Careers in Psychology

Careers in PsychologyBoth as a science and as a discipline of professional practice, psychology is concerned with why people behave the way they do. Psychologists produce scientific knowledge about behavior and apply that knowledge to a wide variety of areas. The field of psychology makes significant contributions to national and individual needs in areas ranging from health and education to industry and technology. People seek careers in psychology for many reasons. Some have specific goals: they wish to help people experiencing duress and illness. Some dream of identifying the basis for cognitive processes or developing a model to predict school performance or to make personnel decisions. Still others imagine building companies that capitalize on the newest knowledge about neuroscience or organizational systems. Some choose careers in psychology because they are curious about behavior and how the mind works; they are motivated by the excitement and beauty of the intellectual world and hope to formulate theories that will lead to new ways of thinking about our world. Others imagine educating people about the discipline of psychology or may want to shape public policy on issues of direct relevance to individuals, schools, groups, and society. Many psychologists will work in several of these domains across their careers.

As the techniques, knowledge, and applications of psychology become better known to the general public, the discipline is recognized as relevant to more and more careers. Today, psychologists can be counted among professionals in the realms of health, business, education, and government.

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Employment status varies greatly by educational level achieved. The highest paid and greatest range of jobs directly in the field of psychology are available to those with doctoral degrees. Unemployment rates for doctoral psychologists (1.3% in 1993) are slightly below the average for other doctoral scientists and engineers, which ranged from a low of 1% for computer and information scientists to a high of 3% in geology and oceanography that, same year (National Science Foundation, 1995). At least some of the unemployment reported by those with baccalaureate (24%) and master’s (6%) degrees is a consequence of the larger numbers graduating each year with bachelor’s (72,083 in 1994) and master’s (13,921 in 1994) degrees in psychology. Also, these degrees are stepping stones to other careers rather than terminal points or degrees permitting entry into a psychology position.

Sources of Data

The primary sources of data about careers in psychology are the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Research Of-ice of the American Psychological Association (APA). Each of these sources has strengths and limitations. The BLS data are self-reports by employers who are asked to provide the number of psychologists they employ and by employees who are asked to self-report their occupations. The major limitation of these data is the definition of what constitutes a psychologist, which can range across degree level and job activity. Data from individuals collected as part of the U.S. Census are limited in this way as well since they depend on individuals’ definitions of their occupations.

The NSF data provide a different view of careers because they are collected from doctoral students upon graduation and from samples of doctoral graduates throughout their careers. However, these data do not include psychologists with the doctor of psychology (Psy.D.) or doctor of education (Ed.D.) degrees and most often are reported in predetermined, combined categories (e.g., social sciences or psychology), making it difficult to observe patterns desegregated by subfields of psychology.

The APA data from new doctorates, including Psy.D.s and Ed.D.s, are a measure of jobs as self-reported by graduates within a year of their graduation. APA also collects information from its members about a variety of factors, including salaries and career paths. These data are limited by the characteristics of association membership.

Combined, these data give us important answers to the larger question we ask; however, no one source is without limitations. Each has been designed for different uses and with different target populations and each has different assumptions about the field of psychology. The composite picture must be viewed within the constraints that form it.

Doctoral Graduates

Careers in PsychologyThe most recent (1998) and best estimate of the number of doctoral-level psychologists in the United States is approximately 105,000. This figure was compiled by the APA Research Office from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Survey of Doctorate Recipients (SRS), augmented to include Ps.D. and Ed.D. recipients. Based on what we know about Ph.D. psychologists, 90% are employed; fewer than 1 % are unemployed and seeking employment. Of the employed psychologists, 79% are working full time; of those not employed, 2% are in postdoctoral positions and 5%, approximately 4,000 people, are retired. Combining all sources of information on careers in 1995 (Wicherski & Kohout, 1997), it is estimated that a majority (39.3%) of psychologists are employed in business settings, either as self-employed professionals or in business and incorporated private practices primarily in the service of health care delivery. Slightly fewer psychologists are employed in university and college (34.6%) or other educational settings (5.3%). The remaining psychologists are scattered among federal, state, and local government (11.6%) and private nonprofit settings (9%). Looking at employment settings of psychologists since 1973, the APA Research Office documents the dramatic shift in career paths away from academic settings primarily engaged in teaching (37%) and research (15%) to careers in professional services, primarily as health providers. By 1995, 53% of doctoral-level psychologists reported being involved in professional services, 14% in management, and about equal proportions in teaching (17%) and research (i6%). In today’s volatile marketplace, much speculation continues about changing career patterns for the discipline. The interim between 1993 and 1995 suggests a beginning upward trend toward psychologists in academic settings (i.e., colleges. universities. and medical schools) when compared proportionally, not in absolute numbers, with a concomitant drop in those in the for-profit and self-employed settings. Such a pattern is echoed in an analysis of APA Monitor job placement advertising for the academic year 1997-1998 and anecdotally by many practitioners. Other categories of job settings appear to have remained proportionally stable over this same 25-year period.

