Society for the Teaching of Psychology

May-June Presidential Blog

24 Jun 2014 11:30 AM | Anonymous

The Psychology Major at Risk: Part II -- Alignments with Reality

R. Eric Landrum, 2014 STP President

Boise State University

In Part I of this two-part series, I presented the notion of disciplinary affordances, that is, the idea earning a baccalaureate degree in psychology affords a person certain opportunities in the workforce.  I attempted to make the case that for those persons with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, this degree affords a high level of generalization, that is, there are numerous career paths, most of which are not overly specialized.  I ended Part I with the notion that an undergraduate education in psychology (without pursuing graduate school) may be both a blessing and a curse; a blessing because of the wide variety of options available, and a curse because the options are so generalized that students cannot directly “see” a career path afforded to them.

I believe that when this idea of disciplinary affordances is paired with the idea of alignments and student self-perceptions, the undergraduate psychology major may be at risk.

Alignment Match with Reality: Student Perceptions and Self-Reflections

When a student becomes a psychology major, they may know about what a psychologist does (either from personal experience or television/media stereotypes).  However, over 70% of psychology graduates are entering a field of study in which they will not attain the “prototypical” job in psychology – a psychologist (American Psychological Association Center for Workforce Studies, 2013).  Thus, there could be a lack of alignment or even misalignment between one’s undergraduate field of study and that person’s expectations about what they can do after earning the bachelor’s degree.  Affordances are about the career opportunities available to psychology bachelor’s degree recipients; alignments are about how well the student understands what they want and how well they understand the specific details of viable career paths.  In discussing the challenges psychology majors face in finding a job, Jeschke, Rajecki, and Johnson (2008) noted that the problem for psychology majors was not about job availability, but the challenges were (a) inability to articulate and demonstrate skills, (b) knowing about the job market and what employers want, (c) when the job possibilities are broad, knowing how to make a decision, and (d) student’s often lacked career planning skills to be used throughout an undergraduate career.

High Alignment (Matches Between Expectations and Reality)

Low Alignment (Mismatches Between Expectations and Reality)

In my view, levels of alignment have to do with two components: a student’s understanding of what they want and accurate content knowledge about careers.  Both components are needed to experience high alignment. High alignment means a match between expectations and outcomes, and that graduates are working in the type of job they expected to when they were still undergraduates. This outcome is facilitated because of self-understanding of employment preferences and meaningful self-reflection.  Higher levels of alignment may lead to higher levels of career satisfaction and satisfaction with the undergraduate major. A high level of alignment might also help compensate for low pay (e.g., teacher education).

A low level of alignment means that there was a mismatch in expectations for students entering the major and the resulting careers gained as a graduate.  The source of the mismatch may be that the student did not know what they really wanted, did not know the details about particular career paths, or both.  Low alignment means that expectations are not met, suggesting that the situation may be ripe for less desirable outcomes, such as low satisfaction and/or low pay.

I suggest (without data) that one’s placement on this hypothetical alignment scale is student-specific and not tied to a particular academic major (unlike disciplinary affordances).  Students with matches between career expectations (in part due to high levels of self-understanding and accurate knowledge about career options) and actual career realized would be at the upper end of the graphic scale provided.  If there were evidence that the notion of alignments is accurate and that matches and mismatches exist, what would that evidence look like?  Ideas about how to go about supporting those claims empirically is presented in Table 1.

Table 1

Potential Behavioral Indicators/Variables Which Might Validate That Students Have Alignments That Influence Their Match or Mismatch Within a Career Path


Misalignment / Poorer Match

Alignment / Better Match

Career expectations after graduation

Does not know what to expect; did not engage in self-reflection about expectations

Has good idea about what to expect; has deeper self-understanding about career desires

Satisfaction with major, department, institution

Lower satisfaction in general

Generally higher levels of satisfaction

First job absenteeism and turnover rates

Absent more often, stays in first job shorter time, faster turnover

Absent less, stays in first job longer time, more engaged in the work

Starting salary and first job expectations

Did not know salary ranges, difficult to adjust compared to expected lifestyle; some entitlement bitterness

Did know salary ranges, lifestyle adjustments anticipated; lesser amounts of entitlement

As with Part I on affordances, the key to remember here is that these are mostly hypothetical ideas, and it is vitally important to seek empirical data to either support or refute such conjectures.  There is an existing literature within psychology about some of these topics, ranging from what to expect in the workplace (Landrum & Harrold, 2003; Woods, 1987) to critical reflection about careers in psychology (Briihl, Stanny, Jarvis, Darcy, & Belter, 2008).  In a survey of graduates of various majors that asked the question ‘how closely does your current job relate to your major area of study,’ one possible response to this item was “not related.”  Answers on this item could be considered as one possible measure of alignment, with a higher percentage of “not related” indicating mismatches/misalignment.  Here are the percentages by major of “not related” responses: health professions (1.3%), business (9.8%), fine arts (34.6%), psychology (37.3%), and other social sciences (56.5%) (Rajecki, 2007). 

The Interaction of Affordances and Alignment

If you’ve read Part I and this Part II up to this point, you’ve been introduced to these ideas of disciplinary affordances and alignments/misalignments with reality.  For both the horizontal x-axis (disciplinary affordances) and the vertical y-axis (personal alignment) dimensions presented, I believe that in theory any particular student could place anywhere along those two dimensions.  So although this individual variation is inherently present, a disciplinary-wide assessment of where the bulk of psychology majors and future psychology baccalaureates stand could be quite meaningful.  In other words, would combining these individual dimensions make sense, be meaningful, and provide heuristic value and encourage future work in this area? Knowing our current location might help to inform the navigational path to an improved environment with desired affordances and matched alignments, and with assessment data to boot.

