Tips For Psychology Majors



We psychology students are a diverse bunch and its not easy to find generalizable traits for us, as they differ from batch to batch, campus to campus. But I feel that it is worthwhile to go into the traits that are highly desired to survive and do well in a psychology program, so that newer students can know what to expect and develop these traits at the same time.

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1. Appreciation and passion for psychology and humanism

It is rather wrong to say that the same doesn’t apply for every other field of study, but psychology is one of those programs that no one is really being “forced” into: pretty much everyone enrolls into a psychology degree voluntarily and more often than not, without the best of wishes from parents. One needs considerable reason to see themselves making the most out of a bachelors degree in psychology, be it hoping to change lives of the mentally impaired, helping people to make tough decisions and feed good about it, educate and inspire the next generation, improving the life of the working class or whatever cause we think is worthwhile. We all believe that understanding the human mind and its behaviors is key for everything involving us human beings, and can make the difference needed for a better world. Chances are this is already an innate trait for most students, but this feeling of appreciation and passion will be constantly challenged or strengthened as you progress through your classes so keep it in check as you go through lectures and assignments.

2. Mastery of the language

Preferably English. Don’t think I can stress this enough but in terms of finishing a bachelor’s degree in psychology, having good English skills for reading and writing goes a very long way. Definitely reconsider your choice if you feel positively uncomfortable about reading and writing in English, as the psychology, biology, philosophy and other scientific jargon can prove to be very challenging to understand, which will definitely be the number one obstacle to doing well in any psychology program. On the other hand, having decent English vocabulary can make examinations easier and it also helps when it comes to writing essays and research papers, which will form a huge bulk of a psych course. Speaking for myself, the easier parts of Year 1 was almost a breeze partly because of me easily understanding the material thanks to my reading habits. TL;DR:  having good language (English) skills, especially having a wide vocabulary, is fundamental for doing well in a Psychology program. Read more, listen more, write more, and speak more. 

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3. Good study and research skills

These five words covers a lot of things, from simple power reading and note taking to browsing databases for resources and identifying reliable information from the unreliable ones.  The somewhat social science-ish nature of psychology tests these skills to the extreme. For example, similar information can be worded in multiple ways which can be rather confusing, and one when browsing for information often have to browse using their synonyms and alternate phrases as well to do a thorough research.  It is also important to learn the differences of reliability between sources, such when can information from a magazine article be seen as a trustworthy source, and when information from an supposed authority can be deem unreliable or fallacious.  It is not necessary to be good in research methods before joining the program, but learning research methods well will become a fundamental component of your life as a psychology major. If you didn’t know this before, know it now: knowing how to do research is the very backbone of academic psychology.

4. Philosophical grounding and critical thinking skills

I am lost for words every time I bring up the word philosophy (I am actually Googling it up right now). Psychology, like many other, if not all sciences, is born from philosophy. Of all the sciences, I feel that psychology is the closest to philosophy itself in all its forms. The Psychology Book even wrote that psychology is often seen as the bridge between the abstract realms of philosophy and our tangible physiology. The easiest way for us to relate is that philosophy provides original questions about life, mind, and behavior, psychology strives to provide an answer for them. Philosophy also forms the fundamental of research methods, where we study various research paradigms and lenses, along with the steps in the methodology. Also, philosophy of morality and critical thinking is essential for us to understand the ethics and its relevant issues behind psychological research and psychological practice. On our part as students, devoting some time of read up on philosophy can be rather worthwhile: it might help you formulate your research question and gap that could be for your essays and dissertation, bring up interesting topics during lectures, step-up your job interview performance, or even just make better conversations in general. Chances are pure philosophy will not be covered in your coursework, so devoting some time to read them as part of your external reading habits will definitely give you a lot of edge over your already outstanding peers.

5. Aspirations for postgraduate studies 

This might be too early for students moving into undergrads, but make sure that you have considerations for grad school. Ideally, most psychology majors will want to pursue a Masters degree or a doctoral degree at some point to become psychologists of sorts. This is because every psychology undergraduate program don’t exactly specialize in a specific field and ones’ passion usually lies in one of those fields. This is technically not a must for psychology majors, but having such aspirations helps one to strive harder for better grades and helps one single out a specific field of interest and work towards it. There is also the fact that career pathways for psychology undergrads are truthfully not very, errr, predefined, so having a postgraduate qualification can mean better and stable opportunities in preferred careers. I strongly recommend looking up about the huge variety of postgraduate studies available for psych undergrads and try to feel excited about the possibility of joining them one day.

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6. Curiosity 

Asking the right questions may be important, but that is rather empty without the burning desire to inquire. Psychology programs strongly reward students that are capable of coming up with original ideas and topics that are worthwhile to study, even at an undergraduate level. Being curious propels students to actively move forward at their own pace and discover exhilarating and interesting topics and concepts to further study about , rather than being pushed around by the pressure of the program itself and trying to justify why a boring study is worthwhile. Thankfully, curiosity (especially about human beings) seem to be inherent in all of us, all it takes is time and effort to practice asking questions and be rigorous about it.

On a more personal note, you are definitely in the wrong neighborhood if curiosity is something that takes too much effort to exercise!

7. Presentation and Communication Skills

This is the case for almost every academic program out there but I think this is worth bringing up as there are a great number of psych majors who do not enjoy presentations and have suboptimal communication skills (myself included). These skills are important to present and communicate less tangible and concrete concepts to others (often an audience of laypeople), which are definitely transferable to any psychology related career. This is especially important for academia, where students will often be given exposure to presentations in colloquiums and defend their own written work in front of a board. So do yourself a favor and start watching how others present and practice them, most notably in Ted Talks, join your nearest debate or Toastmasters club, or optionally take a couple of communication or counseling/psychotherapy based electives.

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8. Computer Literate

If you can come across my blog chances are you aren’t even close to being computer illiterate…but I will go on anyways. 

When you are carrying out your research or typing out formatted papers, knowing what exactly your computer is doing can be very useful throughout your psychology degree life. You don’t have to be a programmer or take tough classes in Information Technology, really, but your computer(s) will matter more than you think. You are definitely going to need more than knowledge on operating standard Office software. For instance, knowing how to browse for information and getting access to academic peer reviewed journals and illegal e-books and other documents can make your information-gathering life much easier. Utilizing social networks over the Internet can help you recruit participants for studies and certain IT knowledge is needed to run electronic surveys and psychological tests. Also, you will definitely need to use statistical software (such as SPSS) to run data analysis for quantitative research, or optionally transcription software to transcribe audio interviews into text. Living in the 21st century and being a total dinosaur when it comes to computers definitely isn’t going to help you to complete your psychology degree.  If this is something you happen to struggle with, buckle up, Google, and learn. If necessary, really, feel free to take that ITC 101 class. Computer literacy definitely makes your CV way more promising.

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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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