The number of new psychologists entering the marketplace each year for the last decade has remained relatively stable at approximately 4,000. Between 1973 and 1983, the number per year grew quickly, from approximately 2.500 per year to 3.500 per year. But the most dramatic growth in the discipline occurred between 1930, when about 100 new doctorates emerged in the marketplace each year, and 1960, when that number had grown to about 1,000 per year. The vast majority of psychologists are awarded the Ph.D. degree, which constituted 76% of all new degrees in 1995; the remaining new psychologists in 1995 were awarded a professional degree, doctor of psychology (22%) or doctor of education (2%).

One of the strengths of the discipline is the range of subfields in which a psychologist can focus his or her interests and expertise, a range broadly described by the 52 divisions presently recognized within the American Psychological Association. By far the most popular subfield in the discipline is clinical psychology, which captured 40% of new doctorates in 1995. Yet, in the most recent comparison of proportional employment status across subfields (as reported by the APA Research Office), 85% of new doctorates in industrial/ organizational psychology were employed full time compared with 81% of those with new degrees in social and personality psychology, 64% in health service providing subfields, 62°% in developmental and educational psychology, and 50% in physiological and experimental psychology. The relatively low full-time employment numbers of those with newly minted degrees in physiological and experimental psychology is countered by their relatively high proportion (40%) in postdoctoral positions. a pattern common to other sciences, such as chemistry and physics. Consistent with these interests, the primary employment settings of new 1995 doctoral graduates is predominately in health service positions, including managed care (45%), followed by academic and education and school settings (37%) and business, government. and other similar settings (18%).

In spite of the relatively good job market for psychologists, new doctoral recipients’ perceptions of their career opportunities has become substantially more negative over the past decade. During this period, the proportion reporting an excellent perception declined from 12% in 1989 to 3% in 1995. Although the reported perception varies by subfield, declines have been reported for all subfields of the discipline. Yet the time reported to be necessary to find employment has improved slightly during this same time period; a contradiction perhaps best understood by the increase of those reporting that they are “involuntarily out of field or underemployed.” Unfortunately, because this measure is self-reported, we are unable to determine if it represents an observable pattern of unexpected career paths or idiosyncratic choices.

An important aspect of careers, both to the individual and as a measure of social status and value, is earning power. Mean annual salaries of doctoral-level psychologists in 1997, as reported by the APA Research Office, mirror, albeit imperfectly, the trend observed in the subfield interests of new doctorates. Average annual salaries range from a low of $48.000 for those in faculty positions to a high of $80,000 for those in industrial/organizational psychology. Between these extremes are the health service providers, who earn on average between $60.000 in Veterans Administration hospitals or other direct human service positions and $74.000 in independent practice. Research administrators likewise earn salaries averaging $70.000 per year, whereas those in research positions report average annual salaries of $ 50,000. Starting salaries mirror these patterns in more restricted ranges, from $37,000 to $54,000. These salaries are achieved after a long period of formal education averaging more than seven years. an education that in 1996 brought 67%% of new doctoral recipients significant debt levels; of these, fewer than 35% reported debt levels less than $10.000, whereas 13% report debt levels more than $40,000.

Given the current volatility in jobs and the futurists’ predicted paradigm shift in the very definition of a job, when peering into the future of careers in psychology it is important to listen to what our new doctoral recipients say about their education. In general, these new psychologists report that the most useful learning they acquired include quantitative skills, teaching abilities, and administrative and communication expertise. Our new health service providers point to the business and management skills they need to begin their practices, knowledge of health care delivery systems, and short-term and brief therapy intervention techniques. We should be cognizant as well that when a sample of graduate students from all disciplines was asked which skills developed in graduate school are most valuable in the outside world, some of the most popular responses include: the ability to work productively with difficult people, the ability to work in high-stress environments, persistence, and circumventing the rules (Fiske, 1997)—not what faculty likely knew they were imparting but perhaps an important peek at both the marketplace and our preparation for it.

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Master’s Graduates

Careers in PsychologyA master’s degree in psychology provides the educational background relevant to a number of employment opportunities. The results of the most recent APA survey of 1996 master’s graduates is consistent with earlier reports that nationally the single greatest area of employment opportunity exists in human service agencies (50% of respondents). These settings include community mental health centers, clinics, retardation or substance abuse facilities, psychiatric hospitals, and other community social service agencies. But career options for master’s degree holders are limited by state licensing and certification regulations. The doctoral degree is recognized by all states as the academic degree level required for licensure as a psychologist in independent practice. There are some states that license at the master’s degree level, but it usually is a restricted practice license. Master’s graduates working in health delivery settings also conduct applied research to evaluate and/or manage programs.

A second major setting for employment of those with master’s degrees in psychology is in the schools and educational system (20% of respondents). Jobs in these environments include student guidance and counseling, psychoeducational testing, and working with special-needs children. Many master’s graduates in psychology also work in business, government, or other nonprofit organizations (15% of respondents). Jobs in these settings include research, consulting, program evaluation, employment testing, needs assessment, training and development, public policy analysis, and human resources management. And some master’s graduates (12°% of respondents) are employed in universities, colleges, and community colleges in work such as teaching, research, or career counseling.

