How To Choose a Concentration as a Psychology Major
This article was written based on the information and opinions presented by Kristen Cushen and Elysia Garza in a CollegeVine livestream. You can watch the full livestream for more info.
How To Choose a Psychology Subfield
As an incoming freshman, you might be surprised to learn how many subfields of psychology there are. Intro to Psychology generally is the first required course in the major, and it will introduce you to the fundamentals of many subfields. Your next step should be to narrow down the vast field of psychology into some areas you may want to specialize in during your college career. One way to figure out where you might want to concentrate is to take a wide variety of psychology courses. You can try classes, such as:
- Cognitive psychology
- Clinical psychology
- Social psychology
- Developmental psychology
- Animal psychology
Most colleges will offer numerous different psychology classes. If you take a good variety, which should also count as credit toward your major, you’ll notice the subjects you find interesting and connect to the most. Have an open mind. Over time, you’ll notice the psychology subfields that you gravitate to, which will help you find your calling. Figuring out your interests in the field will also help you determine whether you should pursue a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science degree in psychology.
Note that some colleges will have more rigid curricula or less flexibility in the classes you can take. If that’s the case, you should still look into the classes you can’t take and talk about the content with the professors who teach it. Professors have office hours that are made for questions just like the ones you’ll ask about choosing a path.
You can also do your own research. There are many good resources for learning about the intricacies of psychology and its subfields. The American Psychological Association (APA) has an amazing guide to many of psychology’s fascinating subfields.
Research vs. Clinical Work
One of the main decisions you’ll have to make is whether to pursue research or clinical work in psychology. Again, this will be based on personal interests and career goals in psychology, things you’ll figure out as you take classes and move through college. It’s important to get some idea of what you want to do so you know the next steps to take.
If you want to do research, it would be in your best interest to start connecting with the right people as early as your first year. An easy and effective start is to get to know your professors. Psychology departments usually have a handful of professors teaching all of their classes, as courses in the major tend to build off each other. Additionally, the professors teaching the department’s courses very often are the same faculty who operate the various labs. Labs within a college are going to be the primary source of information about and experience in conducting psychology research.
This cannot be stressed enough — make sure you go to your professors’ office hours. Also, interact and ask questions during Zoom calls or in classrooms or lecture halls so that the professors can get to know you and your interests. Psychology classes are often large lectures and can have hundreds of students depending on the college, so you’ll want to make yourself stand out in a memorable way. That way, when the time for substantial research comes —
often around junior year — the professors you’ve gotten to know can write you a letter of recommendation or even make you a member of their lab.
Pursuing the Clinical Route
Maybe research isn’t your thing. The other general route to pursue is clinical psychology focused on helping individuals or groups. Of course, there is overlap between research and clinical implementations of psychology but, generally speaking, clinical psychology jobs deal with things such as therapy, social work, and counseling more than conducting research.
One primary difference between research and clinical work is that clinical work is often outside of the scope of a college setting. Research tends to be conducted on university campuses whereas clinical work is done by institutions like government agencies, private practices, and nonprofits.
If you know you want to do clinical work, explore nonprofit organizations and internships in your area related to the type of people you want to work with. There are many programs around the United States that explicitly encourage psychology students to apply.
Again, connecting with and getting to know your professors will be immensely helpful to you, no matter what subfield you study or whether you pursue research or clinical work. Not only can professors provide you with strong recommendation letters, but they may also be able to direct you to specific programs that will best suit your interests and skills.