Psychology Careers for College Students of Color

Psychology Education & Careers Guidebook for College Students of Color

About this guide

This brochure is for college students of color and others who are considering additional education and a career in psychology.

Introduction — Preparing for further training or a career in psychology while in undergraduate school

This brochure is for college students of color and others who are considering additional education and a career in psychology. In this brochure, we talk about specific things that you can do right now to get your future psychology career and education on track for success.

We provide you with some tips on how to find and keep a mentor. We describe many subfields and careers in psychology. And, for those of you who are uncertain if you will have the desire or money to go on to graduate school after college, we talk about other options of things you can do after college that will strengthen your psychology career. We also provide you with the names and sources of other information resources.

So why is there a need for a brochure with this type of information? Because our nation — especially its communities of color — desperately needs more people of color who are either psychologists or engaged in careers in psychology. By the middle of the 21st century, it is expected that people of color will make up more than 50 percent of the nation's population. But currently, only 5 to 6 percent of all psychologists are persons of color.

Despite their relatively small numbers, psychologists of color do exciting work in every major subfield of psychology. Some are involved in work that affects all segments of the nation's population. Many are involved with issues related to the behaviors and needs of persons and communities of color. Here are just a few examples.

Some psychologists of color are interested in the effectiveness of psychology's traditional tools for determining what kind of psychological or behavioral problem a person has and what is the best treatment for that problem. These psychologists seek to develop tools and techniques that are tailored to the cultural behaviors and worldviews of persons of color. Examples of psychologists engaged in this kind of research are: Stanley Sue, an Asian-American psychologist who directs the National Research Center on Asian American Mental Health in Los Angeles; Lillian Comas-Diaz, a Latina psychologist who edits a journal on multicultural mental health; and Nancy Boyd-Franklin, an African-American psychologist, who is on the faculty of Rutgers University where she is an expert on group and family therapy with African-Americans.

Psychologists of color are some of the leading researchers on the development of identity among persons of color. For example, African-American psychologist William Cross has identified the major stages that African-Americans go through in developing a positive Black identity. African-American psychologists Thomas Parham and Janet Helms have developed a test on racial identity attitudes. Martha Bernal, a Latina psychologist, has studied ethnic identity in Mexican-American children, and Richard Suinn, an Asian-American psychologist, has studied identity among Asians living in the United States and in other countries. Also, Dr. Suinn was elected to serve as the 1999 President of the American Psychological Association.

Tony Strickland, an African-American psychologist in Los Angeles, does path-breaking research on ethnic group differences in the effects of psychoactive drugs on behavior and on the brain.

Psychologists of color often seek to solve real problems in communities of color. For example, in response to the disproportionately large numbers of children of color in special education classes, African-American psychologist Asa Hilliard, III, who is a professor at Georgia State University, conducted research that led California to ban placement in such classes based solely on an IQ score. American Indian psychologist Joseph Trimble of Western Washington University studied substance abuse and develops programs for preventing alcohol abuse among American Indian youth.

There is plenty of exciting work in psychology. And the talents and interests of psychologists of color will be in exceptionally high demand during the 21st century. That is why we believe it is important that more students of color choose a career in psychology now.

Pursue a broad and solid education
Graduating from your college/university with a bachelor's degree requires you to complete a standard set of "core" courses that provide a balanced and challenging learning experience, together with a set of elective courses. It is important that you familiarize yourself with your college/university's core requirements when planning your course schedule. Also, you should seriously consider enrolling in English compositing or advance writing, science and math courses when possible. Don't shy away from the more advanced level classes in these areas—psychology courses require a good understanding and a strong knowledge-base in science, math/statistics and composition. At the same time, plan to mix your course selection with exciting electives. Fascinating and enlightening subjects outside of your core requirements make for a balanced courseload. As a student of color, you have a rich ethnic and cultural background that lends itself to exceptional academic skill, determination, persistence and social ability.
Socialize, network and find support groups

Studies have shown that students who effectively integrate the academic and social aspects of their college lives are more likely to succeed in college (Blackwell, 1989). Having the opportunity to develop good socialization and networking skills is one of the benefits of the college/university experience. A diverse student body enhances this opportunity. As a student of color, you may find that adjusting to the college/university environment is complex and, sometimes, difficult. Many ethnic cultures rely heavily on support networks, originating with the family and often encompassing a larger extended family component.

