New Voices: Studying psychology - expectations and realities

Laurie Hannigan, Laura Oxley and Kris Henderson with the latest in our series for budding writers (see for more information)

Biologist Thomas Huxley once described science as ‘simply common sense at its best’. When I made the decision to study psychology at university, I could only guess at the extent to which this aphorism would hold true for the science of the mind. With no formal experience of studying the subject, my expectations of the course were far from concrete. Still, influenced by a combination of careers advice, media-driven public perception and scattergun popular science reading, I inevitably carried some preconceived ideas about what studying psychology might be like. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I’m able to make the comparison between these ideas and the reality of my experience – the results of which give an interesting insight into the more unpredictable benefits of psychological study.

At the start of my undergraduate degree, I was acutely aware that I had a very limited knowledge of psychology. While the popular psychology section of the local bookshop had served to further pique my burgeoning interest, I was under no illusions that it had readied me for exposure to the discipline as it exists in an academic domain. My expectations of what the course would entail, therefore, were rather vague and simplistic. First and foremost, of course, I was interested in learning about the antecedents of all manner of human behaviours. Secondly, I wanted to reconcile my casual interest in philosophy with the inclination towards science I had developed in school. Finally, I was impressed by the research-led nature of the majority of top psychology courses on offer and was eagerly anticipating becoming involved in a field of such relative youth and vibrancy. Given the relative ambiguity of these initial expectations, it is perhaps unsurprising that I consider them to have been easily met and broadly surpassed. Consequently, I’m keen to focus on the aspects of my experience that were wholly unexpected.

During my first year, I became slightly concerned by the apparent preoccupation with justifying psychology’s scientific status, something that recurred throughout lectures and textbooks. Undoubtedly, psychology has had to fight hard to attain an equal empirical footing with its older, more established counterparts and resist being grouped, usually pejoratively, with the social sciences. However, the defensiveness with which this issue was repeatedly and zealously dealt seemed, to me, to reflect a lingering sense of vulnerability in a field that had become hypersensitive to charges of being unscientific. In the intervening months and years, I have realised the great disservice that this dichotomised distinction – ‘scientific’ versus ‘unscientific’ – really does to the field. Certainly, I have seen that psychological research is fundamentally capable of employing thoroughly scientific methodologies and producing empirically sound results. However, it can also seek deeper insights, use philosophical conjecture to generate hypotheses, explore cultural differences, make case studies of individuals, and all of this across a vast range of subdisciplines. The net result of this diversity, in academic terms, has been a more varied and fulfilling experience than I ever could have anticipated.

If the sheer breadth of the content of my psychology course has exceeded my expectations, then it’s fair to say that I have also been surprised by some of the skills I have learned during my degree. I can remember, prior to choosing the course, being informed that psychology offers ‘transferable skills’, though precisely what these were remained something of a mystery at the time. Since then, I have certainly seen improvement in concrete academic skills, such as presenting, researching and writing, undoubtedly as a result of high-quality academic guidance. What I have gained as a direct result of studying psychology, I would argue, is even more important.

In the latter part of my degree, the one thing that has been stressed relentlessly, across all modules, is the importance of taking a critical approach to research literature. Gradually, this has instilled a deep reluctance to take information at face value, and has led me to adopt instead the mentality of clinically and systematically evaluating whether and why a given conclusion is valid. For example, in the first semester of my second year, I opted to take a seminar course on visual cognition and language processing. It was made clear early on that the material covered would depend on the direction of the in-class discussion and the extent of our wider reading. Four weeks into the semester, we had covered only a tiny fraction of the available research findings, with entire sessions sometimes being devoted to single papers or theories. However, this was not due to a lack of engagement or preparation; on the contrary, such was the alacrity with which we cross-examined and debated each claim and counter-claim, rarely was anything ever considered to be resolved to our satisfaction. To my mind, this example illustrates one of the most positive aspects of my experience of studying psychology. Studying this subject at degree level is not simply a matter of rote-learning facts. Instead, by engaging in discussion around current, cutting-edge research and questioning why such ‘facts’ are held to be so, I have seen changes not only in what I know but also in how I think. Experiences such as these have provided me with a way of considering information that extends far beyond the evaluation of scientific literature and is, perhaps, a truly transferable skill.

