Confessions of a psychology graduate

As is not uncommon in Scotland, I went to university when I was just 17 years old. I always knew I wanted to go to uni, although I was only the second person in my whole family to make the leap into higher education. I have always loved learning and school and therefore it just seemed like the natural thing to do. However this meant that I had to make a pretty huge decision between the tender ages of 15 and 16: Which degree program I wanted to embark on for four years of my life. There was no question about it (after a brief period of flirting with the idea of journalism): I was going to study psychology.

At the time this was a very easy decision to make and it has only been fairly recently that I have begun to reflect on why I made this decision and did not even consider another subject – in particular, given my obvious passion and enthusiasm for biology etc, why did I not chose to study a “real” science?

The answer is, if someone could go back in time, find the 15-16 year old Loris (probably sitting in her computing class giggling hysterically at hilarious cartoon videos on Weebls-stuff – hey, these were the days before Youtube, kids!) and tell her that she should consider studying biology at university, I’m almost certain she would have laughed in your face.

It’s not that I didn’t like science – in fact, when we were choosing our standard grade subjects (Scottish equivalent of the English GCSEs or whatever they are these days) I was adamant that I wanted to pick up both chemistry and biology, which my guidance teacher advised against because it was “tricky to take two sciences” (he asked me to consider taking an arts subject instead, however if he had spoken to either my art or craft and design teacher and/or ever taken a look at any of the monstrosities I had produced in these classes I’m sure he would have retracted that statement). But I got my own way and studied both biology and chemistry. It’s sad to say that I adored both of these subjects until I was formally taught them in school.

My chemistry teacher looked like a mad scientist, but not in an eccentric and endearing way. He was short with the most unruly beard I have ever seen, was never without a ragged tank top covered by a lab coat and had a very obvious dislike of high school-age children. He mumbled when he spoke so you couldn’t hear a damn thing he said, and when he tried to emphasise his point by writing it on the blackboard at the front of the class, his writing was so manic and unintelligible that it just made things more confusing and you wouldn’t dare ask a question because it just seemed to frustrate him, making everything a bit more agitated. I enjoyed the demos we got to do in class, but I left every day with absolutely no idea of the science behind them and the relevance of any of them.

Biology was a little different; my teacher was a patient elderly woman who explained things quite well. I loved learning about plants and animals and cells and ecology, but when it came to assessment time I failed miserably every time. I felt like I understood the lessons and my homework was always fine, but when it came to class tests I was just not getting the grades. I was in my biology class at lunch times leading up to exams and worked my ass off to eventually got a top grade in the exam, but it was a real struggle. I realise now that perhaps I found this so difficult because the questions we were asked were so aloof and out of context. To revise we were all told to do lots of past papers which I did, and they helped – but only because you got to know the sorts of questions that would come up. They did nothing to enhance my actual understanding of biology or science itself, I was just repeating stuff I had memorised.

I don’t recall if I made this analysis at the time or not, but I now realise that to me, psychology was “like science but easier”. But I absolutely adored my degree. I barely missed any of my lectures and classes over four years and found the university system of assignment much easier to handle than the school arrangement I was so used to but had grown to hate. Suddenly I could write essays and give an opinion and criticise without being “right” or “wrong”. I was fascinated (and often horrified) by the history of psychological research, and my degree subject became more than my studies, it became part of my identity, and on my graduation day I was proud to hold a BSc in psychology.

It was only after I graduated that I began to reflect on my chosen degree. People began asking what I wanted to do now. Most assumed I was going to be a psychologist (which I had decided against strongly within two weeks of my first semester), then seemed genuinely confused and almost sympathetic when I told them this was certainly not going to be the case (presumably they thought I had just wasted four years of my life). I grew tired of the number of times I heard something along the lines of “Oh you’ve got a psychology degree? Well you’ve got your work cut out with this one!” “Psychology? Oooh we better watch ourselves around you, you’ll be reading our minds!” “You know psychology? Do you, like, constantly analyse everything then?” Suddenly I felt very fed up of the psych stigma.

After returning to university to complete an MSc in evolution and behaviour and deciding that science communication was the field I wanted to get involved with, I was reminded even more of how stigmatised a psychology degree can be. Even now, upon learning that I want to be a science communicator, people say “oh so what is your first degree in?” When I tell them it is psychology, they often respond with a look of near-confusion, at which point I feel the need to add in “…And I have a master’s degree in evolution and behaviour” as if this somehow verifies that I Know Some Science.

I’m certainly not expecting psychology to be viewed on a par with physics or chemistry, and I know that the field has had its controversies and downright absurdities. But it feels to me like it’s always viewed as an easy degree, or something you take if you didn’t get the grades to do something else, or if you went to university for the craic. But I chose to study psychology, despite never wanting to be a psychologist, I loved my degree, I worked my ass of for it, yet… Now, if I could have my time again, I’d at the very least do a joint honours degree with biology, because I feel it would give me more credibility. One of the reasons I am so passionate about science communication is probably because I wish science had been communicated properly to me when I was making such a huge decision. It may not have changed my mind about studying psychology (it almost definitely would not have, I was a stubborn child) but at least it would have made me aware of what studying science entails and the opportunities a science degree can give you later in life.

I don’t know, maybe this is my problem. Are there any psychology graduates out there who feel almost apologetic about their degree, even if they love psychology? If so, please do let me know, maybe we can start a movement or support group or something.

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4 thoughts on “Confessions of a psychology graduate

  1. Lorraine says:

    I studied Psychology as a compromise between ‘better get a science degree so I end up with a job’ and ‘Psychology is at least interesting and has no dissections’. That’s about as much thought as I gave it then. If I could go back in time, I’d go with my heart instead and study either English or Maths, However, I’m still plodding on with the Psychology-related studies. I’m apologetic about the degree when it comes to things like getting a call-centre job and realising everyone in there has the same degree 🙂 Also get tired of saying I study Psychology and getting the responses, ‘Oh, maybe you can help me then’ or ‘Are you analysing me right now?’.

  2. Lorraine says:

    P.S. Regarding people thinking you study Psychology if you didn’t get the grades for something else……
    When I was going from 2nd year to 3rd year Psychology, only about 50 of us were allowed to progress, as the 2nd year class was over-subscribed. The ones who didn’t make the grades for Psych mostly went into Social Work instead, and now earn three times as much as I do. Hurrah!

  3. I’ll totally join PSA (Psychology Lovers Anonymous) with you! I love psychology! I majored in psychology and zoology and I feel that my pych major prepared me for research better than the zoo major.

  4. LukePDQ says:

    “…I wanted to pick up both chemistry and biology, which my guidance teacher advised against because it was “tricky to take two sciences”….”

    Glad it worked out for you but that was terrible advice from school. Chem & Bio are perfect twinned subjects for many careers, as you’ve obviously found for yourself.

    Says more about the poor aspirations of that teacher for his/her pupils.

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