Research findings of African-American psychologist James M. Jones suggest that familial and cultural components are a much more integral part of an African-American's life compared to the life of his/her White counterparts (Jones, 1984; Boykin, 1991). Relying on "individual advancement" separate from "family enrichment" is in some cases considered selfish by ethnic minority families. Thus, you might hear stories from your student colleagues of color about their families' reactions to their decisions to attend colleges or universities away from home. You might even have your own stories to share. Nevertheless, don't be discouraged our families want us to have the best opportunities for success and will ultimately support our decisions.

Special tips for community or junior college students

For many students of color, a community or junior college program is the most practical choice after high school graduation and can also prove to be a beneficial one. The community/junior college experience can give you a chance to sharpen your study skills, enhance your writing ability, and sharpen your money management skills in preparation for continuing your undergraduate training.

Choosing to attend a community or junior college before seeking admission to a 4-year undergraduate institution is not a negative reflection of your academic ability. Rather, it demonstrates your commitment to be well prepared for the challenges of higher education.

When transferring from a community/junior college to an undergraduate institution, keep in mind:

  1. Course credits/units can transfer. Be certain that all or the majority of your course credits/units will be accepted. If you learn you will lose a substantial number of credits in the transfer, consider selecting another 4-year school. Seek advice from a faculty advisor, admissions officer or guidance counselor at your present institution.

  2. Emotional adjustment. Transferring from one institution to another may precipitate feelings of being an "outsider." This is different from feelings associated with being a freshman, where everything is new. Transfer students may experience feelings of alienation because they have come from a different educational institution. This feeling is natural, but you can alleviate it by forming social relationships and becoming involved in activities.

Take early advantage of opportunities to prepare for graduate school

Graduate-level training may be more demanding than what you are use to. You will need to reassess your study habits and, if necessary, strengthen your abilities and skills. Graduate training demands strong self-motivation and the ability to master high scholastic standards and a considerable workload.

For the most part, graduate-level training programs in psychology expect students applying for admission to have successfully completed undergraduate training with a concentration in psychology. The academic preparation of the bachelor's degree with a concentration in psychology usually includes courses in research methods, statistics and/or math, introductory psychology, various core psychology courses, computer usage and science.

Become familiar with subfields and careers in psychology
This brochure's section on "Subfields in Psychology" provides detailed information about the focus and activities of many psychological subfields. Review the list and determine what subfields most interest you. Having a good idea of your career interests early in your undergraduate training will benefit you as you prepare to select practicum and internship sites and a graduate-level training program.
Develop mentor relationships

Developing a mentor relationship can make your college training experience more fulfilling and benefit your professional career development.

Many psychologists who have studied people of color in academic settings emphasize the importance of positive faculty and mentor relationships for a successful college experience (Arce, 1984; Blackwell, 1987; Hartnett, 1976; and Nettles, 1990). Dr. Nettles points out, however, that women and ethnic minorities experience greater difficulty than others in finding mentors. In an article entitled "Minority students," Duncan (1976) reported that many of the students of color he interviewed felt that professors did not treat them equally with White students and did not give them oral feedback as often as they did to White students. Professors may not inspire students of color to do better work (Duncan, 1976) and may avoid interaction with students of color (Burrell, 1981; Hall & Allen, 1983). If you find yourself in a psychology department without a potential mentor, become involved with other ethnic minority professionals or community/ church leaders who can offer guidance, support and inspiration as you pursue your education and career goals.

Of course, whenever possible, become acquainted with faculty and staff of color and others at your institution. As an undergraduate student of color, getting to know the faculty and staff in your department can:

  1. Increase your knowledge of and participation in psychological research and help you better understand the academic challenges of graduate-level training in psychology.

  2. Be helpful when you begin the graduate-level admission process. Most graduate-level training programs in psychology require letters of recommendation and prefer them to be from the faculty or staff most familiar with your potential, skills and abilities.

For the most part, when students of color seek advice and assistance from psychology faculty or staff, they are responsive and helpful. However, you may encounter individuals who seem disinterested or preoccupied with other things and are not interested in becoming mentors. By following some general rules on approaching individuals, you may be able to avoid such responses:

  1. Make appointments with the people you want to talk to. This will help them avoid feeling rushed, preoccupied, or pressured. If you allow them the opportunity to choose their own time, the meeting will be much more productive.

