The ‘What Else’ Of Being An Undergraduate

It has to be said that an Undergraduate Degree is an incredibly short period which more often than not seems like just a set of
deadlines which will culminate in wearing a strange robe, an awkward looking hat and receiving a piece of smart paper handed to you by somebody who you know must be important but whose name you may never know, in accordance with some ancient tradition (that I hope never fades). For me, it seems odd that this performance is witnessed by your peers, your families and your academics, yet, the process leading up to this event, as a whole, is largely an isolated one.

On more than one occasion I have had mentioned to me that people feel as if they have “just had to get through the semester” or that they are “only doing this for the qualification”.  I always return a rather puzzled look, but on reflection, I can almost see where they are coming from.  For the majority, and Undergraduate Degree is a ‘key’, which when tried in enough locks will open a doorway into what is familiarly known as a ‘career’.  On the face of it – the metaphor is correct:  A Psychology ‘key’ will (hopefully) eventually open a Psychology ‘doorway’ and we will be content in our Psychology ‘career’ drawing on our Psychological knowledge learnt in just under 700 hours of formal contact time (approximately equal to 10 full days per year) over three years.  I apologise now for my cynicism, but that is the harsh reality for the majority.

However, this is where I do not blame the University, or any educative institution for that matter, because, and to draw on the hackneyed phrase, “Your degree, will be worth more, with the more you put into it”. If you are happy with the mechanical process of three years, a shake of the hand and off you trot, then, that is good, and you might as well stop reading here, but for those of you who may want more, who may want to enrich the experience, there are plenty of possibilities, but I have found the University system to be quite the game of hide-and-seek!  The so-called “trendy” people (usually those who work in marketing and promotion) call this phenomenon of extra-curricular or co-curricular experience: “The Value Added”. I call them fools. It’s not “Value Added” – because it certainly is not right for everyone!…  As I have mentioned, for some people just the degree, the well-worn script of specific modules and the tick-box exercise of completing each exam is perfectly valuable, and this has to be understood by all those involved.

But what can you do?  Well I am not sure…  The real question is: What do YOU want to do?

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One thing I have learnt is that if you ask enough people, someone will have an opportunity somewhere doing something; but the someone, the somewhere and the something is really dependent on your needs.  So, whilst you may be reading this and finding me frustratingly evasive, I pledge that I would talk over the possibilities with anyone who asked, but it has to come from the person and not from the situation necessarily. Instead of creating a list of possibilities, I will instead tell you of my experiences and that should hopefully give you a flavour of the opportunities available and maybe encourage, but hopefully inspire you to go out there and ask!

Having taken the opportunity to study abroad at The University of Padua, Italy in my second year, I soon came to realise that our European counterparts have a very different attitude to “Value Added” than we do. The likelihood of being revered is still small, unless you happen to stumble upon something spectacular. This, I must say, happened to one of my colleagues and close personal friends at Padua Univeristy, (who did her Erasmus here in Liverpool).  She managed to accomplish this after volunteering in her local Hospital and has now turned this finding of hospital-based neglect into her final year project, but you see that came off the back of work SHE went to find.

But back to the ordinary.  Whilst studying abroad, I was approached by one of the professors to carry out some translating and document proofing for her and also started some research with another professor and one of her Masters graduates. Both achieved just by talking.  This is something we simply do not do enough of in the UK – encourage conversation between academic and student.  Keeping in contact with my professors there, I have been invited back to deliver three guest lectures on my research interests on Femininity, Gender Identity and Psychopathy in Life.  To achieve this at Undergraduate level, I have been told is quite the accomplishment, but I look forward to the experience… even though the nerves are setting in with only a few weeks to go…

After studying abroad, I knew I wanted to spend some time carrying out some research and so I asked one member of the Liverpool Psychology academic staff who didn’t have anything, but he put me in touch with Dr. Minna Lyons who allowed me to run a project on historical priming effects on altruism.  Having a good working relationship with Dr. Laura Soulsby and wanting to experience some qualitative research, I asked… and we arranged some work together.  Then, as I was noticed around the department and realising I was looking for experience, Vicky Fallon the asked if I would be interested in helping her too.  So I ended up with three research assistant positions!   And have work in three different conferences – the first in Helsinki!…  My message here is really: “If you don’t ask, you don’t get!”

So you may ask, “what did I achieve from this?”. I developed my research skills, I obtained more confidence with participants and with academics and also – when our summer breaks are so long, it kept the brain from shutting down!  In summary, I have always been passionate about learning, and adding this amount of extra- and co-curricular activity to my CV has made me learn a huge amount!  I think it is important to remember that learning for SOME PEOPLE is not just the linear progression from age 5 (or 2 and a half in my case) to graduating aged 21, but to be enriched around the subject you study can be important too. And this is very much a two way process, academics can learn from us too.  My main message to everyone is that the exchange of knowledge is a never ending process and sometimes, we may just have to deviate away from the norm and the formal to truely create us as individuals in the academic world.

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