During a recent campaign event in South Carolina, Republican Presidential candidate Jeb Bush took a shot at psychology majors, suggesting most will not go on to find good jobs after graduating.
“Universities ought to have skin in the game,” the former Florida governor said at a South Carolina town hall with Sen. Tim Scott and Rep. Trey Gowdy. “When a student shows up, they ought to say ‘Hey, that psych major deal, that philosophy major thing, that’s great, it’s important to have liberal arts … but realize, you’re going to be working a Chick-fil-A.'”
Not surprisingly, Bush’s remarks were widely condemned by those in the psychological community. And many took to social media using the hashtag #thispsychmajor to showcase their professional accomplishments and to discuss the importance of psychology to everyday life.
As this online effort has demonstrated, there are clearly many talented and successful former psych majors making a difference in the world. Mental health experts, therapists, researchers, and teachers are just a few examples. But perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss Bush’s remarks – or at least the implication behind his remarks. Moreover, let’s be careful not to treat an online collection of personal anecdotes (as inspiring as they may be) as categorical proof that Bush is wrong.
Although I personally believe that psychology is an important scientific field with much to offer society, those who take to Twitter and Facebook to refute Bush clearly constitute a biased and self-selected sample. The ones who feel most compelled to speak out about their accomplishments are likely also the ones who have the greatest number of professional accomplishments to begin with. In fact, a cursory inspection suggests that many who have been chiming in on the #thispsychmajor discussion have advanced graduate-level degrees and training.
Bush’s remarks are vague, but I doubt his criticism was directed toward those with a master’s or doctoral degree. Nor do I believe his point was that psychology is unimportant or not useful. Rather (and maybe I’m being too generous), I suspect his point was that there are few jobs in psychology available to those with only a bachelor’s degree. So unless one is planning to attend graduate school and pursue a master’s degree (an option that is not always financially feasible), majoring in psychology might not be a great idea.
Such an argument is not altogether controversial. After all, even some academics regard the undergraduate psychology major as a mere stepping stone or jumping off point in one’s education – with the primary goal being to prepare students for graduate-level training in a more specialized area (e.g., clinical psychology, counseling psychology, school psychology, cognitive psychology, etc.).
Moreover, Bush is not the first to suggest that psychology has an employment problem. In 2011, CBS News included five areas of psychology on their list of the 25 college majors with the worst unemployment rates (although the American Psychological Association disputes such rankings).
And as I’ve written elsewhere, full-time employment in psychology lags behind that of other scientific disciplines even for graduates with a Ph.D.
To be clear, I’m not defending Bush. But I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for the sake of being civil (his campaign is imploding, after all) and for the sake of furthering discussion of what I see as an important issue.
So what exactly are the employment prospects of undergraduate psychology majors? Are things as bad as Bush suggests? To find out, let’s set aside cherry-picked anecdotes about inspiring success stories and delve into some hard numbers.
The Employment Profile of College Graduates with a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology
What are the employment prospects for students who graduate with a bachelor’s degree in psychology?
To find out, I turned to the National Science Foundation Survey of Recent College Graduates, a cross-sectional survey providing demographic and career information about individuals holding a bachelor’s or master’s degree in a science, engineering, or health field from a U.S. academic institution.
All numbers reported below are from 2010, the most recent year for which data are available, and pertain to graduates with a bachelor’s degree only. I’ve attempted to place the data for psychology graduates in context by including a side-by-side comparison to graduates from other scientific and health-related disciplines.
1. What is the unemployment rate for students with a bachelor’s degree in psychology?
At 7.78%, psychology has the 3rd highest unemployment rate among the ten broad fields of science and engineering included in the NSF survey. Mathematics/Statistics has the highest unemployment rate at 10%, and Social and Related Sciences has the second highest unemployment rate at 7.94%. Health Science has the lowest unemployment rate at 3.49%.
2. What types of jobs do psychology majors tend to get?
Seventy three percent of college graduates with a bachelor’s degree in psychology work in either Management, Sales, and Administration (35%) or Other Activities (37.86%), a category which includes “production, operations, and maintenance.”
3. Are most psychology majors able to obtain full-time work?
As of 2010, most graduates with a bachelor’s degree in psychology were not employed full-time. At 49.44%, psychology has the second lowest full-time employment rate among all fields of science and engineering included in the NSF survey. Computer/information sciences has the highest full-time employment rate at 77.78%, and Biological/agricultural/environmental life sciences has the lowest full-time employment rate at 45.36%.
*Note: Although part of the explanation for the low full-time employment rate in psychology might be the large percentage of women in the field, a similar pattern is observed for graduates with a Ph.D. even after accounting for gender.
4. What is the median starting salary for recent psychology graduates?
At $30,000/year, psychology has the lowest median starting salary among all fields of science and engineering included in the NSF survey. Engineering has the highest median starting salary at $58,000/year.
5. Do psychology majors tend to find jobs in their field following graduation?
Unfortunately, no. Among all the fields of science and engineering included in the NSF survey, psychology has the smallest percentage of graduates employed in the same field as their degree (only 5%). Furthermore at 81%, psychology has the second-highest percentage of graduates employed in non-science and engineering occupations (Non-S&E occupation), behind only Social and related sciences (86%).
As any psychological scientist or professional psychologist will hopefully tell you, psychology is an incredibly important field. Not only do psychologists help those with debilitating mental illness, we also contribute important scientific findings to fields as diverse as education, public health, and human-computer interaction.
But most of this work is conducted by those with professional and advanced degrees.
So what are the employment prospects for students who pursue a terminal bachelor’s degree in psychology? Are undergraduate psych majors doomed to low paying positions at fast food restaurants, as Jeb Bush recently suggested?
Although we don’t know the exact percentage of psychology graduates currently employed at McDonald’s or Chick-fil-A, there fortunately seems little evidence that things are quite as bad as Bush suggests. Even though psychology has a higher rate of unemployment than many other fields of science, the unemployment rate in 2010 was nonetheless below the national average of 9.6% at the time. But this is pretty much where the good news ends.
The median starting salary for psychology graduates is lower than that of all other fields of science. It’s also lower than that of most other college majors. Moreover, the vast majority of college graduates with a bachelor’s degree in psychology do not go on to work in the field of psychology. Most (73%) end up working in management, sales, administration, production, operations, or maintenance.
Now I don’t mean to imply that graduates can’t be successful or happy in a career unrelated to their college major. Certainly they can. And evidently they must try. But in such cases, the path to professional success and happiness is likely to be a bit more roundabout. One wonders whether, for many, it might make more sense to select a different college major from the start.
And for those who have a true passion for working in the field of psychology, getting a bachelor’s degree is an obvious first step. But it is only this – a first step.
Brian Kurilla is a psychological scientist with a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology. You can follow Brian on Twitter @briankurilla