How to Turn Your Psychology Degree Into a Lucrative Career

When you look over the 2013 College ROI Report, it’s pretty obvious that schools with strong STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) programs top the list. But even if you aren’t drawn to study a classical STEM major, it doesn’t mean you can’t work in a STEM job. As a member of PayScale’s Data Team, I put my psychology degree to work for me and landed a good-paying job while studying a subject that fascinated me.

When people think of psychology, they tend to think of touchy feely support groups and experiments being run on naïve college freshman. They don’t think of long hours picking apart case studies, endless statistics classes, or the deliberate methodological design behind those experiments. And they very rarely think of any sort of career path outside teaching or counseling.

A psychology degree doesn't have to be a drag

The reality is that job prospects outside of the STEM fields aren’t that great. The top jobs for a psych major with a bachelor’s degree and no higher are Administrative Assistants, Human Resource Managers, Case Managers, and Customer Service Representatives. A small number of B.A.-carrying psychology students become Substance Abuse Counselors, or Behavioral Analysis Therapists. Few enter into a field that directly relates to psychology, or even science.

I stumbled into the STEM field searching for an alternative to teaching or counseling. When I set out to find a job post-college, I had this vague notion of doing “research” but no idea what kind of job titles to even enter into the search bar.

Why don’t more psychology, or other non-STEM majors, consider working in the lucrative STEM fields? Part of the reason for this, I believe, is the way a lot of psychology programs are structured. Many programs don’t offer research methodology courses (mine were required by the major), and instead of offering required math classes taught by researchers in the psych department, they ship their students off to the much more intimidating, abstract math department. I was lucky enough to be taught statistics by psychology professors, some of whom specialized in quantitative psychology, using psychological research as a relatable back-drop. For a major that attracts a lot of math-phobic folks, this can help nurture the development of key analytic skills psych majors didn’t even know they had.

Using my psychology degree to find a job in data analysis was definitely the less-traveled path, so it was hard to find mentors who could give me advice in my journey. The roads to become a therapist or a research professor are well-trodden, while other related professions (a usability researcher specializing in human-machine interaction, an experimental psychologist for a video game company, a life coach, a violent crime resource specialist, a research analyst) are ones that you have to plot out on your own..

As a Research Analyst, I utilize the analytical skills that I learned while getting my psychology degree on a daily basis. Being able to mine large quantities of information quickly, compare datasets, draw conclusions and continually question the results, are all cornerstones of developing a scientific mind. Learning to use syntax in SPSS in college lent itself to eventually learning Python and SQL on the job, and the endless APA-style paper writing later aided in drafting specs for new features. I’m a living, breathing testament to the fact that you don’t have to be a computer science major to work in tech. You can study a subject you love and have a lucrative career if you make sure to explore all your career options and plan your courses around jobs that interest you.

Here are some things to think about if you are considering studying psychology in college, but not sure if you’ll get a good return on your investment in your education:

  1. Think about what aspects of psychology appeal to you the most. Is it being able to help or understand people? Is it throwing new concepts against the wall and seeing what sticks? Focus on the aspects that mean the most and look for jobs that enable you to do them.
  2. Look for people who are doing what you want to do and reach out to them. Odds are they’ve encountered the same exact road-blocks and would be excited to talk to you. Plus, they might turn into a great networking connection later.
  3. Use PayScale data to help decide which school to attend. PayScale's College ROI Report tells you which schools give you a better monetary return on investment, and PayScale's College Selector Tool helps you find schools that offer the suject you want to study and ranks them in order of College ROI, how meaningful alumni rate their jobs and whether you already know people through Facebook who have attended that school.

Tell Us What You Think

Did your education give you a good return on investment? Were you able to take a less lucrative field of study and turn it into a career that pays you back? Tell us on Twitter or in the comments below.

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