Crunch Affects Psychology Students

The psychology department has spent the last few years adjusting to an influx of concentrators —whose ranks swelled from 282 in 1995 to 427 by 2000—by adding new courses, expanding its faculty and trying to accommodate a growing legion of thesis writers.

But growing pains are still being felt this year, despite a sharp decrease in the number of concentrators, down 100 from two years ago.

The number of thesis writers in the department this year, 25, is unusually low as well—a phenomenon students and faculty alike say might be due to the inadequate number of course offerings and faculty advisers who discouraged students from pursuing a thesis project. Psychology concentrators must write a thesis to graduate with honors in the department.

“We have a surprisingly low number of theses, probably as a reaction to our past difficulties in this regard,” Stephen M. Kosslyn, head tutor of the department, writes in an e-mail. “I’m actually worried that students have overreacted to our past problems, which we’ve made great progress in solving, including by appointing new, very dynamic faculty.”

The changes may have come too late for this year’s seniors, who say that during their sophomore and junior years they struggled to find advisers and were often lotteried out of courses within the department.

Considering that the psychology department’s thesis requirements are unusually demanding—each thesis writer must submit a 20-page proposal in the spring of junior year and assemble a committee of readers, including one full faculty member—the relatively low student-faculty ratio has impacted thesis writers in this department to a greater degree than in others.

Residual Effects

Renee J. Gasgarth ’03 is not writing a thesis in psychology—a decision she says was effectively made for her when she was a sophomore.

She remembers that during her sophomore year, advising in the department suffered because there were not enough faculty to meet students’ needs.

“The advising system is definitely inadequate,” she says. “My faculty mentor sophomore year offered to meet with [her mentees] only once a year, as a group. I had no contact with her outside of the meeting.”

Gasgarth also says her mentor discouraged students from writing theses, citing the increased strain on the department from the bevy of undergraduates.

“She said that she didn’t recommend writing a thesis, and that there was no reason everyone should be writing one,” says Gasgarth. “She said it’s a real drain on the faculty, and not to even consider asking her to advise [our theses].”

According to Undergraduate Program Administrator Shawn C. Harriman, the department has been expanding its course offerings and making additions to its faculty in an effort to meet the needs of its concentrators.

“The department and the University have hired both new faculty and temporary lecturers to teach and advise students,” Harriman writes in an e-mail. “We have also increased the number of concentration advisers available to help students.”

In the last year, the department hired three new full-time professors: Cabot Professor of Social Ethics Mahzarin Banaji and Professors of Psychology Susan E. Carey and Elizabeth S. Spelke, increasing the faculty size to 23.

The number of concentrators is 326, according to the Office of the Registrar.

Harriman also points out that 20 new courses have been added in the last two years after an extensive process of polling both faculty and students about their interests.

These include courses such as Psychology 1503, “Psychology and Law,” Psychology 1808, “Neurobiological Aspects of Psychopathology,” Psychology 1358, “Behavioral Genetics” and Psychology 1569, “Psychosocial Aspects of HIV/AIDS.”

Harriman adds that expanded options also exist in the form of several new graduate-level seminars open to qualified undergraduates.

Procrastinators Need Not Apply

Writing a thesis in psychology requires long-term planning and close collaboration with a faculty adviser—a luxury many of the seniors haven’t had in the past few years. It is also greatly helped by a research interest in a faculty member’s area of inquiry.

Psychology concentrator Lauren S. Hirshon ’03 says that depending on their area of interest, students have to start the process of writing a thesis as early as their sophomore year.

“You have to know really early on what you want to write on, get a lab job related to it sophomore year in order to not feel rushed,” she says.

Working in a lab can be one of the few ways concentrators find sought-after thesis advisers, students say.

“If I had done something lab-wise sophomore year I would have written [a thesis],” Hirshon says, but without that experience finding an adviser proved too difficult.

Gasgarth adds that she was discouraged from writing a thesis during sophomore year when her faculty mentor “told us not to even consider asking her to advise us since she would only work with people who worked in her lab.”

But Kosslyn says the department has “been realistic, given our limited resources” and “suggested that students work in a lab on a topic of interest to their advisers.”

“It’s definitely the case that not all theses are written on the topics of faculty research,” Kosslyn says. “We will approve any thesis for which there is an adviser and a committee.”

Committee Phobia

But assembling a committee can often be the greatest obstacle to an aspiring thesis writer—especially for one whose interests do not match those of the faculty.

Since faculty members are relatively few compared to the number of students, there is a limit to how many committees—which must include a full faculty member as one of three readers—can be assembled in a given year.

In trying to meet the needs of an expanding undergraduate population, the department has addressed the thesis adviser crunch by expanding the “Board of Honors Tutors,” a group of non-departmental researchers who may serve as thesis advisers.

The tutors, many of whom are faculty members of the Harvard Medical and Business Schools, “offer our students a wonderful expansion of research opportunities,” says Harriman.

But for many students who have interests outside of those studied by the approved advisers, putting together a committee of readers and finding an adviser can be a Herculean task.

“I planned on writing a thesis even before I came to college,” says Ron L. Chapman ’03, but adds he encountered too many problems finding an adviser and eventually gave up on the idea.

Chapman, who plans to go to graduate school for counseling psychology, says he wanted to write on religion and interracial relationships, but could not find a faculty member willing to advise him.

“I went through five or six different people, and they all asked ‘how can you tie that into the research I’m already doing,’ and then, ‘I can’t help you,’” he says.

“I didn’t realize until junior year that no one was willing to reach out of their own area,” he says.

The department suggested he try the Divinity School, but again he had no luck. “They kept giving me names, and it kept not working out. I just bounced back and forth,” he says.

Communication Disorder

Chapman says his main complaint about the department is continued miscommunication.

“I’d like to see [the department] more willing to help you, like other departments. It would’ve been helpful if they made their expectations clearer.”

Carlene M. MacMillan ’03, who is writing a thesis this fall, says “the hoops [you have to jump through] to find a committee are a pain, and not beneficial.”

MacMillan says her road to thesis-writing was fraught with miscommunication with the department.

“I think they’re not clear about what they expect,” says MacMillan.

She thought she secured an adviser when a lecturer in the department, a Harvard Medical School affiliate with a doctorate in psychology, agreed to oversee her thesis.

But when MacMillan turned in her proposal, the department informed her that her adviser had to be a full member of the faculty.

“They wouldn’t let her advise me just because of the title,” she says.

MacMillan was irritated that she was “told after the fact,” and that her adviser is “now someone I don’t know. It’s just a formality. I have no interaction with my on-campus adviser.”

“It’s sort of insulting to my adviser who was basically told she wasn’t good enough even though she has a Ph.D,” she says. “I never got a good explanation why she couldn’t [advise me]. We were just told it was the policy.”

—Staff writer Margaretta E. Homsey can be reached at homsey@fas.harvard.edu.