geneva, a girl, and a reckoning

I’ve been at Geneva University in Switzerland this past week for a summer school course on cultural diversity. It’s been spectacular – highlights include learning from my research idols, yummy cheese fondue and French accents, on top of a time zone that respects my sleep-wake cycle. Unbelievable!

hijinks at a cheese fondue restaurant

But we all know our core memories are not made by knowledge — they’re created with people. Inspiring lectures aside, the event that defined this trip for me came over drinks with my classmates at a Mexican tapas bar. As the five of us self-disclosed, I quickly discovered that I was the least interesting person at the table, so I spoke less and listened more. (Instead of talking, I will brood and write more from now on. To all my readers, beware!)

The first surprise of the night was when one of us, a spunky, freckled PhD student from France, explained her decision to opt for a non-alcoholic drink – she was expecting.

She also happened to have a toddler at home.

What! I thought, mouth agape (subtly and respectfully).

All about NTU Psychology

Hello everyone and welcome to the world of Psychology! This post is written for poly/JC students considering a future with NTU Psychology. The sheer amount of online information can be daunting, so I have kept it to the essentials. I hope that it will be useful to you in making an informed decision.

All links open in new tabs.

Contents

[1] Curriculum: Overview, course structure, modules, lesson format
[2] Academic supplements: internships, research opportunities
[3] Work/future prospects: pay, career pathways
[4] Admission information: IGP for JC/poly
[5] Why NTU psychology: comparing NUS and NTU + some considerations 
[6] Scholarships available

For a future post: how to maximise chances of admission + student life

A bit about me for context

I graduated from the NTU Psychology programme in 2021 with Honours, Highest Distinction. I’m pursuing a Master’s degree in NTU now, researching social psychology. In addition, I’m the incumbent President of the Singapore Psychological Society (Youth Wing), which you should follow for more psychology opportunities! Oh and I also studied psych in poly.

In short, I literally have no identity besides “I do psych UwU”, but in exchange, I think about it ALL the time and that means I can deliver quality information to you, my dear reader.

How better than to start with some common misconceptions? Let’s see:

Common misconceptions

  • Psychology students can read minds or are more well-tuned to others’ emotions. Unfortunately, neither are true – though the second is a skill that can be developed with training based on psychological principles.
  • All psychologists deal with mental health. Not at all – clinical psychology is a popular discipline, yes, but it’s only one out of like, fifty (50) fields available. I’m serious.
    • Related misconception: psychology is a back-up plan for becoming a medical doctor (psychiatry). Let me put it out there now that there is virtually zero chance one can become a medical doctor with a psychology degree. The ONLY exception (available to the 1%) is if you go to graduate medical school.
    • You can become another type of doctor though (PsyD, PhD).
  • Psychology is easy because it’s commonsense knowledge. Yes, everyone has a natural tendency to try to understand other people, but here’s two things for your consideration: 1) you’re often wrong and 2) you don’t know that you’re often wrong. Psychology is also not easy because: STATISTICS IS COMPULSORY!!!
  • A degree in psychology means you are a psychologist upon graduation. Nope, you’ll need to pursue further studies – usually a Master’s degree.

These are not to scare you, merely to illustrate the realities of what it’s like to study psychology in Singapore. If you are willing to accept the above, it marks a great start for your journey ahead!  

Essential information

The full name of the NTU Psych degree as of 2022 is a BSocSci(Hons) in Psychology – short for Bachelor of Social Sciences. It used to be the Bachelor of Arts, and I believe the nomenclature change marks a transition to recognising it as more of a “science”. Some folks make a distinction between BA, BSc, and BSocSci, but imo it doesn’t matter.

What’s important is this – all students that enroll in NTU Psych are guaranteed an Honours degree. That means all students do a 4-year programme, since a conventional undergrad degree is typically 3 years. In comparison, an Honours is optional for NUS FASS.

To fulfill the honours requirements in Year 4, you will write a 10,000-word research paper (aka the fearsome Final Year Project) or take 2 additional higher-level modules in its place.

[1] Curriculum – click here for the full curriculum document.

Students take three types of modules in NTU:

  1. Specific stuff related to your degree (Major Requirements)
  2. General knowledge you need for the world (Interdisciplinary Collaborative Cores)
  3. The “have fun and S/U it” (Broadening and Deepening Electives)

For simplicity’s sake, we’ll only look at the first. Suffice it to say that the interdisciplinary cores will provide a good foundation. You will learn both skills (e.g. writing, critical thinking) and an appreciation of big trends in the world today (e.g. sustainability, big data). As for the broadening and deepening electives (every time I see this phrase I wanna laugh lol), use them as an opportunity to explore without fear of jeopardising your GPA. 

