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Eye on Psi Chi: Fall 2002
The Savvy Psychology Major
Drew Appleby, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

The English word savvy is related to the French word savoir, which means "to be aware of, to understand, or to know how" (Dubois, 1971, p. 243). When the French add the word faire ("to do") to savoir, the result is savoir faire, a phrase used to describe people who are both (a) knowledgeable and (b) willing and able to use their knowledge to accomplish their goals. Savvy psychology majors possess savoir faire. This means they are aware of the importance of the following questions, they are eager to discover and understand their answers, and they are willing and able to translate their newly acquired understanding of these answers into success-producing actions.

  1. How can I survive my first year in college?
  2. How can I become a successful student?
  3. What can I do with a degree in psychology?
  4. How can I accomplish my occupational goals?

Unfortunately, not all psychology majors are savvy. The media often portrays today's college-bound generation as clue-less slackers who lack the knowledge (i.e., are clueless) and the motivation and/or ambition (i.e., are slackers) to achieve their goals. Research reported by Schneider and Stevenson (1999) in their book The Ambitious Generation refutes the slacker component of this portrayal with data collected from current college-age students and their peers from the 1950s. When these two groups are compared, the results are clear. Today's students are far more ambitious and motivated than their peers in the 1950s because many more want to earn a college degree (90% vs. 55%) and many more strive to obtain professional careers as physicians, lawyers, and business managers rather than machinists, secretaries, or plumbers. However the data related to the clueless component of this portrayal were less clear-cut. What Schneider and Stevenson found was that current college-bound students fall into two groups, those possessing aligned ambitions and those whose ambitions are misaligned.

Those who possess aligned ambitions have complementary educational and occupational goals and are likely to construct educational plans that enhance their chances of successfully attaining their desired occupations. Students with aligned ambitions understand how they must change to reach their occupational goals (i.e., the knowledge and skills they must acquire) and are more thoughtful when they make decisions about which courses to take, which organizations to join, and how to spend their time. Those with misaligned ambitions are equally ambitious, but often find it difficult to fulfill their dreams because they are unaware of the steps that will enable them to achieve their ambitions. Their ambitions are "dreamlike and not realistically connected to specific educational and career paths. Regardless of how hard they try, they find themselves running in place and unsure of where to go" (p. 4). They are, according to Schneider and Stevenson, the drifting dreamers who have limited knowledge about four crucial aspects of their futures:

  1. their proposed occupations
  2. the educational requirements of their schools
  3. the educational opportunities that can help prepare them for their occupations
  4. the future demand for their proposed occupations

The word clueless comes to my mind when I think of these students who Schneider and Stevenson classify as possessing misaligned ambitions. My wish for you is that you will become just the opposite. That is, I urge you to use your undergraduate education to become a "clueful" (i.e., savvy) psychology major who knows what you want to do with your life and how to use your undergraduate education to get what you want. I have three favorite quotations that can help to illuminate your path toward "cluefulness."

  1. The first part of your journey to the land of "cluefulness" requires you to do what Socrates suggested more than 2,000 years ago when he said, "Know thyself." Begin the process of serious self-examination to determine your skills, characteristics, goals, and values. That is one of the primary purposes of an undergraduate education.
  2. The second leg of your journey involves the famous advice Polonius gave Laertes in the second act of Shakespeare's Hamlet, "To thine own self be true." Once you begin to know yourself, the next steps are (a) to discover who you would like to become and (b) to create a plan of action to reach your aspirations that fits your own unique set of skills, characteristics, goals, values, and resources.
  3. The third part of your journey involves putting your plan into action. I can think of no better way to state the urgency of this crucial component than by quoting Nike, the Greek goddess of victory (speaking through her 21st-century commercial namesake), who says, "Just do it." This final step will put the faire into your savoir faire and transform you into a truly savvy psychology major.

Dubois, M. (1971). Larousse's French-English English-French dictionary. New York: Pocket Books.

Schneider, B., & Stevenson, D. (1999). The ambitious generation: America's teenagers, motivated but directionless. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

This article originally appeared in Division Two's PsychTeacher Electronic Discussion List as the Excellence in Teaching column for May 2002.

Drew Appleby, PhD, received his BA in psychology from Simpson College in 1969 and his PhD in experimental psychology from Iowa State University in 1972. He currently serves as Director of Undergraduate Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. He is the author of The Handbook of Psychology (1997, Longman), has numerous publications in professional journals, and has made over 250 presentations before a variety of both professional and nonprofessional audiences. His most recently published book is entitled The Savvy Psychology Major (2002, Kendall/Hunt).

Dr. Appleby is a Fellow of both Division One (General Psychology) and Division Two (Teaching of Psychology) of APA. He received Division Two's Outstanding Psychology Teacher Award in a Four-Year College or University in 1993, and was chosen by APA to present its G. Stanley Hall Teaching Lecture in 1998. He was recognized for his advising skills by the National Academic Advising Association when he received the Outstanding Adviser Award of its Great Lakes Region in 1988 and for his mentoring skills by being the recipient of IUPUI's Psi Chi Mentor of the Year Award in 2000. He serves as the director of Division Two's Mentoring Service and has been a consultant to other psychology departments.

Copyright 2002 (Volume 7, Issue 1) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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