The experience of studying psychology at university has given me the opportunity to discover and discuss what we understand about human behaviour; what we have yet to understand and what is necessary to bridge the gap between the two. This much, perhaps, I had anticipated before I began. But, more than this, I have been introduced to a discipline that balances scientific rigour with an extraordinary flexibility of approach, enabling the investigation of a vast range of issues. More significantly still, I have learned a new style of thinking: appraising information critically; exploring thoroughly the legitimacy of claims and conclusions; and assessing methodically the validity of experimental data. Arguably, what I have learned from my experience is ‘simply common sense at its best’.

Laurie Hannigan is a third-year BSc Psychology student in the School of Psychology, University of Southampton

Laurie Hannigan’s essay was the winning entry in the Higher Education Academy’s annual student essay award, and is reprinted here with their kind permission. For the runners up, and previous winners, see

An incredible diversity

The reality of studying psychology differs from what I initially expected when I started out along this path. One of the main things that I have become more aware of is the incredible diversity within the subject. I have found that studying psychology can range from studying genetics within the area of individual differences to studying impression formation in social psychology. The range of research areas within this one subject is one of the things I particularly enjoy about it.

I first became interested in studying psychology through working in education as a teaching assistant. I wanted to find out more about the underlying reasons behind conditions such as Asperger’s syndrome and ADHD. I arranged a meeting with one of the educational psychologists in the local area team who told me more about their role and the type of work they did on a daily basis. I found this fascinating and began to research the training needed to become an educational psychologist.

Despite having chatted to an educational psychologist about their role, I still retained the impression that educational psychology would involve working directly with individual children. Whilst studying for my undergraduate degree I attended an open day for the educational psychology training course run at the University of Sheffield. It was at this point that I discovered that working with individual children was not a large part of the educational psychologist’s role, but that it actually consisted more of assessment and consulting with other professionals. Although this was different from my initial expectations, I still decided that I wanted to pursue a career in psychology further.

I completed my undergraduate degree, which included some psychology, with the Open University whilst working in education in various roles. To continue my journey towards becoming an educational psychologist, I had to take a BPS conversion course. I started studying part time for a MEd in Psychology and Education at the University of Cambridge in October last year. I expected that studying psychology at a postgraduate level would be far more challenging than the psychology modules I had studied at undergraduate level, and I have found that in this regard the course has met my expectations! But it has also exceeded my expectations in terms of strengthening my interest and motivation in the subject of psychology, as I have started to become more involved in planning and conducting my own research.

Laura Oxley is on a MEd Psychology and Education at the University of Cambridge

The greatest puzzle

As I approach my second year studying the fascinating scientific discipline of psychology, I still find myself asking the same question: Why do people behave the way they do? Even now, I still do not know the answer – not because psychology cannot answer this question, but because everybody is unique and different.

I was surprised to find that psychology was in fact a scientific discipline. It is all about numbers, statistics, studies, research, trials, tests, science and evidence. I must admit, I did start my degree with the notion of psychology as just commonsense theory – I did not anticipate for one moment that my studies would be scientific. I remember reading a quote from the American psychologist with the unfortunate name of Edwin Boring, who wrote that the ‘most important and greatest puzzle’ we face as humans is ourselves. This is just one reason why I chose to study psychology.

It is a regular occurrence to be confronted by so many different ideas and theories, all of which are science and evidence based. I have always been intrigued by the mind and how it works; what makes us who we are and why we behave the way we do. Psychology enables us to question more. Stephen Fry once said that the rest of society finds it easy to wrinkle their noses, cross over, or block their ears when confronted with an illness of the mind and of the mood, despite reaching out with such sympathy towards diseases of the liver or other organs that don’t affect who we are and how we feel in quite such devastating complexity. This is true in so many cases.

Studying psychology has more than matched my expectations. In reality it has enabled me to understand human behaviour; the mind and the brain, well beyond my expectations. If like me, you have a curious mind then psychology is definitely for you – and like the proverb: curiosity killed the cat. In psychology, satisfaction brought it back.

Kris Henderson is with the Open University and is a student member of the British Psychological Society

Kris Henderson and Laura Oxley wrote their contributions after being invited via Twitter. For updates from The Psychologist, follow us @psychmag. For much more psychology from the Society, follow @BPSofficial and @researchdigest.


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