Why graduate outcome measures in psychology don't add up – The British Psychological Society

Victoria Sanderson, Lisa Harkry and Gaby Pfeifer explore whether the demands we put on Psychology graduates help or hinder their career aspirations.
08 September 2022
One of the hallmarks of having a psychology degree is that it offers a wide range of employment opportunities: equipped with the skills and knowledge from British Psychological Society-accredited courses, Psychology graduates can choose from a variety of jobs directly and indirectly related to their degree.
Yet so many graduates end up choosing a career outside psychology, or do not satisfy the official statistics of career destination measures. As a recent psychology graduate (Victoria) and in our roles as Psychology lecturers (Lisa and Gaby), we have asked ourselves: why?
Degree success is measured by landing prestigious graduate schemes or embarking on further education – and Psychology graduates are feeling the pressure. The Office for Students (OfS) sets societal standards by asking that a minimum of 60 per cent of graduates enter professional employment or further study (OfS, 2022 January 20). Graduate employability statistics for universities and the government are determined by the Graduate Outcomes survey. The survey measures a graduate’s position, whether that’s in employment or not, 15 months after finishing university.
While it may seem obvious that Psychology graduates would aspire to graduate roles or postgraduate study, the reality shows large variations in our students’ career destinations.
The proportion of Psychology graduates undertaking further education or finding a professional job is relatively small compared with vocational degrees 15 months after graduation (Woolcock & Ellis, 2021). Although recent research has reported a 24 per cent increase of registered psychologists in the UK over the past six years (2014–2020), the number of students accepted to undergraduate psychology courses has also increased by more than half within the last decade (Palmer et al., 2021, p.8), suggesting that there should be a higher proportion of registered psychologists than we observe.
The report goes on to show that in 2019-2020, the estimated number of registered psychologists was fewer than 1 in 15 (~6%), and this was compared to the number of UK graduates completing various suitable undergraduates routes (not just psychology), five years previously.   
We consider two factors to explain this phenomenon: 1) the current trend for job exploration over job commitment in today’s graduates, and 2) the amount of work experience and demands required to obtain a professional job in Psychology. Along the way, we question whether the official graduate outcome measures are even helpful for Psychology graduates.
In recent years, we (GP and LH) have observed huge individual differences among final year students concerning the psychological and emotional readiness to sign up to work or study obligations immediately after university.
Students are well aware that entering graduate schemes and postgraduate courses requires ongoing commitment to perform and achieve within well-structured programmes, and a willingness to assume responsibility.
It also requires career clarity and a strong desire for continuity: the push into graduate roles straight out of university puts graduates on linear career paths towards professional roles they may not have been able to explore sufficiently, and that offer little flexibility for change.
While these roles provide excellent opportunities and direction for graduates with a clear career focus, they put unnecessary pressure on those who would prefer alternative work-based learning opportunities and non-graduate roles to develop vocational skills and gain job insight before making major career decisions.
Graduates may also benefit from a more gradual transition into complex psychological roles, such as those involving direct work with clients and service users. In such instances, opportunities and experience gained in non-graduate jobs can help to build confidence and serve as stepping stones to apply and develop research, professional and transferable skills acquired at university in a real-world setting.
Findings from the BPS career destinations survey showed that the more time that passed after graduation, the higher the chance that Psychology graduates were employed in a non-professional job linked to their career goal, and 78 per cent of graduates obtained a non-professional job in their desired role after 12 months of graduation (Morrison Coulthard, 2017).
Many Psychology graduates bridge the gap between graduation and their desired career destination by working in non-graduate positions, suggesting that learning on the job is well worth the time and can add a competitive advantage in the graduate job market (Yorke, 2004).
The trend for career exploration has been framed within Gratton and Scott’s (2016) multi-stage life model.
According to this model, young adults often transition into an explorer stage after completing their education. They may undertake temporary work for different employers, mixing full or part-time jobs with consulting or freelancing, as well as gig work. This allows graduates to develop a portfolio of skills, professional and personal experiences while retaining work flexibility, and build important networks that might last a lifetime.