As you will see in the graphic here, I present my personal speculation as to how the bulk of students majoring in architecture, nursing, teacher education, and psychology might place in a two-dimensional affordances x alignments space.  The relative location of any particular group is not an indicator, per se, of the value of any particular discipline, that is, nursing is not better than psychology because nursing is in the uppermost top-right quadrant.  As stated earlier, I believe that any individual student can place anywhere in this two-dimensional space.   However, I do believe that the combination of generalized career affordances and relatively low alignments linked to desire vs. reality mismatches can place students the discipline of psychology in an at-risk condition; now add consistent growth in the major and limited resources about career paths, and the elements of a perfect storm may be swirling.

High Alignment (Matches Between Expectations and Reality)

High Generalization Careers Afforded by Undergraduate Major

High Specialization Careers Afforded by Undergraduate Major

Low Alignment (Mismatches Between Expectations and Reality)

Perhaps the 2 x 2 matrix model helps capture part of the paradox that Part I opened with – the exploding popularity of the major combined with a surprising level of dissatisfaction.  Just to preview, briefly consider these potential avenues for future efforts:

  • psychology educators need to encourage students toward better alignment of student expectations to actual career paths – this could be addressed through accurate and realistic career insights, enhanced advising resources, a collaborative massive open online course (MOOC), promoting internship opportunities, etc.
  • psychology educators need to continue to work toward better measure and documentation of students’ skills and abilities at graduation; this would provide better feedback for the student, department, and potential employers about the tangible outcomes of an undergraduate degree in psychology.  Taking a skills-based assessment-centered approach could help students communicate to future employers what they know and are able to do.

An emphasis on understanding careers for psychology baccalaureates has a long history (e.g., Edwards & Smith, 1988; Lunneborg & Wilson, 1985; 1987; Woods, 1987), but recent events in the short past have placed an additional focus on career development for undergraduate psychology majors.  In 2007 the American Psychological Association published and adopted the Guidelines for the Undergraduate Psychology Major.  Guideline #10 was this: Career Planning and Development – Students will emerge from the major with realistic ideas about how to implement their psychological knowledge, skills, and values in occupational pursuits in a variety of settings. The APA Board of Educational Affairs Task Force on Psychology Major Competencies has updated and revised the original 2007 document in to a new document referred to as Guidelines 2.0 (American Psychological Association, 2013).  The revised Goal 5 speaks directly to the professional development of undergraduate psychology majors.  The major points of Goal 5 are presented here:

Goal 5: Professional Development


The emphasis in this goal is on application of psychology-specific content and skills, effective self-reflection, project-management skills, teamwork skills, and career preparation. Foundation-level outcomes concentrate on the development of work habits and ethics to succeed in academic settings. The skills in this goal at the baccalaureate level refer to abilities that sharpen student readiness for postbaccalaureate employment, graduate school, or professional school.

These skills can be developed and refined both in traditional academic settings and in extracurricular involvement. In addition, career professionals can be enlisted to support occupational planning and pursuit. This emerging emphasis should not be construed as obligating psychology programs to obtain employment for their graduates but instead as encouraging programs to optimize the competitiveness of their graduates for securing places in the workforce.


5.1  Students will apply psychological content and skills to career goals.

5.2  Students will exhibit self-efficacy and self-regulation.

5.3  Students will refine project management skills.

5.4  Students will enhance teamwork capacity.

5.5  Students will develop meaningful professional direction for life after graduation.

This recent emphasis about career planning and development for psychology majors is a much welcomed event, but so much more work needs to be done.


American Psychological Association.  (2007).  APA guidelines for the undergraduate psychology major.  Retrieved from

American Psychological Association. (2013).  APA guidelines for the undergraduate psychology major: Version 2.0.  Retrieved from

American Psychological Association Center for Workforce Studies. (2013).  What percentage of undergraduate psychology majors continue on to earn graduate degrees in psychology?  Retrieved from

Briihl, D. S., Stanny, C. J., Jarvis, K. A., Darcy, M., & Belter, R. W.  (2008).  Thinking critically about careers in psychology.  In D. S. Dunn, J. S. Halonen, & R. A. Smith (Eds.), Teaching critical thinking in psychology: A handbook of best practices (pp. 225-234).  Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Edwards, J., & Smith, K.  (1988).  What skills and knowledge do potential employers value in baccalaureate psychologists?  In P. J. Woods (Ed.), Is psychology for them? (pp. 102-111).  Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Jeschke, M., Rajecki, D. W., & Johnson, K.  (2008).  Life beyond the bachelor’s degree: A primer for psychology majors. Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis.  Retrieved from

Landrum, R. E., & Harrold, R. (2003). What employers want from psychology graduates. Teaching of Psychology, 30, 131–133.

Lunneborg, P. W., & Wilson, V. M.  (1985).  Would you major in psychology again?  Teaching of Psychology, 12, 17-20.

Lunneborg, P. W., & Wilson, V. M.  (1987).  Job satisfaction correlates for college graduates in psychology.  In M. E. Ware & R. J. Millard (Eds.), Handbook on student development: Advising, career development, and field placement (pp. 158-160).  Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Rajecki, D. W.  (2007, September 28).  Liberal arts skills: Weak connections with career concerns at commencement.  UW Teaching Forum.  Retrieved from

Woods, P. J.  (1987).  A survival manual for new hires: What to expect in the workplace.  In P. J. Woods (Ed.), Is psychology for the major for you?  Planning for your undergraduate years (pp. 97-104.  Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Note. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Psychological Association, APA Education Directorate, APA Division Two (Society for the Teaching of Psychology), or Boise State University.  But they should.

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