Social psychology careers and degrees
Ever heard of the famous nature or nurture debate? Are we born with our personalities already in place or are we shaped by our environment? Social psychology deals with precisely these kinds of questions. It’s the study of personality and behavior, and how the way we act is influenced by the people and society around us. In other words – who and why we are the way we are.
Although the relevance of social psychology may be obvious, it wasn’t until after World War 2 that the field became a rigorous discipline in its own right.
The horrors of WW2 and the Nuremberg trials that resulted in many German Nazi leaders being prosecuted, inspired a wave of research into social psychology. Scholars wanted to comprehend how human beings could act so cruelly. They also wanted to understand how groups of seemingly ordinary people could be influenced to commit atrocities.
It’s the study of personality and behavior, and how the way we act is influenced by the people and society around us. In other words – who and why we are the way we are.
Solomon Asch was one such researcher. A Polish-Jewish-American who emigrated to the U.S. at 13, Asch is best known for his conformity experiments. Ash wanted to investigate the extent to which social forces alter people’s opinions. In his conformity experiments, test subjects were told they were in an experiment involving visual discernment. Each experimental group had 1 member who was the real test subject, and 5-7 others who were in on the ruse. The participants were first shown images of a single line and then an image of 3 lines. They were then asked to identify which of the 3 lines matched the original line.
During the first 2 turns, the in-the-know participants tended to give the obvious correct response, making the test subject comfortable. On the third turn, participants would begin deliberately giving obviously incorrect answers. What Asch found is that even when the right answer was obvious, other people giving the wrong answer had a strong influence on the test subject. Ultimately, he found that only 23% of participants were able to resist social pressure and give the right answer no matter what others said.
Although research such as this can be disturbing in light of historical atrocities, it points to a neutral truth about human nature. We are highly social creatures. None of us exists in a vacuum, and what other people think and do matters a lot to most of us. The study of exactly how these processes operate is the domain of social psychology. Social psychologists study these principles to improve individual, group, organizational, or societal welfare.
The 4 main approaches of social psychology
- The sociocultural perspective proposes that societal norms and culture are key influences on human behavior.
- Proponents of the social learning perspective believe that our unique experiences growing up have the most influence on our behavior.
- The social-cognitive perspective theorizes that our behavior is primarily influenced by the different ways we process how people around us behave.
- According to the evolutionary perspective, genes and evolution play the biggest roles in human behavior.
Where do social psychologists work?
Many social psychologists work as academic or scientific researchers. They may also teach psychology at the university or college level. Private-sector corporations may hire social psychologists as consultants or researchers, as understanding individual and group behavior is highly relevant in the business world. Social psychologists seek employment as marketing directors, managers, or political strategists. Some are employed in government or nonprofit roles, where they use their knowledge for designing and evaluating policies and programs that affect large groups of people.
The difference between social psychologists and sociologists
Although both are social sciences, sociology is the study of relationships- between individuals, groups, corporations, and even economies- and social psychology is the study of how individuals are shaped and affected by their environment. Sociologists are primarily focused on the “big picture”. For instance, they may study social norms within a certain subpopulation, such as adults aged 20-30. Social psychologist, on the other hand, would be more interested in individual differences shaped by situational variables within that age group. In other words, how an individual responds to social pressures, and why they make certain choices.
Social psychologist, on the other hand, would be more interested in individual differences shaped by situational variables within that age group.
For example, a sociologist might study youth spending habits during the COVID19 pandemic. A social psychologist would be more interested in understanding how individual people have dealt with the stress of a global pandemic. The main differences between the 2 are the field of interest and scope of practice.
Academic requirements to become a social psychologist
Social psychologist generally need a doctoral degree to be licensed, either a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in psychology or Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.). Psychology licensure requirements vary by state. Some employment settings are more flexible than others. For instance, a corporation may employ an individual with a master’s degree as a social psychology consultant. For scholarly and scientific research, a doctorate degree is typically required.
Humans create categories to make sense of the world. These categories can lead to stereotypes and prejudices. Research highlights a tendency to exaggerate differences between groups while minimizing differences within groups that we identify with.
