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Majoring in Psychology: How to determine which colleges offer the best fit

Psychology is the scientific study of behavior and the mind, and is one of the oldest fields around! In 387 BC, Plato suggested that the brain is the source of mental processes, but it was not until 1879 that the first psychological lab was established by Wilhem Wundt at the University of Leipsig, followed by the first such lab in the US at Johns Hopkins University in 1883.

Trends

A New Focus on Neuroscience

The most significant trend over recent decades is the increased attention to the workings of the brain, still considered “our most complex but least understood organ.”

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As such, neuroscience is emerging as one of the most popular and valuable new fields of study, and typically involves the combination of psychology and biology to understand behavior and cognition.  For example, the University of Pennsylvania created the Biological Basis of Behavior Program (BBB) in 1978. One of the first neuroscience undergraduate programs, the major brings together faculty from the psychology, biology and computer science departments of the School of Arts and Sciences, as well as faculty from the Graduate Schools of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine.

Colleges approach neuroscience from a variety of perspectives. Barnard offers the major Neuroscience & Behavior as a distinct major from Psychology and Biological Sciences, although courses in these related areas can be taken to fulfill the major requirements.  St Andrews, in Scotland, offers a BSc degree in the School of Psychology and Neuroscience, which resides within the College of Science.  And Princeton offers a Certificate in Neuroscience (minor), which can be satisfied with courses from a range of disciplines beyond psychology and biology, such as computer science, engineering and philosophy.

More Interdisciplinary Study

Beyond the an increased focused in neuroscience, the study of psychology is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary; many academic programs now allow and encourage psychology students to pair the major with other fields, ranging from philosophy to women’s studies.

Washington University in St. Louis offers an interdisciplinary major in Philosophy-Neuroscience-Psychology (PNP). Boston College promotes their interdisciplinary minors, and suggests that students interested in the psychology of women consider the Women’s Studies Minor. Oxford University offers a renowned degree in Psychology, Philosophy and Linguistics (PPL), which prepares students to “enter careers in fields including professional psychology, education, research, medicine, the health services, finance, commerce, industry, the media and information technology.”

Common Undergraduate Concentrations

As a psychology major, you will often have the opportunity or requirement to pursue specialized programs within the major, including:

  • Clinical/counseling
  • Developmental/childhood
  • Educational
  • Environmental
  • Family
  • Forensic/law
  • Industrial/Organization
  • Neuroscience
  • Quantitative
  • Social

For example, Harvard’s Psychology Concentration (major) offers three tracks:  General Psychology, Mind/Brain/Behavior: Cognitive Science, or Life Sciences: Cognitive Neuroscience & Evolutionary Psychology.  Carnegie Mellon offers three “sub-domains:” Cognitive Psychology (including Cognitive Neuroscience), Developmental Psychology, and Social/Personality/Health Psychology. On the other hand, the Psychology major at Williams, a small liberal arts college, requires students to take a variety of courses, but has no specialized tracks.

Note that undergraduate psychology is relatively unregulated in terms of institutional accreditations. The APA does not accredit or rank specific undergraduate psychology departments.

BA vs. BS Degree in Psychology

Differences between the Programs

Psychology majors can either obtain a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or a Bachelor of Science (BS). The BA degree has a more liberal arts focus, whereas the BS degree typically requires more in-depth study of psychology, and a greater emphasis on scientific research.  New York University offers the options of a BA in Psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences, as well as a BS in Applied Psychology in the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, and provides an excellent comparison of the two programs.

NYU’s BA in Psychology requires 36 credits in psychology and 92 credits of liberal arts. In contrast, the BS in Applied Psychology requires 68 credits in psychology, including several research courses, a multi-semester fieldwork sequence, and a 5-course concentration, with the remaining 60 credits in liberal arts. As such, it’s easier to double major or minor with the BA degree within the total of 128 credits.  Lehigh’s approach is similar to NYU in that the BS in Psychology program requires more courses in the major, a more scientific focus, and a required concentration within psychology.