The modules that you take for psychology are split into two main types – the major-cores and major-electives. You will be clearing the 9 major-cores in the first two years, which are compulsory modules that the entire cohort has to take. These serve the function of exposing you to the diverse fields within psychology – e.g. social, biological, cognitive psychology – which can be poles apart in the methods and theories that they use. They’re all introductory-level modules, so don’t worry if you don’t have a H2 from JC.  

You will also be introduced to statistics from your very first semester. Even though students are only required to take two statistics modules (there are more, but they’re optional), you’ll realise that the subject matter bleeds into everything else. For example, to evaluate a journal article, you need to know what the numbers mean. Some students erroneously believe “oh since my future career goal is to become a therapist [for example], it’s not that important”. But without the numbers, we’re not a science at all. Either way, no matter how much mental gymnastics or procrastination you put yourself through, it will find its way back to you. So, you might as well tackle it head-on and set aside a lot of time to practice.

Most of the major-cores are lecture and exam-based. Lectures are usually 3 hours in a large lecture theatre or possibly online with COVID. Alternatively, it will be 2-hour lectures and 1-hour tutorials with more room for discussion. There is a heavy focus on content absorption and regurgitation. You will be expected to read a lot, from textbooks to journal articles. Some assignments will require you to write essays, where you will have to synthesise and evaluate the literature. There may also be presentations and posters to deliver. Nonetheless, the weightage of your grade is primarily determined by exams. Most of the exams are a combination of MCQs and short-answer questions.

Moving on to the major-electives. NTU Psychology offers over 50 (!) electives, though not all are available every semester. You won’t be taking all of them, of course. That’s why they’re called electives – because you get to choose. You won’t be taking them until earliest Y2S2, though it never hurts to plan ahead. 

Here are some examples of electives I’ve taken:

  • HP3002 Positive Psychology
  • HP3402 Social Cognition (fun fact: I’m the tutorial assistant for this now)
  • HP3708 Biopsychosocial Criminology
  • HP4104 Evidence-based Practice in Clinical Psychology

You might note a few things from the above. First, the topics are rather niche. You can think of them as “offshoots” of the core modules. They are also more integrative, e.g. social cognition blends social and cognitive psychology. Second, there are level 3000 and 4000 modules. Level 4000 modules are the most specialised, with a focus on the state of the art and application. Classes are smaller, with less lecturing and more student discussion. At this level, we move away from exams towards applying the knowledge to create new ideas and products. These are the modules that will stretch you the most. The instructors of those modules range from experts to superstars, who often have fanbases (LOL).

Single majors can expect to have a workload of about 15-18 AUs per semester, which is about 5-6 modules including the miscellaneous ones. This means you will be taking about 3-4 psych modules every semester. Double majors do a bit more, and 2nd majors are stressed a bit more because they have fewer modules they can S/U. Each module may further split into a number of quizzes, ranging anywhere from 2 to 5 (bless these students). The lesson is clear: consistent work is the only way to survive and thrive.

A brief note regarding the Final Year Project (FYP) that students will take in Year 4. I quote from the website:

The objective of the Graduation Project/FYP is to expose students to the elements that are inherent in independent research work in psychology. With the guidance of an advisor, the student will learn to identify a research issue in an area of psychology, conduct empirical, meta-analytical (use of secondary data), or library research, and write up a research report of about 9,000 to 10,000 words

“Empirical” just means “run your own study”, meta-analytical just means “take a bunch of existing studies and run analyses on them”, and library research means “literature review”. All worthwhile and fun. FYP is compulsory for GPAs >=3.9/5, optional for 3.75-3.89, and disallowed for those below 3.75. The third group will take two 4000-level modules in its place. You’ll graduate with an Honours regardless of whether you do your FYP, though it’s required for the award of Distinction and above.

You don’t have to worry about the FYP because it’s so far away. But if you need to ease your kiasuism, what you can do is to take your first semesters to find out more about the professors. Learn about their personalities, their work, their interests, and decide if you’re aligned with those aspects. If you have an idea of who/what you like early on, you can also volunteer as a research assistant at their labs to get a headstart. More on that below.

At some point, every student probably goes through the phase of “this was not what I was expecting”. If you want a clearer idea of what to expect, check out my guide to NTU Psych modules, where I cover the content, assessments, and personal tips for all modules I took.

[2] Academic Supplements

Research opportunities are useful if you are gearing for a career that is research-oriented. Internships offer an avenue to demonstrate your aptitude and interest in a field of work.

Research Opportunities

Research Assistantships (RAs): a university has two functions – to educate and to churn out research. Professors are conducting new research studies all the time, and many have “labs” – workgroups of students running projects spearheaded by the professor (known as the Principal Investigator). Students can volunteer (i.e. unpaid labour) to join labs to assist with these projects and learn about the research process. Early on, you’ll be assigned more menial tasks like coding responses, running studies and data cleaning, but as you gain more experience, you’ll ideally be empowered to contribute more. You might even land a co-author spot eventually!

