Q+A: Psychology Student

Rachel Meringer on changing majors, studying abroad, and preparing to enter the workforce during a pandemic.

~ 11 minute read

The CareerExplorer Discord Community had the opportunity to speak to Rachel Meringer, an undergraduate student at Pepperdine University, in a live, fireside Q&A.

Rachel Meringer is an undergraduate student at Pepperdine University majoring in Psychology, works part-time as a Healthy Bodies Ambassador for the Student Wellness Advisory Board, and is involved in Greek Life. Now in her senior year, she is in the process of applying to graduate programs to continue her education in the field of Clinical Psychology.

Rachel studied abroad as a sophomore, changed her major as a junior, and is now completing her senior year remotely due to COVID-19. She has experience with academic planning, adapting to a changing college environment, balancing school with extracurriculars, and preparing to enter the workforce during a pandemic.

The transcript below has been modified and abridged from the original conversation.

Studying Abroad

Where did you study abroad?

I studied abroad in Florence, Italy! I spent a whole semester there. So even though Italy was home base, I ended up traveling to about 10 countries.

Are there any good websites or resources for those that would like to look at studying abroad?

Studying abroad depends on where you go to school. Some universities (like Pepperdine) have campuses abroad, or affiliations with particular universities in different countries. That makes it very easy to study abroad because you can contact your academic advisor and the school will already have a protocol in place to connect you to a program.

For universities that don’t have affiliations with campuses abroad, you’ll have to do a little bit more of the work. But if you settle on a few schools in countries you’d like to study in, you can reach out to their international departments and get more information on the process.

You also have the option to do a program like Semester at Sea, which is accredited but is an option for students at many different schools. Their website has a lot of great information if you’re interested in studying abroad that way!

Beyond the academic experience, what were some of your greatest takeaways from studying abroad?

I can’t say enough good things about studying abroad. The most impactful part of it, for me, was just seeing so much of the world outside of my LA bubble. It’s so easy for me to get wrapped up in my little world, and my problems.

It was very transformative for me to see that the world really is so much bigger than whatever stress I’m feeling at school, at work, or in relationships. Being abroad was a hard reset on my perspective, and overall just a really humbling experience. I met many people from a variety of places, and despite how different our languages, customs, or experiences were, I was able to connect with them on a rudimentary human level. That was very powerful for me, and I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything in the world.

First Day of College & Greek Life

Was there anything you weren’t prepared for on your first day of college?

Honestly, I wasn’t prepared for a lot of things. I think that part of going to college is learning that sometimes you have to take a step forward before you feel fully ready for it.

The thing I struggled with the most at first was balancing academics with other things. There were so many people around all the time, and there was always some event, some club meeting, or some social event happening. It was hard for me to navigate building community and making friends while staying on top of my academics.

My first semester of college, I felt so torn all the time! I was on academic scholarship, so my grades definitely mattered, but I also knew how important having a community was to me. I always felt like I was missing out on something, and it took me a while to settle into a routine where I felt comfortable deciding how much of my time and energy needed to be spent in different areas of my life.

I wish someone had told me that it’s okay to say no to social events, and it’s also okay to put off an assignment to make a memory. It’s all about finding a flow that works for you.

What is it like being involved in Greek Life (fraternities/sororities)? Is it similar to what you see in the movies?

I go to a small, private Christian university, so I would say our Greek Life is really different from the way it’s portrayed in the movies. I think in some places, particularly big public schools in the South, it’s a lot more like what you’d see in a movie. Many of the bigger schools have problems with alcohol use, hazing, sexual misconduct, etc. Hopefully, as those things get more media attention, schools will pay more attention and do more to keep their students safe.

Thankfully, Pepperdine is a really small community with a fairly strict code of conduct. So, Greek Life is basically just a social club. We don’t have Greek Life housing, dues are a lot lower, and overall it’s just a more relaxed experience. It’s heavily centered around philanthropy, and it’s a great way to meet people. Going through recruitment as a freshman, it instantly gave me a community of people that helped me feel more adjusted to college life.

Settling on a Major

How did you settle on your major?

Honestly, settling on my major took me over two years. I came into Pepperdine very confident that I knew what I wanted to do, and it was really difficult to make the switch when I realized it wasn’t right for me.

I spent a lot of time talking to my academic advisors and different professors in different departments. I just asked as many questions as I could to get an idea of what my options were (financially, logistically, etc.) and then kind of laid it all out in black and white.

My original major always left me feeling drained. I dreaded classes and I struggled to find motivation to complete assignments. The decision ended up coming down to which of the two I was excited to learn more about. And which of the two, no matter where I ended up in the field, I felt like I could see myself studying for the rest of my life.

I think the important thing in choosing a major is deciding on a field that you feel excited to learn about, and that you can imagine yourself doing beyond just four years at school. And, as a disclaimer, take some pressure off of yourself and remember that many people take jobs or start careers in something that isn’t directly related to what they studied in college.

