When I was 18 I chose to do a degree in psychology because it fascinated me. I had no idea what I wanted to do for a career, so I fell back on doing something I enjoyed. Add to that my keen desire to improve myself, and learning about the human mind seemed like a good bet. I didn’t know much about the topic though or what to expect, and of course I was anxious like any new student is.
Fast forward to 2013 and it’s about five years since I graduated. Since then I’ve worked mostly as a self-employed health and fitness writer and a programmer. Occasionally my degree comes in handy when I’m writing an article (like this one), but for the most part I wouldn’t say I really needed it. I’m glad I did it though, and I would certainly recommend it as a degree to study so long as you know what you’re letting yourself in for. And perhaps I would have approached it slightly differently knowing what I know now…
To all you fresher psych students then, and else anyone considering taking up a degree in the subject, here is what the reality of studying psychology is and what you should expect. Read on and it should help you decide whether it’s the right degree for you, and to prepare you for the experience.
What the Courses Are Like
The first thing you need to be prepared for when studying psychology is that you are going to have to do a fair bit of statistics. Assuming you are doing a bachelor of science (which will be the case with most psychology degrees), you will be approaching psychology as a scientific degree and that means you’ll be learning about how to conduct research and analyse data as well as how the mind works.
Most psychology courses then will have a ‘research methods’ component which will involve conducting research and then analysing the data and writing it up. This can be fun when you’re out on campus with a clipboard, but expect to do a fair amount of maths, to work in teams and generally for things to get pretty dry and boring (unless you like that kind of thing).
You should also be aware that you’re going to go over a lot of the same things in a lot of detail. When your lecturer tells you what you’re going to be studying next in cognitive psychology, you may well be pleased and think it sounds like a thrilling subject. Only once you’ve looked at the millionth study into it, and once you’ve looked at the question through all the various different psychological perspectives (behaviourism, evolutionary psychology, social psychology etc…), you may find that the joy is somewhat sapped out of it. And it doesn’t help that you have to remember so many names and dates either.
If this is all starting to sound a little boring then don’t let it put you off. Any topic you study at university you will find has a way of becoming less interesting once you’re being tested on it and once you’re doing certain areas in depth. And at the same time you’ll find that when you look back on the things you study you do find you end up appreciating them again – and it is cool knowledge to learn that will make you feel smarter. I remember hoping that I would be able to learn things that were ‘useful’ – maybe useful for picking up girls, for spotting liars or for winning fights. I wouldn’t say that you should take the course if that’s your sole aim, as very little of what you learn has real world ‘application’ in this way, but I guess I have probably developed more as a person partly through my improved knowledge of my own brain.
Note as well that you’ll get to choose the areas you study more as you progress in the course, so if you hate developmental psychology as much as I did you can drop it!
The Common Perception of a Psychology Student
Another interesting thing to consider when taking up psychology, is how others are going to see you and treat you as a result. Bear in mind that psychology is not the most respected topic in the world. While employers reportedly do like candidates who have psychology degrees (they like the combination of critical thinking, statistics and writing), you’ll find that other students who are studying classical subjects tend to look down their noses at your course slightly. Psychology is not considered one of those ‘doss’ subjects (like leisure and tourism), but it’s certainly not considered the most impressive of all either. If you want kudos from other students – do maths or physics! On the plus side, psychologists get to look down their noses at social psychology students, and they get to look down at the sociology students. It’s just the natural order of things…
Then there are the impressions that the rest of the world have of psychology students. In short it seems that the general public are confused between the words ‘psychologist’ and ‘mind reader’. When you tell someone that you study psychology, nine times out of ten the answer is going to be ‘tell me what I’m thinking then!’. I have no way of explaining this, other than to say… people are idiots.
It’s important to remember that your experience of psychology is going to vary very much depending on the university that you go to. I had a fantastic time at my university and would have done no matter what I studied. Psychology helped though because it was something that I was generally interested in and that wasn’t a doss but also didn’t offer an impossibly large workload. It was tough in places, but it didn’t get in the way of a fun social life.
You will find yourself going through periods where you are knee deep in whatever topic you’re studying and sometimes this can end up playing tricks on your brain. Don’t be surprised if you start reading about schizophrenia or personality disorders, and you end up absolutely convinced that you are suffering from one of them. This is common among psychology students, so don’t be alarmed if you start noticing all the symptoms in yourself. That’s just ‘psychology student syndrome’.
And the course certainly gets better as you go on. For your dissertation you will be given the opportunity to carry out your own study into an area that interests you and this is a very interesting process. Not only do you get to run some exciting experiments, but if you get good results and work with a good tutor you may even get your work published afterwards.
Something else to note is that psychology is roughly 90% female. As a guy who studied psychology I was very much outnumbered by the ladies in my class, but this worked out alright in the end as I am currently living with one of them! So really I wouldn’t trade my psychology experience for the world…