The demand for manpower is ever-present, but so is the supply. Thus, you’ll have to be proactive in seeking out your professors and be able to articulate clearly why you have chosen their lab over others. The good news is you don’t have to limit yourself to the professors that have taught you – you could even go beyond the department if you wanted.

URECA: An acronym for “Undergraduate Research Experience on CAmpus”, this is an optional programme that allows students to conduct their own research project with a supervisor of their choice. It is available from Year 2 onwards for all students with a GPA of over 4.0. It’s 4AUs, which is the equivalent of a 4000-level module. In other words, it’s like a mini-FYP. The good news is that it’s pass/fail, allowing a rare opportunity for students to freely pursue their interests without having to worry about their GPAs. How your experience will play out is heavily dependent on your supervisor’s workstyle and preferences (this is a rule you should remember as you go along), but in general, all students are expected to submit a 5,000-word research paper as the final deliverable. They will also be credited as the first author alongside their supervisor. You probably will not end up with a ground-breaking discovery, but it’s an excellent foray into the world of research.

For more information, I wrote a review of my URECA experience here.

Internships

I only took one internship in poly – right before I graduated. Since I knew I wanted to pursue further studies early on, I wasn’t too worried about whether I had an internship or not. The pressure to obtain an internship under one’s belt can be daunting, though. In my conversations with friends, the stresses of applying for internships was a frequent topic.

There is no restriction on where and what kind of internships you can apply for. Additionally, the School of Social Sciences (of which the Psych department is under) offers the Professional Attachment Programme (HPAP) that students at the end of Year 3 can take. Students will receive 5AUs (pass/fail) in exchange upon completing 10 weeks of internship. The organisation in which you intern at must be approved by the Career and Attachment Office (CAO), though.

Juniors often ask me where to find internships. Honestly, I’m not very sure in light of my limited experience in this area. Three avenues I can suggest:

  • Ask your professors
  • Use platforms such as LinkedIn
  • Do your own research

Just because a job is not listed doesn’t mean it’s not there. One of my friends shared that she had landed an internship by proactively reaching out to companies that interested her even when they did not indicate that they were hiring talent. I was so impressed. I just applied for mine because I saw that they were recruiting via school email.

At the end of the day, before jumping into any research opportunities or internships, start by asking yourself: what value am I looking for out of this, and is it what I really need? Or am I merely doing it for the sake of having something on my résumé? Don’t just do it because you’re FOMO. Remember that every choice you make entails an opportunity cost. 

[3] Work/future prospects – ah yes the million-dollar question

Pay: An average fresh grad from NTU Psych can expect to earn in the range of $3000-3500.

Sectors (that I’ve seen my friends enter): civil service, private sector (HR, banks), research, marketing, clinics

  • To reiterate: to become a full-fledged psychologist, you need a postgraduate degree. It is not a negotiable, and takes years of investment and commitment. 

Key skills gained: critical thinking, writing, translating research, data analysis, interpersonal skills, possibly advocacy (HAHAHA)

[4] Admission Information

Indicative Grade Profile AY21/22 for Psychology

A levels

  • 10th percentile: AAC/B
  • 90th percentile: AAA/A

Polytechnic

  • 10th percentile: 3.72
  • 90th percentile: 3.92

[5] Scholarships

There are many scholarships for freshmen that NTU offers.

I might do another post on how to improve your chances at getting a scholarship/maximise your chances of getting into the programme based on my experiences of receiving the Nanyang Scholarship and NTU Research Scholarship, so feel free to give a like, leave a comment under this post, or even support me if you want to make it happen!

[6] Why NTU Psychology?

I cover various reasons why in my post comparing NTU and NUS Psychology, written with the input of my friends in the two programmes. That being said, I recognise that there are other universities in Singapore offering psychology, and they too are valid choices.

Some major concerns might be:

  • The major declaration system: NUS FASS allows you to change your major to something else, NTU doesn’t; you’re in for psych all the way
  • The module balloting system: NTU is fastest fingers, NUS is bidding
  • The S/U system: NUS allows seeing your grades before S/U, and NTU students have been up in arms for years about this, but it didn’t matter much to me
  • The location and living arrangements: NTU has first 2 years guaranteed hall, and I think NUS doesn’t have this

Student life

I originally wanted to include my experiences with hall living, overseas exchange, and student clubs in this post but in the interest of time I think I’ll save it for another post. Again, let me know if you’re interested by liking, commenting, or just reaching out!

Feel free to AMA by leaving a comment here or on the Reddit post I’ll probably be linking this to.

