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Social Service: The “Helping Professions”

Many students major in psychology because they are fascinated by people. They want to learn more about why people behave as they do and are motivated to help people improve their lives.  Some students obtain positions in community centers, schools, treatment facilities, and other agencies directly after graduation.  Professions such as clinical psychology, counseling psychology, social work, and ministry also fit well with these interests. Many students choose to do graduate work in a relevant field either immediately after completing their undergraduate education or after gaining some work experience. A graduate degree is necessary for becoming a clinical psychologist and for many other social service career paths.

Students with interests in social service often choose to take many of their psychology courses in social and personality/clinical psychology ("Column A" in the table of requirements for the major). PSYCH 303-Psychopathology is especially relevant for many of these students. PSYCH 306-Clinical Psychology is another good choice. Some foundation in the biologically-oriented courses (for example, PSYCH 212-Introduction to Neuroscience or PSYCH 312-Physiological Psychology) may also enhance their sensitivity to the situations of future clients and their understanding of therapeutic approaches. Students interested in working with children and families should consider taking PSYCH 218-Developmental Psychology, PSYCH 326-Social and Personality Development, PSYCH 362-Cognitive Development, and other courses that focus on children.

Many courses offered in other social science departments within Weinberg College (e.g., sociology and anthropology) are also relevant for students interested in social service. Other good options are offered by the School of Education and Social Policy and in the Communication Studies department of the School of Communication.

Students interested in becoming teachers should make contact with the School of Education and Social Policy early in their college career; all secondary teacher certification programs at Northwestern are administered through SESP. No specific certification in psychology is available, but students who have taken enough courses in other departments may be certified to teach those subjects. (Northwestern offers no certification in elementary education, so interested students will need to do some of their coursework elsewhere.)

Students who hope to pursue people-oriented professions after graduation should gain some social service experience while they are still in school. Tutoring, volunteering at a teen drop-in center or a hospital, working as a camp counselor, and answering phones for a helpline can all be relevant experiences. If your goal is to work with some specific population -- troubled teens, the elderly, autistic children -- try to gain some firsthand experience with this population. In part, this will serve as a valuable credential when you apply for jobs or graduate training. It will also let you know if working with this population is as rewarding for you as you expect it to be. The Northwestern Community Development Corps (NCDC), Center for Student Involvement, and Center for Civic Engagement are good sources of information about volunteer opportunities in Evanston and surrounding communities.