• On Jeb Bush, the Psychology Degree, and #ThisPsychMajor

    In what’s become a thing of frightening regularity, one of the contenders for the Republican presidential  nomination has said something that is not only factually wrong, but insulting to a large number of people, myself included. This time it was former Florida governor (and presidential son/sibling) Jeb Bush. As reported by the Washington Examiner, Bush recently said during a campaign stop in South Carolina:

    “Universities ought to have skin in the game,” former Florida governor and current presidential candidate Jeb Bush said at a South Carolina town hall meeting Saturday morning, “When a student shows up, they ought to say ‘Hey, that psych major deal, that philosophy major thing, that’s great, it’s important to have liberal arts … but realize, you’re going to be working a Chick-fil-A.'”

    “The number one degree program for students in this country … is psychology,” Bush said. “I don’t think we should dictate majors. But I just don’t think people are getting jobs as psych majors. We have huge shortages of electricians, welders, plumbers, information technologists, teachers.”

    Bush is, in effect, saying that psychology isn’t a useful field and you can’t find a job with that degree. Not only is this insulting, it’s wrong in many ways. As someone who is apparently trying to reach out to younger, college-age voters to prop up his sinking campaign, what a giant misstep by Bush. See, psychology majors do make up a huge percentage of our undergraduate population (not the largest, as he misstates, but indeed second overall in the nation, after business majors and before nursing). Guess who enjoys being belittled for the major they chose, Jeb? Not the over 113,000 folks who graduate each year with a psychology undergraduate degree.

    “Wow, over 113,000?” you might be saying. “That sure is a lot of Chik-fil-A workers!”  It would be, if Bush’s statement wasn’t totally unfounded. As a professor of psychology for 10 years, I can assure you that most of our graduates don’t go into working for minimum wage at fast food joints. In fact, average starting wage for someone getting an undergraduate psych degree is about $34,000. Not exactly physician starting wages, but it’s right around the average starting salary for teachers, quite a bit higher than a starting electrician, a starting plumber, or welders.

    But what do people do with these degrees? Most people think of psychology and picture a therapist or clinician of some kind. And, in fact, a number of people (myself included) think of the psychology major as being similar to a pre-med major: your end goal is to go on to graduate study in an experimental or applied field (such as school, clinical, forensic, I/O, developmental, counseling, or other psychology concentrations). However, graduate work is only undertaken by about 40% of all psych majors. To wit:

    According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NACE), approximately 25% of students with undergraduate psychology degrees pursue graduate work with 4-6% going on to doctoral study and 20-22% working on master’s degrees in psychology; however, the major also prepares students for graduate work in medicine, law, social work, education and business. A recent study in Academic Medicine established that students who majored in the social sciences, including psychology, performed equivalently to those who majored in more traditional Pre-Med areas. Approximately 40% of psychology majors eventually achieve some form of graduate training. As such, psychology ranks the highest in post-graduate academic attainment for all undergraduate majors.

    My emphasis. The starting salary for those who complete graduate work is quite a bit higher than those with undergraduate degrees, especially in applied fields of school psychology, clinical psychology, and I/O psychology (and that’s 10 year old data).

    Screen Shot 2015-10-25 at 5.26.52 PMBut back to those undergrad degrees. So, 60% of people who get a psych undergraduate degree don’t do graduate training. What do they do? According to the National Science Foundation, over 65% of psych majors work in a field that is closely or somewhat related to their degree. Some of these that I’ve known students to go into include marketing, case management and other human service positions, psychiatric technician, human resources, probation officers, and many, many others.

    So when Jeb says that psych majors can’t get jobs, or that they can’t get jobs where they use their psychology background, he’s dead wrong.

    Personally, I have (and will continue to) encourage people who are psych majors to consider what they want to do with the degree. Some people I have helped find majors more conducive to their goals, and have even helped a number of people get hooked into technical or trade training. However, psychology is a very popular major because we’re humans and humans find other humans (and why they do what they do) inherently fascinating. What you learn in a psychology undergraduate degree program can be useful in amazingly diverse fields, including politics and law.

    Recognizing this, many of my fellow psychologically-minded folks have taken to Twitter using the hashtag of #ThisPsychMajor.

    I’m very proud to both be a former psychology major and a current psychology professor. I use psychology every day, even when not doing clinical work, It informs the way I teach, my consulting for businesses, how I write, and how I interact with the people I meet. #ThisPsychMajor wouldn’t have chosen anything else.

    Category: FeaturedMental HealthPoliticsPsychology


    Article by: Caleb Lack

    Caleb Lack is the author of "Great Plains Skeptic" on SIN, as well as a clinical psychologist, professor, and researcher. His website contains many more exciting details, visit it at www.caleblack.com

    3 Pingbacks/Trackbacks

    • Well said!

    • Big Mike

      Who am I going to believe, the clinical psychologist whose livelihood is founded on accuracy and measurable credibility who has cited his sources, or a politician whose livelihood is founded on deceit, manipulation of data, and absent-to-made-up citations? I think I’m inclined to listen to Dr L, and opt never to so much as hear the voice of Mr JEB again for as long as I live.

      • I mean, I know who I’d believe…. 😉

        Thanks for reading!

    • It is nice to see this story getting some attention. The Twitter hashtag has been a wonderful way to find psychologists and psychology students doing interesting work to follow.

    • Brandon

      Your argument has merit, and I agree that saying Psych majors just end up in minimum wage jobs is a common misconception.

      But with the way you have this worded:

      “In fact, average wage for someone getting an undergraduate psych degree is about $34,000. Not exactly physician wages, but it’s right around the average starting salary for teachers, quite a bit higher than a starting electrician, a starting plumber, or welders.”

      Sounds like you compared the average wage of ALL people with undergrad psych degrees (people with 0 experience through people will a lifetime of experience) to only STARTING teachers, electricians, plumbers, welders (only people with 0 or minimal experience).

      I think Jeb’s statement is insulting and misrepresents reality by ignoring/manipulating data.

      Your statement is also misleading though.

      • The 34K number is a starting number for those who have recently graduated, which is why it’s compared to the other average starting salaries. Mid-career averages for those with psych undergrad degrees are around 60K (based on US Dept of Labor stats).

        I edited that sentence to hopefully clear that up.

        • Brandon

          I think I’m just very used to articles and the like using ambiguous data phrasing to mislead. The edit totally clears it up though.

          Thanks for taking the time to respond (and even edit).

          I was on board with your position before, but your willingness to clarify your facts makes me even more sold.

          • I try never to hold a position I can’t defend, and always to listen carefully to critiques. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be a good skeptic! 🙂

    • Brian Kurilla

      Nice! Can you provide a link to the NSF data that you cite in your pie chart?

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