So You Want to Be a Psychology Major?
While the liberal arts are constantly under fire for the perceived value, the Psychology major is still one of the most popular choices on college campuses.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Psychology was a more popular major than Biology and Biomedical Sciences, Communications, and any other social science including Political Science and Economics. Nearly 118,000 bachelors degrees in Psychology were awarded by four-year colleges in 2016.
Curious to know why the Psychology major is so popular, I stopped by The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) to visit Dr. Shaun Wiley, chair of the school’s Psychology department. A native of Northern California, Shaun is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College (NY) with a doctorate from the City University of New York. He is a social psychologist whose research interests include group responses to disadvantage; immigration and cultural diversity; group identity and intergroup relations, and collective action. Shaun was generous with his time as we covered answers to a few questions.
What type of student should consider majoring in Psychology?
Psychology is a good field to branch out from, especially if you are fascinated by people and want to learn about human behavior. It’s a “hub discipline” often combined with other majors such as Biology or Economics that may connect into more applied fields such as Counseling, Human Resources, Marketing, Medicine and Public Health. It’s also an excellent major for students who want to work in a therapeutic or clinical setting.
Which high school courses, especially AP or honors, are helpful in preparing for the major?
An AP course in Psychology is useful. The high school course is more watered down, but it helps students to find out if they may like the major, and they learn that the subject is more than abnormal psychology and “everything else.” Freud is actually discussed more in English Literature classes in than in Psychology.
AP Statistics is also very helpful. Prior exposure to statistics in high school will make it feel less like a “foreign language” in college and makes you feel more comfortable doing research in the scientific method. A psychology student learns to motivate an argument, state a researchable question, write a thesis and use evidence to support it, much like a science major. So take as many science courses as possible. Psychology is a science. If you do not like science, you will not like Psychology.
Does TCNJ offer advanced standing for students with AP credit?
Just under half of our students enter the major as freshmen with AP credit in General Psychology; they receive credit if they score a 4 or 5 on the exam. That gets them a little more flexibility for an elective. But we require a Psychology major to take our methods sequence, which includes statistics. So we do not give AP credit for that course.
What do you learn in the introductory course in the Psychology major?
The General Psychology course is like a wine tasting. You might know that there are white and red wines. But you soon learn that there are many different types of white and red wines. Our introductory course covers the various disciplines within the field, how to use the scientific method, and the history of the field.
How large is the introductory course?
We cap enrollment at 28 students. When I taught the course at Hunter College in New York, I had 250 students and one teaching assistant, who was an undergraduate. Students get more support when things go wrong at a smaller school.
Do classes get even smaller after that?
Foundations courses, which cover the different disciplines within Psychology, have no more than 25 students. Specialized courses, which cover narrower topics within the disciplines, have no more than 18.
Aside from smaller classes, do students receive further benefits from their education?
Our students may also work directly with faculty on research up to three times during their education. By the time they graduate, three-quarters will have been in a research lab. A junior or senior major who is motivated towards a clinical or research career is much like a second-year graduate student in a doctoral program. They attend professional conferences and present written papers, just like doctoral students. The research focus helps not only with students who want to earn a doctorate, but also those who work in medicine.
What are some other educational options for a Psychology major besides the PhD or the MD?
The PsyD degree offers an entry into therapeutic occupations. It is more focused on internships, and less on research. But unlike PhD students who receive tuition, fees and a stipend, PsyD students usually pay for their degree.
TCNJ has an articulation agreement with Bryn Mawr that offers a semester of credits towards their Masters in Social Service (MSS). The MSS trains students to become licensed clinical social workers. We also have an automatic admissions agreement with Rutgers for their Masters program in Human Resource Management.
It is also common for Psychology majors to pursue advanced degrees in business, counseling and education as well as law. TCNJ offers a dual major in Psychology and Education.
Psychology is the second most popular major at TCNJ, a middle sized school (6,800 undergraduates) which tries to combine the liberal arts with pre-professional educational opportunities, and does it better than most.
The Psychology major at TCNJ comprises 11 courses or 44 credits, including the research experience and a senior capstone. That’s less than one-third of the credits required towards a Bachelor’s degree, leaving enough flexibility to choose one or two minors, and sometimes a second major.
TCNJ was selected as one of my ‘Public Ivy’ schools for this current academic year. The college is still taking applications through their General Admission deadline: February 1st. If you are interested in a good mid-sized school that devotes the “Lions Share” of its resources to undergraduates, TCNJ is worth a look, especially if you are considering a Psychology major.
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