New Options for Scientific Psychology Grads

The days when a psychology degree meant work as a college instructor or a counselor are gone. Today's research-trained psychologists are finding work in a variety of careers. And the horizon appears to be expanding.

Today, scientific psychologists are finding a much broader selection of job opportunities awaiting them when they finish school.

They work within law enforcement. They work in the legal field. They even help design the cockpits of today's jet aircraft.

In the world of the social sciences, psychology is still a relative youngster. It is derived from two parent disciplines: biology and philosophy. The word "psychology" is derived from the Greek words "psyche" (meaning "the spirit") and "logos" (which means "the study of"). Psychologists study the human mind and human behavior.

Research psychologists help lay the ground rules for that study by investigating the physical, cognitive, emotional or social aspects of human behavior.

Psychologists study two critical relationships: one between brain function and behavior, and one between the environment and behavior. The second field has made psychologists such a sought-after commodity.

Mike Aamodt is a psychology professor at Radford University in Radford, Virginia. He notes that the demand for scientific psychologists in non-academic positions isn't new.

"It has actually been there for a long time. However, because human behavior is so complicated, we are seeing an increased reliance on research rather than feelings and intuitions to make important decisions about people," says Aamodt.

A report on the American Psychological Association's (APA) website indicates that only about 50 percent of today's psychologists are currently working in the academic field.

However, many psychologists are finding that the skills and expertise they possess are highly valued by employers outside of academia.

Richard Tees is head of a university psychology department.

The demand for psychologists comes from two sources, according to Tees. Psychologists themselves are actively seeking out new and challenging careers. They are also being pursued by government agencies and large corporations who hope to get a leg up on the competition.

"These non-academic, nontraditional companies -- and it could be private companies and it could be government -- recognize that there are knowledge and skills out there that they need to get a competitive advantage over the people down the street who don't have psychologists on their roster," says Tees.

With so many new career paths now available to graduate students, you might think that the demand for those students would increase.

Ken Lloyd is a management consultant based in Encino, California. He writes a nationally syndicated workplace advice column. He is also the author of Jerks at Work: How to Deal with People Problems and Problem People.

Lloyd notes that there are a number of things that can affect demand.

"External demand for students is a function of many factors, not the least of which is the economy," says Lloyd. "In fact, during the current slowdown, applications to graduate programs are up substantially. Universities look at the very big picture when revising existing programs or establishing new ones."

Aamodt adds that the increased number of options available to research psychologists is affecting some universities' ability to keep up with the demand.

"We are already feeling the impact in some fields. For example, in fields such as industrial psychology, it is very difficult to find faculty members because industry is willing to pay salaries two and three times those offered by universities," he points out.

Lloyd's advice for students who are considering a non-academic career: Make sure you have an idea where you want your career to go. And be prepared for constant upgrading.

"In selecting a graduate program, you should at the very least have an idea of your career direction. During your graduate program, your career objectives will become clearer," says Lloyd.

"However, in today's rapidly changing world of work, you can expect many changes along the way, during grad school and beyond. No matter what educational direction you choose, you will be taking classes after grad school or you will quickly become obsolete."