Skills of a Psychology Major

This article retrieved from the APA web site and was originally published in the 1997 Monitor

The distinctive skills of a psychology graduate Securing a good job requires knowing what skills you have to offer.

By Nicky Hayes, PhD

The following excerpt from the European Psychologist provides a list of the skills psychology students develop through their training—a list they can use to better market themselves.

Psychology students' general orientation towards psychology usually reflects the orientation of the staff in their department, and of psychology as practiced in their country. But despite differences in the kind of information students receive, there is a great deal that psychology graduates have in common. The study of psychology, in itself, produces a particular type of awareness and some core knowledge that is shared by most, if not all, psychologists. In the list that follows, I have attempted to identify some of that shared awareness, by naming 13 different types of skill or knowledge that a psychology student is likely to acquire by graduation. One of the important factors that makes psychology special is not the psychological skills themselves, which are often relevant to other disciplines as well, nor the specific items of knowledge. It is the sheer number of skills and range of knowledge that makes psychology special. Psychology is distinctive in that it equips its graduates with an extremely rich and diverse portfolio—providing a variety of forms of expertise, which are found in few other disciplines and which can equip psychology graduates to undertake many different types of work.

  1. Literacy Psychology graduates are highly literate and, moreover, have been trained to write in more than one literacy format. Through their coursework, they become accustomed to writing essays, which allow them to explore issues in detail; but they are also familiarized with the techniques of concise writing within a pre-set format (a skill much valued in commercial and business worlds) as they write up practical research reports.
  2. Numeracy Psychology graduates are also highly numerate. They are trained to interpret data summaries and to understand probability statements, and they become familiar with a wide range of statistical procedures and processes. When faced with numerical information, they are more likely to respond by seeking to discover what the numbers imply than by avoiding them altogether. By contrast, it is relatively uncommon for degree courses in other disciplines to produce graduates who are simultaneously literate and numerate, yet the psychology graduate is expected to be both.
  3. Computer literacy Psychology graduates are also generally computer literate. They are familiar with using computers, and can select and learn relevant packages for the tasks they are required to carry out. While relatively few psychology graduates are familiar with computer programming, computer use is required in the modern world, and it is a rare psychology graduate who has not had some training in this area, at the very least in word-processing and statistical analysis.
  4. Information-finding skills It is sometimes more useful to know where information can be found than to have memorized that information directly, particularly in areas that are developing and changing over time. Undertaking a psychology degree involves a considerable amount of information-finding skill. Psychology students are trained to search through library book collections, journals, CD-ROM databases and a range of other ways of obtaining information. Knowing how to look for information on a particular topic or general area isn't a skill needed for every job, but it is always one worth having.
  5. Research skills Psychology students are explicitly trained in research methods, and this training spans a range of different techniques. Typically, these include experimental and observational methods, survey and sampling techniques, and more recently, qualitative analysis. Together, these amount to considerable expertise in gathering systematic information about human experience or behavior-expertise that is useful in any number of different fields.
  6. Measurement skills Measurement skills go hand-in-hand with research skills, and psychology graduates are thoroughly trained in these as well. Through a typical research-methods course, a psychology student learns how to operationalize the measurement of complex process, the principles of psychometric measurement, questionnaire design and how to develop other measurement tools. These skills are familiar to psychology graduates, and are distinctly useful in many walks of life, but they are not easy skills to acquire without explicit training.
  7. Environmental awareness Knowing how someone's environment can influence their behavior helps us to understand people at work, at home, in education and at leisure. Psychology graduates are familiar with this type of knowledge in many guises, from traditional stimulus-response perspectives to the direct study of the environment, including such phenomena as nonverbal signaling, habit formation and social appropriateness. Many nonpsychologists do not particularly notice environmental factors, yet few psychology graduates are unaware of their importance.
  8. Interpersonal awareness Psychology students also learn about the mechanisms of social communication and the potential sources of interpersonal conflict. This is not the same as being socially skilled oneself, of course, although it can contribute to it. But such awareness can make a considerable difference to someone dealing with everyday interpersonal problems. Being aware, too, of the sources of conflict or misunderstanding can sometimes result in the ability to perceive ways through difficulties that would not be readily apparent without such knowledge.
  9. Problem-solving skills From their very first laboratory class, psychology graduates are systematically trained in problem-solving skills. The ability to tackle a range of different types of problems is probably the most distinctive characteristic of the psychology graduate. Psychology graduates learn how to apply different strategies and approaches to understanding problems, and how to identify the practical steps to implement a solution. They can operate on a macro-level, applying different perspectives or levels of analysis to the problem, or at a more basic level in terms of choosing appropriate methods and techniques. It is a valuable skill, and one that psychologists should be more aware of.
  10. Critical evaluation Psychology students are also explicitly trained in critical evaluation, an emphasis that appears to be particularly strong in Europe. This set of cognitive skills can be viewed as direct training in skepticism: Students are expected to appraise whether evidence for a phenomenon is really what it appears to be; to evaluate, critically, the quality of an argument; to identify the shortcomings and pitfalls of a particular line of action; and to anticipate problems or difficulties. These skills are often devalued by psychology graduates, who sometimes complain that everything that they have learned seems to be negative, yet that same skepticism can be extremely useful to them in their later working life.
  11. Perspectives On the surface, the ability to examine issues from multiple points of view or to explore phenomena using different schools of thought appears to be a relatively esoteric one. However, it is a skill that can be surprisingly useful in many different contexts. The ability to identify different ideologies or paradigms can clarify social issues and give us a better awareness of the implications of particular arguments or positions. Psychology graduates are directly trained in this skill, but they often do not realize how valuable it can be.
  12. Higher-order analysis Psychology graduates are skilled at spotting recurrent patterns in human activity, or noticing similarities between situations that seem on the surface to be quite different. This type of higher-order analysis involves being able to extract general principles rather than becoming bogged down with the details of the immediate situation. The psychology student's experience of sifting through vast quantities of experimental evidence and interpreting it in terms of schools of thought and other general principles provides useful training in this skill.
  13. Pragmatism It does not take much exposure to psychological methodology for psychology students to realize they are never going to achieve the perfect experiment, and that they will simply have to do the best they can with what is practical. Their experiences in this respect tend to give the psychology graduate a pragmatic approach to work and problem-solving: a valuable skill, and one that is not particularly common.

