The Myths of Being A Psychology Major


The Myths of Being A Psychology Major

Personally I didn’t have the most difficult Year One mostly because I did my own research before joining and wasn’t caught by surprise of the nature of the program. I am rather aware of the common misconceptions of the life of a psychology student from the general public and made an effort to find out more (Googling and sitting in open lectures) before confidently signing up after pre-univeristy. You will be doing yourself a huge favor by remaining skeptical about these myths and try to find out about them. It does feel great to pretend to panic and whine in the midst of the challenging coursework and environment but be privately glad and think “I have seen this coming from miles away”.

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#1 Psychology majors become psychologists when they graduate

The correct sentence will be “psychology majors CAN become psychologists after they graduate, then enroll in grad school then graduate again.”  The conditions of the title “psychologist” being conferred isn’t very well defined and can vary from nation to nation, but one can be sure that only being an undergrad definitely isn’t enough to be a psychologist. It is generally accepted that one can safely call oneself a psychologist the moment he or she completes a doctoral level program successfully, along with the relevant licensing from major associations and the state. Even Master’s Degree holders are sometimes deemed under-qualified to call themselves psychologists (although the Master counterpart may not necessarily be inferior in the practice). From my understanding there are two keys to it: the specialty of the person and the official licensing of that state. For example, those with Master’s Degrees in Clinical Psychology and having obtained the license from a state licensing board for practice can call themselves clinical psychologists. Very occasionally the issue over the title can be just a matter of semantics. It is possible for people to call themselves psychologists once they get a work position with the title “psychologist” regardless of qualification, although most countries have very strict regulations for the usage of that title.

Long story short, if being called a psychologist really matters to you, complete undergraduate studies with good grades, go to graduate school in the specialty of your choice and try your best to get the licensing.

#2 Psychology can be completed with common sense and knowledge comes with experience, not hard at all

Hehe, a lot of us thought so too. Alright maybe this isn’t quite a myth if you are already well acquainted with us psych students. But at the end of the day, the subject matter gets only gets more complicated and tough, and the fact is these things often go under appreciated because they don’t translate directly into high paying positions. On the other hand, a lot of theories are rather well known to the public and they will be having the assumption that “this is as hard as it gets” or “this is rather common sense if you think seriously about it, these psychologists aren’t too useful after all”. Its really easy to believe that understanding human beings can come with experience and ignore evidence that proves these understandings wrong. They have no idea about the rigorous methodology and scientific standard the psychology community strives to uphold when it comes to establishing theories.

The toughest part about psychology isn’t the body of facts structured by hundreds of psychologists before us, but rather the rigorous methodology that is required to produce quality research. Any psychology school worth its salt will require students to chew through multiple perspectives about the human mind along with its theories and the often dreaded research methods needed to conduct proper psychological research. Maybe in contrast to doing well in competitive, high-paying science-based programs such as medicine, pharmacy, engineering, mathematics, and pure hard sciences, doing well and passing subjects in undergraduate psychology generally isn’t as cognitively taxing. However, the entire psychology degree can be very interdisciplinary and as a student you are almost guaranteed to sign up for stuff you don’t like. You can love social and cognitive psychology, but dread the biopsych-neuroscience component or you can be in love with quantitative statistical methods for some reason but hate the qualitative research component.

I am going off-tangent at this rate, but just don’t kid yourself about the degree going to be a breeze.

#3 Science-based education is not needed to study psychology, it is more of a “arts” field as universities accept arts student into psychology programs

People often misunderstand the differences between the sciences and the arts, including even academia, university founders and administrators. They look very different on the surface, but are very connected in subtler ways. The layman understanding of science is that it covers the three physical scientific fields of biology, physics, and chemistry, while arts are basically anything that doesn’t involve the three fields aforementioned. Some go with the definitions of their degree classification which generally goes along the lines of arts being more general, practical and flexible, while sciences focuses entirely on the theoretical aspect of the subject matter.   Some even interpret the sciences as being “objective facts” while arts are more on the “subjective” side, and psychology involves a lot of subjective aspects, ergo psychology is an arts subject. 1/10 for effort. 

It can take 3-4 paragraphs to explain the epistemology of the arts and the sciences, but my own simple classification would be that the sciences being focused on producing theories, and the arts being focused on expressing and applying these theories (which I think is a suitable explanation of why some engineering degrees are titled Bachelor of Arts). The former are producers of research, the latter are consumers of research. Psychology involves both, and even though different universities labels their psych programmes differently (BA, BSc, BPsych, BPsychSc, BAppPsych etc), they will definitely teach both research and application, although the magnitude of emphasis may differ. I believe the current psychological community sees the field as a science and takes scientific methods seriously, although I believe we shouldn’t ignore the more qualitative, social, volatile, and subjective aspects of it.

A lot universities accept students of any high school background, provided they finished the necessary pre-university courses, both arts and sciences. You will definitely find scientific knowledge extremely useful to have and from what I observed: science stream students have a noticeable stronger edge compared to students from the art stream. In general, at least at Year 1 level, the coursework, excluding research methods, is structured rather like high school biology. It is definitely possible to complete the program without learning biology, chemistry or physics formally (as part of high school) beforehand, but those who do will have a significant edge, especially when it comes to biopsychology (along with psychopharmacology and psychophysics) and research methods because of the terminology.

Personal irrelevant notes: I myself is an odd case, I did pure sciences in high school but slept through neurobiology and sucked at additional math, so I did arts at pre-university, and when I reached degree I joined the art bunch in their suffering through biopsychology.  

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#4 Psychology are for those who want to do science but weak at math

This is often true to an extent, but let me put it this way. If you enrolled in psychology to escape mathematics and you are really dreadful at it, you are in for a hard time. You are probably aware of this by now if you took note of the couple of times I brought up the vulgar S-word, statistics. But if it still hasn’t gotten to your head, make sure it does now: psychology theories with the highest reliability are established with statistics.