 Impact on Your Graduate School and Career Plans

Your future interests in graduate school and career also come into play when deciding between a BA vs BS degree in psychology. Note that each college’s programs have a unique focus.  At NYU, students planning to pursue graduate school in psychology, business or law could take either course.  Pre-meds are encouraged to take the BA in Psychology, due to the opportunities for lab research.  Students who wish to practice psychology in community-based settings are encouraged to take the BS in Applied Psychology because of the fieldwork requirement. In contrast, at Lehigh, students interested in a career in medicine or the health-related fields are encouraged to take the BS program.

The American Psychological Association suggests that the best way to evaluate programs is to visit them, meet with students, and choose a program that feels comfortable to you:

“In truth, there is often little difference between the two degrees. Some schools only offer a BA, others only BS. The requirements for the two degrees might overlap completely. Even when a school offers a choice of either a BA or BS, your decision may not be all that critical. The more important consideration is taking courses that will prepare you for the program you want to enter as a graduate student.”

If you are planning to pursue graduate study in psychology, you can find information about the requirements of over 500 programs online or in the print volume Graduate Study in Psychology, 2015 Edition. The revised MCAT2015 incorporates a new section on The Psychological, Social and Biological Foundations of Behavior; if you want to major in psychology as a pre-med, evaluate the requirements and course offerings of various BA and BS programs to determine which would provide the strongest foundation. If you plan to pursue a career in business and law, either degree would provide useful background, but if you are more interested in the scientific or technical fields, such as patent law or business operations, a BS may be more suitable.

Research Opportunities

Regardless of whether students are in a BA or BS program in Psychology, there are substantial opportunities for conducting faculty-supervised research as a psychology major:

  • Laboratory.  Students work in a laboratory, also referred to as “basic” or “bench” research, studying topics such as learning, memory and motivation. Yale offers a myriad of research opportunities in diverse areas such as cognition, memory and motivation.
  • Clinical.  Students have access to clinical settings, such as elementary school classrooms or senior citizen centers, in which they can study social interactions or developmental processes.  Clinical research often involves developing, administering and analyzing surveys. In Georgetown’s Psychology Department, students can collect or code data, screen and recruit research participants, and conduct background literature searches.

Typically, honors programs require that students participate in research. In addition to research during the academic year at your university, you can pursue summer research or internships at other colleges, such as Middlebury College, or research organizations such as Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.  The American Psychological Association maintains an excellent list of summer research opportunities.

Careers

When people think of careers connected to the psychology major, they often think of traditional fields including psychological or career counselor, or school psychologist. But there are rapidly-growing opportunities in more specialized interdisciplinary fields, such as forensic psychologist (applies psychological to criminal investigation and law), engineering psychologist (studies how people interact with machines and other technology), sports psychologist (focuses on motivation and performance related to sports), genetics counselor (provides information about genetic disorders to families) and industrial-organizational psychologist (studies workplace behavior).

In choosing a major, it’s important to find a subject you’re passionate about, while also considering your future career path. Luckily, psychology is a broad-based field, with many different practical and career applications; knowledge of people and their motivations can be applied to virtually all careers!  The study of psychology may expose you to many different career paths, and help you identify your interests.

For more information, contact us at www.collegiategateway.com. As always, we’re happy to help!

Choosing the right colleges for your intended major

Let’s say you have an idea of a few majors you would like to explore in college.  How do you go about evaluating the academic programs that different colleges offer?

In this blog, we’ll provide a general overview, with tips and advice for researching colleges’ specific academic programs, followed by subsequent blogs on the majors themselves!

Liberal Arts vs. Pre-Professional

If you’re considering a traditional liberal arts major, you’ll be happy to learn that you have plenty of options when choosing a college; these majors are universally available at liberal arts colleges and larger universities alike. Traditional liberal arts subjects include the natural sciences (e.g. biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy), the social sciences (e.g. psychology, sociology, anthropology) and the humanities (e.g. religion, philosophy, history and English).

On the other hand, pre-professional majors typically only exist within specialized colleges or schools within a University.  For example, engineering majors, such as biomedical engineering, chemical engineering and electrical engineering usually reside within a School of Engineering, such as at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering.  Business majors, such as marketing, accounting and finance, typically reside within a School of Business, such as at Tulane’s Freeman School of Business.

