Majoring in psychology is a rather popular choice in the realm of undergraduate education. The latest data from the National Center for Educations Statistics ranks psychology in the top five of all degrees conferred in the 2010-2011 academic year. That's both a reflection of ongoing growth in the field of psychology itself, and the wide array of career options open to graduates with a degree in psychology. However, it's important to note that a bachelor's degree in psychology is only the first step on the path to becoming a practicing psychologist: Formal licensure as a psychologist generally requires at least a master's degree, and in most cases a Ph.D. or the equivalent is the gold standard for clinical work and research in the field. That said, the analytical skills associated with a bachelor's degree in psychology are particularly useful in any job that relies on an understanding of human behavior, from sales and marketing, to education and community work in the area of human services.
BA vs. BS: Choosing the Right Program
One crucial consideration in pursuing an undergraduate degree in psychology concerns the difference between earning a bachelor of arts or a bachelor of science degree. Some four-year colleges and universities offer both a BA and a BS in psychology, while others offer only one or the other. In theory, a BS program would include a stronger focus on the applied science of psychology, while a BA would encompass broader exposure to general educational requirements outside of psychology. In reality, however, the two undergraduate degree programs are usually quite similar. As the American Psychological Association notes, "In truth, there is often little difference between the two degrees. Even when a school offers a choice of either a BA or BS, your decision may not be all that critical. The important consideration is taking courses that will prepare you for the program you want to enter as a graduate student." And, as the APA goes on to point out, "In general, graduate programs require only introductory psychology, statistics and experimental psychology/research methods."
Coursework and Core Concepts
As a social science concerned primarily with studying the human mind and behavior, psychology is both quantitative in nature and philosophical in scope. It requires scientific rigor, as well as strong communication skills and the perspective that comes with applying a multi-disciplinary approach to problem solving. So, a bachelor's degree in psychology is typically part of a four-year program that includes traditional core requirements in the humanities, including English and history, as well as math and the sciences. Writing and communication are as important in psychology as statistical analysis and biology/physiology, and the ability to think critically, synthesize information, and communicate clearly are vital in the field.
While those should all be prime considerations for any student enrolling in a bachelor's degree program in psychology, there are also a number of targeted areas within the discipline that are typically central to a psych major. Here are some of the more common courses students can expect to encounter on their way to a psychology degree:
- Research Methodology and Statistical Analysis: Learn how to create studies of human behavior that yield results which can be measured and analyzed quantitatively and qualitatively.
- Biopsychology: Understanding the physiological and neurological foundation of human behavior, including how the nervous system functions and interacts with the brain, and the impact that biological processes like eating and sleeping have on mental processes.
- Cognitive Psychology: The study of how the mind processes information and sensory input, from perception and memory, to language, reasoning, and decision making.
- Clinical Psychology: The diagnosis, treatment, and understanding of emotional and behavioral disorders, including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and learning disabilities.
- Social and Cultural Psychology: The quantitative study of how social and cultural factors influence the thoughts, feelings, and ultimately the behavior of individuals.
- Ethical Principles in Psychology: A survey of the standards and best practices applied in both the clinical and theoretical study of the human mind and behavior, and how these principles are applied in field research and other areas of psychological investigation.
Additional topics typically covered at the bachelor's level include:
Bachelor's in Psychology Concepts
- Research methods
- Physiological psychology
- The development of motor skills, cognition, morals, language, etc.
- The nature of human growth and development from childhood to adolescence to adulthood
- Recognizing the impact of individual, cultural, and linguistic differences on development
- Generally accepted protocols for statistical analysis
- Personality evaluation and theories regarding treatment of psychological disorders
- Anatomy and physiology of the brain, spinal cord, peripheral nervous system, etc.
Career Options, Salaries, and Job Outlook
One of the big advantages of earning a degree in psychology is that it can lead to many different ends and career outcomes. A psychology major might go on to medical, law, or business school. Or, as the APA suggests, earning an undergraduate degree in psychology is the best preparation for pursing graduate work and ultimate a job in the field as a licensed, practicing psychologist in any number of different settings. Indeed, a master's degree or Ph.D. is essentially a requirement for working as a professional psychologist. However, the body of knowledge that comes with earning a BA or a BS in psychology has other practical applications. Here are just a few of the areas in which graduates with a psychology degree can find work:
- Sales and Marketing
- Social Work
- Research Assistant
- Education and Youth Programs
- Substance Abuse Treatment and Rehabilitation Services
- Human Resources
The combination of analytical, critical thinking, and communication skills, along with the understanding of human behavior that comes with an undergraduate degree in psychology are applicable across a immense range of callings and careers. So, the options are quite broad and varied. Earning potential in the workforce varies from job to job, and field to field. However, the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics assessments indicate that the unemployment rate for those with a bachelor's degree is nearly half that for those without -- 3.5% versus 6%. And, the median weekly salary for those holding a bachelor's degree is almost double that of those with only a high school diploma -- $1,101 vs. $668. Earning a BA or BS in psychology may, in most cases, be just the first step on a path to postgraduate work in psychology or another professional pursuit, but having the degree, and the skills that come with it, has immediate benefits as well.