The Career Corner: What to expect of an undergraduate psychology degree
Are you considering undertaking a psychology degree? Here, I will attempt to give you a better idea of what the course involves!
From the individual neuron to social group behaviour
What was perhaps a surprise to me, was just how broad and varied a psychology undergraduate degree is. In one class, you could be studying how neurons work, and in the next, you could be discussing the behaviour of chimpanzees. In perception and cognition classes, you will learn how the brain works in terms of attention, memory, and other information processing abilities. There is also social psychology covering group behaviour such as conformity, obedience, and inter-group relations. In developmental psychology you will learn about the development of cognitive abilities from infancy onwards (a rather amusing class with funny baby research videos!). In general, you learn about how the brain works and how human behaviour is shaped – all in different areas and at different theoretical levels.
Like many other psychology students, I am particularly interested in clinical psychology and mental health. Clinical psychology is covered throughout the degree, but you will find that the other modules focus on the “healthy” population and on topics that are not directly related to mental health. That is because psychology is about so much more than mental health, and because it makes sense to learn about the “healthy” brain before you learn about the “unhealthy” brain. At some universities, you may be able to choose some modules according to your interests. This allowed me to have a clinical focus in my final year. However, I personally enjoyed all the modules, even though my main interest was in clinical psychology.
Now, a note on the not-so-scary stats: Psychology is a scientific subject based on research, and you will have quite a few research design and analysis modules. This means you will learn about and implement statistics. Some psychology students do not believe they are “good at maths” and the research and statistics class is not typically a favourite. BUT, people do pass it – and I think people even enjoy it at times when they get to design their own experiment or when the lecturer demonstrates examples with chocolates (disclaimer: maybe that was just at my university…)!
I think the best part of learning about research design and analysis is gaining an understanding of what constitutes good quality research and using this knowledge in practice. It means you can understand the content of your other modules better, and you can be critical of the research and conclusions you are presented with. You also need this knowledge when you get to create your own research project for your dissertation. Finally, a good understanding of research may not only be relevant in your future career, but also in your private life as you are presented with information in the news, in advertising, and by politicians. I told you psychology was broad, right?
Assignments and exams
I can only speak from my own experience, but I imagine the type and amount of assignments and exams are rather similar across UK universities (however, this information may also be available for the specific course you are looking to join). In most modules, essays were the standard coursework and for research classes there were lab reports. I personally found they were two quite different things to write, and that was a positive thing. If I had just written an essay, where I had to find a lot of literature, write long paragraphs, and build up the structure myself, I liked changing to a lab report where the structure was set and I could play around with graphs for a bit. There were other types of coursework too – I made a dementia handbook, for example, and we held a few presentations. In psychology, I found work had to be concise – our essays were generally a bit shorter than in other subjects and the lab reports even shorter. This was good practice in formulating clear ideas and organising material elegantly. At my university, exams were similarly concise. There were a few short answer exams, some multiple-choice exams, and some take-home exams with slightly longer answers.
Personally, I found psychology was the perfect combination of an arts and science degree. I chose to study psychology to work with people, and I think, if you have an interest in understanding people, psychology could be the right degree for you.