Reflecting on My Road to Bachelor in Psychology in Leiden and Beyond
Almost three years has passed since I started studying psychology in Leiden University. I started this blog too around then. Yet, I have not blogged nearly enough about my undergraduate studies, life in Holland, my thoughts on Leiden University and psychology, and so on. In this post, I tell all what comes to mind.
Receiving the Letter of Acceptance
I felt a slight vibration in my pocket. It was probably my phone, but I did not have the time to look. Even though the ship was huge, I did not want to risk my boss see me look my phone. One time he saw me looking the phone and he commented on it, even though I was actually making a work-related text message. As it turns out, you can absolutely work hard yet seem hardly working.
Me and my Tunisian friend Driss were in the midst of yet another haulage horror. We had to carry several heavy objects from and around the infernal decks of a cruiser. The stuff just kept on coming. In retrospect, I think I was helping creating the world's worst polluter.
the world's worst polluter
I made my way to the break room and switched the coffee machine on. After I joined the kitchen installation crew in December, they saw an opportunity to assign the coffee brewing and water hauling job to me. That day I became the barista of the kitchen assembly crew.
As I watched the coffee drip, I checked my smartphone and saw an email. I remember vividly the feeling upon reading the early bird letter of acceptance from Leiden University in the freezing January. Strangely, it wasn't happiness that you'd expect when you see such good news. Rather, it was one of those feelings that you'd get when you tick a box on your to-do-list: just a slight relief and onto the next task.
You see, in Finland one has to work great lengths to get accepted into a university. Especially for psychology, the entrance exams are extremely tough. People try to get in for years. But this time it was an easy and simple job for all I had to do was prove that:
- I am proficient in English (IELTS),
- I have previous knowledge of calculus and statistics, and
- to write a motivation letter
And finally, I had to pay the tuition fee and voilà! There was no limited quota back then (now there is!). As a result I felt no pressure: it was smooth sailing. Hence the occasional lingering thought in the beginning of the first year was:
“Is this real? Was it really this easy?”
Since there were no obstacles nor competition, it totally seemed like a dish served on a silver platter. I have always had to work hard toward my goals! Now it seemed I did not have to? Therefore I did not get that sense of achievement that you would normally get.
So what is going on? Pay the tuition and that's that? Hah—you'd think! You see, it isn't at all about getting in. No, no, no. It is about staying in that turns out to be the actual challenge.
During the past two years, from over 600 psychology students around maybe 200 students remain. Two thirds dropped the studies for various reasons, academic or personal. Indeed, one has to pass all the first year courses and pass the final statistics course. Only then you can enroll in the various specialization courses and the bachelor thesis. And simply put, graduate.
Surviving the Housing Madness
After the letter of acceptance I was nonchalant toward housing matters. I was naïve and figured Leiden University will provide accommodation. They did not and I was tasked to find a place on my own. I went on househunting and wrote my first blog post about it. So with experience I can confidently say that finding accommodation well before receiving information on the status of admission is highly recommended.
You should not only follow Leiden University's guidelines, but you should also take a look at a blog post I wrote: Housing Guide for Students at Leiden University. There I talk about accommodation in detail.
Living in Holland
During the first months in the Holland, I started to experience homesickness. I started to appreciate things I did not have anymore, miss my family and friends and the Nordic nature.
At first I noticed how the Dutch grocery stores missed products that I would have liked to eat.
Where is my rye bread? Why are there no single ice cream cones? Why does the Dutch liquorice taste crap compared to the Finnish liquorice? Where is winter glögi?
Of course, the Netherlands has many great things that Finland does not such as dedicated bicycle lanes, cheap soya milk, fields of tulips, pretty canals, and more sun.
All of a sudden I wanted to listen to Finnish music. I never liked Finnish music before apart from several folk metal bands with English vocals. Nowadays I got all the oldies and goldies, and schlager and humppa songs in my spotify playlist.
Maybe the worst itch that still persists is that there are no traditional Finnish saunas here. Oh man what I would do for one good 'löyly'.
