What Is a Psychology Degree?

Learn about Coursework, Jobs, and Salaries for Psychology Majors

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Psychology is one of the most popular undergraduate majors in the United States, topped by only business and nursing. Well over 100,000 students earn bachelor's degrees in psychology each year according to the Digest of Education Statistics. Psychology is a social science that examines human behavior and cognition. The major can be an excellent choice for students who are interested in studying why humans behave the way they do, and the field has broad relevance to daily life.

Many college students are first introduced to the field of psychology through a general education course such as Introduction to Psychology. From there, psychology programs can have diverse foci ranging from child psychology to mental health. Some schools offer a bachelor of arts in psychology while others have bachelor of science programs. The degree can lead to a wide range of employment options, although students hoping to become psychologists or counselors will need to continue their schooling to earn an advanced degree.

Careers for Psychology Majors

While becoming a psychologist may seem like the obvious career path for a psychology major, the majority of majors do not follow that route. Psychology, like many majors within the liberal arts and sciences, teaches students broad and versatile skills in critical thinking, writing, and problem solving. Combined with the specialized knowledge of the field, the skills acquired by studying psychology can lead to a broad range of career options:

Social Work: This is a broad area of employment that is both demanding and in demand. In broad terms, social workers help people who are in need by providing advice, monitoring progress, and helping arrange services that clients need.

Human Resources: HR specialists work to recruit and hire employees, and they also focus on employee relations, training, and benefits. The field requires both interpersonal skills and quantitative expertise, so a psychology major provides excellent preparation.

Marketing: Both advertising and marketing are logical fits for someone with a psychology degree. Selling a product, after all, is all about creating the messaging that targets human needs and desires. The field can also involve statistical analysis, something that psychology undergraduates study.

Career Counselor: Career counselors can work in schools, colleges, or private organizations. They help clients assess their skills and abilities to find suitable career options, or they may help clients figure out what additional training they need to change careers.

Child Care Worker: Psychology majors have valuable knowledge for working with children in a wide range of child care settings.

Teaching: Teaching certification typically requires coursework in child psychology and developmental psychology, so a psychology major is often a logical choice for future teachers.

Psychologist: You won't be able to become a psychologist without earning an advanced degree in psychology, but many undergraduate psychology majors do choose to go on to graduate school. With a bachelor's degree, however, you will be able to work in the mental health field as an assistant or technician.

Psychology majors often pursue graduate programs outside of the social sciences. A bachelor's program in psychology can be excellent preparation for earning an MBA, medical degree, or law degree.

College Coursework for Psychology Majors

Course requirements will vary from school to school, and a bachelor of science program will have somewhat more stringent requirements than a bachelor of arts program. Many schools also have a variety of options for concentrations that will affect course choices. For example, a psychology major may concentrate in general psychology, clinical psychology, experimental psychology, child psychology, or organizational psychology.

Although the curriculum will vary from one program to the next, some courses are relatively common for all programs:

  • Introduction to Psychology
  • Psychological Methods and Statistics
  • Psychological Research and Design
  • Neuropsychology

Elective courses, or those required for specific concentrations, might include courses such as these:

  • Psychopathology
  • Clinical Procedures
  • Sensation and Perception
  • Cognitive Development
  • Theories of Personality
  • Psychology of Gender
  • Social Development

Along with these courses in psychology, majors will also have requirements in other areas of the sciences, humanities, and social sciences.

Best Schools for Studying Psychology

Nearly every college in the country offers a degree in psychology, and most of those programs are going to offer a quality education that will open the doors to rewarding careers or graduate programs. Sometimes, in fact, a small program at a less prestigious school will offer opportunities and personal attention not available at some of the best known programs. With those caveats in mind, the colleges and universities below all tend to top the national rankings for their psychology programs:

  • Stanford University: Stanford is a painfully selective (5% acceptance rate) private research university located in California's Bay Area. The school tends to top the rankings for psychology at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. The university is a research powerhouse, and students will find opportunities to work with professors and graduate students in six areas of specialization.
  • Yale University: One of the prestigious Ivy League schools, Yale is highly selective with an acceptance rate of 7%. Psychology is one of the more popular majors at the university, and the school also has robust master's and doctoral programs in the field. Students will find plenty of research opportunities as well as a strong placement record for internships. Students can choose between a BA or BS track.
  • University of Illinois—Urbana Champaign: UIUC is one of the nation's top public universities, The large program awards roughly 500 bachelor's degrees annually, and the large size means students have an impressive breadth of course options. Psychology majors at UIUC can choose from 10 different concentrations.
  • University of California—Berkeley: UC Berkeley is another of the top public universities in the United States, and its psychology program consistently does well in the national rankings. Majors earn a bachelor of arts degree, and they have access to wide-ranging research and internship opportunities. The university graduates over 200 psychology majors a year.
  • Harvard University: A prestigious Ivy League school with an acceptance rate below 5%, Harvard's BS program in psychology frequently ranks among the best in the country. The university's $40 billion endowment means that it can afford stellar faculty members and provide generous financial aid. Students can choose between a general track, neuroscience track, and cognitive science track.
  • University of Michigan: A top public university located in Ann Arbor, the University of Michigan has impressive psychology programs at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. The university graduates over 600 students a year through the psychology major and the affiliated major in biopsychology, cognition, and neuroscience.

All of the schools listed above are internationally known research universities, and these types of schools tend to dominate national rankings because of the resources they can devote to faculty research. Realize, however, that many small liberal arts colleges also have strong psychology programs, and the sole focus on undergraduate education can have many advantages.

Average Salaries for Psychology Majors

Given the broad range of career options for psychology majors, an "average" salary isn't an overly useful measure. That said, payscale.com states that the median pay for early career psychology majors is $42,000 a year, and that rises to 70,700 by mid-career. Some specializations to a little better than this. The median early-career pay for organizational psychology majors is $48,300, and by mid-career the median pay goes up to $87,200.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics provides median salaries for different possible careers available to psychology majors. For example, human resources specialists earn a median pay of $63,490 per year, while advertising and marketing managers have a median pay of $141,490.

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Grove, Allen. "What Is a Psychology Degree?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 1, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-psychology-degree-5191117. Grove, Allen. (2021, August 1). What Is a Psychology Degree? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-psychology-degree-5191117 Grove, Allen. "What Is a Psychology Degree?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-psychology-degree-5191117 (accessed September 22, 2021).