Essential Skills for Psychology Students

Find out which hard, soft, and online skills will benefit you as a psychology student and get expert insight on which skills matter most as a professional.

Last Updated: 04/28/2021

Meet the Expert
Holly Severson

Therapist, Coach, and Writer

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Holly Severson, LPC, is a therapist, coach, and writer who has a master’s degree in counseling psychology from Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, and has been a practicing licensed professional for over 20 years. She specializes in issues that are relationship-oriented. You can find her newest venture, Grace Untethered, at www.graceuntethered.com or on Facebook. Grace Untethered offers support to women in midlife going through a divorce, focusing on encouragement to grow with integrity, grace, and compassion.

Do you love learning about how the human mind works? Do you want to understand why we do and think the things we do? Psychology is one of the most popular undergraduate majors for a good reason. The careers that a psychology degree can lead to are diverse, interesting, and can be very rewarding. But before you can get your foot into the professional door, you must succeed as a psychology student first.

The skills required to excel in a psychology degree program are just as diverse as the field itself. From the hard skills that will benefit you on the clinical side of psychology to the soft skills that will help you relate with patients and fellow students, there’s a lot to hone while you’re still enrolled. Learn which skills will matter most to you as a student, find out which ones will lend themselves to you in the online classroom, and get expert advice on the skills you’ll depend on as a professional.

Hard Skills for Psychology Students

Hard skills are learnable abilities that can be easily measured or assessed. You acquire these skills through education and refine them through practice and repetition. These hard skills often stem from a shared knowledge base and correlate with core competencies specific to your discipline. Hard skills in psychology, such as the ones detailed below, enhance your learning experience and your qualifications as a working professional.

Skill 1

Psychological & Cognitive Science Fundamentals

Successful professional practice requires proficiency in your primary knowledge base of information about psychology and cognitive science. You’ll need working knowledge of the main methods, theories, and techniques specific to psychology.

These foundations will inform each decision you make and each problem you solve, whether it’s gathering research data, conducting an experiment, or working with clients in counseling sessions. Every class you take, psychology textbook you read, or class project you complete will help you build this knowledge base. In between, perusing professional resources provided from organizations such as the American Psychological Association can also help you build strong fundamentals.

Skill 2

Numeracy & Quantitative Research

Psychology is a data-driven discipline that obtains measurable insights to develop new concepts and evidence-based practices. It’s not just about possessing scientific knowledge; it’s also about adding to that knowledge base and gaining new forms of knowledge. Psychology uses statistical research methods and quantitative reasoning. This means you’ll need strong mathematics skills.

Professional psychologists regularly rely on these skills, using them to measure, gather, and analyze key data points. The numeracy skills you will need in psychology are widely transferable, meaning you can develop them in a variety of contexts. One way to do this is by taking additional math or quantitative classes to deepen your knowledge. Even if you’re a math whiz, taking upper-level courses in statistics or data visualization helps you prepare for the rest of your studies and the career ahead of you.

Skill 3

Clinical Reasoning

If math skills help you prepare for the research and theory aspects of psychology, clinical reasoning skills do the same thing for the practical applications in psychology. Clinical reasoning skills enable you to make clear, well-informed diagnostic decisions based on sound evidence and measurable data.

When you make observations and apply key concepts in practical scenarios, you’re using your clinical reasoning skills. Those same skills come into play anytime a psychologist offers targeted interventions or develops long-term treatment plans. Like most other hard skills, these capacities are ones you will develop during your education and training. If you want to get ahead of the game, reading case studies and keeping up with current research gives you an edge.

Skill 4

Experiment Design

Experiment design is sometimes covered under the broader category of research methods, but it is distinctive enough to stand on its own. Experiment design in psychology refers to the ability to conceptualize, structure, execute, and analyze a successful experiment. Like other sciences, psychology depends on successful experimentation to further the field.

Strong experiment design skills will serve you well regardless of your specialty but will be vital if you plan to be a researcher working in the field or in a lab. The insights you gain from well-designed experiments and skillful insights could lay the groundwork for exciting new developments. To build these skills now, pay close attention to how studies you read are structured, and ask your professors lots of questions about why that structure was effective, what the researchers could have done differently, and what new research could spring from the experiment.

Skill 5

Experiential Learning

This skill set helps you as both a student and a practitioner in psychology. Experiential learning means learning by doing; studying psychology means you will engage in experiential learning activities that include simulations, hands-on lab work, and peer interaction.

Familiarity with those types of experiential learning activities is helpful not only while you’re a student but also once you’re on the job. When working with clients in group or individual settings, you’ll need to develop experiential learning activities that further treatment and help with intervention. Solid skills in this area enable you to reflect on the efficacy of those activities and develop additional ones based on new evidence.