Some universities contain a variety of specialized schools.  Northwestern includes schools of arts and sciences, communication, education and social policy, engineering, and journalism.  Cornell consists of colleges of arts and sciences, agriculture and life sciences, architecture and art, engineering, hotel administration, human ecology, and industrial and labor relations.

But not all universities offer such a range of pre-professional majors. Both Princeton and Dartmouth have a School of Engineering, but no undergraduate major in business (or any other pre-professional area).

Why does this matter?  If you have specific academic or career interests, make sure the colleges that you are considering, visiting, and ultimately applying to, have appropriate programs for you.

 How is the Major Organized?

Certain majors vary in structure, depending on the college.  Computer science might be found among the liberal arts majors, such as at Brown; within the School of Engineering, such as at University of Pennsylvania; or even at its own School of Computer Science, such as at Carnegie Mellon.

 Check out the culture, values, and distribution requirements of the different schools within a university to determine which best match your preferences. 

Is the subject offered as a major or minor?  Oberlin is one of the few colleges to offer an undergraduate Major in Creative Writing. The program has five full-time professors and five affiliate and visiting professors; and provides depth in poetry, fiction, nonfiction, playwriting and screenwriting. In contrast, Dartmouth offers a Creative Writing Program within the English department, with about 10 courses on poetry, fiction and memoir.

 Compare the depth and commitment at different colleges towards your specific fields of interest.

Are concentrations within the major available or required? Study the home page for the major to find out.  At Washington University in St. Louis, biology majors can either acquire broad training in the field of biology, or choose to focus on a subfield, such as Ecology and Evolution, Genomics and Computational Biology, Molecular Biology and Biochemistry or Neuroscience. In contrast, Swarthmore offers biology majors the option to pursue Interdisciplinary Special Majors, including Biochemistry, Biology and Educational Studies, Environmental Science, Neuroscience or Psychobiology.

How Strong is the Major?

The strength of a major is often very difficult to assess. Small departments with a low student-faculty ratio can offer more personalized guidance and mentorship.  But larger departments often have the resources to provide more specialization and depth.

For instance, if you are interested in Artificial Intelligence (a field within Computer Science), you will no doubt be delighted to discover that the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL), in existence for over 50 years, has 15 full-time faculty from related departments of logic, Machine Learning, Natural Language Processing, Robotics, and more. In contrast, Amherst College has one course on artificial intelligence, offered every other year.  So if you wish to study a specialized area, make sure that the colleges you are considering have depth in that area.

If you would like to dig deeper, investigate the research strength of the professors.  Look on their bios to see the papers that they have published, how often they have published, and what the topics are. See how often professors’ research is cited internationally in the work of others.  Call the department office to find out if undergraduates have an opportunity to conduct research with professors.

→Understanding the strength of a department and its research resources is particularly important if you have high-level aspirations for graduate school or employment opportunities.

How Do Alumni Fare after Graduation?

The Career Services Office typically maintains data about the post-graduation plans of the college’s alumni.  You can find out what percentage of alumni go on to attend graduate school, what percentage find employment, and what fields the graduates entered. Not only do these statistics give you a good idea of the practical use you’ll be getting out of your degree, they also allow you to see how well-respected the college’s degrees are in the “real world.”

For example, the post-graduate activity of Cornell alums varies widely by the undergraduate school.  The highest percentage employed was experienced by grads of Hotel Administration, at 91%; whereas grads of the Engineering School showed the highest percentage that went on to graduate school, at 34%.

Contrary to popular conception, the colleges whose graduates go on to earn the highest percentage of Ph.D.s tend to be liberal arts colleges, not specialized colleges.  The top ten list includes Reed and Swarthmore, ranked # 3 and #4 after Cal-Tec and Harvey Mudd, as well as Carleton, Grinnell, Bryn Mawr and Oberlin. In fact, for the technical areas of math, physical sciences and physics, Reed is ranked in the top four.

→Check out colleges’ Career Services information to find out about the paths alums take after graduation.

For further guidance, contact us at www.collegiategateway.com. As always, we’re happy to help!