Bachelor degrees in social psychology
The first step on your path to becoming a social psychologist is completing a 4-year undergraduate degree. A bachelor’s degree with majors in anthropology, sociology, or psychology are all great options in preparation for graduate studies in social psychology, although not required. If you do not major in psychology, consider taking the following subjects as electives, as they are prerequisites for entry into most psychology graduate programs.
- psychopathology or abnormal psychology
- experimental psychology
- research methods in psychology
- cognitive psychology, learning and memory, or physiological psychology
At the very least, master’s programs require courses in introductory psychology, statistics, and research methods, usually with a B average in all 3.
Choosing between a B.A. and a B.S. in psychology
A bachelor of arts in psychology tends to have a more liberal arts focus, giving a historical overview of the field and its major branches and theories. Common courses include developmental psychology, personality concepts, abnormal psychology, statistics, and scientific courses like psychophysiology and biological psychology. A bachelor of science in psychology commonly focuses on the sciences as they apply to psychology, including courses in biology, chemistry, statistics, lab work, and research methods. Both options are acceptable for getting into a master’s in psychology program.
Careers with a bachelor’s in psychology
Social and human service assistant
Social service assistant usually work for nonprofit or government organizations, assisting individuals and families in need by helping them access various social assistance programs. A bachelor’s degree in psychology and an interest in social psychology are excellent preparation for this role. The Bureau of Labor and Statistics also predicts rapid growth in this field over the next decade.
Marketing assistantMedian salary: $39K
A bachelor’s in psychology and an interest in social psychology are an excellent combination for a role in marketing. Marketing is a branch of business tied to many spheres of social psychology. Marketing departments develop branding and corporate identity initiatives and implement marketing plans to grow target market shares.
Master’s in social psychology
At the master’s level, you can begin specializing by choosing a master of arts or master of science in social psychology. Note that some programs have alternative names such as social and personality psychology, social and community psychology, or applied social psychology. These programs may have slightly different orientations, but generally cover similar topics, including:
- social cognition and social behavior
- applied social psychology
- research theory, design, and methods
- quantitative reasoning and analysis
- culture and psychology
- lifespan development
- cognitive psychology and learning
- biological foundations of behavior
- theories of personality
Mater’s programs usually take 2 years to complete, with a capstone thesis or research project at the end. Doctoral programs don’t generally require applicants to have already specialized at the master’s level. This means that a general psychology master’s degree can still lead you to a career as a social psychologist, as long as you specialize at the doctoral level. Also be aware that many Ph.D. and Psy.D. programs accept students with only a bachelor’s degree. A master’s degree is then completed in the first 2 years of the doctorate.
The majority of master’s program incorporate a practical component such as a field internship. The exact type of practical experience depends on the specific program and specialization. Programs focused on counseling usually include a clinical practicum while more research-focused programs usually offer a research-based internship opportunity.
Choosing between an M.A. and an M.S. in social psychology
If you anticipate you may want to offer psychological services in a counseling or clinical capacity at any point in your career, a master of arts can be the better degree to provide the necessary prerequisites for licensure as a clinical or counseling psychologist. For those more interested in research, a master of science can be the preferred option.
Careers with a master’s degree in social psychology
Market researchers use data and analysis to support a company’s growth and sales. They measure the effectiveness of marketing campaigns, gather data on market conditions and competitors, and devise new methods for collecting data, such as opinion polls and surveys.
Public relations (PR) specialistMedian salary: $51K
Public relations specialists, also referred to as communications specialists and social media specialists, grow and nurture the positive public image of the individuals, groups, or organizations they represent. Using press releases and social media campaigns, they shape public perception of their clients.
The actor-observer bias describes our tendency to perceive our own failures as the result of forces outside our control, while attributing the failures of others to their own shortcomings.
Doctoral degrees in social psychology
A doctorate in social psychology provides training in the scientific study of social psychology and social behavior. Ph.D. programs with a focus on social psychology are designed to train researchers in the use of rigorous scientific methods to study the foundational principles underlying social behavior and to address practical questions about society and social interactions.
