Since I’m gonna be officially graduating from university in four days, I thought it would be a good time to reflect about choosing psychology as my major in my four years of university as an undergraduate.
Choosing Psychology as my Major: I still remember the feeling when I first received my A levels results: I was ecstatic. I did not get straight As, but I was simply happy and thankful because it allowed me to go to university. More importantly, it enabled me to go to the course I wanted – which at that time was either NUS FASS or NTU Psychology. I weighed the pros and cons between these two courses. Of course, I also considered other courses available besides Psychology. I did not have any strong passion for anything at that point of time- considering courses such as Business, Computer Science, various Social Sciences such as Sociology, Social Work and Economics. At 19 years old, I didn’t really have much experience to know what I really want to study, much less for a career. Business was a choice because it felt general and safe at the same time. Computer Science because I kind of liked the idea of hacking, cyber security, and app development. I also looked at Law, Medicine, and Dentistry but my grades could not make the cut-off, so I didn’t really give it much thought. I kind of eliminated stuff such as Engineering, Accounting, Design courses – felt like I would not only suffer but simply hate it if I took it lol. So yeah, tl;dr I got into NUS FASS.
Managed to pass the pre-requisites to major in psychology (B- for PL1101E and PL2131 in NUS), so by year 2 I was in psychology. However, I know a lot of people who dropped out in y1/y2 and changed majors (usually to another major in social sciences). I think some of those who dropped out realised that the contents of a psych course was not what they really liked or expected. Some come into the major thinking they could help people, or that they could read minds. If you want to help people, I honestly think social work (as a major) is a better choice. If you want to read minds, you do not join university- you seek a psychic guru out. The course doesn’t teach you how to do that. Many also realised that psychology as a course is more theory-based and not really hands-on/applied. That makes it kind of boring. I went into psychology, knowing that there will be statistics modules to take, and essays to pen down, but I was quite disappointed with the amount of memorising I had to do. If you have a knack for memorising things easily, you have a 80% chance of doing well as a psychology major. I also hate how we had to review and read about research articles, some which were super boring- NUS in particular, is very focused on academic research.
If you want to help people, I honestly think social work (as a major) is a better choice. If you want to read minds, you do not join university- you seek a psychic guru out.
Career Prospects: Another major problem (pun intended) is the career prospects of a psychology degree at the Bachelor’s level. Honestly, I went into psychology because I thought it sounded interesting, and because I had hope to understand a little bit more about myself and the human behaviour in general. Fortunately (or not), I did not have any pressure by my parents to study a course that they wanted or thought it was prestigious (re: medicine, law, dentistry, accountancy, business; …oh the latest would be computer science/IT-related stuff I guess?).
Yet, at the same time, I did not really consider much about the prospects of a psych degree when I enrolled. I think this is a problem that needs to be addressed. Many people take up a major without knowing what they are getting themselves into, and as a result, waste time and effort changing courses/doing something irrelevant. However, like I said, at 19, we have a high probability of making bad choices because we do not have the relevant information or a mature mindset to decide. Anyway, this isn’t the point of my post. A lot of people told me that I made a mistake when I decided to major in psychology- and that they, too, made a mistake when they did. I panicked- they are kind of right: The market is saturated with psych degrees, and the job market seems bad. To be a clinical psychologist, you’d often have to be at a Master’s level. Also, the content of psych courses doesn’t really give you any hard skills to rely on, such as software and programming languages.
Psychology as an art and science: I personally feel that it is a matter of how you look at it- psychology IS broad, and yes, it is general, but I don’t really see that as a bad thing. A psychology degree enables you to learn research and statistical skills, from the simple ones such as SPSS to more complex ones which I never ever did (e.g. higher level statistics modules such as PL5225 in NUS) – giving you an advantage when you apply for research-related jobs. It also hones your essay and report writing which is an essential skill in many jobs.
