The undergraduate psychology degree – overrated or misunderstood?

With media outlets such as news.com.au quoting McCrindle Research as finding that psychology is Australia’s most overrated degree, My Health Career thought we would look at if it is truly overrated or if it is simply misunderstood.

Employment rate

The McCrindle Research highlights the fact that undergraduate psychology is one of Australia’s most popular courses. Their data says that of these graduates, 40% are available for full time employment, and that of those working in full time employment 63% are actually working in their field of study. Their data states that the median starting salary for psychology graduates is $47,500.

The McCrindle Research data looked at some different measures compared to that compiled and published by Graduate Careers Australia in its 2013 GradStats report. According to GradStats, 56.1% of undergraduate psychology graduates were in full time employment within 4 months of finishing their course. A further 15.8% were seeking full time employment and not working, while a further 28.1% were working part time or casual hours while seeking full time employment. GradStats indicated that the median starting salary for psychology graduates was $50,000.

Skill and employment areas

According to the Australian Psychological Society, an undergraduate psychology degree graduate will have core skills such as applying psychological principles to personal, social and group issues; planning, implementing and evaluating research; thinking critically and creatively; using scientific methods to solve problems; communicating effectively in a variety of formats and settings; and acting professionally within an ethical framework.  They find employment or continue their studies in fields such as:

  • Community services and counselling
  • Business
  • Education
  • Health services
  • Protective services
  • Graduate programs

Prospects, the UK’s official graduate careers website lists jobs such as being a careers adviser, counsellor, human resources officer, psychotherapist and retail manager as occupations where an undergraduate psychology degree could be useful.

A real world perspective

To get a perspective of someone who has completed a psychology degree, used it to launch a career in human resources, and then went on to become a career coach, My Health Career asked Karen Bremner of Key Coaching to give her views:

“Despite the bad press that Psychology’s received lately, I still think it can be a great degree – if you understand what’s really involved, and where it can take you. In my experience, there are 2 main misconceptions about studying Psychology:  

1. It trains you to help people

Contrary to popular opinion, a degree in Psychology does not teach you to be a therapist of any kind. In fact, undergrad Psych students have no clinical placements – they only let you loose on people at Masters level, under strict supervision – so no, we really aren’t analysing you. 

What Psychology students do study is how people learn, think, perceive and interact with the world around them – through reading up on psychological research and experiments. You spend a lot of time analysing, comparing and contrasting studies and their hypotheses, and later on, you get to devise and evaluate your own studies. There’s a lot of reading and writing.

Finally, as the burden of proof for any experiment is statistical significance (ie is this study sound, can it be replicated, and is it measuring what we think?), you have to get familiar with statistics. It’s not high level (or I wouldn’t have passed!) but you do need to understand the concepts, to ‘speak’ Psychology.  

2. It’s a vocational degree

Psychology is essentially a foundation, reading-and-research-based degree, and as such, it gives you solid research, writing and analytical skills – along with a great understanding of human thought processes and behaviour. What it doesn’t do is make you directly job-ready.

To become a practicing Psychologist, you’ll have to complete a 2 year Masters course (for Clinical or Organisational Psychology, for example), or secure a supervised position (for generalist roles) – and as it’s a highly competitive field, you’ll need good grades, contacts and proven commitment, through related work experience.

But the skills and knowledge you gain can translate into lots of other areas, particularly those with a people-focus. I moved into HR, after completing a postgrad diploma in HR Management – a fairly common career path – and I know grads who went on to study Social Work, Law or Marketing as graduates.   

Straight from uni, others went into research roles, graduate programs, sales positions or (often) social service agencies, working with youth at risk, children in care, or the homeless. Again, having volunteer or vacation work in the area you want to pursue, will help you make that move.

In short, if you view study purely as a means to a job, then consider other, much more vocational courses – and pick up Psychology as an elective. But if you love learning, enjoy research and find people fascinating, it’s worth taking a closer look; visit uni libraries, read textbooks and check for yourself. Personally, I loved my degree, and it’s the foundation I’ve built from… whether it’s for you, depends on your goals.”

In summary

At My Health Career, we also think that this one-liner from Graduate Careers Australia sums it up….. While many psychology students go on to become registered psychologists, others use it as a stepping stone to different occupations or to broaden their knowledge and understanding of human behaviour.” We believe that psychology is not the sort of degree you want to enter without first investigating how it can be of benefit to you along your journey of getting to where you want to go.

So is the undergraduate psychology degree overrated? Not if you understand your intentions for going through the course and see it through.

More information on what to do with an undergraduate psychology degree can be found on the University of Kent website and the Higher Education Careers Services Unit (4.8MB PDF). My Health Career would like to thank the career development practitioners who suggested information to include in this article, including Clive May.

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