STUDENT SPOTLIGHT: Graham Turk, Princeton 2017

Meet Graham, a member of Princeton University’s class of 2017! Graham is a graduate of The Wheatley School in Old Westbury, New York, and he is now pursuing his Bachelor’s in Computer Science.

What is your favorite memory from your first year of college?

Bus rides with the club hockey team.

What was the most challenging part of your first year?

Maintaining the high level of discipline necessary to block out all distractions.

What has been your favorite course so far?

COS 126: General Computer Science. It’s an introductory computer science course with no prior experience necessary. The course is organized extremely well with engaging lectures, fun assignments and infinite resources for help. In the third week we wrote a program to simulate planets’ orbits around the sun. In the sixth week we created a guitar simulator that you can play with the keyboard. The course is the reason I became a Computer Science major.

Describe a favorite extracurricular activity you have participated in during your first year at college.

Club ice hockey. I have been playing hockey since I was three years old and I knew I wanted to continue in college. The club team is the perfect level of commitment and competition. We practice twice a week and play about 20 games in a season. I met all of my best friends through the team. It’s also the ultimate escape from schoolwork. Finding a release from the academic environment is essential to happiness – once I step onto the ice I forget entirely about tests and essays.

What were your living arrangements for your first year at college? How did your roommates work out?

I lived in a two-room triple. There was a common room and a bedroom. The room itself was a little cramped but I became very close with my roommates. I am living with both of them sophomore year.

What are you most looking forward to as you begin your second year of college?

Beginning the computer science track. Last year I was in chemical engineering but switched because I realized that I should study what I enjoy, rather than what I think will be the best background.

What advice would you give to incoming college freshmen?

I’m sure people have told you these will be the best four years of your life and that you will absolutely love it. Don’t feel that you need to fulfill those statements immediately. You may not love it, and there’s nothing wrong with that. You aren’t doing anything wrong. Keep a positive outlook. Be open to try new things and meet new people. And despite being the most overused maxim in college, you really do need to find a balance.

 

How Your Myers Briggs Type Can Help You Make the Right Choices!

It’s no secret that people are happiest when they choose a major, career, or even a life partner, that suits their personality, talents and ambitions. Making these choices, though, is not so simple. It requires time, reflection, and research. Your MBTI type correlates not only with the choices you make, but the ways in which you approach, implement, and reflect upon those decisions. Whether you’re choosing a major, examining career possibilities, or making any other important decision, understanding your MBTI type can help you to understand your decision-making strengths, as well as your decision making challenges. And finding a decision-making process that works best for you makes it that much simpler to reach a final decision that’s right for YOU!

Each of the four type dimensions reflects an aspect of your personality. As such, each one also influences your decision making styles. When facing a decision, Extroverts (E), for example, will often think about who else they can consult and involve in the decision, whereas Introverts (I) will prefer to think privately, at least initially, and want to be sure they need to be involved the decision. Similarly, Sensing types (S) tend to focus on refining tried-and-true methods, whereas Intuitive types (N) will consider new methods to try.

Often, the interaction between the first and last letters of your MBTI type are the most indicative of your decision-making style; for example, the manner with which you explore potential courses and majors. Extrovert-Judging types (EJ), for example, are often considered the most decisive: they want to choose a path quickly and proceed toward their goals. They seek to develop a sense of purpose, and will proceed methodically and efficiently in that direction. At the other end of the spectrum are the Introverted Perceiving types (IP), who wait to make a decision until they can consider all the options available to them. They often change their minds, and prefer that way; for them, a career path is an ongoing journey.

Being aware of your decision making style is crucially important, in that it may help you to make decisions at your pace, as well as help you to avoid the pitfalls associated with each type. The EJs for example, may run into trouble if they make a decision too quickly, and only later realize they do not possess the skill-sets or interests necessary in their chosen field; sometimes EJs need to slow down and collect more information. IPs, on the other hand, sometimes need to push themselves to make a decision, lest they slip into a pattern of hesitation and uncertainty.

Each type has a variety of strengths and weaknesses, and all four dimensions work together in more ways than are enumerated here. To learn more about your type, and your decision-making strengths and challenges, contact www.collegiategateway.com.