Welcome to Psychological Science
Welcome to the world of psychological science – we’re so thrilled to share it with you. If you’re feeling apprehensive about the word ‘science’, don’t let it throw you off. Although psychology is a science (more on this below), we want to encourage you to think of science as a power tool: you might be a bit apprehensive at first, but once you learn how to use the tool, things become incredibly exciting. You will get some information on the tool of science in this chapter, with more to come in the chapters to follow.
With our science power tool in hand, we can systematically explore, evaluate, understand, and solve questions that we care about. For example, understanding how, when, and why the brain can rewrite itself is (a) amazing, and (b) allows us to use this information in contexts such as everyday learning, and recovery from trauma. Science allows us to measure and evaluate the efficacy of treatments, including psychotherapy – providing us with evidence that a specific treatment is worthwhile and won’t cause harm. Science allows us to understand basic behavioural phenomena like bystander apathy (the tendency for bystanders to not intervene in an emergency), and then it will enable us to create interventions based in empirical evidence that will facilitate bystander engagement. Applying scientific methods allows us to create better communications so that people will behave in healthier ways. For example, designing playgrounds to promote active play, creating healthier and more efficient workplaces, developing prevention and harm-reduction programs that work, increasing the uptake of pro-environmental campaigns and optimising sport performance – just to name a few benefits. By using the scientific method to systematically explore questions like this, we (a) can communicate more effectively with our colleagues in other areas under a common framework, and (b) – most importantly – have confidence that we’re making decisions about how to proceed in any context with the support of empirical evidence.
The first edition of this handbook was conceived and produced in Canada. This chapter was written by Norris and Baker (2019). We now include information about the Australian context to ensure this book is helpful to psychology students here in Australia (and maybe New Zealand). We believe that there is a major role for psychological science to play in managing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been felt across the whole community – effects which will continue for some time. There is currently an increased focus on the psychological effects of dealing with a global pandemic, the need to maintain social distancing, and even factors that contribute to the rise of conspiracy theories about the virus. There are many ways we can make a positive difference in our communities using the tools you will learn about in the chapters that follow.
With that, let’s get started.
What is Psychological Science?
Although the terms ‘psychology’ and ‘psychological science’ can be used interchangeably, it’s important at this point to restate that this book approaches psychology as a science. Psychology is the scientific study of brain and behaviour, and the interactions between them. This means that in the quest to understand the brain and behaviour, the scientific method is applied. Thus, those training in the field of psychological science are developing the skills to notice patterns, develop hypotheses, systematically test those hypotheses through measurement, draw conclusions, and use those conclusions to create or refine hypotheses in an ongoing process that continually gives us a more accurate and precise understanding of brain and behaviour. To establish clear boundaries, psychology is not using gut intuition to understand people. Psychology is not making unfounded assumptions. Psychology is not mind-reading. Instead, psychology is doing careful background research. Psychology is carefully collecting observations in a systematic way. Psychology is ensuring that observations are collected in an ethical way. Psychology is having a strong understanding of research methods and data analytics so as to have the tools to carefully evaluate quality of evidence. Psychology is having an awareness of validity, reliability, and generalisability of research findings to appropriately apply research in practice and future research. Psychology is ensuring that ethical responsibilities are met. In this book, we will highlight the ways in which the scientific method has been used to understand brain and behaviour, and we will help you to make important connections between training in the psychological sciences and the many careers that this training prepares you for.
Highlighting the reason this book was created, surprisingly (to us), despite developing skills and knowledge in the science that underlies the wide variety of applications of psychological science, many students do not immediately see the value of their undergraduate degree in psychology when it comes to employment, especially if they are working in an area that is not related to their degree (Rajecki & Borden, 2009). Training in psychology at the undergraduate level provides students with a broad and valuable skill set that can lead to careers in professional psychology (e.g., registered and endorsed psychology) and discipline psychology (e.g., research, policy development, community program development, and many more). One goal of this book is to overcome this gap: psychology is an incredibly popular major (e.g., Cooperative Institute Research Program, 2008) and an increasingly popular subject at high school (see Waring, 2019 for an overview), and students who receive training in psychology develop concrete skills and knowledge that employers want. This book was carefully curated to highlight the many ways you can apply your training in psychology to a wide variety of careers, some with the word ‘psychology’ or ‘psychologist’ in the job title, and some that don’t use those terms. Further, this book was carefully curated to highlight the many ways in which others have applied their training in psychology to solve important questions related to the brain and behaviour. As with any science, we’re continually developing and learning. If you’re interested in the brain and behaviours, and get excited to ask questions, search for answers, and apply these to what you’ve learned, you’re in the right place. If you’re feeling unsure, that’s okay. Hopefully the following chapters shed new light on the field of psychological science to help you as you develop your long-term career goals. If you decide that psychology is not for you, that’s also a win: it’s important that you find an area to work in that meets your personal goals. You will likely interact with someone who is working from a psychological science framework during your career, and we hope this content gives you a common framework from which to work.
An emerging area of focus for those of us who teach psychology is that of psychological literacy. In fact, we’re using the tools of psychological science to understand better what it means to have psychological literacy. The purpose of an accredited undergraduate degree in Australia is to provide students with ‘… broad and coherent knowledge and skills in the scientific discipline of psychology’ (Australian Psychology Accreditation Council [APAC], 2019, p. 10). This means that students learn about different fields of psychology both from a theoretical and an empirical (evidence-based) perspective. Undergraduate students develop cultural competencies, critical thinking skills, and an understanding of ethics (research and professional). Alongside these, students also develop communication and research skills that when combined with discipline knowledge, place them in good stead for employment and/or postgraduate training. This combination of knowledge and skills is known as ‘psychological literacy’. The question that we ask ourselves is how do we measure psychological literacy?
