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What are you going to be? Psychology department focuses on career readiness

By Sally Jongsma

What is grad school like? Can I do it? What professions can I enter with a psychology major? What do I have to know about balancing a career and family? These are some of the questions that faculty in the psychology department have decided to try to answer for their students—or rather, help their students answer for themselves.

The department has built into its program ways to prepare its majors for post-college work and graduate school by giving them opportunities to explore calling and vocation in their major courses.

To learn more about the history of clinical psychology, psychology student Amanda Locke plays a variation of
the game “Memory.”

To learn more about the history of clinical psychology, psychology student Amanda Locke plays a variation of the game “Memory.”

“Most of us haven’t been out of grad school that long,” says Dr. Danny Hitchcock, chair of the department. He and his colleagues had some of the same questions when they were in college, so they try to share what they learned with their students. And assessment results have shown that students want guidance in these areas.

So how does it happen? In several ways. Dr. Sherri Lantinga in “Introduction to Psychological Studies,” an early course in the major, includes a three-week unit in which students learn about their gifts and strengths, what employers are looking for in a college graduate, how to develop a resume and cover letter, and how to prepare applications for jobs and graduate schools. Lantinga has her students ask three people who know them well to comment on what they perceive to be their strong skills. In an assigned paper, students then reflect on their strengths, which skills they enjoy using the most, and where their weaknesses lie. They also develop a resume and cover letter and prepare an actual job application package for a specific job. In doing so, they research the company and compile a list of questions to ask in an interview.

The department also plans a series of events that it hopes will better prepare its graduates for life after college. Once or twice a year, the Psych Club or the department hosts alumni who come to talk with students about their work. Last fall, Rachelle Kroll (’04) spoke about her work as a child life specialist in Utah.

“Students commented that they didn’t even know such a career existed,” says Hitchcock. Others are now considering a career in an area they previously knew nothing about.

Last year psychology faculty members took ten interested students to two graduate schools, not only to learn about the specific schools but also to learn what to look for as they choose a school. One school they visited left the impression that students had to give up their lives to attend, and people there were distant and unhelpful, says Dr. Mark Christians. At the other, people were warm and welcoming, giving students the sense that they would get every help they needed to succeed.

“Some students returned feeling graduate school wasn’t for them. For others, it was what they needed to realize they could do this,” says Christians.

Another piece of the preparation is a women’s retreat, offered first last year but which is becoming an annual event.

“Some of our women students don’t have many role models of women as professionals,” says Lantinga. They want to know if it is okay to work fulltime , if it is worth going to graduate school if they wish to have a family. During the retreat, Lantinga and colleague Natalie Sandbulte, a doctoral candidate and young mother, share their experiences, give advice on looking and acting as a professional, and discuss with students what it means to live holistic lives as professional women. They talk about the opportunities, responsibilities, and demands of career, family, maintaining a household, being involved in church and volunteer organizations, and finding social, devotional, and private time.

One student last year responded that the retreat had been helpful enough to convince her she could go to graduate school. For others it opens the door to revisit the questions and issues with their women professors at a later time.

The final piece of the career preparation effort is the recommended field experience. Most upperclass students spend 120 hours over a semester working with a local social service agency. But before they do so, they must submit an application and resume to the department. Two faculty members then interview the students as if they were the hiring agency.

Students take it very seriously, as do the faculty.

“At first we’re demanding and give them a realistic interview. Then we put on our faculty hats and note the things they’ve done very well and what they can work on during interviews,” says Hitchcock, with a smile.

Based on responses they’ve received from students, the department believes they’ve identified a need and are helping meet it. More students are applying to graduate school in the past couple of years and several of those who have report that they are well-prepared when they compare themselves to their fellow grad students.

“I think the program sends us out ready for future education,” says senior Paulina Aquino, who also expressed special appreciation for the topics addressed at the women’s retreat.

“Students have told us they’re glad that we push them in this way,” says Hitchcock.