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Reed College Psychology Dept. Alumni Survey

In August, 1999, an alumni survey was conducted with support from a National Science Foundation Award for the Integration of Research and Education. Re purpose of this survey was to determine which components of the Reed education were important for students in Psychology who later became professionally active in research. To this end, 17 Psychology Department alums were interviewed over the telephone about their experiences at Reed and the most helpful aspects of their education here in preparing them for later work.

The survey consisted of both open-ended and yes/no questions designed to elicit information about the influence of academic experiences a Reed. The time to complete a survey was approximately 15 minutes. The survey had an overall response rate of 17 out of 18 alums who were contacted. Only on eof the selected alums declined to participate.

The alums who participated in this survey were identified by Psychology Department faculty as a small sample of former students who have demonstrated their continuing interest in research and academics after leaving Reed. Each of the participants held an advanced degree (for most, a Ph.D.) and were actively involved in their field of research. Most of the participants were professors of psychology; however, the sample also included a senior program officer at a national health care foundation, the director of a widely implemented school reform program with a strong research component, a professor of neurology, a professor of sociology, and a professor of epidemiology and social medicine. Dates of graduation form Reed ranged from 1957 to 1989.

Summary of Responses

Alums were asked about specific aspects of their education at Reed which helped them become interested in pursuing Psychology. Almost all (16 out of 17) reported that an academic mentor or role model, often a Psychology Department faculty member, had been an important influence. The same number of participants reported that the senior thesis had been an important experience. A large majority of alums (12 out of 17) reported that participation in summer research with Psychology Department faculty had helped them obtain jobs in the field of psychology, either during the summer or after graduation. Overall, this sample of alums recalled many opportunities to gain research experience: through working closely with Psychology Department faculty on summer research and the senior thesis project, and, with the help of faculty members, through work experience in the field of psychology outside of Reed.

When asked which methods of teaching at Reed were the most helpful, participants had many different ideas. Many alums mentioned the conference setting in upper-level courses and the importance of these experiences in developing critical thinking skills, confidence, and the ability to articulate ideas. One alum remembered, "the consistent interactive discussions were very stimulating and challenging. That manner of instruction required thoughtfulness and participation. It was not a passive method of instruction, such as you'd get with lectures."

Participants also reported that an extremely important teaching method in the Psychology Department came from the chance to supplement classroom learning with lab work and hands-on research. Many alums responded similarly to one who stated that the most important method of instruction at Reed was "doing actual hands-on experiments in lab. Almost every Psychology class, from sophomore year on, had a lab or experimental component. This is what I remember most about Psychology class, not the lectures or class time." Many past students specifically mentioned the thesis experience at Reed, for which each student in the Department of Psychology is required to conduct a year-long independent study. Students felt that this experience was important as a confidence builder and in exposing them to the actual process of conducting research.

When asked about the relationship between faculty teaching and student research, alums responded very positively. Almost all recalled a very close and productive collaboration in research between faculty and student in the Department of Psychology. On participant reported, "it was very tight, in that students often had a part in designing and planning research, and worked closely with faculty in actually conducting the research." Another student recalled that faculty teaching and student research were "closely intertwined. The fact that faculty are engaged in their own research makes them more interested and interesting in the classroom. Also, since there are no graduate students, it is in the best interest of the faculty to have the undergraduates well-trained, so that they can have research assistants."

When asked how this relationship between faculty teaching and student research could be improved, alums offered a variety of responses. Many alums thought student research could be increased by enabling faculty to become even more active in research (such as allowing more frequent sabbaticals for professors to concentrate in research, increasing funding of faculty research, and by reducing the teaching load). Others suggested that students should be given even more opportunities to participate in research before beginning the thesis. Many other participants stated that no changes were needed in the program.

Reed alums reported that the Psychology Department had done well in preparing them for graduate school. One participant remembered, "I was much better prepared than anyone else. I had experience in reading journal articles, planning, all of the important aspects of doing research. Since Reed has no graduate students, the undergraduates got to do research." Many students mentioned that their rigorous training in the Reed Psychology Department gave them an advantage over their peers in graduate school, and some even reported that graduate school was not as challenging as their Reed experience had been. One participant stated, "I found that my work in graduate school was easier than my undergraduate work. The structure of graduate school was very similar to what I experienced during my senior year at Reed, so I was very well prepared compared to most other students."

Participants did offer some suggestions for ways in which Reed Psychology students could be better prepared for graduate school. Some mentioned the need for more emphasis on data analysis and statistical knowledge. Others felt that the Department could have done a better job in imparting to them a core set of knowledge of the field. One alum suggested that "a more concrete base of knowledge would have been better. Perhaps a combination of discussion and lectures would have been best. In upper-level classes, professors could spend the first few weeks lecturing and giving students a good foundation in the area, then open it up for discussion." Many other students reported that the preparation for graduate school that they received in the Reed Psychology Department was satisfactory as it was and had no suggestions for improvement.

Overall, participants' responses were generally very positive. Almost all alums remembered experiences within the department of Psychology which helped encourage them to pursue Psychology further. One alum summarized the views of many: the participant pointed out that the actual content of the Psychology Department courses is not the critical factor. Instead, "outside factors made the difference at Reed: the close relationship between students and faculty and the opportunities to do research."

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