Similarly, those with a more entrepreneurial spirit may become independent producers, turning business ideas and service user needs into start-ups. While these stages may be short-lived, they serve as valuable experiential learning phases for graduates, complementing the theoretical knowledge acquired in HE and fostering adaptability to multiple careers they may need to prepare for in the future (Barrett, 2017).
When we introduce the multi-stage life model in our developmental psychology module, our students intuitively recognise its compatibility with their own career aspirations and appreciate the innovative fit around other life demands.
The trend for job exploration is consistent with the ‘emerging adulthood stage’, according to which young adults aged between 18 to 29 continue to develop their identities and demonstrate delayed commitment – not just concerning career decisions, but across multiple major life decisions, including marriage, parenthood, and where they live (Rosemond & Owens, 2018).
This trend is not unique to Psychology. However, it illustrates that expectations made of university leavers need to be adapted, either by extending the time of destination measurement or by changing definitions to incorporate the latest developmental trends observed in young adults. 
As a recent Psychology graduate, I (VS) experience opportunities and challenges in pursuing a career in Psychology that had not been entirely clear at the start of my degree. Currently, I am a year into working as Human Resources (HR) Assistant after graduating from Sheffield Hallam with a Psychology degree, and an MSc in Clinical Cognitive Neuroscience. The role has given me a sense of belonging to the working world that I was unable to conceive as a student.
Gaining work experience in HR has been invaluable in developing my professional and interpersonal skills. It has also given me an opportunity to become aware of my strengths and weaknesses in a work setting, and to use this knowledge to further shape my career path. As things stand, my aim is to become a Clinical Psychologist or to work in research. However, it is only now that I recognise that a postgraduate degree is hardly enough to guarantee an immediate position as a Psychologist. A significant amount of work experience and continued specialisation over and above the degree is required, and beneficial, before becoming a licensed Psychologist.
Upon reflection, I realise that the routes in Psychology can be obscure at undergraduate level. Students are presented with the degree outline of these routes, without learning much about the additional, and often specific, work requirements along the way.
This leads some students to believe in faster and less expensive career progression opportunities in our field than is realistically possible.
The challenges to students include:
Obscurity of career progression opportunities
A Psychology degree confers a broad range of content, subject-specific and transferable skills, including critical thinking, problem-solving, self-reflection, and communication that can readily be applied across many job roles. This means that Psychology-specific jobs are often not as visible to students, which is further complicated by the fact that many taught modules (e.g. mental health) encompass a multitude of potential roles that can be overwhelming or difficult to identify for students.
Palmer et al. (2021) found that 91 per cent of undergraduates expressed an interest in a career in mental health at the beginning of their studies, while 79 per cent still opted for mental health in their final year. This suggests that while Psychology degrees have an influence over improving students’ understanding of professional fields and in narrowing career interests, many graduates’ career goals are still generic, centring on popular careers such as academia, clinical and forensic Psychology that may limit the view of alternative and more easily accessible jobs (Roscoe & McMahan, 2014).
It would help if degree programmes and student support services integrated communication about specific jobs (e.g. in lectures), in particular those that are available immediately after graduation with the skills and knowledge acquired during a Bachelor’s degree (Collisson & Eck, 2018), including various roles in HR, psychological support work, or research assistance. This may dispel the myths about fast career advancement in our field and help graduates appreciate the incremental skill levels acquired at undergraduate and postgraduate study, as well as the value of additional work experience beyond their degree.
Time and commitment
Students need a considerable amount of work experience to qualify for professional Psychology jobs (e.g. CBT psychotherapist, high-intensity therapist, and psychologist). This may dissuade them from pursuing their career aspirations.
The BPS Careers Destination Survey, which followed Psychology graduate cohorts of 2009, 2011, 2013 and 2015, discovered it takes three to five years to get a job that is part of their route to becoming a Psychology professional, due to postgraduate training and work experience requirements (Morrison Coulthard, 2017).
Similarly, the popularity of a Psychology degree results in a more competitive job market, in which current graduates have less of a chance of obtaining a Psychology-specific job compared with those who graduated several years ago (Morrison Coulthard, 2017).
Given the uncertainty and the length to obtain a professional Psychology job in the UK, some students alter their goals in line with the changing job market. Two in five graduates were reported to switch careers to more attainable roles that do not require a Psychology degree, such as social work, administration, and marketing (Morrison Coulthard, 2017).
