‘It Prepares You for the Jobs of Tomorrow’: Experts Reveal Top Careers in Applied Psychology

Whether you’re in sports, health care, law, entertainment or Silicon Valley, all industries are connected by the language of psychology.

From communication to negotiation, every business dealing can be improved by understanding the psychology of how people think, feel and behave.

That’s why training in a field like applied psychology can add value to careers spanning private enterprise and public service.

An applied psychology graduate program — specifically the one offered at USC — provides a unique blend of consumer and organizational psychology and gives students a professional edge to solve problems in contemporary organizations.

Here, experts within USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences detail some of the jobs open to those with an advanced degree in this burgeoning field.

Universal Language

“They’re in sports, entertainment, Silicon Valley, health care, law and the military,” said Ellen Leggett, EdD, citing just some of the professions represented in the classes she teaches as director of USC Dornsife’s online Master of Science in Applied Psychology (MAPP).

“The language that connects all these fields is psychology — being able to think about what people need, what their motivations are, what their experiences are and how to maximize those experiences,” added Leggett, who is also a professor of the practice of psychology at USC Dornsife.

Psychology is valuable across all fields because “it grounds us in human behavior,” according to Michael V. Nguyen, PhD, who teaches in the MAPP program.

A cross-cultural psychologist with experience including research in global consumer insights for the media conglomerate Vivendi, Nguyen said the field’s concepts enhance commerce — even though you won’t find them in business school.

The unique online master’s in applied psychology at USC enables you to refine your aptitude for gathering and processing information, use statistical research and reasoning to solve workplace problems, communicate more clearly, and relate to colleagues and consumers from diverse backgrounds, according to Leggett.

“In our program, we have engineers, accountants and lawyers who must now manage a workforce and have realized that those principles are not taught in engineering, business or law school,” she noted.

Future Opportunities

In addition to current careers, “our program prepares you for the jobs of tomorrow,” Leggett said. “The workplace and marketplace change so rapidly that you will be applying your skills as a psychology-minded researcher to areas that may not even be imagined yet.”

For example, she pointed out that the position of COVID-19 compliance officer did not exist until recently. But with movies and television returning to production in the pandemic’s wake, studios need professionals who can ensure that appropriate safety measures are in place to protect employees and talent on busy sets.

“Jobs keep evolving as society keeps changing, so we’re very forward-looking,” she said of USC’s applied psychology program.

Getting Down to Business

As part of this evolution, “psychology and business have merged in many respects,” Nguyen observed. As an example, he cites the corporate world’s increased focus on the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

His own work in this area includes founding Inclusive Insights, a DEI firm that partners with companies to develop customized strategic solutions to cultivate an inclusive culture that promotes equity, increases diversity and attracts as well as retains the right talent.

“In the most ideal setting and way of operating, DEI principles are incorporated into everything you do,” Nguyen said.

“Organizations and companies have two important groups of people who are often underappreciated — employees and consumers,” Leggett noted. Courses in consumer and organizational psychology “provide pathways to enter the business world with an understanding of the experiences of both populations.”

Request information about USC’s online MAPP.

Consumer and Employee Experience

Leggett observed that applied psychology experts also “are at the forefront of understanding the user experience.” This emerging field, known as UX, addresses all aspects of how people interact with and respond to the products and services they employ — so that developers and providers can make necessary improvements.

“All kinds of companies creating user interfaces are interested in the fact that applied psychologists are not just experts in human behavior but have researched how to bridge the gap between technology and the people who use it,” she added.

Applied psychology also comes into play as more companies emphasize the consumer experience, or CX, according to Leggett.

“Companies are now focused on not just the attributes of their product and trying to sell it, but also on the journey a consumer takes from initial contact to point of sale and even beyond. Similarly, a new emphasis in human resources focuses on the journey an employee takes — from applying for a job, being trained, supervised and evaluated to ultimately getting promoted,” she explained.

The degree is also relevant in hospitals and other health care settings, where the patient experience is an increasing focus.

Operating Across Cultures

The more technology enables people to conduct business around the world, the more important cultural awareness and understanding of human motivation have become.

“We call it ‘navigating the cultural minefield,’” Nguyen said. “Many students will be working for multinational corporations or engaged with customers and clients from different countries.”

To help students understand — and embrace — international differences, Nguyen teaches a methodology called cultural mapping.

“There are eight dimensions of culture, one of which is communication,” he explained. “Americans are the most explicit or low-context culture there is, meaning their conversation assumes relatively little intuitive understanding. Whereas, Japanese are among the most indirect.”

Nguyen added that leadership is another dimension that could be “hierarchical or egalitarian. When you’re addressing someone in Japan, you need to know that hierarchy matters, so that you do not risk showing disrespect.”

In Sweden, it is understood that a director is just two small steps up from a janitor, Nguyen noted. This represents one extreme in attitudes toward leadership. On the other side of the spectrum, in a country such as Korea, however, the ideal boss should stand far above the workers at the top of a hierarchy.

Of course, not every nation’s culture is at one extreme or the other in terms of these dimensions. In some, like the United Kingdom, the outlook on leadership falls somewhere in the middle. Knowing about these nuances not only helps professionals succeed on their own behalf but it also enables them to foster international collaboration.

“Not everyone operates the same way,” Nguyen said. “If you’re going to have a team from India, one from Germany and another from China, how do you best facilitate these groups so you can work together effectively as a team?”

In addition to commerce and nonprofits, learning these concepts also builds skills for jobs in international development, diplomacy and public affairs.

Mentorship and Management

Studying applied psychology at USC carries other advantages as well, Leggett said. For instance, by the nature of their own training and interests, instructors here excel as career mentors.

“And in almost every course, students are doing something that will help them get practical experience to advance their career interests,” Leggett said.

In addition to up-and-coming professionals about to start their first job, the field provides a boost to people seeking to change careers or reenter the workforce.

“These include health care workers or those in the helping professions who find themselves emotionally exhausted but who still want to help others, veterans needing to assimilate into a civilian job after military service, or women who stepped back from their career to start a family and now want to reskill,” Leggett noted.

Budding entrepreneurs and professionals wanting to use their skills in consulting can also benefit from the USC master’s in applied psychology. For instance, Leggett said, “we now have graduates in most of the big management consulting firms.”

From DEI to organizational consulting, marketing and beyond, the applied psychology program at USC can help you reach your goals. Because, Leggett noted, the field addresses people’s thoughts and feelings — which are important factors no matter which industry you’re in.

Learn more about USC Dornsife’s online Master of Science in Applied Psychology program today.