I get a lot of questions about career paths in media psychology, particularly among those thinking of pursuing a degree in the field. I certainly empathize with that confusion–and the desire to make sure someone will give you a job if you do all that work. Media psychology, as a new field, doesn’t offer up any quick and easy answers. It’s helpful to think about how to define media psychology broadly and then make it relevant to individual interests and goals. It the largest sense, media psychology is using psychological theory to understand how people use, consume, and produce media. It has applications to groups and individuals as well as nations. The word media is often assumed to be mass media, but media psychology looks at communication that is mediated by technology. Needless to say, the field paints with a pretty broad brush.
Some people start with their current or hoped-for career and then target their approach to the degree in a way that supports their needs. Someone who works with teens, for example, may be looking for ways to effectively communicate with or educate teens and therefore choose to focus on topics such as issues of developmental psychology, such as cognition, identity development, how teens are using technology, what narratives resonate, and how physical perceptions impact motivation and emotion. A designer or producer of media may focus on things such as perceptions, cognition, and how those are supported and challenged in different applications such as large screen/small screen. An educator may choose to focus on how different media applications interact with learning styles, multiple intelligences, engagement, self-efficacy, and individual strengths.
Other people start with a passion for an area and then seek a job that requires that knowledge set. For example, if you are skilled in using media to deliver factual information, there are roles in education (teaching teachers as well as teaching students), business communications (training internally as well as educating clients/customers), and healthcare (developing and promoting health education through media). Media psychology is relevant to advertising (for profit as well as nonprofit), applications and game developers.
Media psychology, like many other fields, requires some focus and specialization within areas of expertise. Much like a degree in any subject, from English to Economics (and I can’t speak the the hard sciences here, as I just don’t know), it gives you a good theoretical toolkit to apply to types of uses/development. But unlike a degree that is more vocationally oriented, such as education and teaching, there is not obvious immediate next step (like get a credential and teach elementary school.) To me, it makes the field very exciting. At the same time, it demands more of you to set your direction.
How you prepare for the career depends in large measure on your interests and the industry where you want to work. If you are interested in education, for example, then studying developmental, social and cognitive psychologies, with an emphasis on learning theory and perception as well as motivation would be coupled with the study of different technologies makes a lot of sense. You can’t design technology for education unless you know how the education system works, how to create curricula and course content along with the rest. Or, conversely, if you are an avid gamer and want to go into game design, beyond the technical background in game development, you would again be focusing on similar fields of study–such as how people learn, what motivates them to continue engaging, how narrative creates an immersive experience and how to design for different screen sizes. Most of psychology is fundamental. The technology changes but what we know about goals, motivation and learning doesn’t change very much. New information from neuroscience is providing new insights to build on the existing foundation. What I value about media psychology is that my background in psychology is transferable, independent of any technology or trend.
I’d be happy to talk about how any specific interests fit with my own experience in media psychology, as will most of my colleagues. There are different perspectives from different people, but we are all passionate about understanding how people and groups interact with media technologies and how that molds society. My own background has involved visual design, marketing, branding, country perceptions, health education, teaching, media messaging, and research on things like websites and digital games for kids. I love that it is always changing.