For many of the professional areas of Psychology, such as clinical, educational, health, and occupational Psychology, postgraduate study is necessary.
As most postgraduate degrees are self-funded, this puts a divide between socioeconomic groups, enabling only the economically advantaged to progress their career immediately after undergraduate study.
Coincidentally, this further biases career-destination measures towards a selective number of graduates who can afford taught postgraduate study relative to a larger cohort who, despite meeting postgraduate entry criteria, is forced to find alternative routes for financial reasons.
So the trend for job exploration observed in recent years may appear problematic when it comes to satisfying career destination statistics. However, it appears to us as if job exploration complements the increasing work experience demands expected by employers (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, 2015), specifically for entry into more competitive graduate roles.
Unfortunately, it is the students that are affected by unclear messages, as they stand between work experience requirements and statistics telling them to find graduate employment fast. Many students feel trapped in a long-winded and expensive system that demands top degree classifications, work experience, postgraduate study… and there’s still no guaranteed graduate position at the end.
To further complicate the picture, job exploration is frequently perceived as showing a non-committal attitude, and students are hurried and unable to enjoy their varied roles as they are feeling the pressure to progress quickly towards more stable and higher earning positions.
In our experience as lecturers, job exploration might also complement a Psychology degree specifically. We often hear that our students are not ‘work ready’ after leaving university, suggesting that there are discrepancies between the skills and knowledge learnt in Higher Education (HE) and employer demands (Archer & Davison, 2008).
However, as HE providers of an accredited Psychology programme we are challenged to meet the employability demands of our graduates while also retaining HE standards to facilitate the transition into diverse Psychology fields spanning academia, clinical, health, forensic, education and many more.
By definition, an undergraduate Psychology degree is expected ‘to develop the knowledge and skills to prepare students for work or postgraduate study’ (APA, 2013). BPS-accredited programmes fulfil the criterion to prepare students for Psychology and include well-defined graduate employability attributes. However, universities may inherently be limited in instilling an enterprise identity and ownership in students that can better be completed in the workplace.
Converging with Victoria’s recent experience described above, the actual role transition from ‘being a student’ to ‘being an employee’ is one that largely seems to occur when students experience the culture changes as they enter the world of work. Work experience and exploration are therefore complementary to a Psychology degree in shaping students’ work identity, professional skills, and confidence in the workplace.
Major advances have already been made in many UK HE institutions by incorporating employability opportunities in the curriculum. These include real-world applications of theoretical issues by drawing explicit links between theory and practice, creating problem-based learning opportunities, embedding work-based learning experiences, and through the provision of sandwich placement years for undergraduates.
The use of sandwich placements in Psychology courses gives students vital networking opportunities, the ability to develop business awareness and apply their psychological knowledge and skills within the job. In support of this, 63 per cent of graduates who undertook a placement were found to be in a graduate job six months after graduating, in comparison to 33 per cent of graduates with no work experience (Moores & Reddy, 2012).
Yet, there is room for further promoting sandwich years among students: Results from a recent BSc Student Survey showed that a mere 3.8% of the 476 psychology student respondents were undertaking a placement year, with the majority studying at the same university (The National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health, 2019).
Some advances then, but enhancing employability and improving graduates’ work readiness remains a work in progress. It requires the combined effort of degree programmes, employers, and students in the future. We now turn to some thoughts and suggestions on areas of focus.
HE institutions and employers could work together more closely towards negotiating dedicated times for paid internships, so that students can learn on the job without compromising their studies. Both the financial and timing aspect are critical – we are increasingly seeing students struggling to meet the educational, financial, and work experience demands expected of them.
A structured approach to work-based learning at University could also aid students to effectively plan their route into the graduate job market or postgraduate training, as they come to understand the types of roles available at their career-stage and the requirements needed for their intended careers.
With the increasing implementation of inclusive education policies, we need to ensure sufficient and adequate progression opportunities for a diverse cohort of graduates. My (LH) recent consultancy work with organisations has revealed a willingness as well as a need to train employers about recruiting and managing diverse graduates.
