Welcome to your psychology degree

Mike Aitken Deakin addresses the thousands of new undergraduates getting this issue free, urging them to enjoy the experience and get what they want out of it.

In a few short weeks A-level results, clearing, summer holidays and ‘welcome week’ will be a fading memory. A bright, shiny new cohort of students will be following in the footsteps of previous years, and they will all ask the same question as last year of their lecturers – Do we need to know this for the exam?

This is a perfectly good question to ask when you want to know how to get a good mark in your module. But is it the most important question? Don’t you want something more than a piece of paper saying you ‘got good marks’ in return for investing a lot of money, and around 5 per cent of your total expected adult life?

Participation in learning and teaching is about more than helping you get good marks. No matter how well your university has designed and developed its assessments, there are things a degree provides that will not show up in the markbook. So go ahead – ask your lecturer whether the content will be on the exam. After all, it should always be clear to you how your work will be assessed. But also ask – Do I need to know this for my future happiness?

To answer that, we need to consider what your future holds as psychology graduates. Many psychology undergraduates have a long-held ambition for what to do after graduation, with career plans for mental health or education detailed on their university application. But, in fact, psychology graduates are just as likely to end up doing something else entirely.

Responses from almost 3000 psychology graduates to an ongoing BPS project suggest that out of 50 typical respondents, a dozen would be working in education four years after graduation, and a similar number working in the field of human health. The current competition for training places means that at most one of these dozen might eventually become a clinical psychologist.

What about the other 25 typical graduates? Three or four might be doing social work, three scientific researchers, a couple would be office administrators, and others working in the finance sector, residential care work, in the retail sector, or in software development, etc. These are generally not careers that have a specific requirement for a psychology degree.

Even so, two thirds of graduates feel that their psychology degree was relevant to them securing their current job – slightly more than had felt their work experience was a factor, and (perhaps reassuringly), most did not feel that the final grade they got in their degree was a factor.

As well as helping them get jobs – around three quarters felt that the psychology degree had developed their ‘employability skills’ well (e.g. problem solving, communication, statistical and IT literacy) – and the majority felt these skills were used ‘most of the time’ in their current work.

Your degree should develop you as a psychologist and a person, building your psychology knowledge and enabling you to flourish as a graduate. But it should also be fun, and developing your core skills early on will help with that. More effective study is more rewarding, and releases more time for other fun things.

Aim to develop more than knowledge of the curriculum in the first year. Take any ‘transferable skills’ teaching seriously, and apply what you learn to your study. Planning and preparation, time management and a clear focus on key criteria are important transferable skills – and they can also reduce the worst parts of student life: confusing lectures, working all night for a piece of coursework and then getting surprisingly poor marks.

Many modules will not include formal ‘skills’ training, but you can always develop your core ‘employability’ skills in academic work (group working, presentations, effective writing, time management). Whenever you are working on a project or piece of work, consider the skills you are using, and how you can improve them.

Whatever you plan to do after your degree, you will almost certainly need to produce a compelling CV or interview. Provided you have been thinking this way all along, you will be ready to describe your skills and how you developed and demonstrated them as part of a psychology degree.

A final metaphor: Your degree is rather like a piggy bank – how much you get out of it depends on how much you put in. But remember that the same applies to a sewer. It’s definitely worth thinking in advance about what you will want to get out of your psychology degree.

- Mike Aitken Deakin is Reader in Psychology and Director of BSc programme, IoPPN, King’s College London. King’s College London is part of the newly formed Russell Group Psychology Employability Network.

See also 'The journey to undergraduate psychology'

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