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Qualities possessed by Psychology graduates from the University of Glasgow

Department of Psychology,     University of Glasgow
This version applies to single honours psychology students graduating in June 2010.


This document is composed to be read directly by prospective employers of our students. It may also help students to select statements, backed by evidence, to use in job applications, or staff as an aid in writing references. The section headings contain many key words that occur in job specifications or requests for references, and the associated sections may be helpful in stating how our students meet these required attributes.

Contents (click to jump to a section)


This document sets out the qualities that the Department of Psychology of the University of Glasgow believes to be possessed by its graduates, in particular those completing the course in 2010. It may usefully be read in conjunction with the graduate's personal CV, their official transcript of courses and grades, a reference written by a member of staff, and perhaps a sample of the graduate's university work such as a copy of their "maxi" project. While all the qualities discussed below would normally be possessed by any of our graduates as a result of the learning activities mentioned, they are not all individually tested and made a condition of graduation: a personal reference can be expected to mention any variation in attainment on a particular item, especially if written in response to a specific query about it.

We are aiming to communicate the value of the degree to anyone interested in our graduates, including those with no familiarity at all with psychology as a discipline. The department would welcome any comments on how this document might be improved for this purpose in clarity or any other respect, particularly from prospective employers of our graduates.

General features

As for most degrees at Scottish universities, psychology at Glasgow is a four year degree. In the first two years, the student takes psychology as one of three subjects. In the third year, a single honours student (the most common case) studies only psychology, and completes the whole of the compulsory core curriculum. The fourth year consists of a set of specialist options selected by the student, and a substantial research project (the "maxi project") whose topic is again largely selected by the student. This honours degree programme may be carried out in the Faculty of Science (leading to B.Sc.), Arts (leading to M.A.) or Social Science (leading to M.A. Soc. Sci.). The degree is accredited by the British Psychological Society (BPS), and the consequent eligibility for membership is necessary for careers such as Educational Psychologist, or Clinical Psychologist. For joint honours degrees that include psychology, necessarily coverage is reduced, but nevertheless the requirements for BPS recognition are covered, a maxi project completed, and all the qualities described below except for specialist knowledge from the fourth year options are generally acquired.

This document focuses on attainments from the latter two ("honours") years of the degree. Graduates will vary in the additional attainments they acquired in the first two years (for instance languages, computing courses, and so on), and this will partly depend on the faculty they were in.

In relation to teaching, in the most recent National Student Survey (2009) the department was ranked 4th of all (about 120) Psychology Departments in the UK and the highest in Scotland. In relation to research, in the RAE 2008, the department retained its position as one of the top ten research departments in the country. The department scored very highly in the proportion of its research rated 4* (the highest grade). On this figure Glasgow Psychology was ranked 7th in the UK. In the "2010 Complete University Guide" published in 2009 in "The Independent", the department was ranked 8th of 96 psychology departments in the UK; 7th of 100 in the Guardian league table; 6th of 102 in the Times league table.

Because of the popularity of the subject among students, there is competitive entry to honours (a hurdle between years two and three), so in effect the department's students are pre-selected as above average for ability and hard work.

Subject specific content

The core areas of psychology taught in the degree are: Psychobiology (including how the physiology and anatomy of the brain and body affect Psychology), Cognitive Psychology (including Perception, Memory and Language), Developmental (how mental capacities develop from birth), Individual Differences (Intelligence and Personality), Social Psychology, and Statistics & research design. These compulsory topics, forming the guaranteed minimum breadth of psychological knowledge required by the BPS, are examined in the year three subjects listed in the transcript.

More specialised ("deeper") knowledge of particular topics is acquired in the fourth year options chosen (see the appendix for the range). In addition, individual graduates are likely to have picked up particular specialist knowledge from their maxi project, particularly where this was done in close association with one of the department's main research areas (see

Besides such conceptual knowledge, psychology graduates have also acquired substantial knowledge and practice at applying empirical methods, particularly that of controlled experiments but also of designing and using questionnaires, and to a lesser extent interviews and other methods. Such practical methods can be and are used in a wide range of contexts, including applied contexts such as Human Computer Interaction, whether or not there is much theory for such problems. The application of these methods of investigation are an important area of practical knowledge, independently of the theoretical knowledge.

The statistics teaching, which is another topic applicable beyond the range of the theoretical topics taught, involves a 30 (Scotcat) credit course in the first year which covers advanced analysis of variance, multivariate techniques, and the hands-on use of statistical computer packages. This is reinforced by a further (10 credit) course in the third year, and a series of practical applications in labs and projects.