Neurodiverse graduates face challenging career prospects – for instance, of all graduates with disabilities in the UK, those identifying as autistic are the most likely to be unemployed (Allen & Coney, 2021). Autistic jobseekers may report struggling with job interviews, workplace socialising and environmental sensitivities (Lorenz et al., 2016).
Autistic employees are also more vulnerable to poor employment experiences, such as unfair dismissal or workplace harassment, and this can impact on mental health and result in further unemployment (Barnard et al., 2001; Griffiths et al., 2019).
There are further challenges around disclosing an autistic identity and a fear of workplace stigma (Sarrett, 2017). Autistic graduates may face negative attitudes from industry professionals, low levels of understanding about autism from employers and recruitment procedures designed for non-autistic applicants (Vincent and Fabri, 2020).
The number of autistic students in UK universities is rising each year, and more individualised graduate schemes tailored towards diverse graduates could help remove some of these barriers when transitioning from student to employee.
Promoting awareness of neurodiversity to employers is crucial – for instance, by highlighting the strengths of autistic employees such as persistence, loyalty, precision and attention to detail (Howlin, 2013; Remington & Fairnie, 2017), to prevent employers risk losing this skilled workforce.
There could also be clearer job coaching links between university graduate services and employers, to provide a more consistent and informed transition into the workplace for neurodiverse candidates. 
Elective modules provide specialist skills and knowledge in specific areas of Psychology. Electives are chosen by students to narrow down their interests, often in anticipation of pursuing a specific career in psychology. Systematic integration of work-based learning in elective modules could facilitate specialisation and, similar to vocational degrees, provide students with practical experience in a career-relevant field to enhance employability.
Psychology graduates can struggle to promote their skills and work experience on job applications and in interviews (Mahmood, Slabu, Randsley de Moura & Hopthrow, 2015). Students are often unaware of the unique skills and talents they already possess, including the transferable skills they have gained at university, through volunteering and paid work.
Psychology courses could introduce personal development planning sessions, assisting students in mapping their progress and teaching them to identify and promote their skills effectively using different platforms such as CVs, blog posts, personal statements, and LinkedIn.
Most HE programmes in the UK use an incremental weighting system where student performance for each year of study contributes a certain percentage to the final programme mark and overall degree classification.
For Psychology, the typical weighted ratio of a three-year programme is 0:25:75, thus entirely discounting the students’ efforts during the first year of study from their degree. This sends ambiguous messages, leading some students to perform below their potential with negative consequences for their subsequent years. Likewise, it leads to frustration amongst those students who excel in their first year and would appreciate the credit for their efforts.
Critically, the weighting system is inconsistent with the ‘real-world experience’ that students will encounter in the workplace, for which HE aims to prepare them.
Most employment contracts begin with a probationary period during which new employees’ performance is closely monitored, fulfilling the conditional work requirements before receiving a permanent contract. This confers a message to new employees to perform to their highest standards, and to treat this period as an opportunity to establish their role through the quality of their work, which will ultimately influence their reputation, affect promotions, loyalty, and employment longevity.
By contrast, the message conveyed to first year students is that a minimal requirement of 40 per cent across modules will suffice to transition to the second year, and that any additional effort will have no (quantitative) effect on their final degree. Taking responsibility and pride for one’s studies would therefore be cultivated from the first day at University and thus prepare students for the standards expected in the working world.
The increased focus on graduate employability in recent years, enforced by career destination measures and graduate employability rankings, has undoubtedly led to positive changes in helping students navigate through the various roles available towards becoming professional Psychologists.
As HE providers we can continue to increase the transparency between academic study and work through integrating problem-based learning exercises in the syllabus, offering placement years in industry, and collaborating with careers services to help students identify Psychology-specific jobs.
However, the time that it takes to qualify for professional Psychology jobs exceeds current graduate outcome measures, portraying a false picture of the types of jobs available to Psychology graduates within 15 months of graduation.
Adding the trend for job exploration and the work experience required from Psychology graduates, we cannot help but think that graduate outcome measures might be more successful if expectations were adjusted to give graduates more time to enter graduate employment and to recognise the value of portfolio careers.
Victoria Sanderson (University of Leeds), Lisa Harkry (Leeds Beckett University), and Gaby Pfeifer (University of Southampton)
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