A recently published systematic review (Newell et al., 2019) found that most researchers who have attempted to measure psychological literacy refer to two definitions: that of McGovern et al. (2010) and Cranney et al. (2012). Broadly defined, psychological literacy can be thought of as ‘… the general capacity to adaptively and intentionally apply psychology to meet personal, professional and societal needs’ (Cranney et al., 2012, p. iii). An earlier description of psychological literacy by McGovern and colleagues (2010, p. 11) helps us to fully appreciate this complex idea. They list nine key components of psychological literacy:
- having a well-defined vocabulary and basic knowledge of the critical subject matter of psychology
- valuing the intellectual challenges required to pursue scientific thinking and the disciplined analysis of information to evaluate alternative courses of action
- taking a creative and amiable sceptic approach to problem-solving
- applying psychological principles to personal, social, and organisational issues in work, relationships, and the broader community
- acting ethically
- being competent to use and evaluate information and technology
- communicating effectively in different modes and with many different audiences
- recognising, understanding, and fostering respect for diversity
- being insightful and reflective about ones’ own and others’ behaviour and mental processes.
So, let’s have a look at how we’re using psychological science to explore psychological literacy. One of the first steps is to work out a way to measure psychological literacy. The development of an accurate (i.e., reliable and valid) test of psychological literacy will enable psychology educators to monitor student learning and course outcomes, benchmark for course accreditation, and showcase the valuable skills and knowledge gained by psychology students during their studies. It would also improve research into psychological literacy in education and other settings because we would know the test is giving us good data. For example, it would be interesting to determine how psychological literacy levels differ between graduates of different courses. Or how much psychological literacy there is in the general population?
One step in the scientific method (which you will read more about in a later chapter) is to find out what is already known about a topic. That is, to look at published articles, books, and reports. In a first attempt to measure psychological literacy, Roberts et al. (2015) did exactly this. They found and used an existing self-report measure of psychological literacy developed by Chester et al. (2013) in which psychology students were asked to rate their own knowledge/competence of each of the nine dimensions. If you look back at the list of psychological literacy dimensions by McGovern and colleagues, you can see the first one is ‘having a well-defined vocabulary and basic knowledge of the critical subject matter of psychology’. The first question in Chester and colleagues’ scale was: ‘At this point in your education, how would you rate your knowledge of basic concepts/principles in psychology?’. Roberts et al. also found and used one full questionnaire for each of the nine dimensions (you can look up that article to read more about these questionnaires). Two large samples of undergraduate psychology students (N=218 and N=381) participated in the research and completed these measures. Firstly, the authors found that the relationships between the single item and full measure for each dimension were not consistent or high. The second finding of interest is that when they looked at the pattern of answers in the nine larger questionnaires (using a technique called ‘factor analysis’), three underlying factors (groupings) emerged and these factors reflected Generic Graduate Attributes, Psychology as a Helping Profession, and Reflective Processes. Roberts et al. suggested that it might be the latter two (Psychology as a Helping Profession and Reflective Processes) that best distinguish psychology graduates from other graduates. They further explored whether students from different year levels of their degree and students from a speech pathology course performed differently on these questionnaires, but found that the differences were very small. The authors then considered the overall results from their study and suggested that the next step to take in the research in this area should be the development of a ‘test’ of psychological literacy. A ‘test’ of psychological literacy would be like the tests and examinations at school and university that test what you know. The questionnaires used so far are what we call ‘self-report’, where you would just say whether you think you know something or not. This illustrates the scientific method where we take systematic observations (research results) and use this to develop new questions about our topic – in this case the efforts to best measure psychological literacy.
Roberts and Gasson (2018) subsequently developed the Test of Psychological Literacy (TOPL). This test included scenarios that were developed to test knowledge of the major areas of psychology as set out by the Australian Psychological Accreditation Council (APAC) and the Psychology Board of Australia. In addition, the scenarios were written to reflect personal (e.g., self-care), professional, and societal situations demonstrating the accepted working definition of psychological literacy (Cranney et al, 2012). The scenarios were sent out to experts for review and edited based on this expert feedback. The final scenarios were tested with a sample of undergraduate psychology students and some further editing was done. The final test has 86 scenarios assessing knowledge across the major areas of psychology as set out by our professional bodies here in Australia. Research has compared responses from final year psychology students to other undergraduate students, and psychology students to the general public. While these results are promising, more research needs to be conducted.
Work is now progressing on the Test of Psychological Literacy – Revised (ToPL-R; Machin & Gasson, 2019). Currently we are developing a scoring process based on the Situation Judgement Test (SJT) methodology (as described by Robinson et al., 2020). Similar to a multiple choice question, respondents are presented with five possible answers to each scenario, each of which has been rated by experts as to how ‘correct’ it is. By using a multiple choice style response format, the test can be completed in less time and scored electronically, making it fit for purpose (i.e., able to quickly and accurately assess psychological literacy). Secondly, further studies on the 86 scenarios and subsets of these scenarios will help to demonstrate that the test is useful (i.e., reliable and valid). So the research is ongoing and uses the tools of psychological science. We hope that this example helps you to see how the scientific method (the process of research) enables us to improve our knowledge and practices. This process works across all areas of interest to psychology researchers but here we have illustrated the process using our work on psychological literacy.
We argue that psychological literacy will help all psychology students have a clearer understanding of the outcome of their degree and how it will impact their employability skills. The terms employers use when describing the attributes they require are sometimes different to the terms we use in the academic world. The next section outlines the key qualities that employers are looking for, and the following section provides you with an opportunity to assess your employability skills.
What Do Employers Want?
