Having a psychology degree …

As I’ve said before, I have a degree in Psychology, in fact I have a BSc.

As I did my degree at St Andrews, which could never, as an institution, decide if psychology was properly part of humanities or sciences, it could just as easily been an MA.

Exactly the same course, exactly the same final exams, what was awarded at the end of it depended which faculty you belonged to.

I belonged to sciences, hence the BSc.

This isn’t unique to St Andrews, or Psychology, a number of universities are equally in two minds about archaeology or anthropology – some just cop out by inventing degrees like BPsych, BArch, BAnth etc.

So, where does this put me vis a vis the humanities?

Well, I’m undoubtedly a scientist. While I’m fascinated by archaeology and history, and these interesting (and they are interesting) things the more humanities oriented people say, I do find scientific approaches and techniques as applied (thermoluminescence, dendrochronology and the rest) incredibly cool.

But there’s one other area that floats my boat – written texts.

Blame it all on Stirling main public library. For years, well as long as I can remember, they had a display of the town record books from the fifteenth and sixteenth century in the foyer.

The books where themselves written in a mixture of crabbed Chancery and Secretary hand, and where written in late medieval Scots – language from a time when Scots was so different from English that on more than one occasion diplomatic negotiations were conducted in French.

Helpfully they provided transcriptions into modern script and translations. And I looked at them so often and so long I suddenly realised that could half read the untranscribed bits – not with any fluency, and I didn’t understand some of the words.

Bit of eureka moment that. Just as when I was about fourteen and looking at some pictures of red figure vase paintings I realised I could read the names – Achilles (Ἀχιλλεύς) and Agamemnon (Ἀγαμέμνων).

Equally a eureka moment was going to Flanders and realising that the sign that said ‘Ziekenhuis’ meant hospital.

And I guess this explains why enjoy working with nineteenth century documents and some very simple text analysis.

I’d like to tie this to my psychology degree, but I can’t. Honest truth is that the psychology of language and the accompanying cognitive stuff had very little interest for me what got me going was neurophysiology and ethology – how all this complex bag of chemicals and glop in our heads constructed reality and how we and other animal reacted to the world.

Now if you have a degree in psychology it’s a bit of a curse. Probably not as bad as being a doctor, but people at parties always want advice about little Johnny or mad Aunt Agatha, something which a knowledge of baboon troop sociodynamics rendered me totally useless at giving, so I learned to say I was a behavioural ecologist which had the twin advantages of sounding interesting without anyone knowing what it meant.

And the ‘ecologist’ bit probably helped me get my first job in pseudoacademia as a computer support officer at a biological research station – yes they wanted my IT skills, but the fact that I could talk to the actual researchers about their work and help them apply computer technology – simple mapping or cluster analysis to their research.

And this helped me get my second job, and so on.

Now all this took place in Britain during the Miners’ Strike of the eighties. Driving through Merthyr Tydfil one always hooted in support of the miners pickets, just in case someone decided to chuck a rock at the car.

Jobs, not just mining jobs, but most of the traditional jobs disappeared. Industry disappeared to such an extent that acid rain ceased to be a significant problem, and the IT revolution was taking us on a mad ride to who knows where. Unemployment was stubbornly high at over 10% and jobs were hard to find.

And while, for a time, I felt I should go and finish my PhD, finding and keeping a job seemed much more important.

The skills I’d learned in  my degree, like being able to design and plan experiments became project planning, from buying computers and printers to installing classrooms, allowed me to progress and build a professional reputation as an IT person.

I have this lurking feeling that if I’d done a sensible ‘job ready’ degree such as Industrial Chemistry, I’d have been out of a job and had a hell of a harder time getting another.

I remember once being on the interview board for a research assistant in text analysis, and one of the candidates had a master’s in Egyptology and not a lot in the way of research computing skills.

Some other members of the board were worried by this – I felt that if someone had shown that they could master a complex area of work, they could learn enough to do the rest.

So, what’s the point of this rambling post?

Well our current government seems to have it in for the humanities. What my life experience has shown me is that what you do as a degree doesn’t matter. It’s what you learn in the process:

  • critical and analytical thinking
  • the ability to learn new skills as required
  • being able to master complex material quickly
  • being able to organise and run your own work

and being able to be a self starter …

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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