General intellectual training

The nature of psychology as a discipline

Every academic subject carries with it a particular approach to understanding -- the discipline -- which varies widely from subject to subject, but which a graduate often tends to carry over in approaching other areas of work. T.K.Landauer, a psychologist who spent much of his career working with those from quite other disciplines, suggested that the essence of what a psychologist brings can be boiled down as follows: "There are two very elementary but fundamental methodological facts that are taken for granted by all experimental psychologists, but astonishingly often fail to be appreciated by others. The first is that behavior is always quite variable between people and between occasions. The second is that it is feasible to obtain objective data on behavior." In other words, psychologists are trained to appreciate that it is a mistake when dealing with people, as opposed say to a bit of technology, to take a deterministic approach that assumes that what it does once is what it will always do and that considering one example (e.g. themselves) is enough; but equally that the opposite notion of free will and hence complete unpredictability is generally mistaken, and that useful predictions about behaviour and its degree of variability can nevertheless be developed. Anyone with even informal experience of personnel, politics, management, and so on will recognise the importance of understanding that useful work can be done in the middle ground between determinism and free will.

This view of the general intellectual character of psychology also points to its distinctive features as a discipline. One pervasive aspect is its application of some form of experimental method to problems (this tends to distinguish it from the other social sciences), despite the problems of experiments with beings whose understanding of the experiment and experimenter frequently has large effects. Perhaps more important for its value as a general education, however, is that psychology frequently forces us to deal simultaneously with fundamentally different kinds of evidence (whatever the preferences of individual research specialists). For instance, a theory of emotion must cope with physiological data (blushing, adrenalin surges that can be measured chemically), individual cognitive data (how individuals' thoughts and decisions change with emotion, what they report about their experience), and social data (someone experiencing joy due to a success such as a strike in bowling is about ten times more likely to smile if they are with companions, suggesting that emotions are an evolutionarily ancient social coordination mechanism). This need somehow to relate quite different kinds of evidence of varying but not negligible value bearing on a single issue is a widespread feature of professional life of most kinds, but is relatively unusual in an academic subject.

Critical thinking

A highly desirable general intellectual skill for any graduate is what is now often called "critical thinking": the ability not just to reproduce and explain concepts learned from others, but to decide how much weight should be given them, by discerning and evaluating the extent to which they are consistent with and supported by evidence and other ideas, (or conversely, how much they are undermined by being inconsistent with other evidence and opinions). This is directly built into some basic areas of the discipline, where even introductory teaching in, for instance, social psychology, typically consists of presenting, not a single dominant theory or "law", but the relative abilities of alternative theories to explain the facts observed so far. On the other hand, in other areas (e.g. those related to physiology) it behaves more like a natural science: after a flurry of scrutiny and perhaps debate when new theory or phenomena are published, general consensus is established in the field, and findings become treated as "facts" or even "laws". Just as it is unwise to accept all assertions uncritically, so it is unproductive to apply scepticism to everything; useful critical thinking requires decisions about the weight to be given each item. Most disciplines give far more practice at one or the other, but psychology exposes its students to considerable amounts of both because of its unusually wide range of types of subject matter. In this department, critical thinking is further directly fostered by a series of three "critical review" exercises requiring the student not just to summarise a set of recently published papers, but to critique them. The aim is to develop ability at independent assessment and comparison, even of peer-reviewed published work. (Our graduates may be able to offer copies of one of their critical reviews on request.)

Research-led teaching

The department is very active in research, and this leads to a substantial amount of research-led teaching. There are advantages from this for instance in making the teaching content up to the minute, and from the enthusiasm of researchers talking about their central interests. A deeper advantage is that the teachers are equally learners, demonstrating by personal example: a researcher is attempting to learn things no-one yet knows, both for themselves and for the community as a whole. This is an important endpoint in the types of learning an individual may do: from a child acquiring its first language exactly from the people around it, to the independent learning of a researcher seeking knowledge no-one else yet has. This is also important for professionals and for organisations of all kinds. Finally, research-led teaching introduces another important element: an apprenticeship mode of learning. When students do their final year research project with a personal supervisor they are in effect doing an apprenticeship in research, where they learn partly by personal instruction, partly by their own practice, and partly by imitation. While the research skills themselves will only be directly used by a small subset of our graduates, this mode of learning is probably more relevant than is usually acknowledged in many jobs. Even though formal training courses are increasingly numerous in many workplaces, it remains true that much learning on the job is by the implicit apprenticeship methods of imitation, personal instruction, and trying it out with occasional supervision. Our graduates have already successfully performed in that mode of learning.

Personal and professional transferable skills

Besides the general intellectual skills mentioned, our graduates are equipped with a grounding in the following skills:

Critical thinking

This was discussed at length under "General intellectual training"; and our graduates could offer three critical reviews written by them.

