and experience in psychology research may provide an edge in the competition for program placement. If you plan on graduating with a master’s or doctoral degree you will be expected to construct your own research project from idea conception through writing a formal research report.

If you are considering a bachelor’s of science in psychology, you may have to take research classes as part of your core curriculum. Classes in statistics and basic psychology are general prerequisites for research, but each university’s curriculum is different. Classes may start by teaching the theory and history of psychology research and move into the laboratory to refine assessment, observation, and data collection skills.

Contact the faculty in the psychology department at your university or the schools you are considering. Most collegiate research programs are chosen by the faculty and will reflect their areas of interest in psychology research. Learn about each program and apply early if you are interested – these programs usually accept only a handful of candidates, and spots fill up quickly.

The topics of applied psychology research are limitless. Organizations use research patterns to assess their infrastructure. Behavioral psychology incorporates research from neuroscience and counseling to better affect ongoing therapy choices. Labs study brain function in both animals and humans – healthy and otherwise – to assess the biological impact of our central nervous system on our behaviors.

Last Updated: 05/08/2014

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