What students can expect from their course; and teaching psychology
Oscar Wilde wrote – ‘The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself.’ I beg to differ – a lot of the guidance I can now offer to new students would have been very useful to me when I took the decision to return to university 13 months ago!

What advice would you give to students starting your course?

Kate Canaway’s winning essay for the Higher Education Academy Psychology Network Student Award 2007.

Oscar Wilde wrote – ‘The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself.’ I beg to differ – a lot of the guidance I can now offer to new students would have been very useful to me when
I took the decision to return to university
13 months ago! Having completed my first degree in 2001, I presumed myself to be an old hand at studying, but in fact I have learnt more about the discipline of psychology, and about myself, than I ever expected. I write this now in the hope that at least some of my experiences and suggestions will be pertinent to those about to begin the course.

For the science which is often derogatorily referred to as ‘soft’, psychology actually involves a lot of hard work. While people may dismiss some of its hypotheses and findings as obvious or common sense, the principles behind them certainly are not, and require a lot of time and effort to fully grasp. Succeeding on this course doesn’t just mean handing in lab reports and essays on time, but also taking the initiative to read around each topic until you understand it, could explain it to a layperson, and are able to identify the strengths and weaknesses in the arguments you are being presented with.

University level courses are a two-way street, and although it’s an old cliché, you really do get out what you put in. You need to be resourceful and not limit your information gathering to the reading list your tutor supplies, or your own college library. Use journals, the internet, local libraries, friends on your course and even the general media. Psychology is everywhere, it’s up to you how much you embrace what the subject has to offer.

With such a variety of potential resources to assist you with your studies, it can sometimes be hard to know where to start, and to work out how to fit everything in to an all-too-brief semester. You need to be self disciplined and organised; allocate time for researching a specific area, and then make sure you do it! Once you begin to get a feel for the main arguments, you can read more strategically and focus on those areas which seem most relevant or interesting.

While structured reading is very important, it doesn’t always take formal study or research to progress on this course. You can learn a lot from chatting to other people, and in particular, those who have never studied psychology. The arguments my friends and colleagues have thrown back at me when I’ve discussed my work with them have prompted me to look at my course in a different light and consider perspectives that aren’t always obvious from the text books.

Indeed, it is crucial in psychology to be able to think outside the box, and to be prepared to question everything! Possibly the most valuable thing I have gained from my course is that it has completely changed the way I think. You will learn to view human behaviour and interaction with a healthy curiosity and even cynicism, and be given the chance to explore this from a wide variety of approaches, from critical social psychology to psychobiology.

With such an assortment of specialties within the discipline, psychology students should expect the unexpected. Contrary to the common misconception, psychology is not about reading people’s minds, but in fact comprises a vast wealth of knowledge on how facets such as cognition, neurology, social interaction and biology combine to influence human behaviour.  My advice is come to the course with an open mind. It is diverse, it is fascinating, and it is likely to surprise you.
While you are in the midst of discovering this captivating new subject, don’t forget to relax too! It’s easy to neglect other areas of your life when you’re bogged down with deadlines and course demands, but bear in mind that taking care of yourself counts for a lot in the standard of work you can produce. Eat well, get plenty of rest, and take time out to enjoy yourself doing completely unrelated things. Coming back to your studies with a refreshed mind will be reflected in the way you are able to contribute in class and the grades you achieve.

Getting good marks is always satisfying, but knowing what you’re doing it all for is another important consideration for new students. I have been so much more motivated and committed to this course than to my first degree because I have a clear goal of becoming a clinical psychologist. Take the initiative to look at the employment or training possibilities which will be available when you complete your course, and make enquiries and applications as soon as you can.

Finally, the most important piece of advice I can offer is – enjoy! Remember you are there by choice, not under duress, and embrace the opportunities that are offered to you. For me, deciding to undertake this course has been one of the best decisions I ever made, and one that will ultimately be life-changing in terms of my career options and personal development. While there is still a considerable way to go, I feel I have found my vocation and all the work I do now is going towards making my dreams become reality. If this course can make me feel this contented and focused, imagine what it could do for you…

Kate Canaway is a student on the University of East London’s Graduate Diploma in Psychology.

Book Review

Study Skills for Psychology: Succeeding in Your Degree
Richard P.J. Freeman & Tony Stone
London: Sage; 2006; Pb £14.99
(ISBN 0 7619 4240 8)
Reviewed by Alice R. Harrison

This book is full of advice and guidance on how to get the most from your studies, what to expect throughout the degree, and where to go next in your career. It is clearly written, and the learning outcomes at the start of each chapter highlights the skills to be gained.The book is structured around the three main themes, Organisation, Communication and Reflection (OCR), which can be applied to various aspects of the degree. For anyone starting a degree, this is a useful concise guide to what’s in store throughout the first year and beyond.