A doctorate is required for licensure as a psychologist in all 50 states, although some states allow partial licensure with a master’s degree. Most careers in academia and scientific research require a doctorate. There are 2 main degree options: the Doctor of Philosophy in psychology (Ph.D.) and the Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.).
The difference between a Ph.D. in social psychology and Psy.D.
A Ph.D. is generally research-focused, while a Psy.D. is more focused on clinical work. This difference makes the Ph.D. somewhat more appropriate for aspiring social psychologists, as the field is traditionally research-heavy. Note that Ph.D. programs are often more difficult to get into as they accept fewer students than Psy.D. programs. On the other hand, it is easier to receive funding for Ph.D. programs as they often teaching or research assistantship opportunities, and enroll fewer students.
How long does a doctorate in psychology take?
Typically, a Ph.D. is earned in 5-7 years, while the Psy.D. is earned in 4-6. Both programs include coursework, learning research techniques and methods, and real-life application of psychological theories in research or clinical interactions under strict supervision.
The specific coursework varies according the individual program, although typically provides courses across the following 4 distinguishable areas:
- social psychology
- quantitative methods
- psychological foundations
- research activities
Throughout your studies, you conduct independent research and assist with faculty research. Doctoral students usually present several papers at scientific meetings, submit them professional journals, and present their work at “brown bag presentations” which are semi-formal presentations on campus with fellow students and faculty.
The basic requirement for acceptance into a Ph.D. or Psy.D. program are:
- a GPA of 3.0 or higher
- professional and academic letters of recommendation
- personal statement
- official academic transcripts
- undergraduate coursework in psychology (recommended)
- evidence of paid or voluntary work in a related field (will strengthen your application)
Supervised work experience and internships
Supervised work experience (SWE) and predoctoral internships are an important component of both the Ph.D. and the Psy.D. Doctoral candidates are expected to complete anywhere from 1,500-4000 hours. SWE is usually completed after graduation, while the predoctoral internship is completed before. Each state has its own specific requirements regarding internship and work experience hours.
Most doctoral programs include a doctoral dissertation as the capstone of your studies. The doctoral dissertation is usually an extensive research projects that demonstrates your capabilities as an independent scholar and researcher.
Paying for your education
Many Ph.D. programs offer funding to students in exchange for work as a teaching or research assistant during your studies. Social psychology students may be eligible for financial aid from state, educational, or private organizations. Here are some helpful resources:
- Federal Student Aid offers an array of grants, scholarships, loans, and work-study options to college and graduate students. You can fill out the FAFSA application form to see if you qualify. Your local state grant agency may also have financial aid available.
- The American Psychological Foundation and the American Psychological Association have many scholarship and grant opportunities available for psychology students.
- NASP offers several grants and scholarship opportunities to school psychology students. These include The NASP-ERT Minority Scholarship Program, Graduate Student Research Grants, and a Strategic Goal Research Grant.
- The National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) supports students earning research-based graduate or doctoral degrees.
- Psi Chi, the international honorary society of psychology, offers numerous grants and awards to undergraduate students. You can also inquire at your school about financial aid and scholarships.
Careers with a Ph.D. in social psychology
Social psychology professor
A professor or lecturer in social psychology could be employed at a university or college. Many university professors combine their teaching work with research, often at the same institution. Teaching positions at colleges and universities are usually ranked as follows: instructor, assistant professor, associate professor, and professor.
Society for Personality and Social Psychology
The American Psychological Association’s Division 8: Society for Personality and Social Psychology focuses on the advancement of theory, research, and practice in the field of personality and social psychology.
Social Psychology Network
The Social Psychology Network maintains a large online database of research and teaching materials related to social psychology. The site’s contributors include 2,000 experts from 50 countries and over 800 research groups.
APA Social Psychology Lesson Plan
The American Psychological Association (APA) offers this free lesson plan for high school psychology teachers on the topic of social psychology. Although the guide is intended for high school students, it provides excellent insight into what social psychologists study.