I had so much fun living with students in the first year. The houseparties we had; the extra spicy noodles from South-Korea that made us all question our life choices; the bathroom sink that fell apart; the fire under the apartment; the police that charged inside a neighbors house which turned out to be a false-alarm; the crazy stuff that happened in the parties; the chili vodka that made our intestines burn; the internet that went down and as a result Hamish turned into a caveman; the laundry machines that glitched and turned into free machines; and when one of our flatmates got so drunk that one of us found him laying on the bathroom floor the next morning. Good memories.
After moving out of the Hague, my life got little less excited as I moved into an apartment in a small village called Noordwijk. All of the neighbors were working men and women and I was the only student. To top it off, I was so far away from Leiden that I was not motivated to cycle to any parties or even university at times. I could take the bus, but first of all I hate buses, and secondly buses stop driving to Noordwijk after midnight.
Opinions on the Faculty of Social Sciences
The faculty of social sciences, a yellow, cube-shaped building, looks dull on the outside but has a much richer life inside. The revamped library now feels more open and modern. Although, I prefer studying outside the library because I like to talk with my friends for in the library you have to be quiet. Well, at least pre-corona when people still studied in the university.
The cafe is great, but the diner leaves more to be desired. The issue to me isn't the menu nor the acoustics but the salty prices per dish. Thus, I always bring my own lunch.
The interior blueprint of the building reminds me of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry: the long stairs, the slowly changing paintings, and the few common rooms on the basement level where Dutch groups hang out. I still do not know what they are doing down there, but they cannot be up to anything good. Am I getting grumpy and old?
Studying in Leiden University
The only novel I read before entering my twenties was Lord of the Flies. It was the only novel that I found interesting back then. Apart from this I had not read a single novel from cover to cover during high school. For every essay I wrote I resorted to Wikipedia whenever possible and preferably used as few words as possible. Shocking, huh?
I find this amusing because books are important part of my life now. (Writing too as you can see.) I was never a bookworm in my childhood or teenage years. I left all the book gifts I received in some drawer to collect dust (sorry!). I guess games were more interesting at the time.
But procrastination knows no boundaries. Even though I do not play games anymore, I tend to lean toward a fast entertainment fix such as reddit memes or youtube videos—a habit which has not gone all that bad yet, though I am slowly taking actions to change it.
Actually, I bought two plastic dumbbells in the first year and started from six kilograms per hand. Now I am lifting twenty kilograms per hand. Full iron. This gives me all the sense of achievement I need.
But I digress. So regarding studying, many students read summaries of the books instead of the books themselves. I suppose summaries give you the most essential information and then you don't need to skim the books. And second, you don't need to get the book in the first place!
But reading the theories and concepts in depth can really benefit you because they come back again and again but with ever-deepening information from different angles. 'Merely passing the exams' is a cheap mindset that can backfire in the long-term. You need to start studying seriously from the very beginning in order to have a knowledge base where to link new concepts.
Opinions on Statistics
I know that many students find statistics difficult. I did too in high school but no more in the university. Because soon I found statistics beautiful. All of the psychological concepts seemed ambiguous with blurring, supporting evidence. Statistics provided that balance of exactness I yearned.
Don't let mathematical notation affect you. It is just like any language and as all languages you just need to learn the grammar, syntax and symbols. The key is not to be afraid of mathematical notation but to embrace it. Indeed, if you feel afraid or stressed about it, you lock yourself into this narrow view, which makes it all the more harder to understand.
And statistics in Leiden is relatively easy. For I visited the University of Kiel in Germany in my first year and what I saw was students struggling with extremely theoretical material and difficult-looking formulas. In contrast, Leiden University provides a more practical hands-on experience of the statistical software and overall great understanding of statistics.
Thoughts on Courses
I have enjoyed every course I have taken. I think the specialization and elective courses are so good that I would actually take more of them if I could but I do not simply have the time nor energy.
Some students hated Perspective on Career Planning but I loved it. Other students felt they were forced to take some courses such as Interpersonal Professional Skills, yet I think I am fortunate to do such an important, practical course.
From eProspectus, we can see all the courses that Leiden offers. I think they are all excellent and diverse. Compared to Rotterdam University, Leiden University does not force to a specific track. I like this. This is one of the reasons I chose Leiden University: the diversity of courses and flexibility in planning.
