Thinking About Psychology as a Major?

Many people associate psychology with psychological therapy and the practice of clinical psychology. There are actually many other important areas of scientific psychology, such as cognitive, developmental, industrial/organizational, and social psychology.

  • Clinical Psychology is the study of how psychological disorders develop, their features, and how they may be assessed and treated, and of general life adjustment. While clinical psychologists and psychiatrists do similar work, a clinical psychologist has a graduate degree in psychology and a psychiatrist has a medical degree with psychiatric residency training. Typically psychiatrists focus on the physiological side of mental health issues and are trained to prescribe psychotropic medications. A clinical psychologist does not prescribe medication and focuses on the client’s feelings, thoughts, behaviors, and environment. Counseling psychologists often work with normal or moderately maladjusted individuals on emotional, social, vocational, education, and developmental concerns.
  • Neuroscience is the study of the physiological and anatomical foundations (e.g., brain and nervous system) of thought, emotion, and behavior.
  • Social Psychology is the study of behavior with respect to, and as affected by, other people. This includes attitudes, group behavior, social perception and cognition, relationships, the self and identity, and self-esteem.
  • Developmental Psychology is the study of how mind and behavior develop, from birth onwards. It is divided into two main areas – social development (including emotional, moral, and personality), and cognitive development (including perceptual and language).
  • Cognitive Psychology is the study of mental functioning, information processing, perception and sensation, memory, reasoning and intelligence, problem solving and creativity, language, and motor control.
  • Industrial/Organizational (I/O) Psychology is the study of the work setting and human factors, including leadership, organizational behavior, personnel selection and training, motivation and work satisfaction.

Is the Psychology major difficult?

Study at the college level is more advanced than in high school. You are expected to study a subject in more depth – including the biological, social, and cognitive mechanisms that support behavior. You are expected to develop critical thinking skills, an ability to synthesize ideas, and you will be expected to create well-reasoned arguments. By the time you graduate you will have had wide experience in the critical analysis of theory and research, and statistical data analysis, and will have skills that will be useful to a broad range of occupations and other activities in life.

In taking classes at the university level you will be expected to:

  • learn about biological, social, and cognitive mechanisms of behavior
  • study and discuss textbooks and other readings (including articles from scientific journals)
  • develop a solid understanding of statistics, research methods, and experimental design
  • write papers and reports (and study and learn American Psychological Association format, notation and style)
  • take exams (multiple-choice, short-answer, essay, etc.)
  • perform critical analyses, including quantitative analyses, of research and theory relating to psychology issues
  • design and carry out psychological experiments

Goals of the Psychology Major

The psychology major is designed to meet the following learning objectives for students:

Content Knowledge

Students will

  • demonstrate knowledge of major psychological concepts, theories, and empirical findings
  • demonstrate the ability to apply psychological concepts and theories to research and real life situations.
  • demonstrate knowledge about the history, values, and scientific foundations of the field of psychology. *

Thinking Skills

Students will

  • use critical and creative thinking, skeptical inquiry, and the scientific approach to solve problems related to behavior and mental processes
  • demonstrate critical thinking in the analysis, evaluation, and interpretation of information in the scientific literature to distinguish the scientific literature from other sources.
  • demonstrate the ability to formulate and defend one’s own scholarly opinion based on reading, interpreting, and synthesizing psychological literature.*

Communication Skills

Students will

  • communicate effectively (in writing and/or orally) the results of a project or internship.
  • demonstrate the ability to effectively extract central points and summarize psychological research literature and to write in the format of psychological research.
  • demonstrate the ability to translate psychological knowledge into everyday language.* 

Research Skills

Students will

  • differentiate among the research methods used in psychology and apply the designs in evaluation or development of a research study.
  • demonstrate the ability to analyze and interpret quantitative psychological data using statistics, graphs, and data tables.

The Psychology Department assesses its performance with respect to these goals in several ways: by using instruments specifically designed to assess particular goals and comparing entering students with seniors, monitoring student performance in courses that target specific goals, with exit surveys of graduating seniors, and by collecting statistics on student participation in research opportunities.

 Liberal Arts Psychology specific learning objective

Psychology major program options

Psychology majors must select from two programs leading to a baccalaureate degree. The PSYBA degree provides a very broad education in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. While many of the PSYBA and PSYBS requirements are the same, PSYBA requirements include an additional 12 credits of a foreign language, and additional credits of arts, humanities, social and behavioral sciences, and other cultures.

The PSYBS degree has options for specific interests. Note that the PSYBS program specifically requires English 202A (Writing in the Social Sciences). The PSYBS degree requires only that the student had two years of language in high school or at least a C in one language course at Penn State. The PSYBS program requires the student to complete one of the four options. Students who want a general science background rather than specializing in neuroscience and health, business, or computers and statistics are advised to choose the Biological and Evolutionary Science Option. Those who want to go into medicine, neuroscience, or a health-related field, should choose the Neuroscience Option. Those who want to work in business should choose the Business Option (but note that it is often difficult to schedule Business courses). Those who want to specialize in computers and statistics should select the Quantitative Skills Option. All options require the students to take additional supporting courses in arts or humanities, natural sciences, and social and behavioral sciences. For more information see our Undergraduate Requirements Page.

Who can answer my questions about the psychology major?

Visit our Advising Center. You can also call (863-1811) or stop by the Psychology Advising Center in 125 Moore Building.