According to Graduate Careers Australia’s 2015 Graduate Outlook Survey of employers in Australasia (Matthews et al., 2016), the top 10 most highly rated attributes of job candidates were:
- interpersonal and communication skills (written and oral)
- cultural alignment/values fit
- emotional intelligence (including self-awareness, confidence, motivation)
- reasoning and problem-solving skills
- academic results
- work experience
- technical skills
- demonstrated leadership
- extracurricular involvement (e.g., clubs and societies)
- community/volunteer service.
Although many students might not see how their psychology degree is relevant for the workforce (Borden & Rajecki, 2000), undergraduate training in psychology directly and intentionally addresses many of the top 10 rated attributes desired by employers. The Australian Psychology Accreditation Council (2019, p. 10) specifies Foundational Competencies that reflect a broad and coherent knowledge base and skill set in the discipline of psychology. They require graduates of an undergraduate degree with an APAC-accredited sequence to be able to:
1.1: Comprehend and apply a broad and coherent body of knowledge of psychology, with depth of understanding of underlying principles, theories and concepts in the discipline, using a scientific approach, including the following topics:
i. the history and philosophy underpinning the science of psychology and the social, cultural, historical and professional influences on the practice of psychology
ii. individual differences in capacity, behaviour and personality
iii. psychological health and wellbeing
iv. psychological disorders and evidence-based interventions
v. learning and memory
vi. cognition, language and perception
vii. motivation and emotion
viii. neuroscience and the biological bases of behaviour
ix. lifespan developmental psychology
x. social psychology
xi. culturally appropriate psychological assessment and measurement
xii. research methods and statistics
1.2: Apply knowledge and skills of psychology in a reflexive, culturally appropriate and sensitive manner to the diversity of individuals
1.3: Analyse and critique theory and research in the discipline of psychology and communicate these in written and oral formats
1.4: Demonstrate an understanding of appropriate values and ethics in psychology
1.5: Demonstrate interpersonal skills and teamwork
1.6: Demonstrate self-directed pursuit of scholarly inquiry in psychology.
Thus, there appears to be a gap such that undergraduate students in psychology may not see the strong connections between their developing skills, and the attributes desired by the job market.
Take the 51-item Employable Skills Self-Efficacy Survey to rate your self-perceived employability skills self-efficacy (Ciarocco & Strohmetz, 2018). The survey is also part of our evaluation of this handbook’s impact on undergraduate psychology students’ perceptions about non-clinical psychology career paths (approved by the USQ Human Research Ethics Committee, approval number H20REA235).
This book will show you many examples of how you can use your training across a variety of careers, including those outside ‘professional psychology’. Understanding the foundation of psychological science can help demonstrate how psychology training can translate into many career paths.
Psychology and The Scientific Method
To belabour the point, psychology is an empirical science. This means that, in addition to theory and logic, most professionals who work in the psychological sciences rely on the collection, analysis, and interpretation of data to inform their work. This is important: we know from research that humans can fall prey to biases including the availability heuristic (the tendency to assume that what comes to mind easily is likely accurate, e.g., Tversky & Kahneman, 1973), false-consensus effects (the tendency to assume that our behaviours and opinions are similar with most other people, e.g., Ross et al, 1977), and confirmation bias (the tendency to see information which is confirming rather than disconfirming, e.g., Nickerson, 1998). Relying on data (especially data verified by other scientists) to inform our professional opinions helps us to not only limit the effects of these biases, but it also helps us to gain representative insights into phenomenon of interest that are more likely to reflect their true nature.
As we look with an empirical lens at the brain and behaviours, and as you develop your own professional opinions, you are encouraged to always consider the following three concepts when you are considering information presented to you: validity, reliability, and generalisability.
Validity is the degree to which a measure or design accurately captures the construct or process of interest. This means that when you are reading about any finding, you should first ask yourself questions including: ‘Are these researchers measuring what they think they are measuring, or did they make a mistake?’ and ‘Is this research actually addressing the concept it’s claiming to?’.
Reliability is the degree to which a finding consistently appears across time and/or situations. This means that when you are reading about any finding, you should ask yourself questions including: ‘Do I think this effect will appear in a similar context if this is done a year from now?’, ‘Do I think there are other variables that might influence whether this effect will appear?’ and ‘Do I think there is a better measure of this effect that will more consistently measure this effect?’.
Generalisability is the degree to which similar findings are likely to occur in other contexts. This means that when you’re reading about any finding, you should ask yourself questions including: ‘Do I think that this effect will also appear in other groups of people? If not, why?’ and ‘Why should (or shouldn’t) this effect appear in other groups of people?’.
A final consideration you should make when engaging with research is critically important: the ethics of the research. You should always ask yourself whether the work you are doing (or learning about) meets the Australian Psychological Society’s principles for ensuring Respect for the rights and dignity of people and peoples, Propriety, and Integrity (Australian Psychological Society, 2007). You can learn more about this in Chapter 4.
Note that you have an important role to play here: it’s your job as a reader of science to use your developing skills to ask tough questions of other researchers. Again, scientists are human, and even with careful work, we can all make mistakes. We need to trust that our colleagues (that now includes you!) will ask tough questions of our studies. From this point on, it’s your professional responsibility as a developing psychological scientist to ask questions about validity, reliability, and generalisability if they arise, and to ask questions about other aspects of research, including ethics. You need to become a critical consumer of research even if you do not conduct research yourself. You will learn more about asking questions of research in future chapters.
