Michael S. Ofsowitz
Associate Professor, Psychology

 

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Why Psy?

Or Why Study Psychology At All?

This page is for beginners.

Psychology studies people. It discovers why we act and think the way we do. It also applies our knowledge about people to situations where we want to change people. It is, therefore, both a science and a professional practice.

Is it worth taking psychology courses? Absolutely. I'll explain why below.

Is it worth majoring in psychology? Maybe. I'll discuss this below, too.

The single biggest misconception about psychology is that it only deals with crazy and nearly crazy people. A distant second misconception is that psychologists are always analyzing people, reading their minds, knowing them better than they know themselves. There are more misconceptions about psychology, but those two top the list. Let's put an end to it here: when you take undergraduate psychology courses in college you will seldom discuss psychological disorders ("crazinesses"); and you will never work on analyzing regular people, though you'll probably try doing it anyway.

Psychology is an "-ology", a "study of," indeed, a scientific study of. Psyche comes from the Greek goddess of the soul; it basically means the human mind or soul. Notice that it does not mean the demented soul. Modern psychology is the scientific study of human action and mental processes. (The word "soul" is too vague. Action, or behavior, and the mind - thinking, remembering, feeling, deciding, etc. - are what we're interested in.) The bulk of psychology is an attempt to understand human action and mind.

Here's where the confusion comes from: Although only a small portion of the field of psychology is devoted to examining disorders of action and mind, roughly half of all the people who work in the field of psychology work with people who have problems. That seems to be where the money is. And as portrayed in film and fiction, psychology is almost always used in terms of disorders. The other half conduct research, teach, apply psychology to things like computer design or crime prevention, and generally go unnoticed.

During your college career you can decide to take courses that focus on psychological disorders if that's what interests you. But they are not the "meat" of psychology at the undergraduate level. (If you go to graduate school you will choose a program that specializes in whatever you find interesting or valuable, but as a beginner reading this page, you're probably not thinking about that yet.) As an undergraduate, most of your psychology courses will expose you to the discoveries of researchers who have examined normal humans in attempts to decipher how we act and think. Psyche + ology. That's the meat of psychology.

Why is it worth taking psychology courses? Some psychology courses are going to be a little harder than you'd expect, and that's especially true for the first introductory course. But in return for some confusion and struggle you can learn to think carefully and critically about complex issues, you can learn how to describe complex issues, you can learn about your own limits and potentials, and you can learn a lot of useful information about human behavior and thought processes that are applicable in countless situations and careers. I said "can learn" each time because I know that some people slack their way through and learn little, some get easy teachers, etc. If you acquire some of the skills that go along with thinking like a scientific psychologist you'll find that these are extremely valuable, and they apply to any facet of life where constrained, focused, critical thinking is needed.

But it's not necessarily a challenging or financially rewarding major.

So is it worth majoring in psychology? It's not an easy question to answer. It depends on your skills, your desires, your demands. If you are good at math and can write reasonably well, all doors are open. If you can write well, but are befuddled by math, most doors are open. If you choose psychology because it's easy, then the bachelor's degree probably won't pay off in the future. To work in psychology you will most likely need a graduate degree (hence doors being open or not). Those who do not go on to graduate study generally earn a low salary (though there are worse majors if income is the important measure, such as family studies, elementary education, special education, recreation studies, art history), and those with only bachelor's degrees generally do not work in a field that one thinks of as related to psychology. Of course at the community college level there is no formal "major" in psychology, but you will be preparing yourself for a bachelor's degree in the field.

Why math and writing? Because they are important to science and to serious graduate-level study. (I'd say if you can pass basic calculus you'll be fine at advanced statistics; calculus is not a prerequisite, but statistics is, and I'm just trying to give a general idea of the skill-level needed.) The better you are in math and writing, in addition to your comprehension of psychology, the wider the choices will be when you finish your undergraduate career. If you're interested in research and discovery, your comprehension of psychology coupled with your math and writing skills can get you into a graduate research-oriented Ph.D. program, which could lead to jobs in industry or academia (becoming a college professor, for example). If you're interested in disorders, math and writing skills and psychological comprehension can open the very competitive door to a clinical psychology Ph.D. program (you'll need some quality first-hand research experience to open that door, too). Or to less-competitive programs if you prefer. With lesser skills, the competitive programs become out of reach and you'll be limited to the less-competitive graduate programs (non-research, often terminal master's degrees). At some level, the non-competitive graduate programs (which are usually fast-track master's degrees in some type of counseling) probably aren't worth the time (let alone tuition).

Okay, but that's years off, and thinking about a major is a more complex topic that requires research about prospects, advice from experts, a little premonition, and some degree of self-knowledge. My intentions for this page are much more simplistic.

Why Study Psychology? Because it is very good for you. It teaches you about people; it teaches you how to be skeptical about things people believe about people; it teaches you how to conduct and read research; it teaches you about yourself; it teaches empathy; it teaches you to write coherently; and it teaches you to understand where knowledge comes from. These are skills and qualities that will be a benefit in almost any career path, and in your life as you relate to other people, and as a citizen.