Preparing Undergraduate Psychology Students for Jobs in Industry

01 Mar 2018 9:28 AM | Anonymous

Ronald G. Shapiro

Since most students who complete occasional psychology courses and even most undergraduate psychology majors will not enroll in graduate school in psychology or become psychology professionals, it is important to prepare these students for jobs in other fields. This article provides suggestions on how offering a non-majors psychology course in lieu of introduction to psychology for non-majors, making minor changes to other courses, providing different types of opportunities, and focusing recommendations can help to prepare students for jobs in different fields.

Non-Majors Psychology Course. One of the “facts” I learned in graduate school was that non-majors who earned an “A” in an introduction to psychology course, when asked to retake the final exam a year later did not pass it (Sidney L. Pressey study reported by David Hothersall in History and Systems Class, Ohio State University, circa 1977). This fact has had huge impact on my thinking. If people aren’t going to remember it, why teach it? One might argue that it is easier to relearn material. True, but your non-major may not be very likely to do this. Instead, I would recommend making a list of those items you really want non-majors to remember five years after the final exam and teach those materials and only those materials to undergraduate non-majors. Be thorough in teaching those materials. Teach them in a variety of contexts. One way to do this would be to offer a non-majors psychology course. Structure the non-majors course in ways that students might use the material (rather than as we structure the field with our specialties). Topics might focus on how to use psychology:

·       In society (separating “fake news” and “alternative facts” from science);

·       In marketing and advertisement;

·       In working with others;

·       In structuring a work environment;

·       In understanding how a person develops from birth through death; or

·       As a potential consumer of psychological services.

This structure would help students better use the materials, and see how what’s being taught might be helpful to them. In this restructured course remember to teach only what you want the students to remember 5 years after the final exam.

In Today’s Courses. Explain and have students complete numerous projects applying whatever you teach to real world solutions. If the material you teach is basic research that is so cutting-edge that there are no applications for it yet, have the students participate in projects which help them to think about how the materials might be used to change lives a year, a decade or a generation from now. This may require teaching less material, but in more depth. Show students how to become a “citizen expert” (if not a scientist) continuing to follow up on these projects throughout life.

Providing Advice to Students. Truly understand the student’s objectives (and the objectives of the person paying for the student’s education) before offering advice. Early in my career I would have advised a student that their primary objective in college is to learn all that they can from their academic departments. Everything else is secondary. For some students this is truly the case and I would recommend this today. For example, I have encouraged many high school students to meet faculty on their visits to college campuses and figure out how they can become involved in their research from freshman week onward. For other students, I would today argue that their best bet is to lead a very balanced life. The extracurricular activities, friendships formed, internships, and other experiences might be more valuable to them than what they learn in their academic departments. Encourage these students to take advantage of the numerous benefits provided while they are enrolled in a program (i.e. regular access to faculty, internship programs) that are harder to obtain without the student status. Recommend that students learn as much about business as possible through studying I/O psychology as well as completing courses in business. Also, recommend that students learn as much about technology as their interests allow, because more and more positions will require knowledge about technology   

Producing a Resume. You may wish to help your students prepare their resume. Resumes for industry are vastly different than academic resumes or CVs. An industrial resume needs to ROAR (be Results Oriented and Relevant). In addition to being much shorter than academic CVs, they need to show a potential recruiter and a potential hiring manager why this applicant is better than the numerous others applying for the same job, in just seconds. A resume that shows real results, and that the applicant took the initiative to show how they would apply their knowledge and experiences to meet the specific employers’ needs are most beneficial. Keywords may be important for the recruiter. Showing real results (rather than job responsibilities) that will demonstrate to a hiring manager how those results translate into action is critical. In response to the frequently asked question “How long should a resume be?” The answer is long enough so that the person reading it becomes more enthusiastic about the candidate with every sentence, not bored with redundant or irrelevant detail. Providing the names of faculty members (e.g., worked in Professor Smith’s lab) are only important if the reader is likely to know or have heard of Professor Smith. References would not normally be included on a resume (to protect faculty from random calls), and the words “References Furnished Upon Request” should never be included on a resume because the point is obvious and also, it is somewhat insulting to the reader (saying “I do not trust you with the names of my references”).

Writing letters of recommendation. You are writing a letter of recommendation, not a performance evaluation. Your job, should you chose to accept it, is to sell the student to prospective employers by pointing out his or her strengths and why the potential employer will be better off with this student (as opposed to someone else) on their team. Before deciding if you can do this (unless you know you cannot up front) review the student’s resume and ask the student for a listing of content you might include in their letters. If you cannot use the content, explain to the student what you can do for them in a letter and suggest that there are probably others who can do a better job for them. Don’t “kill the student with faint praise.”  Don’t discuss student’s weaknesses or areas for improvement.