Careers in Psychological Science
An undergraduate degree in psychological science is useful preparation for many types of careers. For example, as a result of strong training in the scientific method, students in the psychological sciences are equipped to distinguish causal and noncausal relationships between variables. This means that students can identify if one variable causes another, or if two variables are related but one doesn’t necessarily cause the other (i.e., if variables are correlated). Insights such as these prove valuable in many contexts. For example, when a client presents claiming that Treatment X cured an ailment, a practitioner trained in the psychological sciences should immediately consider the validity, reliability, and generalisability of the claim. Specifically, the treatment may not be valid – perhaps there is a lurking third variable, such as passage of time, which often is associated with a reduction in symptoms. To put this into context, Treatment X could cure the cold after seven days, but most instances of the cold resolve on their own in around seven days. A student with training in psychological science would design an experiment to test the effects of Treatment X to see whether it is indeed an effective treatment. If we want to make accurate causal claims, then there are proper ways to run the experiments (you will learn more about experimental design in Chapter 3). You may have noticed that this example isn’t even psychological in nature. This highlights that psychologists are trained in the scientific method, which can be applied in any area that follows this method.
As overviewed above, students who train in psychological science receive training in both skills and knowledge that are important to employers. Thus, there are many, many career options available to a student who has trained in psychology. Indeed, a challenge that many students in psychology face is not ‘What can I do?’, but rather ‘How do I choose what to do?’.
Identifying Possible Pathways
You may find yourself asking one of two questions: ‘What do I want to do?’ and/or ‘What can I do with training in psychology?’. Both of these are good questions, and may require different processes to reach satisfying answers. Below is just a brief summary of two search strategies that can be used with students as we explore career opportunities: broad search strategies and targeted search strategies. Broad search strategies best answer the question ‘What do I want to do?’, whereas targeted search strategies addresses ‘What can I do?’. Note that the below methods are not evidence-based in that the authors don’t have data to support their use beyond our own personal experience in working with students. Specialists in career development elaborate on career search and development in Chapter 2.
This is a strategy for when you have no idea what you want to do, and are seeking to identify careers that meet your personal interest and long-term development goals. This search strategy uses backwards planning: rather than starting from where you are now and building out, this strategy looks for an end point and guides you in planning backwards.
Step 1. The Initial Search: Identify 5-10 jobs across organisations that you think look interesting, even if they aren’t jobs that you’re qualified for (yet!).
Step 2. Identifying Common Requirements: Do you notice any common requirements among these jobs? If so, this common requirement might be a qualification you consider working towards.
Step 3. Identify Exemplars: Individuals normally change jobs throughout their lifetime. The Australian Institute of Business reports that Australian employees spend an average of 3.3 years in any one job. It’s one thing to read a job posting, but it’s another to see the journey to get there. In this step, identify individuals who have jobs that are of interest to you, using tools such as LinkedIn. Are there any early career experiences of desired exemplars that are relevant for you?
Step 4. Planning for the Next Steps: Once you have identified common requirements and typical pathways among your careers of interest, you’re in a position to start planning your next steps on your similar pathway. If you’ve learned that a specific undergraduate or postgraduate course is required for your careers of interest, it’s time to start searching for programs.
Similar to the broad career search steps, if you identify postgraduate programs that are of interest to you. What are their requirements? Are there common undergraduate courses that you need for admission? Consider enrolling in those courses now. Are there common volunteer or research assistantship requirements for admission? If so, consider applying for those positions now so that you meet that requirement.
If you’re unsure about postgraduate admission requirements, it’s always a good idea to contact your program of interest directly. Requirements and space availability can change year-to-year. Only that specific program has the most up-to-date information on their admissions process.
Sometimes career searches can be much more pragmatic. For example, the desired career might be within a certain geographic location that earns a certain salary.
This targeted search strategy is intended to be a career search strategy, not a job search strategy. That is, if you’re asking the question ‘What should I do with my life in terms of a career?’ this may be a helpful strategy. If you’re looking for a specific job (i.e., you have your credentials and are actively job searching), you will want to check in with your local career assistance office for guidance.
The targeted search strategy involves going directly to a source and evaluating careers on your criteria of interest. Many resources exist that give specific and concrete information on career specifics. The myfuture website is one such resource. Another is the Australian Government Job Outlook website. This free, online resource provides information on many occupations, the typical educational training paths required for a variety of occupations, average salary by geographic location, and the job availability outlooks associated with many careers. The Job Outlook site provides interesting information when searching using the keyword ‘psychologist’. It brings up a combined occupational group ‘Psychologists and Psychotherapists‘ with the Australian and New Zealand Standard Classification of Occupations (ANZSCO, 2013) ID of 2723.
As you look through these careers, we encourage you to think about how the knowledge and skills you’re developing in your education can be applied to the careers included. You might be able to make connections between a generic career description (e.g. career counsellor) and your specific skills, knowledge and expertise. For example, as a student with training in psychology, you likely have developed skills related to teamwork, written and oral communication, data management and analysis, and problem-solving.
We want to encourage you to use the Australian Government Job Outlook site in multiple ways. For example, not only is the Job Outlook site a helpful guide for a career search, but it’s also helpful for those who are actively applying for jobs. When you receive a job offer – especially for professional careers – there may be an opportunity for negotiations. The Job Outlook site is an excellent resource for benchmarking average rates of pay, and for benchmarking your credentials in light of a specific occupation. Thus, when asked for your expected salary, you might respond with ‘Based on data from the Job Outlook site, I would like to suggest that my salary would be in the range of $1,800-$1,900 a week’. Notice again this tendency to seek data to inform an opinion: your psychology professors repeatedly asking you for evidence develops data-driven skills that will help you in many areas of your life!
In addition to the resources provided above, there are many additional resources available. One example is the Training and Careers section on the Australian Psychological Society website.
Common Professional Skills, Knowledge, And Etiquette Behaviours
There are a number of common skills and professional behaviours that span career opportunities and that either we wish we knew as a student, or that we wish students knew. Note that this section does not highlight professional skills in terms of practicing psychology in a clinical sense, but rather professional skills at a more general level. Specific skills related to sub-disciplines in psychology will be addressed in the chapters to come, and in courses that you choose to pursue.
