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Skills for Life

Alumni talk about undergraduate research in USC College’s psychology honors program.

Skills for Life

What do a psychologist in the Pacific Northwest, a human resources executive in L.A. and a promotions supervisor for a wine retailer in New York City have in common?

They’re all Trojans who participated in the undergraduate honors program offered by USC College’s psychology department. And they all describe the program as a formative experience that helped them get where they are.

The program challenges top psychology students to work closely with faculty and produce original research for a senior honors thesis. Topics of study vary across the range of psychology faculty specializations — from examining family conflict to probing social stereotypes to analyzing brain images. Some students also collaborate with faculty in the USC Gould School of Law or the USC Marshall School of Business who hold joint appointments in psychology.

These undergraduates provide important assistance to professors, in return receiving mentorship and learning research skills.

“It’s a real hands-on experience,” said Jo Ann Farver, a developmental psychology faculty member who has directed the honors program since 1997. “The university has always wanted to get students involved with research, having that one-on-one experience with faculty. And I think that’s irreplaceable.”

Recently Farver sought to evaluate student outcomes and conducted a survey of alumni. The response has been overwhelmingly positive — and enthusiastic.

“Basically, what they’re saying is ‘I learned how to think,’ ” said Farver, associate professor of psychology. “Or ‘I learned how to do research,’ and ‘When I went to do my M.A. thesis I realized it’s just a bigger version of what I did in the honors program.’ ”

Christopher Graver, a 1998 graduate who went on to get a Ph.D. from the University of Oregon, agreed that the program is perfect preparation for advanced study in psychology.

“It was absolutely critical for where I am,” said Graver, a neuropsychologist researching Alzheimer’s disease at Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma, Wash. His honors thesis investigating physiological signs of posttraumatic stress disorder earned him a Research Scholar Award from the Golden Key National Honor Society.

Graver said that the skills he learned were essential to success in his doctoral studies. “When I got to graduate school, I was ready to hit the ground running,” he said. “I was ready when I got there to go on to other projects rather than starting at the basics.”

He added that the program “was also invaluable for getting me letters of recommendation” — a must for any applicant seeking admission to competitive graduate schools.

Another honor student, Anne Morrow, pursued a doctorate in developmental psychology at Claremont Graduate University after graduating from USC in 1997. Morrow worked with eating disorder patients as a psychotherapist at L.A.’s Wright Institute up until a couple of years ago, when she decided to devote her time to being a stay-at-home mom and returned to her native Seattle. She plans to launch a private practice in the future.

“Because of everything I know about child development, I can’t stand the thought of missing out on any piece of my child’s development right now,” Morrow said.

Morrow called USC College’s undergrad psych honors track “a great preparation to go into any Ph.D. program.”

“It really was like being in a graduate school seminar,” she said. “I went into graduate school more confident, knowing what I was doing, understanding the process. I just feel like it sparked my love of research in general, and that’s something I always want to continue with in my career.”

Farver was quick to note that the honors program, which requires that students have a 3.5 GPA, isn’t the only option for psychology majors interested in research opportunities.

In fact, every psychology major takes a required research methods course in which they complete a project over the course of the semester. In their spare time, many students choose to assist faculty with research. Some psychology students are getting involved in research as early as sophomore year, thanks to the College’s new initiative to fund undergraduate research, Sophomore Opportunities for Academic Research. Farver hopes this will be a stepping stone to participation in the honors program and other research opportunities with psychology faculty.

Margaret Gatz, professor and chair of psychology, said, “We really believe in involving undergraduates in research. There are undergraduates in almost all the faculty labs, and honors projects often emerge from work that students have been doing already with faculty.”

But what of the students who don’t choose careers in psychology research? It turns out that many credit the program with instilling lessons and skills relevant to other careers, and to life in general.

“It taught me project management, how to get out of my shell and be much more assertive,” said Sonia Narang, a 1999 graduate who works in human resources at the Disney-ABC Television Group in Burbank, planning change management for an organization that includes more than 15,000 employees.

Most important, Narang said, “I learned that when you’re passionate about something, you can do anything.”

At USC she conducted research under Farver’s tutelage about cross-cultural conflict between immigrant parents from India and their U.S.-raised children. The study broke ground — very little investigation of this type had been done with Indian families — ultimately seeing print in the peer-reviewed Journal of Family Psychology.

“Publishing was one of the most exciting moments of my career,” Narang said.

After her baccalaureate, she earned an M.A. in organizational psychology from Columbia University. The L.A. native believes that the hard work she did on her honors thesis primed her for the cross-country move, her first real time away from home.

“I had to hustle to get the study done, just to gather the data,” Narang said. “I feel like it actually helped prepare me for the jungle of New York City. When you’re in school, everything’s kind of given to you. And when you leave school, you have to start working for it. So this was a good sneak preview of what lay ahead.”

And preparing students for life after graduation, whatever their career path, is part of the point.

“What I’m trying to do is help students learn to think critically, because we’re in an information explosion,” Farver said. “They’re going to have to be able to sift through all this information and know what they can trust. The research experience helps them think about how we know things and how we test ideas.”

Michael Quick, the College’s executive vice dean for academic affairs, echoed this sentiment.

“USC College is on its way to being a leading liberal arts college inside a major research university. That means giving our students the opportunity to work with our world-class faculty, to do research and create new knowledge,” Quick said.

“But even if the research experience doesn’t transform the world, it will certainly transform our students. They learn to identify a problem, to entertain ways to solve that problem and to put their results in the context of what is known and yet to be known. That’s a process we all use every day, whether we’re doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs or psychologists — any circumstance we encounter.”

Deanah Kim, a transfer to USC who graduated in 1998, attested that the research experience “is something I’ve carried with me in just everything, every approach I take.”

Kim completed a study about social perception and stereotype formation for her senior thesis, a process that was a cornerstone of her undergraduate education.

“I did my freshman year at Berkeley, where there are a lot of students and you can barely get any contact with the faculty member,” Kim said. “When I look back at my years at USC, I define them by the honors program. During those formative years, it’s so nice to have an expert that you can rely on to guide you through developing your critical thinking skills. I feel like every student should do it if they can.”

She stayed at USC College to complete an M.A. in psychology, but even as she pursued graduate study, she knew that her true aspirations lay elsewhere — the world of food.

Switching tracks, Kim attended the Culinary Institute of America on a full scholarship and settled in New York City. After a stint with Fine Cooking magazine, she recently joined a wine retail endeavor, Millésima, where she serves as supervisor of promotions and operations. She works closely with a Master of Wine, an elite title held by only 26 people in the U.S. and about 250 internationally.

“It’s all kind of related, all the stuff I did back in school,” Kim said. “I never thought that I would be doing surveys again, and I am. You never know where life takes you.”