What advice would you give high school students on how to overcome the fear of making a wrong decision when it comes to choosing a major?

I would encourage high school students to remember that the weight of the world is not on their shoulders. They have time, and they can change their minds. Even if they settle on a major and then decide to change it, they will be just fine!

I think high school puts so much pressure on choosing a major, but once you enter the working world it matters so much less. I wish someone had told me, as a high school senior, that I was not going to ruin my life by choosing the “wrong” major. You really can’t make a wrong choice. You can just make a choice that doesn’t get you where you want to be. At which point, you can make a different choice.

How common is it for students to stick with a major they don’t like, due to parental pressure? What advice would you give to students in this type of situation?

It’s unfortunately common for students to stick with a major they don’t like because of parental pressure. I’ve seen a lot of that at Pepperdine, especially in STEM or in any pre-health curriculum.

It’s tricky because many students are dependent on their parents financially for school, so they feel like they don’t have a choice but to listen to their parents. I would encourage students in this type of situation to try and open up a dialogue with their parents about how they’re feeling, and why they want to change majors.

It’s important for students to remember that our parents entered college and the workforce in a very different time, and the reality is that choosing a major today is different than it was 30 years ago. The options are different and the ability to change your career path later in life is different. So it makes sense to have a different opinion than your parents.

I think respecting their wishes, while also communicating your own feelings and plans for the future, is really important. Most parents just want their kids to succeed and to be happy, and sometimes they think they can guarantee that by pushing their kids into a specific career. Helping them see that you have a plan you’re passionate about is really important in starting that conversation.

And, at the end of the day, it’s your career and your life. Trusting yourself is always the best decision, and hopefully your parents will come to see that too.

Graduate School

What requirements are there for grad school? Is it similar to applying for undergrad? What do they look for?

For graduate programs, it really depends on what field you’re looking to go into. Most graduate programs in the social sciences (to get a Master’s Degree in Psychology, Sociology, etc.) require the GRE (Graduate Record Examination), a bachelor’s degree, two to four letters of recommendation, and a personal statement.

From there, the application process is fairly similar in terms of sending your transcripts, submitting letters of recommendation, etc. They tend to look for students that show some sort of passion and a clear directive for their career. Depending on what you want to do, research experience or internships can be a great way to show your passion and are also great resume builders!

Graduate school is very much an individualistic experience. It requires a lot of work, and most programs are interested in making sure you’re willing and prepared to put in the work and want to get to know you as a whole person.

Good grades and high scores will get them to read your application, but from there it’s all about who you are, how sure you are of what you want to do, and what value you can bring to their program.

How do you feel about the return on investment regarding graduate school? The prospect of continuing education for another two to seven more years for a PhD is a daunting idea when college graduates our age face the lowest incomes and highest debt ratios of any generation.

I definitely don’t think a master’s degree is always necessary, or the route with the best return on investment. However, because my bachelor’s degree will be in psychology, I need at least a master’s to work in a clinical setting. The difference in salaries available to me with just bachelor’s versus a master’s is fairly significant, at least within psychology.

I’ve also been anticipating going to graduate school since I started undergrad, so thankfully I’ve been planning finances accordingly! I’m grateful to receive merit scholarships from Pepperdine that make the cost of attendance much more reasonable for me, and that have allowed me to graduate undergrad debt free. Overall, it’s a personal decision that depends on several factors.

Online Courses & Entering the Workforce

What advice would you give to a student who’s nervous to transition to online courses?

I would recommend that you try to create an environment that feels as much like an in-person class as possible. I try to do all of my schoolwork from somewhere that isn’t my room, and I’ve found it really helps me focus and feel balanced between school and the rest of my life.

I would also encourage you to remember that many students are struggling to adjust, so you’re definitely never alone in that experience! I think it’s helpful to stay in touch with other students doing remote learning so you still have some sense of community, even while doing school online.

How are you preparing to enter the workforce amidst COVID-19?

I think entering the workforce amidst COVID-19 is such a stressful experience, and I really feel for all of the students who graduated this summer. I will graduate Spring 2021, so I thankfully have a few more months to figure that out.

Right now, I’m focusing on building my resume, doing my absolute best academically, and gaining some employable skills to try to prepare for an especially competitive environment post-graduation.

I’m applying to graduate programs right now, and working closely with my professors to get all of the research experience I can during this time. I’m also attending as many virtual sessions as I can, practicing things like cover letter writing and interview skills so as to set myself up for success after graduation.

What resources are you using for job search at the moment?

Pepperdine has a really great job search platform called Handshake, so I’ve been using that quite frequently. I’ve also been building my LinkedIn profile, exploring Glassdoor, and of course using CareerExplorer! I think connections are really important in the job search, so I’ve been working on expanding my network through platforms like LinkedIn and CareerExplorer as well.

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