Searching for Evidence
In psychological science, our gold standard for evidence is peer reviewed scholarly research. In the context of empirical research, peer review is a system where an individual (or team) conducts a study to answer a research question, writes a manuscript describing that study, and then submits the manuscript for ‘peer review’ at a specific journal chosen by the author(s). The editor of that journal then typically chooses two to three experts in the area (reviewers) to read and critique the submitted manuscript. The reviewers provide feedback to the authors and editor, and make recommendations as to whether the paper should be published in that specific journal, revised and resubmitted for further consideration to that specific journal, or rejected from that journal. The editor then goes through the reviewer feedback and makes a decision as to whether the manuscript will be published, and under what conditions if revisions are requested. Very few papers are accepted without any required revisions. If authors choose not to make the requested revisions – or if their paper has been rejected – they can submit their manuscript to another journal of their choosing (with or without edits).
The entire research and peer review process can take months or – typically – years from start to finish. The feedback from reviewers is intentionally very critical, with the goal of ensuring that rigorous and accurate research is published. Research that does not meet the threshold for rigour and/or accuracy is unlikely to be published in a high calibre peer reviewed journal. You may have submitted assignments for classes – this is the early training that allows students to gain expertise writing scholarly reports. With enough training and practice, students become experts, and those who choose to can submit manuscripts for publication, become the peers for the peer review system, and train students of their own.
Academic journals have differing levels of impact – impact is a rough measure of how much people read and cite certain journals. Some journals have a higher readership resulting from a very high calibre of research due to a much higher threshold for publication. For example, some high-threshold journals might require multiple studies that comprehensively test many factors related to a research question to be considered for publication. Other lower-threshold journals might publish research that is interesting but does not yet have a great deal of empirical support. Thus, not all academic journals are considered equal. One proxy of journal quality is their impact factor – usually available on their webpage. There are also websites which summarise the journals’ impact over time, such as SciMago. While high readership may indicate that articles are being widely accessed, this does not mean that the research was rigorous and replicable. Many tabloid newspapers have high readership, but it doesn’t mean the content is accurate. Highly-specialised journals may have fantastic research, but only be read by a handful of specialised researchers because there are only a few experts in the world. Readers must always be thoughtful while they read research, and be actively considering the degree to which the research is valid, reliable, generalisable, and ethical – among other things, but these four are a great start! This is fundamental to what reviewers and good researchers do.
Where to find peer reviewed articles?
Members of the public typically have to pay to read scholarly research, including peer reviewed research (but, see the Changes Happening in Peer Reviewed Research section below). If you’re currently a member of a university community, you likely have access to scholarly research through your library. Universities sometimes pay millions of dollars to have access to academic journals (e.g., Bergstrom et al., 2014). You can visit your campus library to access scholarly research, or you can typically go to your library’s catalogue and databases or websites like Google Scholar to access the journals your institution subscribes to (see the text box Finding Peer Reviewed Articles below for instructions). If you type in keywords – similar to a regular Google search – the Google Scholar search engine will populate with results for scholarly articles. Again, remember this doesn’t mean they’re quality search hits, but they will be scholarly in nature. You should always be asking yourself ‘To what degree is this research valid, reliable, generalisable, and ethical?’.
If you’re a student, or employed at a university, your library will subscribe to many peer reviewed journals suitable for study and research. You’ll need to develop and apply search strategies to make the most of these resources. Bear in mind that most library search tools are limited in functionality – they can only match text that you provide (unlike Google which has some ability to add related keywords to a search). If you want to refine a search, you’ll need to use ‘Boolean operators’. Boolean operators include the following symbols:
|AND||Searches for all keywords.|
|OR||Searches for a keyword or one or more synonyms.|
|"phrase search"||Searches for the whole phrase contained inside quotation marks.|
|(synonyms OR similar)||Used for complex searches containing multiple concepts.|
|Wild*||Searches for variants of the base word (before the asterix), including plurals, verbs, and adverbs, etc. Can't be used inside a phrase search.|
Here are some example searches:
- Addressing the question ‘Do assistance dogs ease PTSD?’:
(“assistance dog” or “service dog”) AND (PTSD OR “post traumatic stress disorder”)
- Addressing the topic ‘fear of public speaking may look like’:
(Glossophobia OR (public speaking AND fear))
- Addressing the topic ‘Indigenous worldview and relationship to psychology’:
Indigen* AND (worldview OR perspective*) AND psychology AND theory
You can use these strategies to search for peer reviewed research in your library’s catalogue, databases, and Google Scholar.
Most university libraries will have a search box on their homepage that you can use to search for both physical and digital research. Once you’ve entered your search parameters, and hit enter or clicked the search icon, you should see some results.
The results list will likely include thousands of items, ranging from print books to online journal articles. You can use the filters (usually found in the left menu) to refine these. Look for words like ‘Peer reviewed’ and ‘Available online’ to focus your search on high quality peer reviewed research you can access without leaving your desk. You can also use the date filters to ensure you’re seeing the latest research on your topic.
Your library will likely subscribe to a number of online databases focused on collecting psychology research from around the world. To locate these databases, look for a database link on the library homepage, or ask for help from your librarian. Some libraries will provide a list of recommended databases for each subject.
- have a ‘Help’ section with detailed instructions for performing searches
- have a peer reviewed or scholarly material filters to ensure you find reliable, authoritative information
- offer advanced search features that allow you to focus your search.
Of the plethora of search engines available to search online information, we recommend Google Scholar. This is a Google tool that retrieves scholarly information, including but not limited to peer reviewed articles. Google Scholar can be used to develop your search: it will give an indication of what has been published on a topic and can also be used to find additional keywords and phrases for your searches.