The different areas of psychology: Because psychology is so broad, it gives you a sneak peek into many different areas – the compulsory cores that I had to take were biological (e.g. brain, genes), cognitive (e.g. attention & memory), social (e.g. interpersonal relations), abnormal (e.g. learning about mental illnesses), and developmental (e.g. human development over different stages of life). I hated the bio core, so subsequently I avoided all the bio-related psych modules as much as I could. I kind of liked social psych, so I took a lab in social psych (which made me realise I do not want to do lab stuff). As you take more psych modules, you start to learn which fields of psychology you like (if any) and lean towards them. I was someone who did not lean towards any for a long time (I just knew I hated bio). In my final year, I still took random modules such as clinical neuropsychology, moral psychology, criminal forensic psychology, and correctional psychology. It also allowed me to study really uncommon areas such as the psychology of religion, and the theory and neuroscience of consciousness. I learnt about different neurological disorders besides Alzheimer’s, that I would have never had the motivation to read up on my own. The bottom line: There are a lot of pathways that you can go with a psychology degree, but you need to navigate clearly. For instance, if you are interested in the psychology of hiring, training, and motivating people in the workplace- take up modules such as industrial and organizational (I/O) psychology to help you in your resume.
In reality, many of these modules alone will not lead you to whatever you want to do. After all, most of them are theory-based and hardly give you any practice to apply it to the real-world. You can learn all the theories you want, but a portfolio of zero experience will not make you look impressive. You need to get out there and go for internships, in order to really get a sense of what you want to do. I guess, at least for NUS, one thing they could really work on is to give psych majors a portal to look for psych-related placements, similar to the social work field placement that social work majors need to fulfill. It need not be mandatory, since some psych majors do not intend to go into fieldwork, but it could really improve the chances of getting a psych-related job. However, at the end of the day, it is still up to your own hands to really take the initiative and seek out the career you want for yourself.
You should also never discount profs as well. A good prof makes a boring module come alive, and a mediocre prof makes a what-should-have-been-interesting module dreadful to go to. If you’re lucky and you have both- then you will seriously look forward to attending it every week, maybe even feel inspired, and I think that is the crux and joy of learning. In addition, some profs are very helpful and they are more than happy to share with you about their career (e.g. forensic psychology), so ask away! This doesn’t just apply to a psych course but every course- but I would just like to highlight and remind the importance of it.
I’ve talked with a couple of psych majors over the past year, and a few of them regretted studying psychology- they wished they took up business, sociology, or another major instead. Many people come into psychology, wanting to be a clinical psychologist, but find that the path there is hard, and very competitive. Clinical psychology is just one of the many branches of psychology. I do think there are a lot of careers that are psych-related, yet is not considered a psychologist (e.g. UX Researcher, Marketing, HR, Policy Planning, click here to find out more: Career Prospects of a Psych Degree). Another thing is recognition- psychologists in Singapore are perhaps not as recognised as the ones in Australia, New Zealand, United States, Canada, or United Kingdom. I’ve also heard stories about how people respect psychiatrists over psychologists, so there’s that stigma there too. Others do not regret it- they loved the experiences and learning they gained throughout the 4 years, and that itself is invaluable to them.
For me, I did not regret taking up psychology as my major; mainly because it taught me so many things- about the different mental illnesses, neurological disorders, workplace satisfaction, criminal thoughts, interpersonal relations, a spectrum of emotions, cognitive biases, and how to live a happy life. Even after 4 years, I’m still not sick of it. For that, I am grateful.
Now that I’ve completed the course, here’s my thoughts to some of the questions that were discussed by myself and a few others:
Q: If I’d gotten straight As, what course would I choose?
A: Honestly, with what I know now, I would still go for psychology. But the difference would be that I would consider applying to an overseas university, and get a scholarship to pay for my university fees.
Q: Reeeeally? Even with the seemingly dull career prospects?
A: Yes. Although I’ve yet to find what I really love, I know what I hate- and that eliminates many choices already. And I honestly enjoyed studying psychology (yes I complain about the memorising but I still get fascinated and excited over learning about it). I also feel that psychology actually opens up many doors – if I took a specialisation like Medicine, or Dentistry, I would think that my field of work would be much narrower, and given that I have so many things I want to try out, psychology actually helps in giving this flexibility.
In short, I love studying psychology, and I feel super grateful to be able to study something that I genuinely like.