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One year at university

Holly Rose Welsby gained a Triple A* from Burnley College Sixth Form Centre to progress to Cambridge University. She has just completed her first year studying psychology at Churchill College. Here she tells us about her experience so far. Now UPDATED with what happened next…

08 September 2017

Coming from a deprived community is just one of several factors that have influenced my passion for psychology. I've always been aware of how difficult life can be for some people; of how certain social or economic environments can damage a person's mental wellbeing. It has always therefore been important for me to think about different factors that affect mental health negatively, and about positive ways to counteract this.

This isn't specific to where I grew up, of course – each community faces stresses and strains. Cambridge University, for example, has shown me different challenges people may face in trying to maintain good mental health. I've met such a vast amount of people from different backgrounds, whose trajectories are sometimes worlds apart and sometimes very similar. My experiences make me think about some of the major psychological debates (natures vs. nurture, individual vs. social, free will vs. determinism) all of the time, as I'm constantly seeing the effects of them in real-life contexts.

Before I arrived, I had no idea what to expect other than hard work. I knew it would be challenging, but the workload was still a surprise. However, as long as you're prepared to work really hard, then you can achieve whatever goal you set yourself.

My first few lessons were really indicative of how the rest of the year would go. First, the lectures are extremely fast-paced – we covered topics that took weeks in college within a couple of hours, because we are expected to read about the subject in more depth individually. In my lectures, students are always interested and engaged, it surprised me at first how much participation from the students there was – I think this is something really important for students to practise from an earlier age, actively getting involved with lessons by being curious and asking questions. This will help to ensure that you gain a fuller understanding of whichever topic is at hand, and will also help to guide your personal research.

Because I've just completed my first year, I haven't specialised yet, so I'm still figuring out where my interests lie. So far I've been particularly interested in neuropsychology, the psychology of emotions, and the psychology of close relationships... I'm also really looking forward to studying psychopathology in my third year. No doubt I'll find new favourite topics along the way.

Through lectures focused on research methodology and data collection, I have formed the opinion that findings don't need to be quantitative or considered 'hard science' in order to be useful to psychologists. Whilst psychology has gained credence as a discipline through being able to adopt scientific methods, in my opinion it is important to remember that our subject matter is human nature – something that need not (and sometimes can not) always be reduced to objective, numerical results.

Having said this, the lectures also taught me several factors that influence the validity and reliability of research, and so I have learnt to read psychological research critically when exploring a topic or theory. We don't just learn straight psychology modules; as with many courses at Cambridge, students choose some supplementary modules to learn alongside their core subject. I therefore took two psychology modules, but also social anthropology and sociology. I think this approach has been useful because often I have ended up learning about the same topic (such as gender) from at least three different stances: the psychological, the sociological and the anthropological (though of course each discipline has its own further theoretical subdivisions). This has provided a more holistic view of the topics I've learnt, whilst also instilling the knowledge that there are several ways to look at any one construct. When forming a theory or personal opinion, one should incorporate and weigh up evidence collected from various perspectives.

I would sum up my experience so far as challenging, unique, eye-opening. I enjoy being surrounded by people who are passionate about their studies and who want to work; I enjoy the facilities such as the numerous libraries and work spaces; I enjoy being taught by individuals who are leaders in their fields, and I enjoy the beautiful buildings that I get to work in or walk past every day.

Outside of studies I just do social things with friends – nights out, walking through the beautiful central colleges, or punting down the river Cam. May week, after exams have finished, was probably my favourite time of the whole year. There are activities every day and parties or May balls every night. There are things going on all year though: most colleges there have formal meals every week or two, and some colleges have events on every week in their bars, which can be fun to go to, to meet people from other colleges.

I still adore psychology, and I'll always want to understand the workings of human thought and behaviour. I don't know exactly what I'll go on to do in the future, but I know it will involve psychology.

Update, August 2019

This June I graduated with a First-class BA (Hons) in Psychological and Behavioural Sciences. I have often doubted I would ever be able to say that. I wanted to quit several times because of how difficult it was, but I stuck at it and I couldn't be more proud of myself.

My second year at Cambridge was perhaps the hardest, because my optional papers were on topics that I was not hugely interested in at the start (Biological Anthropology and the Philosophy of Science). However, with the help of friends doing the same modules, incredible supervisors, and the motivation of receiving a degree, I got through it.

My third year was definitely my favourite year. This is when we could choose specialised topics more closely suited to our interests. I picked Psychopathology and Development (the module that I have been most interested in out of my entire degree), Gender, and the Sociology of Media and Culture. What I enjoyed about all of these courses was how relevant they were to everyday life: from helping to explain in what ways technology has infiltrated the modern world (for better or for worse), to shedding light on the current debates and changes in discourse about genders, and discussing struggles faced by Psychologists wishing to treat mental health issues with therapies other than CBT or anti-depressants.

In addition to these topics I wrote a dissertation on the topic of Mirror Sensory Synaesthesia. At the start of the year I did not know what this was, and by the end of the year I had probably read most of the literature (it is a relatively new subject area) and had developed a lot of interest in it. My supervisor was engaging and helpful, and she provided opportunities for us such as the chance to present and model the project to the public at an ESRC science fair in London. This was a great experience because it gave me confidence in my knowledge of the project and my ability to explain the topic to others (ranging from much more experienced Psychologists with PhDs, to young children on a family day out).

I really enjoyed all of the modules in my third year, but learning about Psychopathology and Development definitely confirmed for me that my passion is to understand and help people with mental health issues – specifically in the adolescent period when issues often come to a head. This is why my long-term career goal is to be a Clinical Psychologist. After speaking to people who have already made it to that stage, I think my first step is to become a Mental Health Support Worker, and then an Assistant Psychologist, before applying for the Clinical Doctorate. I am sure it will be a long journey, but it should also be an extremely rewarding one. The end goal seems more than worth it.