Psychology is the scientific study of behavior and the mind, and is one of the oldest fields around! In 387 BC, Plato suggested that the brain is the source of mental processes, but it was not until 1879 that the first psychological lab was established by Wilhem Wundt at the University of Leipsig, followed by the first such lab in the US at Johns Hopkins University in 1883.
A New Focus on Neuroscience
The most significant trend over recent decades is the increased attention to the workings of the brain, still considered “our most complex but least understood organ.”
As such, neuroscience is emerging as one of the most popular and valuable new fields of study, and typically involves the combination of psychology and biology to understand behavior and cognition. For example, the University of Pennsylvania created the Biological Basis of Behavior Program (BBB) in 1978. One of the first neuroscience undergraduate programs, the major brings together faculty from the psychology, biology and computer science departments of the School of Arts and Sciences, as well as faculty from the Graduate Schools of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine.
Colleges approach neuroscience from a variety of perspectives. Barnard offers the major Neuroscience & Behavior as a distinct major from Psychology and Biological Sciences, although courses in these related areas can be taken to fulfill the major requirements. St Andrews, in Scotland, offers a BSc degree in the School of Psychology and Neuroscience, which resides within the College of Science. And Princeton offers a Certificate in Neuroscience (minor), which can be satisfied with courses from a range of disciplines beyond psychology and biology, such as computer science, engineering and philosophy.
More Interdisciplinary Study
Beyond the an increased focused in neuroscience, the study of psychology is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary; many academic programs now allow and encourage psychology students to pair the major with other fields, ranging from philosophy to women’s studies.
Washington University in St. Louis offers an interdisciplinary major in Philosophy-Neuroscience-Psychology (PNP). Boston College promotes their interdisciplinary minors, and suggests that students interested in the psychology of women consider the Women’s Studies Minor. Oxford University offers a renowned degree in Psychology, Philosophy and Linguistics (PPL), which prepares students to “enter careers in fields including professional psychology, education, research, medicine, the health services, finance, commerce, industry, the media and information technology.”
Common Undergraduate Concentrations
As a psychology major, you will often have the opportunity or requirement to pursue specialized programs within the major, including:
For example, Harvard’s Psychology Concentration (major) offers three tracks: General Psychology, Mind/Brain/Behavior: Cognitive Science, or Life Sciences: Cognitive Neuroscience & Evolutionary Psychology. Carnegie Mellon offers three “sub-domains:” Cognitive Psychology (including Cognitive Neuroscience), Developmental Psychology, and Social/Personality/Health Psychology. On the other hand, the Psychology major at Williams, a small liberal arts college, requires students to take a variety of courses, but has no specialized tracks.
Note that undergraduate psychology is relatively unregulated in terms of institutional accreditations. The APA does not accredit or rank specific undergraduate psychology departments.
BA vs. BS Degree in Psychology
Differences between the Programs
Psychology majors can either obtain a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or a Bachelor of Science (BS). The BA degree has a more liberal arts focus, whereas the BS degree typically requires more in-depth study of psychology, and a greater emphasis on scientific research. New York University offers the options of a BA in Psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences, as well as a BS in Applied Psychology in the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, and provides an excellent comparison of the two programs.
NYU’s BA in Psychology requires 36 credits in psychology and 92 credits of liberal arts. In contrast, the BS in Applied Psychology requires 68 credits in psychology, including several research courses, a multi-semester fieldwork sequence, and a 5-course concentration, with the remaining 60 credits in liberal arts. As such, it’s easier to double major or minor with the BA degree within the total of 128 credits. Lehigh’s approach is similar to NYU in that the BS in Psychology program requires more courses in the major, a more scientific focus, and a required concentration within psychology.
Impact on Your Graduate School and Career Plans
Your future interests in graduate school and career also come into play when deciding between a BA vs BS degree in psychology. Note that each college’s programs have a unique focus. At NYU, students planning to pursue graduate school in psychology, business or law could take either course. Pre-meds are encouraged to take the BA in Psychology, due to the opportunities for lab research. Students who wish to practice psychology in community-based settings are encouraged to take the BS in Applied Psychology because of the fieldwork requirement. In contrast, at Lehigh, students interested in a career in medicine or the health-related fields are encouraged to take the BS program.
The American Psychological Association suggests that the best way to evaluate programs is to visit them, meet with students, and choose a program that feels comfortable to you:
“In truth, there is often little difference between the two degrees. Some schools only offer a BA, others only BS. The requirements for the two degrees might overlap completely. Even when a school offers a choice of either a BA or BS, your decision may not be all that critical. The more important consideration is taking courses that will prepare you for the program you want to enter as a graduate student.”
If you are planning to pursue graduate study in psychology, you can find information about the requirements of over 500 programs online or in the print volume Graduate Study in Psychology, 2015 Edition. The revised MCAT2015 incorporates a new section on The Psychological, Social and Biological Foundations of Behavior; if you want to major in psychology as a pre-med, evaluate the requirements and course offerings of various BA and BS programs to determine which would provide the strongest foundation. If you plan to pursue a career in business and law, either degree would provide useful background, but if you are more interested in the scientific or technical fields, such as patent law or business operations, a BS may be more suitable.
Regardless of whether students are in a BA or BS program in Psychology, there are substantial opportunities for conducting faculty-supervised research as a psychology major:
- Laboratory. Students work in a laboratory, also referred to as “basic” or “bench” research, studying topics such as learning, memory and motivation. Yale offers a myriad of research opportunities in diverse areas such as cognition, memory and motivation.
- Clinical. Students have access to clinical settings, such as elementary school classrooms or senior citizen centers, in which they can study social interactions or developmental processes. Clinical research often involves developing, administering and analyzing surveys. In Georgetown’s Psychology Department, students can collect or code data, screen and recruit research participants, and conduct background literature searches.
Typically, honors programs require that students participate in research. In addition to research during the academic year at your university, you can pursue summer research or internships at other colleges, such as Middlebury College, or research organizations such as Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. The American Psychological Association maintains an excellent list of summer research opportunities.
When people think of careers connected to the psychology major, they often think of traditional fields including psychological or career counselor, or school psychologist. But there are rapidly-growing opportunities in more specialized interdisciplinary fields, such as forensic psychologist (applies psychological to criminal investigation and law), engineering psychologist (studies how people interact with machines and other technology), sports psychologist (focuses on motivation and performance related to sports), genetics counselor (provides information about genetic disorders to families) and industrial-organizational psychologist (studies workplace behavior).
In choosing a major, it’s important to find a subject you’re passionate about, while also considering your future career path. Luckily, psychology is a broad-based field, with many different practical and career applications; knowledge of people and their motivations can be applied to virtually all careers! The study of psychology may expose you to many different career paths, and help you identify your interests.
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