Advice for Students Entering Psychology

Welcome to Psychology at Western! You are about to begin a life-changing experience that will provide foundational skills in the psychology and prepare you for the next leg of your career development. We look forward to getting to know you and wish you great success.

Here are some friendly words of advice to help you make the most of your academic experience.

1. Students are often unsure about how to address their professors in writing or conversation. Unless you are instructed otherwise, refer to these individuals as Dr. (Surname) or Professor (Surname). When writing to your profs, begin your emails by addressing them by surname (Dear Dr. X; Hi Prof X.) rather than “Hi” or “Hello” followed by nothing, or worse, Mr. X, Mrs. X, or Miss X.

2. Although some students have a clear sense of their career path, most begin their university years without having made a firm decision. The university experience often helps students to identify their preferences and dislikes, and guides decisions about further training directions. Once you’ve chosen a career path, your professors can help you on your way by identifying appropriate programs or jobs, and writing letters of recommendation.

3. To ensure that you establish relationships with your professors that will work to your future advantage, we recommend the following behavior in class:
     a. Consider your class experiences as auditions for recommendation letters. Be academically engaged rather than passive. Attend classes, read, and complete assignments to the best of your ability. Ask questions, even if your interest in the material is not great. Make sure that your instructors notice you (in a good way). At the very least, introduce yourselves to your profs, especially in large classes where it’s easy to be anonymous.

     b. Take notes by hand rather than on a laptop. Research has shown that much less learning occurs when students type their notes, because the material is processed less deeply. [Most of us can take dictation with our attention focused elsewhere].

     c. If you are tempted to use your computer for any purpose other than note-taking, don’t open it in class. Professors always know when students’ attention is distracted, and this behavior makes a poor impression, even if nothing is said.

4. Time management is one of the greatest challenges of university life. Each of your courses will make large demands on your time if done well, and you will also want to enjoy the social aspects of university life. All of this should be possible if you manage your time efficiently. We guarantee that papers written the night before the due date will not earn much academic credit, and cramming for exams at the last minute will leave you with no lasting knowledge, even if your marks are adequate. [You’ve all earned entry to Western based on your demonstrated abilities, so we expect you to be capable of success. However, even geniuses can’t overcome poor time management].

5. The Psychology programs are structured in a way so as to build your scholarly skills incrementally. Later courses in the program build on foundational skills in methodology, statistics, and writing for the discipline. The programs are meant to prepare you for the next leg of your training. Even if you never envision yourself in a research career, many graduate training programs in the helping professions include a major research component, and graduate applicants are expected to demonstrate research proficiency. Thus, even if methods and statistics courses are not your favorites, they are among the most important courses you will take at Western, and you should make every effort to learn and retain the information.

6. Professors receive many requests for recommendation letters each year. Some requests come from students who are well known to them because the students have taken more than one of their courses, or have volunteered as research assistants in their labs. Other requests come from students whom they barely know. Because graduate and professional programs are highly competitive, it is important to have very strong letters of recommendation. Strong letters are written by individuals who know you well rather than those who’ve had only minimal contact with you. Thus, take more than one course from the same individuals, and go all out in these courses. If applicable, volunteer in someone’s research group.

7. Students who aspire to complete an Honors Specialization Program in Psychology or Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience will be required to complete an independent research project (honor’s thesis) under the supervision of a faculty member in Psychology in their final year. To see a list of faculty and their research topics, look here. Some labs are in very high demand. To get a foot in the door of the lab you wish to work in for your thesis, take courses from that faculty member and volunteer in his or her lab in third year (if the lab is taking volunteers). In other words, start at your end goal and work backward to do what you need to do to achieve your ultimate goal.

8. Once you’ve decided on one (or more) career paths, ask a professor who knows you well if you are ready to move forward on this path to the next level of training based on her/his observations of your skill development to date. If your applications to graduate schools or professional schools are unlikely to be successful in a given year, consider waiting a year to remediate necessary skills. For example, if writing well is a challenge for you, consider taking writing courses before graduation. The Student Development Center may be able to help with other types of academic skill development, such as test taking strategies and public speaking anxiety. These services are available to you for free as a Western student; make the most of them!

I wish you all the best for a successful tenure at Western.                                                                                  

Dr. Z