  2. Have all questions written down or rehearsed. If you stay focused and ask specific, direct questions, the individual will remain focused as well. Hence, as a prepared student, you will receive clear, concise and relevant information. Always let the individual know of all your educational plans or possibilities, even if those plans are not "set in stone." He or she may have pertinent information beyond what you have asked.

  3. Thank the individual for his or her consideration.

    If you communicate your appreciation to the individual, he or she is more likely to be available for further contact.

    Leave the individual with all the avenues by which to reach you in the future in case he or she wants to share some additional information at a later date.

  4. Be persistent. Often faculty members or staff are busy and don't call right back or follow through on a request you have made. This does not necessarily mean they are not interested and won't be helpful. Be patient and persistent. If you learn a person will not be helpful, don't get discouraged. Find someone else to help you.

Get research experience

A research background is valuable and can even be a deciding factor in the graduate admissions process. Research should involve contact with several aspects of a study, such as the development of a hypothesis, developing study design and methods, test instrument construction, data collection and analysis, and reporting of the findings. Each phase of research is detailed and requires commitment, discipline, concentration and persistence. Research experience at the community or junior college level also can be important for those who plan to transfer to an undergraduate college/university.

Most graduate programs prefer to admit students with experience in social or behavioral science research. Gaining research experience typically entails becoming a volunteer research assistant for a faculty member or graduate student in the psychology department. The undergraduate research experience usually involves collecting data, coding data, entering and possibly interpreting data, and, in some instances, also may involve designing a particular study. Be prepared to explore research opportunities in your psychology program. In addition, many undergraduate students of color do not appreciate the value of participating in research projects as a "respondent" or experimental "subject" as another way of being exposed to a research experience.

Speak with the faculty members or graduate students in your institution's psychology department about your research interests and determine if or how you might participate in an ongoing research project. If a faculty member is unable to involve you in her research, do not be discouraged. Instead, get recommendations about other faculty or research opportunities.

Pursue each lead. Keep in mind that the primary purpose of your undergraduate research experience should be learning and understanding the mechanics of research methodology and the fundamental requirements of data analyses. Seek the knowledge.

Pursue internship or practicum experience

The meaning of internship or practicum can vary from institution to institution. Some practica and internships are required; others are elective. Some are available only to advanced undergraduate students. Some are paid; others are taken for course credit only. Some psychology departments do not require or offer internships or practica. Confirm with your department the details of the practica or internships offered. In any case, the basic objective of an undergraduate internship or practicum should be to allow undergraduate students hands-on, real-world experience related to psychological services delivery or research.

Although you should expect a certain amount of administrative work (photocopying, answering phones) with any internship or practicum opportunity, you should look for the bulk of your experience to address aspects of psychological service delivery or research training. Also, your work should be well supervised. When choosing among undergraduate internship or practicum programs, choose the ones that offer specific tasks/projects and provide a contract of expectations from both the student's and the internship site's perspective. Most importantly, choose an internship or practicum that, upon completion of your work, will provide you with an evaluation of your work. A favorable internship or practicum evaluation as part of a graduate-level psychology admissions packet can speak volumes about your commitment, skill, ability and persistence.

Remember: Practicum and internship experience can be beneficial for your advanced psychology education and career. Take advantage of as many as possible without sacrificing your academic work. Not only does practical experience enhance your education and make you a more viable applicant for graduate-level training in psychology, it gives you a chance to get firsthand experience in various psychology-related job settings and subspecialties in psychology. Seek the knowledge.

Selecting a short list of graduate-level training programs

Selecting the "best" graduate-level training programs to apply to is an important and somewhat time-consuming task that requires you to be organized and to start early. You also should be aware that graduate training in psychology is provided by two types of programs: graduate departments of psychology and professional schools of psychology.

  1. Graduate departments of psychology typically located in a university's school of arts and sciences or school of education. These programs grant PhD or EdD degrees and tend to emphasize training in psychological research skills.

  2. Professional schools of psychology typically are either independent free-standing institutions or located within universities. These programs grant the PsyD or PhD degree and tend to emphasize training for professional practice (e.g, clinical, counseling, school, organizational development psychology). Both graduate departments and professional schools are accredited by the American Psychological Association in the subfields of clinical, counseling and school psychology.