Other Important Skills

Additional hard skills important in psychology include the ability to internalize and adhere to a code of professional ethics, especially as it pertains to privacy and confidentiality. As a psychology professional you will deal with sensitive client issues. In research you will likely perform experiments that involve human subjects, so you’ll need a solid understanding of how to protect their safety and vital interests.

Practicing psychologists also need strong proficiency in assessment and evaluation techniques as well as treatment planning tools. For the most part psychology uses quantitative research methods, but understanding how qualitative research works can be helpful too, especially if you plan to conduct interviews in the field. All of these hard skills will be important as a psychology student and will transition seamlessly into the professional world with enough practice.

Soft Skills for Psychology Students

Soft skills are vital but often hard to identify. They’re the competencies that feel like habits or abilities built over time through practice and troubleshooting, but they’re not easily measured. Just about every profession needs soft skills but psychology requires people to develop these skills more directly. Here are some of the most important soft skills you’ll need as a psychology student and professional.

Skill 1

Communication

Successful psychology practice depends on clear and effective communication skills. Communication is important in any profession, but in psychology you’ll need to elevate those skills even more so you can understand client needs, offer insightful intervention, and convey complex or technical information to a broader audience. Advanced communication skills also help when you make presentations or work with colleagues.

Studying psychology gives you ample opportunity to sharpen these skills, but you’ll want to practice in your everyday life, too. For example, if you have a misunderstanding with a peer, ask if they’d be willing to talk through how communications went awry. When you meet someone who is a good communicator, pay attention to what they do and how they do it. Anytime you’re reading, pay attention to word choice and subtle differences in meaning that helped the author make a point. All of these efforts will contribute to improving your own communication skills.

Skill 2

Patience & Active Listening

These skills may normally fall under the communication umbrella, but in psychology they really stand on their own. In counseling or psychotherapy sessions psychologists rely on heightened active listening skills so they can offer evidence-based diagnoses supported by sound advice. This means listening to what is said, when it is said, and how it is said.

Active listening will likely require a great deal of patience (and time) in some cases, so brushing up on these skills in day-to-day conversations can really go a long way. For example, when you’re in the middle of a conversation, train yourself to listen—really listen—to what the other person is saying instead of focusing on what you’ll say next. Don’t interrupt or otherwise interfere with the flow of the conversation, and challenge yourself to walk away having said less and listened more than your conversational partner.

Skill 3

Critical Thinking

Strong critical thinking skills mean you’re able to make insightful observations, identify patterns, and establish key connections. It also means that you can process new information quickly and efficiently. In psychology, this will come in handy when it’s time to conduct experiments and formulate hypotheses. If you already have the ability to interpret technical information through critical thinking, focus on using new psychology knowledge to inform your interpretations. Critical thinking will also apply to the clinical part of your practice and can help you both fulfill and establish client goals.

Skill 4

Creative Problem-Solving

Creative problem-solvers are able to seek out new and innovative solutions to pressing problems. In psychology this is useful on both the theoretical and the practical side of things. Scientific discovery and creative problem-solving go hand in hand. Elevating your cognitive processes by approaching problems differently and thinking outside the box puts you in a great position to generate new research in psychology. It also puts you in a better position to make smart decisions in the field, the lab, or the therapy session. This could even mean helping clients build this very same skill in one-on-one interaction. Whether you’re in the classroom or out in the professional world, creative problem-solving will always be of use in psychology.

Skill 5

Cultural Competence & Self-Awareness

Many programs in psychology build this training into their curricula since it’s becoming important in healthcare more broadly. Honing these skills on your own helps support that training. In psychology, cultural competence means approaching your practice with respect and sensitivity to other cultures, especially as it pertains to race, ethnicity, class, and gender (and how these elements often overlap). Appreciating and informing yourself about these differences can help you adapt your work as needed and ultimately offer better, more effective treatment.

Maintaining a sense of self-awareness throughout this process will keep you grounded and broaden your horizons in light of new perspectives. Even after you’re a practicing psychologist, remind yourself that societal norms change, and your cultural competence must evolve as well. Don’t let yourself get stuck in old ways of thinking; instead, challenge yourself to always keep an open mind.

Other Important Skills

Additional soft skills that can help you as a psychology student and professional include interpersonal awareness, emotional intelligence, leadership, self-management, and decision-making skills. You will also need to be organized, which includes establishing clear routines, maintaining schedules, keeping track of group or individual session reports, and building in time for continuing education. In psychology, organizational skills also include planning for the unexpected, whether it’s an emergency session with a client, a last-minute cancellation for an experiment, or anything in between. This means you need adaptability and flexibility skills that enable you to achieve set outcomes despite changes in circumstances.