The interview. Help your students to be able to communicate with potential colleagues, managers, people familiar with their work, and people not familiar with their work. In an industrial interview, applicants may meet with many people including recruiters, potential managers, and colleagues. Be sure your students can communicate their research work as well as other topics effectively. They should be able to explain their work (emphasizing their own contributions and differentiating them from the work of others) in one minute, five minutes, ten minutes or a full length presentation and have the listener engaged, excited about the topic, and seeing how the applicant would be the best fit in their organization. Please be sure to do this in the time allocated. One way to do this is to show how their research fits into the company’s mission and requirements. I might add the purpose of the interview is to determine if there is a good fit between the candidate and the position for both the applicant and the company. Accordingly, the applicant should be prepared to ask meaningful questions that will help them to decide if the position is a good fit for them explain how they will be a real asset to the specific company and demonstrate a thorough understanding of the company and enthusiasm for being part of it.

Decision Making. Businesses need to get products to market in a timely fashion. Thus, decision making is simply different than in academics. In academic basic research one might want to have a standard of p<.05, p<.01, p<.001, etc. In industry decision making may be made with absolutely no evidence (depending upon the industry). If an employee is 50.01% confident in a decision based upon knowledge and research they should be prepared to make a recommendation, as the recommendation is based upon some knowledge. Depending on the circumstances, they should also be prepared to qualify how confident they are in the decision. Rather than using p values for decision making, corporate executives may be more likely to use the 80/20 rule. That is, you can accomplish 80% of what you want to do with 20% of the effort. So, stop the process and go when you are 80% confident. You can help students understand this important distinction.

Deadlines. Deadlines are critical in business… far more so than in academics. They are real. No matter how thorough a contribution is, if it is late it may be totally useless. There may be some circumstances in which a late contribution may be acceptable, usually when an even more critical process has been delayed. The odds of this are minimal. The academic practice of deducting points for late work really doesn’t apply to much in business. A recommendation a day or a week late is not, for example 80% or 90% as good as a recommendation delivered in a timely fashion. A more realistic way to make decisions about accepting late work would be to shuffle a deck of cards after the late work is completed. Draw a card off the top. If it is, for example, an ace, accept the work. If not, don’t.

Oral Communications. Communicating in business is simply different than communicating in school. For example, I learned a very bad habit in graduate school. Ask questions to show you understand the work and to show defects in a presenter’s thinking. One of my best managers ever pointed this out to me. His recommendation was to: 1) only ask my questions if everyone else had completed theirs and my question had not been asked and 2) only ask questions for clarification. Otherwise, address the questions with the presenter off line. Be sure that your students understand this important distinction.

Written Communications. In academics we tend to write long journal articles explaining numerous details about our work. In industry, a brief executive summary is the more important means of communication. Executives trust that we know how to do our work and we may not need to demonstrate how we derived our results to them. When sending written communication, keep the receiver in mind and anticipate their schedule, mind frame, and organizational style (i.e. details versus quick summaries). Chances are that an executive will be very busy, rushed, and stretched thin, in which case having results and next steps up front will go a long way. Keep thorough lab notes. Depending on the corporate culture expected from your executive team, write the detailed report for backup or else skip it all together. In my first report on a study I did at a major corporation, two of us were presenting. My colleague was to present part 1. I was to present parts 2 and 3. Somehow, when he finished I went right into part 3. No one cared that the details were left out. Indeed the comments I received from my client were completely complimentary… that my department had learned how to present more concisely.

Research Involvement. Offer your students an opportunity to work with you on research. This will help them to develop great skills. Be sure that they can explain what the research was all about, their role in it, and how that research was better because of their participation (as opposed to that of another person). Be sure they can explain this very succinctly as well as in detail.

Perception of Degree Value. I’ve heard professionals, even a vice president in a major corporation, say “I was a psychology major and it was useless to me. It did not help me get a job.”  That statement may be true. I did point out to her that while the degree may not have helped her secure her first position with the business, what she learned probably helped her to advance very quickly from an entry level position to a high level executive position. She agreed. My recommendation here is to clearly explain to your students what a psychology degree may and may not do for them in the business world, generally when they are considering the major. Explain this at the beginning of the semester for each course. Explain again, at the end of the semester, how the content should help them. In between assign work that will help the students to explain how the content might apply to the business world.

Seminars. Invite alumni who have gone into industry 1, 5, 10, and 20 years ago to offer seminars at your school showing how their degrees have helped them, and how the students might apply their degrees.

Internships. Completing one or two successful internships or coops can be extremely valuable for students as a learning experience. If they perform well, it may also be the key to having a great job waiting for them on graduation day.

In summary, I would say that a psychology major can be an extremely valuable tool to help a professional throughout their career if they make the most of it by becoming extremely involved with their department, research, course work, and internships. If they, on the other hand focus on taking mostly large lecture courses to meet the minimum degree requirements they will be minimizing the value of their degree.


Author note: I would like to thank Industrial Consultant Dr. Margarita Posada Cossuto for helpful comments.

Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software