Alice R. Harrison is a psychology undergraduate at the Open University.


Psychology Network student award

The Higher Education Academy Psychology Network Student Award takes place every year, and is open to anyone studying psychology at any level in any higher education institution in the UK. International students studying at a UK institution are more than welcome to enter (unfortunately, however, students studying at institutions outside of the UK are not eligible for the Award). The winner of the Award receives £250, and their essay goes forward to compete against the winning essays from other Higher Education Academy subject networks for a top prize of a Toshiba laptop. Further details of the Award, including winning and highly commended essays from the past three years, can be found at Psychology Network offers a wealth of useful information and resources specifically for psychology students. These include: advice on writing reports, web-based tutorials on variety of subjects, information about careers inside and outside professional psychology, details of awards and funding available specifically for psychology students, and links to other sites of interest.

For more, visit


Training to teach psychology in schools

Psychology in schools is big business. Many pupils see the subject as somewhat mysterious and intriguing and, as a result, they are attracted to it in their droves. With more than six competing examination boards and bookshop shelves bowing under the weight of A-level textbooks one would be forgiven for thinking that becoming a psychology teacher in schools is a walk in the park for a motivated psychology graduate. In reality there remains a great deal of confusion regarding routes into psychology teaching for psychology graduates.

To teach in schools ideally one must have undergone a process of Initial Teacher Training (ITT). The most popular route into teaching today is through the Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE), a one-year training with a substantial proportion of teaching practice. Under normal circumstances one would apply to train as a teacher in a subject area related to the applicant’s undergraduate degree. This is straightforward for graduates of national curriculum subjects (English, History, Science, etc.) but for psychology graduates the situation is little foggier. Although highly popular at A-level, psychology is not a national curriculum subject and as a result there is no such entity as a PGCE in Psychology (although there are a limited number of social science PGCEs). Very few schools have adopted GCSE Psychology so a psychology teacher is unlikely to teach below sixth form (key stage 5).

The first thing for a psychology graduate, convinced that teaching is for them, is to decide where they wish to teach, for this will dictate the type of ITT to pursue. A PGCE (FE) is designed for those individuals who wish to teach in colleges while the PGCE (Secondary) is
for those wishing to pursue a career in secondary schools. A Secondary PGCE confers Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) which not only makes you eligible to teach is schools, but colleges as well. A PGCE (FE) does not confer QTS so those adopting this route will not be eligible to teach in schools. (There are other routes, such a School Centred Initial Teacher Training, but the number of psychology graduates pursuing this route is thought to be very small). That’s all well and good, but how does the psychology graduate get accepted onto a PGCE (Secondary) when their degree is in a non-curriculum subject?

At this point flexibility comes in. QTS is very valuable as it widens career opportunities and allows for a more fluid decision making process. The trick is to find a subject you think you could teach (favourites are religious education, citizenship and business studies). All that is required now is to convince the admissions tutor that your undergraduate degree taught you the invaluable skills needed to succeed in your chosen career. In fact, psychology graduates are equipped with a vast array of transferable skills such as numeracy, critical thinking and planning. The eager applicant will also have to convince the admissions tutor that their high levels of motivation and commitment are more than enough to drive them forward and fill in those missing gaps in subject knowledge. Assuming that you have been welcomed with open arms, you can later beg your training school to allow you to teach a few psychology lessons on top of your curriculum subject.At the end of your training you will be awarded your PGCE (RE, Business Studies, etc.) and provisional QTS. It’s provisional because you still have to complete one year’s induction, at the end of which most Newly Qualified Teachers (NQTs) are allowed to keep it (and get a very smart certificate). A probable requirement of your induction year will be to teach, at least part of the time, the subject in which you qualified to teach but realistically it’s unlikely that you will teach much psychology (if any) in your first year. The trick here is to be a little cheeky. Look around for a school requiring both a part-time psychology teacher and a part-time teacher in your other subject. Suggest to them that you could do both jobs – this usually works out cheaper for the school – especially if the applicant is an NQT.
The Society’s guidance for psychology graduates intending to apply for a PGCE are under review: in the meantime, contact [email protected].

Marc Smith is a psychology teacher at Guiseley School, Leeds. He also teaches RE.

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