Exploring psychology’s career pathways

Mya Kirkwood argues that psychology curricula need to encourage exploration of psychology’s career pathways.

With the new academic year on the horizon, my mind inevitably turns to the thousands of psychology students navigating the junction of vocational decision making and our current curriculum’s failure to truly support their career exploration.

Standing on the precipice of graduating in 2020, I had expected to feel ready to commit to one of the many career pathways open to me. I had started university looking forward to three years of exploring the array of Psychology specialisms. But the breadth and depth of taught specialisms were limited, and, upon graduating, I had never felt so under-prepared and overwhelmed.

Leading informal discussions with psychology students across the UK, I quickly found I was not alone. Year after year, disoriented psychology students across Britain are graduating with no idea of what to do next, having only studied a limited range of psychology specialisms and careers.

Career exploration is crucial in career commitment (Hermawan & Farozin, 2018; Jiang et al., 2019). Undergraduates find themselves in the second, and potentially most influential, stage of Donald Super’s influential stage theory of career development: exploration. In this stage, people narrow their occupational preferences, through researching, networking, trying new classes or hobbies, and undertaking work experience. They strengthen their vocational self-concept by exploring their professional traits, skills and interests (Stumpf et al., 1983; Super, 1980). 

In a similar vein, Frank Parsons’s eminent talent-matching theory of occupational decision making (1909) argues that individuals require an accurate understanding of potential careers and their own skills in order to judge their suitability and subsequent commitment. Once again, exposure and exploration of career pathways are essential in decision making and commitment.

However, many students and graduates reported little institutional support for structured vocational exploration, such as receiving information about a variety of careers and pathways, or networking to gain work experience or careers information from Practitioners. 

For this reason, there is a rise in ‘panic master’s degrees’ – students are progressing immediately into postgraduate education out of fear, because they cannot see any other option (Hall, 2021). There are also large drop-out rates from psychology undergraduate to Chartered Psychologist. If students are not afforded the opportunity to explore careers in the presence of informed and experienced professionals, how can we expect them to commit to a single pathway upon graduating?

This is especially damaging for newer, less traditional ‘Cinderella’ specialisms of Psychology, such as occupational and coaching psychology, which live in the shadows of the traditional core giants (such as clinical psychology) and often aren’t introduced until Level 5 or 6, if at all. Not only do students miss out on discovering their passion and fulfilling careers, but British Psychology is missing out on valuable new Psychologists who are the future of developing our professional communities. 

A rethinking of our psychology curricula is needed, with a greater focus on encouraging and supporting exploration of divisions and pathways. The funnel model of medical speciality training could provide suitable inspiration (British Medical Association, 2021). A true representation of the rich kaleidoscope of British psychology divisions needs to be introduced earlier in mainstream curriculums, from A-level or Level 4, encouraging greater access to, and exploration of, all specialisms, including our hidden and emerging gems. 

- Mya Kirkwood, Assistant Psychologist at The Occupational Psychology Practice International
Personal LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/mya-kirkwood/


British Medical Association. (2021, 12th July). Medical training pathway. Accessed from: https://www.bma.org.uk/advice-and-support/studying-medicine/becoming-a-doctor/medical-training-pathway

Hall, R. (2021, 3rd July). Desperate graduates rush to study ‘panic masters’ after job rejections. The Guardian. Accessed from: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/jul/03/desperate-graduates-rush-to-study-panic-masters-after-job-rejections

Hermawan, R. & Farozin, M. (2018). The role of career exploration in career decision participants. The International Journal of Counseling and Education, 3 (4), 126-132. DOI: https://doi.org/10.23916/0020180315640

Jiang, Z., Newman, A., Le, H., Presbitero, A., & Zheng, C. (2019). Career exploration: A review and future research agenda. Journal of Vocational Behaviour, 110 (B), 338-356. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jvb.2018.08.008

Parsons, F. (1909). Choosing a Vocation. Houghton Mifflin Company: United States.

Stumpf, S. A., Colarelli, S. M., & Hartman, K. (1983). Development of the Career Exploration Survey (CES). Journal of Vocational Behaviour, 22 (2), 191-226. DOI:10.1016/0001-8791(83)90028-3

Super, D. E. (1980). A life-span, life-space approach to career development. Journal of Vocational Behaviour, 16 (3), 282-298. https://doi.org/10.1016/0001-8791(80)90056-1

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