You have to learn some difficult statistical methods. For a lot of students who came in for the sweet stuff such as the interesting theories on social psychology and counseling skills, this is the biggest obstacle to jump over. On the bright side, depending on the university syllabus, you won’t really be doing a ton of complicated calculations to solve problems. In psychology and many other social sciences, it is more important to be able to analyze and make sense out of the numbers rather than giving the most accurate number. In other words, you usually won’t need to be well versed in advanced calculus and little to no calculus will be needed at an undergrad level (It definitely doesn’t hurt to be good at it, having a mathematical mind is key to be successful at research) unless the university teaches highly advanced cognitive theory classes akin to cognitive science degrees.  Also, data calculation and analysis can be done using computer software, making quantitative research much easier than it used to be.

Most students often go I-did-not-sign-up-for-this when they realize that they have not escaped the satanic clutches of math, but eventually most of us do manage it rather well.  I cannot really generalize the amount of mathematical skill needed in psychology for every university, but those looking to get into psychology should never assume that they can get away without having to do math. It is somewhat acceptable to suck at calculus, but having a strong mathematical mind is really important to be successful at the field. Definitely avoid the program if you faint at the sight of numbers with decimals.

#5 Psychology majors cannot do much without postgraduate degrees

Not exactly a myth, but it will be not helpful to many to walk away by assuming this without looking further. In general this is a rather accurate assumption because career pathways for psychology undergraduates aren’t really well defined. That is, if you only want to become a psychologist or get lectureship.

If your interests lie outside that, you will realize that you can do a lot of things with a bachelors in psychology. There are opportunities that welcome psych grads such as research, writing, marketing, human resource, public relations, probation officers in the judiciary, psychiatric technicians for hospitals, or even political strategists. The job scope of a psych grad is so diverse that some claim “as long as it involves human beings, there will be jobs for psychology grads”. However, the salary part isn’t really impressive at the entry level, so until you gained more experience and qualifications, don’t expect high pay as a undergrad degree holder. Anyone enrolling in a psych program definitely isn’t there for the pay, but for something transcending that.

…well of course if there is good pay crossing our paths, we wouldn’t hesitate. But such opportunities often only comes to those who completed their postgraduate studies. So yes, do consider studying in graduate school if you want to enroll in psychology in the first place, but don’t go away thinking a bachelor’s degree is not worth much without grad school: you don’t want to over-qualify for positions you are genuinely comfortable with. 

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#6 Psychology majors can read minds and perform psychoanalysis

Trust me, this has appeared in every list of “Myths about Psychology Majors” in the world, maybe some even got tired of listing this. Too many a time we have been asked to read minds and tell what are others thinking. Too many a time we have been told not to psychoanalyze others.

To be fair, psychologists’ tasks are often the closet things in existence to mind reading, but not so much for undergrads. If anything, we have gotten rather good at formulating witty responses every time we are confronted with that question. I swear, give me a couple of months and I can probably prepare lectures on 101 Witty Responses To “What Am I Thinking Right Now”.   

The mind is definitely not a book to be opened and examined at pleasure. Severus Snape from Harry Potter series once described the mind as a “complex and many layered” object and the term mind reading is rather different from the subtle, noble material learned by us psychology majors. Most subjects are focused on studying the explanations behind our behavior and trying to answer questions about the behavior and the mind, rather than trying to outright peep into the contents of a person’s thoughts. There are certain material that can look rather like mind-reading, such as body-language reading in counseling or psychotherapy lectures. But typically, as of now they don’t really form a huge part of the academic syllabus.

And they think we could “psychoanalyze” people and use their dark secrets against them. We wish we could, but the truth psychoanalysis is going out of fashion in most universities, and is occasionally seen as a separate field from modern psychology as a whole due to generally lower scientific standards of the studies and practice from that perspective. There are very, very few psychologists who actually learn and practice psychoanalysis as part of their career (maybe scarcer than the giant pandas). The chances of a psychology major struggling with his papers actually knowing how to perform legitimate psychoanalysis is close to zero as only few universities are capable of teaching proper classes in that and those classes are not undergraduate level.  We can pretend to do it for the sake of some fun, usually involving someone’s hot mother, but typically no one takes it seriously.

#7 Psychology majors are the most caring people on earth and give the most excellent advice

Maybe the second bit is somewhat true, but expect the real experts (of whatever field you need advice on) to give the best ones. The coursework psychology majors go through does gives us exposure to many perspectives and philosophies, which can give way to pretty good advice for a variety of life matters.

Just don’t hold us liable for bad ones. You had the option to ask the real experts.

But not everyone in psychology aspires to be caring, motherly, altruistic counselors.In fact, we often inquire about the nature and point of being caring, motherly and altruistic.  We honestly aren’t going to be the most friendly bunch amongst all college/university majors, although we like to discuss about why people behave a certain way. In general, psych majors are genuinely concerned and interested about people, but it is not a given that we are going to be outgoing and making friends with everyone, so if you are not that type, you don’t have to keep that sociable or warm facade. Allow me to go even further: if it comes to matters like ethics, some of us feel justified to forgo care for others’ wellbeing in pursuit of valuable data, hopefully for the “greater good”.

But at the end of the day, I daresay we are still excellent friends to have.

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Jia Yue Tan
JY is a counselling trainee at Monash University Malaysia under the Master of Professional Counselling program and writes psychology articles to procrastinate from his counselling paperwork and assignments. His interests are in individual differences, psychotherapy, and helping the public understand psychology(s) as a profession. Occasionally reviews books and promote person-centered psychotherapy.

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