Best Practices for Undergraduate Psychology Career Planning Courses

By Mary Shuttlesworth and Laura Rose

Overview: Role of Career Planning Courses for Psychology Undergraduate Students

Psychology is one of the most popular undergraduate majors across the country (U.S. Department of Education, 2010). Despite its popularity, many students are uncertain of possible career paths and how to prepare for their future (Halonen, 2011). Career-planning courses represent one possible way to address these challenges, but such courses are only offered at 13% of U.S. institutions (Green, Allbritten, & Park, 2008).

Career planning courses may be especially important in disciplines like psychology, where receipt of a bachelor’s degree does not specify a certain career path. Some psychology majors (25% of them) will pursue graduate study immediately following graduation (Goldstein, 2010). The most popular subfields for graduate study include clinical and counseling psychology (Kohut & Wicherski, 2010). Other students may seek employment immediately, working in fields including sales, business, healthcare, human services and education (Kuther & Morgan, 2013). Given the wide range of possibilities for psychology majors, career planning courses may be instrumental in facilitating successful post-graduation plans.

The content of career planning courses may be dictated by many variables, including class size, timing of the course in students’ academic career, student interests and departmental/institutional goals. The authors of this article teach career planning courses at comparatively different institutions: a medium-sized, research university, and a small, liberal arts college. Despite variability among institutions, a similar framework may be applied to planning and designing such courses. Below are some best practices that work well in our career planning courses for undergraduate psychology majors. Practices are presented for students pursuing different pathways post-graduation: graduate school and employment.

Best Practices

Start by having students complete a personality assessment (e.g., FOCUS 2, Holland’s Self-Directed Search) that identifies career options that match student interests. Have students evaluate the assessment results (e.g., the pros and cons of each career) to guide potential career paths. Once students have selected potential careers of interest, have students research the requirements to attain these careers.

Have students explore careers in psychology and related subfields through assignments. For example, have students locate and watch videos that feature professionals talking about their psychology-related careers. Then, use the videos to stimulate class discussion. Alternatively, present students with case studies/descriptions of career paths and have students identify the associated subfield.

Have students practice interviewing skills using questions that are aligned with students’ intended career paths. In smaller institutions, require students to complete and record mock interviews with campus Career Services. Afterward, have students review the video and identify areas for improvement. In larger institutions, have students practice mock interviews in pairs during class meetings. Alternatively, show video footage (i.e., YouTube) of strong and weak interviews and ask students to critically evaluate the interviewee’s performance.

Discuss professional attire, and model this in each class. Create presentations on professional and unprofessional dress, complete with pictures of each. Stress to students that “looking good” and looking professional are not always the same thing. When feasible, require that students wear professional attire to certain class meetings (e.g., for in-class mock interviews). Contact your campus Career Services to learn about opportunities for students to purchase low-cost professional clothing, such as campus clothing drives and second-hand stores.

Best Practices for Students Pursuing Graduate School

Admission to graduate school in psychology can be highly competitive. Students may think earning solid grades represents sufficient preparation, but this is only part of the requirements. Offer and present data from the American Psychological Association Guide to Graduate Study in Psychology to inform students about program admission requirements they may not have considered. Also, include information about similar careers as alternate options for students to consider (e.g., counselor education or clinical social work as an alternative to clinical psychology).

For an assignment, have students research their top three graduate programs, complete with a detailed plan on how to successfully gain admission to these programs. Consider including additional assignments that require students to draft a personal statement and curriculum vitae tailored to their top choice.

Best Practices for Students Pursuing Employment

Include content that requires interaction with various campus professionals, including Career Services and Academic Advising. Consider inviting staff from each area to present the career-focused services they provide.

For an assignment, have students identify current job listings that they could get with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and then draft cover letters and resumes specific to the jobs. Provide guidance on how students can use their current experience/skills to match job posting requirements. Students may not see that the skills gained from part-time jobs, volunteer work, internships, campus involvement, and academic preparation transfer to professional employment. Stress that academic preparation in psychology promotes the development of many career-related skills, such as critical thinking, writing, and interpersonal skills. When feasible, require that students take their cover letters and resumes to Career Services for review. Otherwise, have students peer-review these documents in class.

A well-executed career planning course can help psychology students navigate the myriad choices that await them post-graduation. Such courses may be especially beneficial for nascent psychology students (first/second year, new majors) as a way to identify career goals and develop clear academic paths. As a result, psychology departments may produce well-informed, successful graduates who are prepared for a bright future.


Additional Resources

Goldstein, R. (2010). Major developments in undergraduate psychology. APS Observer, 23 (3), 23-26.

Green, R. J., Allbritten, A., & Park, A. (2008). Prevalence of careers in psychology courses in undergraduate psychology curricula. College Student Journal, 42, 238-240.

Halonen, J. S. (2011). Are there too many psychology majors? White paper prepared for the Staff of the State University System of Florida Board of Governors. Retrieved from http://www.cogdop.org/page_attachments/0000/0200/FLA_White_Paper_for_cogop_posting.pdf

Kohout, J. L. & Wicherski, M. (2010). 2011 Graduate Study in Psychology Snapshot: Applications, Acceptances, Enrollments, and Degrees Awarded to Master’s- and Doctoral-Level Students in U.S. and Canadian Graduate Departments of Psychology: 2009-2010. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/workforce/publications/11-grad-study/applications.aspx?tab=1

Kuther, T. L., & Morgan, R. D. (2013). Careers in psychology: Opportunities in a changing world. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Cengage.



Mary ShuttlesworthMary Shuttlesworth, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Mount Aloysius College in Cresson, PA. Shuttlesworth teaches several courses in psychology, including developmental, abnormal, testing and measurement, personality theories and career planning/professional development. Her research interests include eating disorders and ethnic identity, socioemotional development in preschool children, and teaching practices. Currently, Shuttlesworth is investigating the impact of various pedagogical practices on student learning. She can be reached at mshuttlesworth@mtaloy.edu



Laura RoseLaura Rose, PhD, is a full-time lecturer at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Her teaching and research interests include: child and adolescent development, early intervention, adolescent parenting, career development and graduate planning, and enhancing writing across the discipline. She teaches a variety of courses in psychology, including child development, research methods, statistics, and career-planning/professional development. She can be reached at laurose1@umbc.edu


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