Conclusion It will be apparent, I think, that this portfolio of skills is one that can be valuable for many types of work apart from the profession of psychology itself. But this is not the whole story. As John Radford argues, psychology provides its students with an extensive education, training them in thinking and reasoning skills, and encouraging the student to explore a broad range of ideas and assumptions. In the old-fashioned sense, studying psychology can be seen as a liberal education, as well as a modern training. It is far more than simply a skill-based training for professional work—it is an education in its own right. Unfortunately, psychologists themselves often fail to recognize what skills they actually have, or find it very difficult to articulate what these are. As sports psychologists have long recognized, expertise is not a primarily conscious process: It involves deeply learned, automated routines, which come into play at the appropriate times without conscious decision-making on the part of the person concerned. Psychological knowledge has a tendency to become very deeply internalized and once this has happened, it is hard for an individual psychologist to recognize that knowledge, and to realize when they are applying it. Undertaking a psychology degree can generate distinctive approaches to social and interpersonal issues, yet many psychology graduates leave their courses believing they are no more perceptive or knowledgeable than other people. They do not feel knowledgeable, partly because their knowledge is automatized rather than conscious, and partly because one of the things they have learned is not to accept 'knowledge' without question. On the other hand, a psychology graduate venturing into the outside world is often surprised at how other people appear to overlook the obvious. The style of thinking that one acquires while studying for a psychology degree may feel intuitively obvious, but it actually involves a long and arduous process of discarding prior assumptions. And those automatized skills are a vital contribution to the psychologist's problem-solving abilities. Becoming aware of what we have learned through a psychology degree is made even more difficult by the way that many of the cognitive skills that we acquire from the study of psychology are negative rather than positive, such as the skill of not immediately jumping to conclusions, and of reserving judgment about alternative possibilities. Psychology students quickly learn that a single event can be usefully conceptualized in several alternative ways, and that there may be multiple psychological origins for a given problem. This is a valuable cognitive skill, but it is one that is relatively uncommon in lay cognition. A psychology degree, then, is actually rather special. Psychology integrates areas of knowledge that span the arts and the sciences, and in the process it provides students with a liberal education, as well as a particularly wide range of practical and professional skills. The automatized skills that psychology provides are often difficult to articulate, but they are nonetheless significant. It would be not a bad thing, in my view, if some serious psychological research were to be devoted to the identification and measurement of these distinctive but elusive skills.

Nicky Hayes, PhD, is Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Huddersfield, United Kingdom, and a Fellow of the British Psychological Society. She specializes in the teaching and learning of psychology. Her current research is on student revision practices and social representations in organizations.

This article was excerpted from the June 1996 issue of the European Psychologist (Vol. 1, No. 2, p. 130_34), published by Hogrefe & Huber Publishers. To subscribe to the European Psychologist, contact APA's Subscription Department, (202) 336-5500.