As part of the selection process, we recommend that you consult with faculty members, graduate students and various psychology publications (books and journals) to get a better sense of potential education and career options in psychology. This brochure lists resources that can provide you with more information on psychology education and careers, including an APA brochure For College Students of Color Applying to Graduate and Professional Programs in Psychology.

Considering alternatives to graduate school

We have talked about applying for graduate studies in psychology. However, you may not plan to go to graduate school, immediately or ever. Many options are still available to you.

Many graduate programs encourage individuals to have work and life experiences prior to accepting them into their programs. Businesses and companies looking for college seniors recruit on college campuses. For these, check the career services office at your school. If your interest is in the social services, more likely you will have to approach them, as the social services are less likely to actively recruit new graduates. If jobs are not readily available, see if you can obtain an internship or volunteer your time. Working part time at a job that is not directly related to your career choice and at the same time volunteering a few hours a week where you really want to work is an excellent way to gain experience.

Here are samples of some of the types of jobs available in psychology for persons who do not have a doctoral degree (PhD, EdD or PsyD). If you have an Associate's (or community college) degree in psychology, you will be qualified to assume a variety of paraprofessional roles in mental health and human services agencies. A bachelor's degree in psychology can qualify you either to assist a psychologist in a mental health, correctional center or other social service or health agency. The bachelor's degree also can qualify you to become a research assistant or psychology high school teacher. An advanced degree, such as a master's degree in psychology, can prepare you for professional jobs (often working under the supervision of a psychologist with a PhD degree) in state hospitals, mental health centers, research settings. A master's degree also will qualify you for teaching at a community or junior college and at some 4-year colleges.

You might also broaden your life experience in other ways upon graduation from college. Traveling or working abroad or going into the Peace Corps, Teach for America or AmeriCorp are ways to gain life experience. Ask for help from the career services office and career counselors at your school to learn about programs and opportunities after college. Whatever the stage of your education and career development, you, the college student of color, can follow some or all of the suggestions in this publication to make the most of your college learning experience leading toward further study or a career in psychology. Always try to seek the knowledge.

If you are not admitted to a graduate program
If you apply and are not admitted to a graduate or professional program in psychology, it is important to view the situation optimistically and recognize it as one temporary detour on the path of your career achievement. Optimists focus on temporary and specific causes for an event, considering how outside circumstances and external causes affect the results. Pessimists personalize the event, believing their own enduring traits to be the cause (Seligman, 1991). Maintaining an optimistic frame of mind will help you cope with the situation and allow you to consider other options. If possible, contact the programs that did not extend an invitation for admission and request feedback about the situation or what might have made your application stronger. Armed with this feedback, you can strengthen your application.
Subfields in psychology

The American Psychological Association, the largest organization of American psychologists, is affiliated with nearly 50 special interest groups called "divisions." These divisions represent the major subfields in psychology. To help you understand the variety of careers in psychology, the following are brief descriptions of just some of the subfields in psychology.

  1. Clinical Psychologists

    The clinical psychologist is interested in the diagnosis, causes and treatment of mental disorders (such as depression, personality disorders or schizophrenia). Clinical psychologists may function as professors, researchers, consultants, administrators or supervisors. They may work in clinics, community mental health centers, hospitals and/or in private practice.

  2. Cognitive and Psycholinguistic Psychologists

    These psychologists are research oriented and often study mental processes: thinking, knowing, feeling, learning, etc. They believe that mental processes can be examined scientifically through the conduct of experiments. Thus, cognitive psychologists are especially interested in the ways in which people perceive, interpret and store information, while psycholinguists are interested in the development, structure and meaning of language. These psychologists are usually found in academic settings, research laboratories or in technical and information-processing agencies.

    The American Psychological Association, the largest organization of American psychologists, is affiliated with nearly 50 special interest groups called "divisions." These divisions represent the major subfields in psychology. To help you understand the variety of careers in psychology, the following are brief descriptions of just some of the subfields in psychology.

  3. Community Psychologists

    Community psychologists focus on ordinary behavior in settings such as the home, the community and the workplace. These psychologists are interested in human behavior and the reciprocal relationships between individuals and their community. Community psychologists conduct research on such relationships and often use their research findings in designing and implementing community-based programs and interventions. Community psychologists can be found working in community health centers, universities, independent research facilities and/or in social service organizations.

