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.