The Working Life of a Third Year Psychology Student

Introduction

This is aimed at psychology students at the end of their second year who would like some insight into what third year may be like and some advice relating to what the year entails. In my opinion, the third year is the year with the fewest periods of intense pressure, but in order to take advantage of this one must organise time well from the beginning. One’s organisation is likely to be dependent on when Block Practicals and Part II options are held. It is best to start planning your time from the time you choose your Part II options so that you don’t have all your options at the end of the year along with dissertation and research project deadlines. It is also useful to sit down with tutors at the beginning of the year to think about how you will manage your time.

Communications

Keeping up a dialogue with your tutors is obviously very useful, especially if you have an Option in Trinity term resulting in a large break between the course and the exam. E-mail is advantageous as it keeps an electronic record of your communication. You don’t need much contact with the Department but Sue King, the Academic Secretary, is very efficient at responding to e-mails and usually has all the administrative information you’ll need.

It is important to keep your college tutors up-to-date with how your tutorials, Block Practicals, Dissertation supervisions and Research Project testing and supervisions are going. They are the people that are able to act on your behalf if things don’t go as you think they should or are comfortable with. This doesn’t mean contacting them all the time, but if you feel that you are not getting the attention you deserve it is better to bring this up earlier when you have more time rather than later when time feels much more pressured.

Options

Make sure you know what the key papers are for each topic and who the key authors are. These should provide you with the core of your reading and allow you to build up a solid understanding of the topic. Once these papers feel familiar then it is good to look at different papers on the reading list. I wouldn’t feel obliged to cover the whole reading list, but to find articles that you find interesting. A citation search of the most interesting papers will then take you away from the reading list and develop your knowledge and argument. I mostly used electronic papers that I located with Google Scholar or from the journal websites.

Dissertation

The literature search is quite time consuming and requires using databases/search engines that you are unlikely to have used before (such as PsychNet and Science Direct). Therefore, it is important to make sure you get instructions from your supervisor. The librarian is also helpful. It is useful to get advice on what the key papers are and use these as a guide for your search. My supervisor pointed out to me that the dissertation is the equivalent of one Option. Therefore, it should not take up more time than an Option in a term would. It is useful to think about it as ‘just a big essay’ so that it doesn’t sound so daunting.

Research Project

The reading required for your Project will depend on what area you are investigating and how much literature there is. Again, your supervisor should advise you of the key papers, and from these it is important to carry out citation searches and look at the references. The Project is also the equivalent of one Option, however due to the nature of testing it is likely to take up more time. Therefore, you should not allow the reading to dominate the time you assign to the project.

Block Practicals

The main difference between Core and Block Practicals is the level of involvement in the testing phase. You should NOT get bogged down with these – they are not a big deal and each one will make minimal difference to your degree. A couple days of concentrated effort should be enough to read for and write up a practical.

Tutorials

Tutorials can be very different in the third year depending on the Options you take. This year I was part of one very popular Option in which tutorial set-up was quite similar to the second year although I found them far more useful as I had prepared for them better. My second Option was not very popular so there were only four of us taking it. As a result we had a really intimate tutorial set-up. All four of us had a tutorial together for two hours every week. Every week two of us would give presentations on the key papers and then the other two would lead a discussion on the papers. This meant that the work I had to prepare for tutorials varied weekly and we were able to learn loads from each other. It is always useful to go to a tutorial with a couple of questions in mind that are not related to the essay you wrote.

Essays

Ideally, writing the essays should take less time than those in your second year as you become more practiced. The reading should be more efficient, selecting the articles that are more informative and interesting. In my third year my tutors expected a much more critical style of essay that really tried to answer the question whilst using evidence to support the argument. Often it seemed as though I was repeating myself or pointing out the obvious when relating argument to evidence, but this is important for the clarity of the answer. Practicing including specific criticisms of experiments and suggestions for ways you would improve them are always met with “good work” or something similar!

Vacations

I returned from my Summer vacation very anxious about having done no academic work. I found that, having completed an Option and a Practical in Trinity term, this was not too much of a problem as long as I was sensible for the rest of the year. As a result of my care-free Summer I was resigned to having very little Winter vacation. This did not feel like much of a sacrifice as I was right in the middle of my Research Project and was ready to start thinking about my Dissertation again and produce a first draft. The vacation provided me with some valuable time to make good progress with both these assignments.

The Working Week

I found my weeks busiest when testing participants for my Project. This required testing from 9am to 6.30pm and then having to catch up on other work in the evenings. Although it was very unpleasant it only lasted a couple of weeks. The analysis of the data was excruciatingly slow as I didn’t feel confident with the software (SPSS) and it is forever going wrong. My supervisor was incredibly busy so I would have to wait days to meet and find out whether I was on the right track and what to do next. It is important to allow lots of time for the analysis for these reasons. The write-up itself is quick compared to the testing and analysis.
Options don’t have a huge workload: one essay a week.
Hilary term is one to watch out for as the Dissertation and Project deadlines are both at the end. Setting mini deadlines for first drafts and completing sections of your write-up are useful to keep you on track. Ideally, you will pick Options so that you have little more than the Dissertation and Project to think about in Hilary term.

Choices

I would recommend choosing Options and Practicals so that they are spread out across the three terms. Having enthusiastic tutors and lecturers makes the courses more enjoyable. Choosing Practicals that are related to your Options will reduce the amount of reading required for the write-up and will help you to understand what is going on better. Talk to College Sisters/Brothers(?) for advice on which Practicals are worth choosing/avoiding – there are some that are known to require much more work than others.