Writing competence

Our graduates are required to write assessed essays throughout their four years, about 36 in all for psychology (and in most cases up to 64 including work for other subjects), and thus they accumulate considerable practice at planning and executing the writing of substantial pieces. This culminates in their final year in the production of a critical review of about 10,000 words, and the report on their maxi project, which is typically about 30 pages and includes references, data tables, statistical analysis, and graphical illustrations. (They may on request make these available for inspection.) These final pieces of work are produced in circumstances similar to that of many work places: they can draw on the use of computer spelling checkers and human critics, but are working to a deadline and with other simultaneous demands on their time.

Giving talks ("presentations", oral communication)

Our graduates have been required to present at least five short talks on their work (some will have done more), complete with visual aids and a time limit, to an audience of limited attentiveness. Typically they regard this as very stressful, yet perform competently in the view of staff (for whom giving and listening to talks is a prominent feature of their professional life).

Information technology

Our students were required to use email for much of their time as a standard departmental communication medium. They were required to submit all their written work outside exam rooms in word-processed form, including some use of tables and charts. They are further trained and exercised in the use of at least one statistics package, and in the use of online literature search software. They will normally have used the world wide web in various ways, as the department maintains some information in that form, and some courses require its use.

Numeracy, quantitative methods

As noted above, the statistics course and required applications of it mean that graduates have used calculators, spreadsheet, and statistical software to process data, and to present numerical results in tables and charts.

Working alone ("self-starting", "organised", initiative)

Psychology students will have had about one hour of lectures per day in their last two years, the rest of their learning being largely self-organised. In their maxi project, they will have had to manage all aspects of the work themselves and get this to hang together into a successful whole. While there are large variations between cases, the ratio of student work to supervisor input on these projects is at least 10:1 and very often much greater.


In each of their first three years, graduates carried out practical work in teams. In the third year, the success of the exercises depended on teamwork: on cooperation and the coordination of actions.

Library research

Our graduates have had to undertake library research both as part of the regular courses, and for their project work and critical reviews. The latter especially demand extracting useful information directly from the published scientific literature, mainly online.

Trustworthiness, honesty, professional ethics

We are happy to confirm in personal references that a particular graduate has given us no reason to doubt their honesty, but in general a degree course offers few opportunities for more definite observations or tests. The exception is in acquiring and practising the desirable standards for dealing with human participants (or "subjects") in empirical studies. All our graduates have received training in this, in line with BPS guidelines, and were required as part of their research project to construct, and to have submitted an ethics application covering their study. The difficulty of getting such clearance varies greatly: for example, administering questionnaires to other undergraduates is generally an issue of relatively low sensitivity, while working with disturbed patients receiving treatment elsewhere is a high sensitivity area.

Appendix: Further references = URLs

The British Psychology Society, and its views on the value of psychology degrees in general.

More information on the Department, and its degree courses.

Appendix: Guide to the transcript, list of course elements

A student will, or can, get a transcript showing her grades for each part of the course.

This lists the entries that may appear on the transcripts for the latter two years of study of those graduating in 2010. More details on the courses are available in the course handbook, a version of which is available at: (click on "COURSE INFO SENIOR HONOURS").
Note however that the handbook is modified each year to some extent, and will only apply exactly to the courses being taught at the time it is consulted, rather than in the past.

Degree codes

206J Psychology (Single)
206G Psychology (Combined)
206L Psychology (Principal)

Year 3

98EZ Cognitive Psychology
98EC Comparative Learning & Cognition
91JD Perception & visual cognition
92VK Human Development
90DM Individual Differences
98EB Social Psychology
98PK Physiological Psychology
98NZ Statistics
98PN Professional Skills

Year 4

11WK Practical Paper
(Combining an exam on experimental design with critical reviews and other coursework)

91WJ Maxi Project

Options students selected 9 of these:

86JT Adolescent brain development
86JB Autism spectrum disorders
86JC Basics of joint attention
86JD Brain oscillations in action
86JU Child abuse
86JW Cognitive neuroscience insights
86JX Cognitive neuroscience of ageing
86JY Cognitive neuroscience of executive processing
86JZ Colour
86JE Concepts and empirical results in education
86KA Fmri in biopsychology
86JF Forensic psychology
86JG Hearing by eye
86KB Human motion perception
86JH Interaction and communication
86JJ Language and meaning
86JK Leadership
86KC Networks of attention and working memory
86JL Neuropsychological deficits
86JM Positive psychology
86JN Psychological interventions
86JA Psychology of abnormality
86JP Psychology of will
86JQ Sleep and circadian timing
86JR Social cognition
86JS Syntactic processing in language comprehension and production
88HZ Consciousness

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