Welcome to installment eight of College Transitions’ “So you want to be a….” series. Designed to help career-minded high school students think intelligently about their postsecondary journeys, these blogs will look at the financial, academic, and personal factors one should consider when exploring various professions.

PsychologistWhich “helping profession” is right for me?

The term psychologist likely conjures up an image of a professionally-attired individual scribbling on a notepad as a patient, reposed on a couch, shares traumas from their adolescence. This image is consistent with the work of a clinical psychologist, just one of a plethora of options in the diverse field of mental health services.

A host of specialty areas exist in the field of psychology: school psychology, sports psychology, organizational psychology, experimental psychology, forensic psychologists, and neuropsychologists, just to name a few. There are also many professional jobs in the mental health field that do not carry the “psychologist” label such as rehabilitation counselor, social worker, or special educator. Entrance into these positions typically requires only a bachelor’s degree. If you want the title of psychologist, you must plan to continue your higher education journey well beyond your undergraduate years.

Plan the financial end

Salaries in the mental health field will increase significantly based on the level of education required to enter a given field. Those with bachelor’s degrees in clinical or counseling psychology enter the field making less than $25,000 on average. Most will find entry-level employment in the behavioral/mental health field, working in positions such as a drug and alcohol counselor, probation officer, group home coordinator, or social worker. Master’s level psychologists will more than double-up their bachelor’s-only peers and those who eventually earn a Psy.D. or Ph.D. will see average earnings above $75,000 and if you become one of the top 10% of earners in the profession, over $110,000.

Does going to a prestigious undergraduate school help?

Since becoming a psychologist is guaranteed to involve education beyond the bachelor’s, the real question here becomes—can attending an elite undergraduate school give you a leg up if your goal is to one day attend a top Ph.D. program in the field?

Doctoral programs in clinical psychology are extraordinarily competitive. Admission rates at schools such as Boston University, Yale, and The University of Michigan are under 3%. Even “less competitive” psych programs have rates hovering between 5-10%. Therefore it figures that attending an undergraduate school such as Stanford or Berkeley could be a tiebreaker between two grad school applicants with 3.8 GPAs and GRE scores in the 95th percentile.

Of more importance than pure prestige, however, are the opportunities that a university grants its undergraduate psych majors. Undergraduates should take full advantage of openings to participate in research studies. Most psych departments offer ample opportunities as faculty members need assistance with conducting research studies. Firsthand experience with research will go a long way toward impressing a potential graduate institution. In fact, many of the most prestigious Ph.D. programs strongly recommend or require research experience.

Do I have to major in psychology?

Psychology has become a wildly popular college major, with the number of bachelor’s degrees handed out doubling since the late 90s. Oddly enough, only about a quarter of undergraduates who major in psychology actually go on to enter the field. Instead, many elect to pursue jobs in sales, government, advertising, and a number of other only obliquely-related vocations.

For those who are serious about a career in psychology, being a psych major is not necessarily a hardened prerequisite for all graduate programs in the field. While the majority of applicants to master’s and doctoral psych programs will possess a B.A. or B.S. in psychology or a closely related field, many programs only require the completion of a number of core classes.

Prerequisites vary from school to school. For example, Hofstra’s Ph.D. program requires that applicants have achieved a B or better in an undergraduate statistics course and an experimental psychology (lab) course. Pitt’s Graduate School of Psychology requires applicants to have completed a minimum of 12 undergraduate credits in psychology, one abnormal psych class, and one advanced mathematics course.

Many programs require applicants to take the GRE Psychology exam as well. It stands to reason that someone who majored in psychology will have an edge since they have received more formal schooling on the subject than non-majors.

Psy.D. vs. Ph.D.

The Psy.D., or Doctor of Psychology degree, is a fairly recent creation, having emerged in the 1970s to answer the call for better practical training for future clinicians. However, it is important that aspiring practitioners plan the financial end, given that most Psy.D. programs offer relatively little financial aid (aside from loans) and graduate students with debt running well into the six figures (Andrew and Michael also published a study that speaks to this debt). Ph.D.’s are a better route for those who wish to enter academia or other research-focused areas of the field, however, many who obtain a Ph.D. also enter the field as clinicians.

Ph.D. programs tend to be the more selective of the two, sporting admit rates less than half that of Psy.D. programs, on average. Ph.D.’s in psychology also typically take 1-2 years longer to complete due to the intensity of the research requirements associated with the dissertation phase.

Job Outlook

The job market for psychologists looks decent with positions expected to grow about as fast as average in the coming decade. Those with doctoral degrees or specialty certifications in fields such as school psychology or industrial-organizational psychology will fare best.

If you plan on pursuing graduate degrees in the mental health field, make sure you select a school with opportunities to participate in research and work closely with faculty. Hands-on experience plus top notch grades and standardized test scores will make you a quality candidate to continue your studies and eventually land the “helping” job of your dreams.

To read previous installments of the “So you want to be a…” series, click the links below:

So you want to be a lawyer…

So you want to be a doctor…

So you want to be a teacher…

So you want to be an engineer…

So you want to be a software developer/engineer/programmer…

So you want to be a financial analyst…

So you want to be a journalist…

Andrew Belasco
A licensed counselor and published researcher, Andrew’s experience in the field of college admissions and transition spans more than one decade. He has previously served as a high school counselor, consultant and author for Kaplan Test Prep, and advisor to U.S. Congress, reporting on issues related to college admissions and financial aid.