Steps to a Mental-Health Career

Planning for a Career in Mental Health

So you have or plan to have a BA or BS in Psychology (or a related field) and you want to have a career in mental health. You might think that you are out of luck and that the only way you can be involved with mental health issues is if you go to graduate school. This is simply not the case. Remember, just because all of the people you deal with in psychology in college have gone to graduate school doesn’t mean that there are not jobs for those with a BA or BS; there are career opportunities for you. (To check out specific career paths in mental health area with a BA or BS check out As for the current post we want to be clear about some important steps you can take to put you in the best position for a psychology-related job with your BA or BS. Keep in mind that you will be competing with others for a job, so it is important that you stand out from the crowd.

man sitting in the dark with his head down

1. Take certain courses besides your typical psychology courses (Intro, Research Methods, Stats) that are related to mental health. These include Personality, Introduction to Clinical, Abnormal, Developmental, and a Lab course in Clinical (e.g., Child Psychopathology, Measurement, Adult Psychopathology). Of course there are others, but taking some or all of these is a nice start.

2. Do well in your courses. Some students think that employers only care whether you have a degree or not and not whether you did well in school. I believe that this is not true in most cases. Think about it, would you rather hire someone who you know is intelligent and completes work or someone who barely got by in college? Pretty easy question to answer! Employers often look at: overall GPA, psychology GPA, minor (if you have one) GPA, and last two years in college GPA. With all of this in mind, try your best to maintain a high GPA from your freshman year through your senior year. Also, if you do not get an A or B in a course you should probably repeat the course, especially if it was a psychology course.

woman looking at times on sign at airport

3. Get involved in research. Psychology is involved with research, so it is best to show your interest in the field by being in a research lab. You can get involved in research by volunteering or as part of Independent study course. The latter lets you earn credit hours and possibly increase your GPA if it counts as a graded course. An advantage to working in a lab is that you get to know a faculty member who can write you a strong letter of recommendation when you are ready to apply for a job. Given you need more than one letter of recommendation it is probably best to work in two different labs as an undergraduate. I will add that you can get even more involved in research by doing a Senior Honors thesis or some other research where you can get your name on a conference presentation or journal publication. This kind of recognition is rare for an undergraduate and will really boost your standing when applying for a job.

4. Do a mental-health related internship. By doing an internship you can again show your high level of motivation. This internship can be with an on-campus clinic/organization or off-campus clinic/organization dealing with mental health issues.

5. Develop critical skills. There are a number of skills you can develop in addition to what you learn in classes and by conducting research--computers, writing, and oral communication skills. You can gain these skills in specific classes, as part of your psychology classes or in workshops that are held on campus.

6. Get involved in extracurricular activities where you are working with others. A job in mental health is going to involve working with others so it is best to gain some experience in this context. You can volunteer at a medical hospital or mental health clinic, group home, after-school program for children, senior center, or a research center that involves clinical participants. This involvement demonstrates a high level of motivation and interest in psychology. Any involvement just adds to your overall record and makes you a more competitive applicant.

7. Be active in Psychology organizations. This can include Psi Chi (the National Honor Society in Psychology) or any other psychology club or organization. Once again, this involvement demonstrates a high level of motivation and interest in psychology. Once again, you will continue to add to your overall record and makes you a more competitive applicant.

8. Get work experience in a mental health context if you can. It is not critical that you are employed in a mental health context (such as those listed above) as an undergraduate, but if you can get such a job that is a real bonus.

9. Interact with your professors. It is very important that you start to interact with professors right away. This can occur by making contributions in class or just going up to your professors and having a conversation about issues in the field. These interactions can lead to being able to work in a professor’s research lab, hearing about job opening that may be available in the psychology department, and a letter of recommendation. Remember, if a faculty member does not really know you or had you in one class, there is a lower likelihood that the professor will agree to write a letter for you or knows you well enough to write a letter.

There are two important things to keep in mind with regard to letters of recommendation. First, a short letter of recommendation from a faculty member who does not know you well can sometimes be worse than no letter at all. Second, it is almost always better to have a letter of recommendation from a full-time professor than an Instructor. For better or worse, the former simply has higher status than the latter.

Let us offer you two final points in closing. First, thinking about a career should not begin when you start your final year of college. You need to get started early following the above steps so you can complete all the steps and be better prepared for the job marker. Second, following the above steps will not guarantee you a job, but it should put you in a much better position than many of your peers. Good luck!

Please note that the comments of Dr. Golding, Dr. Lippert and the others who post on this blog express their own opinion and not that of the University of Kentucky.

Want More?

Visit our website to learn more about possible careers for psychology majors or those interested in jobs that involve psychology.

Learn how to succeed in college with Professor Golding’s blog.

Check out Dr. Lippert’s website to learn about her work as a cognitive psychologist.

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