Online Skills for Psychology Students

Online study in psychology comes with its own set of challenges (and perks!). You’ll have an optimal degree of flexibility, but that doesn’t mean your studies will necessarily be easier. In fact, for some students, online learning offers a whole new set of challenges. Developing a working proficiency in a few key skills like the ones below can help you meet those challenges with confidence.

Skill 1

Time Management

Successful online learners in psychology know how to manage their time well. This means working smarter, not harder, by organizing and planning your time in a way that supports academic success. Solid time management skills help you make the most of your time, especially when you’re faced with multiple deadlines and competing responsibilities.

In most cases studying psychology online means setting your own schedule. You will need to look at the big picture and structure your time (including your free time) in ways that mitigate stress, enforce healthy boundaries, and reduce opportunities for procrastination. Establishing a regular schedule helps with this. Using free time-tracking tools and shared calendars or planners also are a great way to get started.

Skill 2

Self-Discipline

Online learning requires consistent self-discipline, which includes the ability to overcome your weaknesses, narrow your focus, and motivate yourself to achieve goals. Recent research has shown a strong correlation between self-discipline and improved online learning outcomes.

Studying psychology in a virtual environment means your schedule will often be unstructured and open-ended. You won’t always be with a group of peers or have a supervisor to keep you motivated. This can be a great asset, but only if you have the ability to inspire yourself and practice the self-discipline necessary for success. This means cultivating good habits, taking breaks when necessary, and buckling down when it’s time to complete the task at hand.

Skill 3

Digital Literacy (& Adaptability)

Those already proficient with digital technology and virtual communication platforms will be in the best position to succeed as online psychology students. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it can make a huge practical difference. If you’re busy learning a new content platform or web-based application, that means you aren’t focusing on new psychology content. If you’re already familiar with the technology, you’ll be able to focus on the new information being presented.

Adaptability is also important, even if you’re well-versed in online learning tools. Technologies can fail, connections can become unstable, and sometimes course delivery may change. Approaching these challenges with a willingness to adapt to the circumstances frees more mental bandwidth so you can focus on sharpening your psychology skills.

Insight from a Psychology Professional

Q: What are some skills psychology students should plan to gain in their studies?

A: Having good communication and listening skills is a must. A good counselor must be able to understand what someone is experiencing, read between the lines about what is not being said, and remember and reflect back to them what they have expressed.

You also must be able to manage your own emotional world while listening to someone else and be able to soothe yourself when you are triggered and let it be about them. Seeking therapy for your own issues, knowing yourself well, and knowing how to recognize when you are triggered is key. You will be listening to difficult stories on a daily basis, and you must know how to keep yourself from becoming too immersed in a client’s world and have boundaries protecting your own personal time. Otherwise, you will burn out.

Q: Soft skills are vital but often hard to describe. What are the most important soft skills for psychology?

A: Empathy is something you must possess. During my graduate program I had a class exercise with another student where we took turns listening to the other person’s problem and being empathetic. He couldn’t do it. He could not understand why I was upset about my problem and was unable to express any empathy. That student didn’t last long. To cultivate empathy, it’s helpful to expose yourself to many different groups, cultures, and types of people and to look at their stories and try to understand why they are how they are

Q: Are there additional skills that would be helpful for students studying psychology?

A: One important skill that will help a psychology student succeed is developing the ability to look at a situation with an analytical mind. Is this person struggling with depression or anxiety? What symptoms are they experiencing and what are the possible causes? Having a toolkit of assessments for various mental health issues helps you to have a more complete picture of what a client will be capable of and what to expect.

Q: Online learning has a lot of benefits, but also comes with its own unique set of challenges. What skills-based advice would you offer to psychology students who plan to take classes online?

A: If your program is not live, be sure that you allow enough time to not only listen to all of the required materials but to also take notes and absorb the material. When learning online versus in person, it’s easier to become distracted by the environment and not pay close attention and not be fully engaged. You won’t benefit from your studies if you aren’t protective of your physical environment, your time, and your own personal comfort.

Q: What piece of advice do you wish you had been given as a young psychology student or early-stage professional?

A: When I began working in my first counseling job after graduate school, I was overwhelmed by the number of skills required to be an effective counselor. I knew I didn’t have all of the knowledge needed to accurately diagnose, assess, or treat most of my clients. My supervisor gave me some very sage advice: “The most important thing you can do for any of your clients is to listen. Just being heard is so helpful for most problems.” This relieved my anxiety about not having all the answers. I was able to learn to say to clients, “I don’t know much about the research behind this particular subject. I will do some reading and we can talk more about it at the next appointment.” I didn’t need to be the expert in everything.