Google Scholar can also be linked to most university libraries, allowing current students and staff to directly access the articles available via their library subscriptions. To set this up:
- Open the ‘hamburger’ menu and select ‘Settings’
- On the next page, select ‘Library links”
- Complete the form by adding your university name to the search box
- Select or tick the check box that appears
- Save these settings.
Further help is available from Google.
Source: McGregor, R., Tweedale, R., Gunton, L., Peters, E., Rose, Y., Schultz, S., & Singh Sachdeva, K. (2021). Working with information. In Academic Success. https://usq.pressbooks.pub/academicsuccess/
If you have a more targeted literature search, you might use a targeted search engine such as APA PsycInfo which searches psychology resources. To determine the best targeted search engine, you might use a database identification tool through your library. Here is one example of a database identification tool from the University of Southern Queensland.
If you’re struggling with finding scholarly research relevant for your question of interest, librarians are trained in conducting literature searches. Their services are free for you to access, and you can find librarians in libraries both at educational campuses and in public libraries. When conducting any type of literature search, you would be wise to consult with a librarian.
Changes Happening in Peer Reviewed Research
For many good reasons, changes are happening to the process of publishing research in psychological science. Although we’ll review this in more detail in Chapter 3, there’re a few critical changes happening that you should know about in the context of reading and interpreting psychological research for your professional development.
The process of peer review described above continues to hold mostly true. However, recently pre-registration has been added to the process. Pre-registration is submitting the research question(s), and basic research design plan before the research is conducted.
In some cases, this preregistered plan is peer reviewed and researchers get feedback about potential flaws in design before conducting the study. This use of the preregistration process has great merit in the facilitation of getting constructive criticism early in the process at a time when it can be used to tweak research design. Imagine if your professor gave your assignment feedback before you submitted it. Would that result in a stronger final submission?
In other cases, the preregistration details are kept temporarily private, to become public once the research is complete to ensure that researchers are conducting the research consistent with their preregistered intentions. This is intended to minimise researcher bias (intentional or unintentional) during the research process.
Another change happening in the world of scholarly publications is a trend towards open access publishing. Open access publishing is publishing in such a way that readers do not need to pay a fee to access the work. As noted above, accessing scholarly research can be expensive and prohibitive. Some academic journals and some textbooks (this one, as an example!) are written intentionally to be open access. In addition to pragmatics regarding how to make the open access system sustainable (e.g., who pays for server maintenance, etc.), one downside is that typically open access resources are viewed as having less prestige than those publications that require payment to access and, as a result, authors do not often consider them as a primary destination for research publication. It seems that a shift is now underway, though. Many open access journals, including PLOS ONE (2019), employ a peer review system and have grown in credibility. As scholarly research becomes more available to the public (which personally, we think is an excellent improvement), it’s critical that the public has the tools to critically read and evaluate this research. Again, always question the degree to which research findings are valid, reliable, generalisable, and ethical – there are other things to consider, but this is a good first cut!. We hope this will lead to an increase in psychological (and scientific) literacy in the general population.
As with most professional contexts, there are common professional situations you’re likely to find yourself in while working in a variety of different career trajectories, and there are some common business etiquette behaviours. These behaviours are often taught by mentors, are rarely explicitly addressed, and may or may not actually be best practices.
To help ensure you’re aware of these types of professional etiquette behaviours, some are addressed below. Please read these with thoughtful caution, however. Etiquette can change within a professional body (and oftentimes ought to change), and often varies significantly across professional bodies. To give an example, in some professional contexts it’s perfectly appropriate to wear jeans and sneakers to a job interview. In others, business attire is expected. If you’re ever in doubt about appropriate professional etiquette, ask a trusted mentor. If you don’t have a trusted mentor, ask any friendly academic for some advice. They may be able to steer you in the right direction.
The next section will highlight some common business etiquette behaviours within psychological science that will span many career trajectories, but again recognise that this can vary by region, institution, and individual. Appropriate etiquette can change over time, and it may be different within subsets of the population. If you’re unsure of business etiquette (or if you want to work to change it), please connect with a trusted advisor.
Many students coming into university from high school will address their lecturers and tutors as ‘Mr/Ms Last name’. In a higher education setting, always use professional titles. In an Australian university context academics should be referred to as ‘Dr Last name’ if they have a doctorate, or ‘Associate Professor Last name’ or ‘Professor Last name’ if that have achieved associate or full professor status. This is not true in other systems, such as in the United States. Note, female instructors who don’t have a doctorate should be referred to as ‘Ms Last name’ (not ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs’) as a woman’s marital status is irrelevant to her professional status. As we learn more about the impacts of pronouns, the use of gendered titles to address individuals may change.
In the event that you’re unsure of how to address someone in their preferred way – for example, if you’re uncertain if a gendered title is appropriate, or whether you should refer to someone by their first name, there are appropriate ways to find out. In some cases, an individual will tell you how they prefer to be addressed. In other cases, you might ask. For example, you might ask for permission to use someone’s first name if you have a close collegial working relationship with them. An example of how to ask a question like this is: ‘Dear Dr Last name, I want to ensure that I am addressing you appropriately. What is your preferred way to be addressed?’.
Please note that when a professional prefers that you use their professional title, this is entirely appropriate. Let’s consider this in another context: A police officer might be called Officer Jeffrey. It would be out of context to call Officer Jeffrey ‘Mrs. Jeffrey’ if they were in uniform. Likewise, it would be Officer Jeffrey’s choice to allow someone to call her ‘Sue’ when she was on duty. Officer Jeffrey might be comfortable with her partner calling her ‘Sue’, but not a member of the public she’s assisting. Notice there’s a great deal of context in this example, just as there is in any interpersonal dynamic. If you’re unsure of how to address your instructor – or any colleague – a friendly email asking for their preferred way to be addressed is appropriate.