Increasingly, graduates of master’s programs are employed in settings not traditionally considered to be part of psychology. These include architectural and legal firms; the entertainment industry; and advertising and marketing companies that conduct applied behavior research, for example, on driving behavior, health compliance, product use, or workplace safety. The critical thinking, behavioral observation, research, and interpersonal skills learned in a master’s program prepare graduates for many areas not generally labeled psychological but utilizing the kinds of knowledge and skills common to the discipline of psychology.

Median starting annual salaries reported by 1996 master’s graduates range from $26,000 for direct human service positions to $35,000 for applied and administrative positions. Like doctoral graduates, a large proportion of new master’s graduates report some cumulative debt level (60%) from their education years. Among those with debt. these levels are lower than for their doctoral counterparts; 16% report levels under $5,000, whereas 30% report debt in excess of $20,000.

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Bachelor’s Graduates

Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) DegreeSome people stop their formal education with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and find work related to their college major. They may be assistants in rehabilitation centers; or, if they meet state certification requirements, they can teach psychology in high school. But the study of psychology at the bachelor’s level is mostly preparation for other careers, most baccalaureate graduates find jobs in administrative support, public affairs, education, business, sales, service industries, health, the biological sciences, and computer programming. They work as employment counselors, correction counselor trainees, interviewers, personnel analysts, probation officers, and writers. Two thirds of those surveyed by the APA Research Office believe their jobs are closely or somewhat related to their psychology background and that their jobs hold career potential. As one banker with a bachelor’s degree in psychology commented: “Once you learn the principles of human behavior, they are always at the top of your mind, ready to be used.”

Because of the changing education and career landscape of baccalaureate recipients, the best view of careers of these graduates is provided by the APA Research Office’s Psychology Baccalaureate Survey (1997), which follows 1992 degree recipients at points in time after their graduations and extends the Baccalaureate and Beyond study done in 1993 by the National Center for Education Statistics. In 1994, 75% of these graduates were employed; a rate somewhat lower than that of other college graduates. Yet, of those unemployed, only 5% were seeking work. Most likely, these statistics reflect the likelihood that undergraduate psychology degree holders seek further education. Over half of the 1992 baccalaureate respondents were enrolled in or planned to continue their education. Of those having begun or having completed their graduate study by 1995, 39% reported psychology as their chosen field. Counseling (11%), education (10%), and social work (9%) were the next most popular fields of study, after which medicine (7%), law (5°%), and business (2°%) drew significant numbers.

Changing Demographic Patterns in Psychology

Doctor of Psychology Degree The shortage of minority researchers, practitioners, and college faculty in psychology is acute (APA, 1996). Only about 8% of psychological researchers and other behavioral scientists are members of minority groups, compared with 15°% in the biological and life sciences, 17%) in the physical sciences, and 18% in computer sciences and mathematics (Thurgood & Clarke, 1995).

Although minority groups make up 26% of the general population (US. Bureau of the Census, Washington, D.C., 1995), APA’s Research Office estimates that only 10% of all psychologists are members of minority groups. In 1993, there were 2,240 Black psychologists practicing as health providers out of 33 million Black Americans; 1,640 practicing Hispanic psychologists out of 23 million Hispanic Americans; 1,110 practicing Asian psychologists out of 9 million Asian Americans; and 410 practicing Native American psychologists out of 2.2 million Native Americans (NSF, 1995). This is troubling because research has shown that minority psychologists can treat clients from their own racial and ethnic groups more effectively than non-minority psychologists can (Meyers, Wohlford, Guzman. & Echemendia, 1991).

Today, 19% of college graduates who majored in psychology are from minority groups. At the graduate level, 16% are minority students, but only 8% of these students obtained doctoral degrees in 1998. This constricting pipeline for minority groups is of great concern. One solution is to bolster the diversity of college faculty in general and of psychology departments in particular. Of all college faculties, 12% are from minority groups, and of psychology faculty, 9% (National Center for Educational Statistics. 1993). This situation is particularly troubling given data showing that the presence of minority faculty is positively correlated with the recruitment and retention of minority students (Guzman & Messenger. 1991). Moreover, minority students are most likely to graduate if minority faculty members are available to serve as their mentors and role models (Striker et al., 1990).

The discipline has fared much better in attracting women. In the last 25 years, the number of women at all levels of education has grown significantly, currently accounting for 73% of bachelor’s degrees and 69% of new doctorates. Yet, although the pipeline is quite full, the concomitant success of these women remains elusive, as measured by salary level or job advancement (e.g.. tenure) achieved.

The Future

Predictions about long-term needs for psychological expertise suggest a rosy future (Branch. 1995: U.S. Department of Labor, 1994-1995). There are few areas of national or individual need to which psychological knowledge or skill cannot apply. Moreover, history demonstrates the ability of psychologists to shift areas in which to pursue the discipline, to apply their knowledge and skills, and to find employment. Whereas the discipline was once thought of in terms of teaching and research, it is now thought of in terms of application. But success will require continuing transformations, new applications, and career paths not yet identified.

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