November 14, 2011

APA Issues Clarification on Psychology Employment Data

APA responds to an NPR report about psychology employment and clarifies the data source, the number of psychology degree types, and the popularity of psychology as a major.

WASHINGTON—A recent report on National Public Radio may have created confusion about the employment status of undergraduate psychology majors and about the employment status of clinical psychologists.

On Nov 9, 2011, NPR reported graduates with majors in clinical psychology had the highest unemployment rate — nearly 20 percent. Although technically correct, these data are based on terminal bachelor's degrees, not graduate degrees, so they have no relevance to the employment status of clinical psychologists for whom the doctoral degree is required. Nor does this report represent the employment status of undergraduate majors in psychology in general, as clinical psychology majors are only a minuscule subset (less than 1 percent) of the psychology majors reported in those data. 

Since the American Psychological Association has received many inquiries about the NPR report, we have prepared the following information for clarification.

  • The data NPR cited are from a table recently published by the Wall Street Journal entitled From College Major to Career. They are self-report data from the American Community Survey (ACS) by the Census Bureau.  

  • There are eight undergraduate degrees in psychology reported: clinical psychology, cognitive science and biopsychology, counseling psychology, educational psychology, industrial and organizational psychology, miscellaneous psychology, psychology and social psychology.  

  • The category of "psychology" was the fifth most popular among all majors reported, with an unemployment rate of 6.1 percent, which is not much different from biology (5.6 percent), computer science (5.6 percent), economics (6.3 percent) and geography (6.1 percent). 

  • The vast majority of undergraduate institutions that provide degrees in psychology either provide a B.A. or B.S. in psychology - not a degree in an area of specialization such as clinical (perhaps explaining why the popularity of clinical psychology as a major is ranked 168, while psychology as a major is ranked as 5). 

  • Data from the previous year's Census Bureau survey are available on the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce website. These data also illustrate how unrepresentative the data on clinical psychology are of undergraduate psychology education in general. As noted on page 170, clinical psychology represents less than 1 percent (0.76 percent) of the approximately 1.5 million psychology majors reported. The authors also note: "Sample size was too small to be statistically valid." Of interest was that the unemployment rate for clinical psychology bachelor's degrees that year was 5 percent.

  • With respect to employment of individuals holding doctoral degrees in clinical psychology, the data on 2009 degree recipients (PDF 58.8KB) reveal that 3.8 percent were unemployed seeking employment.

Although the NPR report and its focus on clinical psychology has obscured important information on the large number of undergraduate majors in psychology, it has brought to light the need for more public understanding of the undergraduate major in psychology. According to the National Center on Educational Statistics, roughly 90,000 students graduate each year with a bachelor's degree in psychology. The Wall Street Journal data and those from the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce suggest that employment rates for psychology majors are similar to many other disciplines.  Moreover, the graduates are employed across multiple sectors as would be consistent with the goals of the undergraduate major in psychology. 

APA has specific policies guiding the undergraduate major in psychology, including Guidelines for the Undergraduate Psychology Major and Principles for Quality Undergraduate Education in Psychology. We strongly encourage consumers of undergraduate education to use these guides in making choices among majors on their campuses. We also wish to highlight that a bachelor's degree in clinical psychology is a minuscule subset of psychology majors, and that a doctoral degree is required for one to become a clinical psychologist.

APA acknowledges Jeff Strohl (Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce) and Joseph Light (Wall Street Journal) for their helpfulness in ensuring we had accurate data.

The American Psychological Association, in Washington, D.C., is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 154,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting health, education and human welfare.