  4. Counseling Psychologists

    Counseling psychologists, like clinical psychologists, are interested in the treatment of mental disorders. The main difference between the two is that counseling psychologists are concerned primarily with "normal" problems of adjustment or challenge, such as choosing a career, experiencing academic stress or coping with marital problems. Counseling psychologists may also conduct research and may seek to find answers to questions such as: Are there sex differences in the way people cope with difficulties? What is the psychological impact of exposure to a major disaster? These psychologists often work in academic settings, community mental health centers, hospitals or private clinics.

  5. Developmental Psychologists

    These psychologists study how people change over time and the developmental stages across the human lifespan (i.e., birth to death). These psychologists are interested in such topics as emotional development, language acquisition, common traits among age groups, aging and gender differences among infants. Developmental psychologists are often employed in academic settings, clinics, hospitals and public school systems and as day care center directors.

  6. Educational and School Psychologists

    Educational psychologists study the processes of learning, remembering and thinking and then apply that knowledge to educational procedures, test development and curriculum design. School psychologists are interested in the emotional or learning problems of students. Both educational and school psychologists are often employed by universities and school districts. Also, educational psychologists work at companies that design and analyze student tests, and school psychologists may work in a private practice.

  7. Environmental Psychologists

    The environmental psychologist is interested in the relationship between human behavior and physical environments. These environments range from homes and offices to urban areas and regions. Environmental psychology is primarily research oriented and can be used in designing urban areas or work spaces that promote positive human behavior. Environmental psychologists may work for government or private environmental agencies or other agencies and corporations.

  8. Experimental Psychologists

    Experimental psychologists investigate such basic processes as learning, memory, sensation, perception, cognition, motivation and emotion. They might also research the physiological processes underlying such behaviors as eating, reading and problem solving. Experimental psychologists may be employed at research institutions, businesses, industries, government and academic settings.

  9. Geropsychologists

    Geropsychologists are psychologists that utilize sociology, biology, psychology and other disciplines to study the factors associated with adult development and aging. Geropsychologists find employment in academic settings, research centers, industry, health care organizations, mental health clinics and agencies serving the elderly. Others are engaged in private practice as consultants on the design and evaluation of programs for the elderly.

  10. Health Psychologists

    Health psychologists are interested in the promotion and maintenance of good health as well as the prevention and treatment of illness. They investigate issues concerning why people do not engage in healthful practices and then design programs to assist individuals. They may design programs to help people stop smoking, lose weight, manage stress, prevent cavities or stay physically fit. Medical centers, hospitals, health maintenance organizations, rehabilitation centers, public health agencies, and private practices are possible employment settings for health psychologists.

  11. Industrial/Organizational Psychologists

    Industrial/organizational psychologists are concerned with the relationship between people and organizational structures. Their main focus is on the study of people in the workforce. Such psychologists focus on organizational change, workers' productivity and job satisfaction, consumer behavior and the interaction between humans and machines. Industrial/organizational psychologists work in government, industries, businesses, and in colleges and universities.

  12. Neuropsychologists and Psychobiologists

    Neuropsychologists and psychobiologists investigate the relationship between physical (body) systems and behavior. These psychologists may study chemical and physical changes that occur in the body when one experiences different emotions. Or they may study the effect of specific biochemical mechanisms in the brain to behavior, and the relation of brain structure to function. Neuropsychologists may also diagnose and treat disorders related to the central nervous system. These psychologists work in academic settings where they conduct research and train others. They might also work in hospitals and clinics.

  13. Psychometric and Quantitative Psychologists

    Psychometric and quantitative psychologists are concerned with mathematical or numerical methods and techniques used in psychology. These psychologists are well trained in mathematics, statistics and computer programming. They often utilize these skills to revise old (or create new) intelligence, personality and aptitude tests. They are also qualified to interpret experimental results and design new techniques for analyzing information. Psychometricians and quantitative psychologists are mainly employed by universities and colleges, testing companies, private research firms and government agencies.

  14. Social Psychologists

    Social psychologists study how people interact with one another and how they are affected by their social environments. These psychologists will often study individuals as well as groups, observable behaviors and private thoughts. Social psychologists can be found in academic settings, advertising agencies, corporations, hospitals, and survey (polling) firms.

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