In my career as an academic, I have worked closely with many undergraduate students who have contemplated whether or not to major in psychology. Psychology is the second most popular major in the U.S. (after business), yet when it comes to career planning, many people believe they cannot get a job in psychology or a related field without a graduate degree. A recent report summarizing the best- and worst-paying master’s degrees also proves discouraging, given that counseling and social work were two of the lowest paid degrees on the list.
Career decision making is complicated because you need to factor in your interests, skills and abilities, and the needs of yourself and others. All of these factors also change over time. For example, I have had to make a number of career decisions in my life that led me to my job as an associate professor of psychology at Colorado State University; as a single mother right now, I am not sure I would or could make the same choices today. Work-life balance is important to a lot of people,1 and many high paying jobs do not afford such a nice balance for those who have or desire a family.
What bothers me about reports of salaries is that our career choices are determined by so much more than just money. People do work for extrinsic reasons like money, because let’s face it, we all need to eat! But they also work for altruistic reasons such as helping others, and intrinsic reasons such as doing it simply because they enjoy it. Psychologists who study work (vocational psychologists) have long known that finding the right “fit” for a person’s personality is essential for finding “meaning” in what he or she does for a living.2 In other words, if you love people and communicating with others, then sitting behind a computer screen all day long may not make you entirely satisfied. You may like the pay check, but if the job itself does not match what you intrinsically enjoy doing, then you may hate getting up for work every day, and end up wondering what or who you are doing it for.
Many of the students I work with are fascinated by psychology and human development, and they greatly enjoy helping people. However, they also often hold the belief that doing rewarding work is not financially rewarding. I will not disagree with the fact that starting salaries in many helping fields (e.g., counseling) are lower than those in other fields (e.g., computer science), but money is not everything. We derive greater meaning in life when our careers match our interests, and we approach learning with the desire for more personal growth and to learn skills that will change the world.3 Being open minded and creative when it comes to career planning and the possibilities each degree program offers can lead to not only financial stability, but also personal fulfillment.
Read more about some of the types of careers people find most fulfilling, and let us know what factors are important to you when making important career planning decisions.
1 Dupuis, A. (2007). Work-life balance: Rhetoric or “reality”? In M. Waring & C. B. Fouche (Eds.), Managing mayhem: Work lifebalance in New Zealand. Wellington: Dunmore Pres.
2 Hansen, J. C. (2013). A person-environment fit approach to cultivating meaning.In B. J. Dik, Z. S. Byrne, & M. F. Steger (Eds.),Purpose and meaning in the workplace, pp. 37-55. Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.