In a professional context – for example at a lecture – you should probably default to referring to any colleague by their professional title even if you have permission to use their first name. For example, we introduce some of our best friends as ‘Dr Last name’ in professional contexts, such as at conferences.
Writing an Email
We all have questions, and an email is a common way to ask professors and other professionals those questions. Before sending an email to anyone, it’s helpful to first consider these points:
- What exactly is it that I need help with?
- What are the best resources for me to get the needed help? For example, if you’re looking for deadline or absence policies, before sending an email you should first check the syllabus/unit outline of the course you’re in enrolled in (if in the context of a class), any previous correspondence (do an email search), and relevant webpages. Some organisations – including universities – also have discussion boards on their online platforms for certain types of questions. If you’ve exhausted your resources and need some extra support from an instructor or a boss, an email may be very appropriate.
It may be tempting to send an email to an employer or instructor similar to the way you would send a text – especially if you have a quick question. Although this may be appropriate if you know someone well and are engaged in an email conversation (as we often do outside of professional contexts), text-style email is not typically an appropriate method for professional communication. When emailing in a professional context, you want to ensure the following information is included:
- a proper salutation
- who you are, and the context you’re writing about
- a concise statement of your question/comment, overviewing what you’ve already done to try to solve the problem or answer the question
- your full name and contact information, including your student number if relevant
You can read two Sample Email Templates in the text box below, although you should edit them prior to use so that your own professional tone comes through.
Dear [Ms CEO],
I am a new employee in your marketing department, and am writing to ask for clarification about [Project X]. Specifically, I’ve [read through the request for proposal and have done research on our competitors], but am unable to find information on [sales history]. My goal is to [create a thorough document that has all relevant information to ensure our success]. Could you please direct me towards more information?
Thanks for your time!
With kind regards,
[Your full name]
[Email address/phone number]
Dear [Dr Lastname],
I am a student in your [course name, and section]. I am writing to ask for [clarification on, further information regarding, etc.]. Specifically [give summary of the background research you’ve already done e.g., consulted the syllabus], and my current understanding is [summary]. I am seeking clarification about [specification of what is not understood]. Could you please provide more information to help me better understand?
Thanks for your time!
With kind regards,
[Your full name]
Student Number 
When using electronic communication, please remember that USING ALL CAPLOCKS IS CONSIDERED YELLING. Excessive use of exclamation points can also be interpreted as yelling!!! The way you type communicates tone. If sending an important email, you might ask a friend or colleague to first read it over to ensure your tone is appropriate for the context. If an email reads more harshly than intended, you might soften it by adding an emoji (if professionally appropriate – there are boundaries on appropriate use of emojis), or by acknowledging to the reader in the text that the email reads more harshly than you intend it to.
Leaving a voicemail
You’ll undoubtedly have to leave a voicemail at some point during your professional career which is sometimes an uncomfortable task. When leaving a voicemail, we recommend that you speak slowly, ensure that you give your name and a way to contact you for follow up. Importantly, give this information twice! Sometimes there is a crack in the phone line and a digit can’t be heard. Leaving your name and contact information twice helps to ensure that your recipient gets all of the information they need to follow up with you.
Asking for letters of reference/experience
Sometimes students are uneasy asking for letters of reference. Please know that each year, most instructors get dozens of requests for letters of reference. We tell you this (a) to reassure you that you’re engaging in an expected professional behaviour by asking for a letter of reference, and (b) to help you understand what an effective request for a letter of reference contains.
Instructors often teach dozens – sometimes hundreds – of students in a given year. Instructors also often teach multiple courses in a given academic year. As a result, although you may have a great relationship with your instructor, and they know you well, they may have forgotten some important details related to your professional interactions that could be helpful in a letter. Below (Information Needed for Letter of Recommendation) is the information that we request when students ask for a letter of recommendation, along with the internal reasoning for asking the question. Your letter writers may request different information. Please consider below example a starting place, and use the format provided by your letter writer when requested.
General information to help you set the context
The nature of the program or job you’re applying to
A letter of reference for a specific job might be very different to an application to a postgraduate course in psychology, which might be different from an application to another type of program. Please give a brief overview of the program so the letter can be framed appropriately.
An overview of the submission process
References for postgraduate courses in psychology in Australia are submitted confidentially through an online portal. However, not all letters go through this process, and job letters can vary significantly in their submission process. Please give a brief overview of how the process will work, and whether letters should be directly addressed to a specific recipient (e.g., ‘Dear Graduate Committee’, vs ‘Dear Ms. CEO’). Because reference letters have to be sent in specific ways, it’s easiest to give these details right away either in an attached file or link to a webpage. Be sure to include the deadline in your request, and give your referee at least two weeks before the deadline. It’s extremely helpful if you include your current CV/resume.
Specific information that helps us to write letters of reference
Full name on record, preferred name, pronouns and student number
Sometimes students have different preferred names from those on record, and we want to make sure that those receiving the letter know who we’re referring to. Having access to all names, preferred pronouns, and your student number also helps us to search our records more effectively so that we can write a comprehensive letter.
All courses you’ve taken with the person you’re asking for the letter of reference – including the year taken
Sometimes courses change slightly across years, and the components of the course can also change. Remember there are dozens of students in multiple courses asking for letters. By providing this information in your request, you’re making it much easier for your letter writer, and you’re demonstrating conscientious professional behaviours. Thus, this also helps your letter writer when they comment on your professional skills!
Academic achievements (e.g., Honours List, any other academic awards, conference presentations, or publications, if relevant)
As instructors, we often don’t get notice of your individual achievements. We’re excited to hear about them, and can include information about them in your letter. Even if we have heard about them, a reminder is helpful.
