A practical guide to the final undergraduate year

Hope Christie, a PhD student at the University of Bath, offers some tips.

09 August 2016

Since completing my psychology undergraduate degree, the question I get asked most often by younger generations of students is: ‘Was the final year hard?’ In my opinion, the final year isn’t hard, but it is perhaps more challenging compared to previous years of your degree. Firstly, there is more pressure. Passing all your assessments is a must if you want to graduate, and while in previous years you had the ‘safety net’ of summer resits, there is nothing like that in your final year. That isn’t to say you should spend every day following an assessment submission worrying if you’ve failed or not: a key thing I constantly had to remind students of is that your lecturers do not want you to fail! Secondly, there is a greater demand on your time in terms of work. Your dissertation is probably going to be the largest piece of work that you will have ever written; and while many students panic that they could never write 10,000 words, those words do add up pretty quickly! Also, you have the added pressure of submitting ethics, and collecting and analysing data. And on top of that you have to juggle work from other electives that you are taking.

So yes, your final year is a challenge, but the important thing to remember is that it is manageable. As my old supervisor used to say to me: ‘How do you eat an elephant? Piece by piece.’ However, part of the challenge of you final year is not being able to see just how manageable everything is when you are in the thick of it. That reason, amongst many others, is why my colleague Karl Johnson and I decided to write Don’t Panic: The Psych/Soc Student’s Guide to Fourth Year.

After spending many months working with final-year students talking through problems that they were having – either with something specific like SPSS, or more general questions that they had deemed ‘too stupid to bother their dissertation supervisors with’ – I began to see a need for an additional support mechanism. Someone or something that would reassure students that everything was going to be fine, and remind them of their capabilities to successfully complete their final year. This was something the students didn’t seem to be getting from their peers, and, despite reassurance from staff, it seemed to go in one ear and out the other. However, when this reassurance came from someone who had recently been through what they were currently facing – as both Karl and I had – the advice and support seemed to be taken on board and was usually helpful (or at least comforting).

The aim of Don’t Panic was to make a ‘nuts and bolts’ practical guide to what to expect from a final year of undergrad studies as a psychology or sociology student. Most importantly, the guide was to be student-centred and student-led. Combined with our thoughts and ideas about what to include in the guide, I engaged a cohort of psychology and sociology Honours students about their experiences of fourth year, which resulted in Don’t Panic containing 17 sections structured to reflect the Honours year life-cycle.

While Karl provided many insights reflecting his sociology background, my insights were more specific to psychology students. These included:

I    The age old quantitative vs. qualitative debate. I have overheard many student conversations about what type of research method to choose for their dissertation project. For most, this decision is made for you, but if you are in the position to choose, do not be fooled into thinking that a qualitative project will be easier, because you did not do well with your statistics modules in previous years. That simply isn’t the case. In fact, now would be a good time to give SPSS another try, because you have at your disposal a supervisor who is most likely highly proficient in statistics and may be able to provide you with the assistance you were needing. Additionally, there are benefits to qualitative projects, but don’t simply opt for one because you think it will be ‘easier’ than the other.
I    Get involved in all things BPS! The British Psychological Society is a fantastic resource for psychology students. Various regional branches of the BPS run annual undergraduate conferences, conveniently around the time that you will be submitting your dissertation projects. This provides you with a great opportunity to practice disseminating your research to an audience. The idea sounds daunting, but I did it in my final year and would strongly encourage other students to do the same. It is a fantastic supportive environment, where everyone is in the early stages of their research career, and I feel I’ve benefited from it a lot. The BPS also runs many local meetings: if one is taking place close to you, I recommend going along. You get to network with a lot of students and psychologists (at varying stages of their careers), and hear one or two interesting talks as well.
I    Designing your own experiment isn’t necessarily a bad option. Yes, there is the option to take an ‘off the shelf’ project for your dissertation. Usually these are ready-made experiments that lecturers have created for students to use as dissertation projects. They are easy to get up and running and can save you some time, especially in the first few months. However, writing up can sometimes be a challenge. I must stress that this is not the case for every student, but from my experience as a final-year undergrad my fellow peers who did not design their own experiment struggled during the writing-up stage, because their experiment wasn’t their own and they had no vested interest in the outcome. However, I really enjoyed (to an extent) the analysis and writing-up stages of my dissertation, because my project was an idea that I had come up with and that I had designed.

These are just a few examples of the insights provided for final-year students in the guide. Currently, it’s being piloted in Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, distributed as a PDF with the students’ module handbooks and descriptors. Karl and I are both optimistic that other departments/institutions may consider implementing similar materials with their own final-year students. If that’s you, our main message is this: you can and will do it, just take it piece by piece!

If you are interested in finding out more about Don’t Panic: The Psych/Soc Student’s Guide to Fourth Year, please feel free to get in touch with or me ([email protected]; @HChristie_psych) or my co-author Karl ([email protected]; @karlpjohnson).