In the end, I chose Applied Cognitive Psychology, Cognitive Neuroscience and Good Research Practices plus Causal Inference in Field Experiments a.k.a Advanced Statistical Methodologies specialization courses. I enjoyed them all but I should have taken Clinical Psychology instead of Cognitive Neuroscience. The reason being that I am more interested in clinical psychology than neuroscience and because I took a minor on computational neuroscience in Erasmus University Rotterdam.
The minor demands a separate blog post, however it should suffice to say that the professor was enthusiastic about the topic which made all of us all the more interested in neuroscience. I learned so much about the current state of neuroscience and brain. Let's just say we are the giants that future generations will admire. We are so early.
In my opinion, studying in university is not hard. University is only hard if you let it be hard; that is, you want the highest grades. But do not become the slave of the system. The truth is, grades matter only if you pursue an academic career or if the master's studies require a high average grade such as those of a research-oriented master. But note that both these points are two sides of the same coin. They are the same thing which asks “Do you want to become a researcher?”
And yet, it is not even that binary. There are exceptions. As my minor professor said: he doesn't care about grades, he cares that you know how to think. Best way to prove your ability to think is to work in a lab. This means you start from the bottom. Another great way to cultivate your thinking is to write essays in your free time.
But the idea that you can work on the same theme in your job and in your past-time never works. For example, working as a heavy manual laborer does not go well with physical activity in the free time. You are simply out of energy. Working as a software programmer makes it hard to want to code in your free time. Or presently, writing essay assignments in university makes it difficult to write essays in free time.
Should You Study Psychology?
This depends on how you determine 'psychology'. Are you more interested in helping a person with mental health illnesses? Or, are you interested in understanding a specific psychological phenomena more in-depth than what blogs say? Perhaps you are interested in making new technological innovations user-friendly and human-centered?
Can you see now? Psychology is where people are. When you become knowledgeable in psychology, you can improve people's lives directly through therapy or indirectly through improving the things between people.
Therefore, the answer to the question “should you study psychology?” is an obvious YES! All people will find a place in the field of psychology regardless of personal characteristics or interests.
Future and Me
I am planning to take the entrance exam for the Master's in Psychology in University of Turku. There is a chance I do not pass the exams or the subsequent interview. The alternative is to take master studies in Cognitive Science in Jyväskylä or Human-Technology Interaction in Tampere. Human Neuroscience is another option given that I have studied it quite extensively.
I also have huge interest in working in government policy, conflict management and social policy and welfare. However, I do not know what kind of work I would be doing and where I would find it. The job advertisements through the traditional channels often do not include such jobs. I believe such jobs can only be found via contacts to organisations or internships and I do not have such connections or experience, yet. I suppose you start from the bottom and climb through the organisational ladders.
In contrast, finding a job for a psychologist or a user experience researcher is easy since it is very defined job title, which can be found easily through the traditional job advertisement channels. And there is no rat race.
In any case, I have grown to dislike plans. They all fail and never go accordingly. Plans are great to have so that you can go back and see where you deviated. But one should never commit to a plan because sometimes one can miss avenues that were not previously thought of. Planning is always good, but having a dedicated plan is bad.
Finally, I want to say of how grateful and lucky I am. Had I not found accommodation in the first year, I would have never started my studies in Leiden. I probably would not have started a blog nor started playing guitar either. I would not be where I am right now.
I would have not met so many funny and interesting, intelligent and kind people from all corners of the world. So in no particular order, thank you Reia, Jasper, Lukas, Louisa, Swanny, Leo, Clarissa, Ricardo, Zuza, Petri, Radhika, Ronnie, Nida, Cammie, Hannah, Semra, Nicholas, Niccolo, Junoh, Jakob, Hamish, Ita, Benjamin, Nikai and Leonie, Michael, Robert, Moe, Romy, and Thor. Thank you for being my friend—if only for the moment. I also appreciate the moments I had with people whose names are not on the list for whatever cognitive glitch.
If you have more questions that I did not think of asking myself, feel free to ask them here.