Volunteer and work experience (both academic and non-academic)
In this section, include any volunteer or work experience that might be relevant for the letter. Even if you volunteer in the lab of your letter writer, please include this. It helps to know that you’ve provided a comprehensive record.
Have you done something great that isn’t related to your academics? This is important and matters! Please be sure to tell us a bit about it.
Etiquette at a Conference
Depending on your area, appropriate business behaviours can vary. For example, some conferences are very formal and require full business attire, whereas others are more business casual in nature. If you have the opportunity and resources to attend a conference, it’s appropriate to ask a trusted advisor about the level of formality at the conference, including dress code. Some conferences have pictures on their website of previous conferences, so you can see typical conference attire for yourself. If the dress code is not obvious, you might ask your advisor, or even the organiser of the conference: ‘Is there a dress code at the conference?’. Additional business etiquette considerations that are fairly common across contexts are overviewed below. We didn’t learn many of these behaviours until after we graduated with PhDs, and wish we knew some of them earlier!
Nametags should be worn on your right side. The logic is when you shake hands (with your right hand), your colleague’s eyes can follow a relatively straight and natural path from your shaking hand to your visible nametag while also comfortably make eye contact.
The Elevator Pitch
Elevators used to be where all important people met. Okay, that’s not true, but the term ‘The Elevator Pitch’ refers to a description of your expertise that you can communicate to someone in a few seconds (the length of an elevator ride). It’s the ultimate tl;dr (too long; didn’t read) of your expertise.
It’s worth your time to develop and practice an elevator pitch of your interests now. This pitch can and will change with time, but you’ll be interacting with professors and potential colleagues throughout your training. An elevator pitch should be a maximum of 60 seconds in length and summarise your professional interests and experiences. For example, you might use the following structure:
‘I’m a [undergraduate student/research assistant/postgraduate student] at [institution] and I’m interested in [general summary of area of interest]’.
Notice that this is a very general and short professional summary about yourself. If the person you’re speaking with is interested in learning more, they can ask follow up questions. They can also comfortably ‘get off of the elevator at their floor’ (i.e., discontinue the conversation) if unavailable for further follow-up.
An elevator pitch is also useful in a number of other contexts outside of conferences. For example, you might be recruiting participants for your research thesis and need to be able to explain your study quickly and in a way that will capture the interest of potential participants.
The Art of Thank You
In your career you will encounter many people who will go out of their way to help you either in small or large ways. Although not expected, it can strengthen an interpersonal relationship to send a genuine thank you to a person who has helped you in a meaningful way. You can of course send an email of thanks, but in situations where someone has significantly made the world a better place for you, sending a simple handwritten thank you card is often much appreciated. Indeed, we often underestimate how good receiving a thank you can feel for our recipients (e.g., Kumar & Eply, 2018).
How to use This Book
Building on themes highlighted in this introduction, this book was created to provide you with content on different applications of psychological science and careers in psychological science, written by experts across Canada and Australia. These experts were once where you are: students in a psychology course. Their chapters will vary somewhat in format to allow each sub-discipline’s ‘voice’ to come through, but all chapters have an intentional focus on both research and application of psychological science, in addition to content regarding educational training pathways and career options.
We hope this book highlights the many careers available to students who train in the psychological sciences. We hope this book also provides you with new insights into the many ways in which psychological science addresses important questions, and ultimately influences the world around us in its application. As with anything you read, we encourage you to always be considering questions related to validity, reliability, generalisability, and ethics as you read this book. Indeed, this is how new research questions are often generated! In that spirit, in case no one has done this already, we would like to welcome you as a colleague in the psychological sciences, and look forward to learning about your future work.
For each attribute listed below, reflect on your experiences and see whether you can identify a specific example of how you have displayed or developed that attribute. For example, if in a course you had a group-based project that you scored highly on, you should include that in your chart under the ‘Reasoning and problem-solving skills’ section. Have you taken a course that has required you to present your findings from a project or assignment to the class? That can go under the ‘Interpersonal and communication skills’ section. These examples need not come just from your psychology studies, but could also come from your experience in previous jobs, or while volunteering.
You likely won’t have an example for every box, and that’s okay! The goal is to identify some specific examples so that you can rely on these to demonstrate strong attributes.
|Coursework that demonstrates my skills and ability||Volunteer experience that demonstrates my skills and ability||Paid work experience that demonstrates my skills and ability||Awards/honours that demonstrate my skills and ability|
|Interpersonal and communication skills (written and oral)||
|Cultural alignment/values fit|
|Emotional intelligence (including self-awareness, confidence, motivation)|
|Reasoning and problem-solving skills|
|Extracurricular involvement (e.g., clubs and societies)|
This chapter has been adapted by Tony Machin, School of Psychology and Counselling, University of Southern Queensland, and Natalie Gasson, Discipline of Psychology, School of Population Health, Curtin University. It has been adapted from Norris, M. E. & Baker, T. W. (2019). An introduction to careers in the psychological sciences. In M. E. Norris (Ed.), The Canadian Handbook for Careers in Psychological Science. Kingston, ON: eCampus Ontario. Licensed under CC BY NC 4.0. Retrieved from https://ecampusontario.pressbooks.pub/psychologycareers/chapter/introduction/
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Copyright note: Permission has been granted by the Australian Psychology Accreditation Council (APAC) to use APAC’s Accreditation Standards. No further reproduction of this content is permitted without prior permission from APAC.
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Please reference this chapter as:
Machin, T., & Gasson, N. (2022). An introduction to careers in psychological science. In T. Machin, T. Machin, C. Jeffries & N. Hoare (Eds.), The Australian handbook for careers in psychological science. University of Southern Queensland. https://usq.pressbooks.pub/psychologycareers/chapter/what-is-psychological-science/