Final credits

This post and its format was inspired by the following “All about [Course]” series of posts which I am grateful for: law, nursing.

Resources and relevant posts

Follow/contact me | OR if you want to show some love, you can buy my candy and share it with your friends, it’ll make my day ❤

Follow for more psych opps: Singapore Psychological Society (Youth Wing) | NTU Psychology Society

More on NTU life: Guide to STAR Wars and other FAQs

How to Win the NTU Star Wars… and other FAQs

I get a lot of questions from juniors in NTU. But I only have so many hours in a day, so I made this FAQ which should serve to answer most of your questions. I will continually update this list as new questions come along. If you have any questions, leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you!

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How do I win the NTU STAR WARS?

Here’s what worked for me (I got virtually every mod I wanted as an undergraduate).

Prepping for War

  • Split your modules into three plans.
    • The first two plans will ONLY have your cores and major electives. GER-Cores come under here too.
    • The first is your plan A, and you should populate it with your first-choice modules. Make sure they do not clash and that you do not have more AUs than you should have (people who hoard modules are trash). If you want to maximise your chances of getting the mods you want, consider selecting those with less popular tutorial timeslots. At least you’re in the module – you can swap indexes later.
    • The second is plan B, which contains the modules that you’re willing to settle for – there should be no overlaps with A. Plan B’s actually optional, because even if you lose the first round, you can play the waiting game to get all the modules you want eventually.
    • The third plan, the “essential afterthought”, consists of everything else – GER-PEs, UEs, or ICCs/BDEs as they now call it. Speed does not matter for these modules because ballotting, so just take your time to rank and submit after you’ve recovered from the initial shock of submitting Plan 1 and 2.
  • Use time.is – the STARS system is well-aligned with it.
  • In your free time or let’s say about 20-30 minutes before the actual war, practice holding the button from around XX:XX:55 onwards and release just as the clock turns to XX:XX:00. The system will indicate to you the time – if you’re in the “next minute”, you’ve succeeded. Practice releasing as early as possible while not being too early, because a mistake later during the actual bidding will cost you.
  • Sit really close to your Wi-Fi source, or use a desktop PC (those ethernet-wired ones). It worked for me, especially with the latter, but it might be a placebo effect.
  • Load up the page about 10 minutes before the actual timing and keep loading your modules in intervals of 30s. I am paranoid so I was loading every 15s LOL. This is so the page doesn’t expire by the time you submit your mods.
  • I read online that some people use two devices i.e. a computer and their phone to bid at the same time. I think that is hilariously dramatic and I did not need to do that, but whatever works amirite?

The What War?

  • When you submit Plan 1/2, another page will launch asking you to rank the modules. You do not need to rank the modules. Just locate and select the button at the bottom to submit.
  • The page may freeze. DO NOT close it. That’s what I did once when I panicked and I lost big time. Just wait, even though your heart wants to jump out of your chest and your mind is SPINNING.
  • … [processing] …
  • If you win, congratulations! No further action is required on your part. Do your little victory dance, submit Plan 3, and text your friends.
  • If/when you lose, DO NOT PANIC. Do NOT launch your email application in a fruitless attempt to complain to your school office – they will not be able to do anything for you at this point.
    • Speaking of which, keep an eye out for emails from your admin. They will usually be around to resolve any cohort issues (but not your individual ones, so don’t waste their time).
    • More slots for your modules are likely to be released periodically through the remainder of the day. Some say it is 5-10pm, but check back every 15 minutes anyway. It’s not as if you’ll be able to focus on anything else.
    • If you have a group chat with your coursemates, start posting your deets to exchange mods. First-come-first-serve!

The Aftermath

  • Contrary to popular opinion(?), THIS is actually the stage where I got most of the modules I wanted.
  • Sometimes I wrote to the office and pulled the 2nd major/exchange card (scientia potentia est, ladies and gentlemen).
  • Most other times I simply waited for the add/drop period and camped religiously at the STARS planner page. I would check back every 30 minutes or so waiting for people to drop the modules through the first and second week (esp. following the first lessons). I checked during class, outside class, when I woke up, before I slept. I usually got my modules by the end of the first week. Yeah so kinda anticlimactically, for me it was really just patience and persistence that sealed the deal.
  • I know some students write directly to professors, but it depends on the prof’s personality. I never used this method because I didn’t want to inconvenience others (the admin who has to accommodate extra slots, and the other students and professor who may have to bear the brunt of an overloaded class) and I don’t like it.
  • Even if you don’t get the modules you want, try something else and you might find yourself in for a surprise! I do have modules I regret taking (everyone does), and I can’t help but wonder what if I experimented and found something else in the process? You never know.
  • Be kind to your fellow peers and help them out. You never know if they might return the favour. People are more prone to helping friends when it comes to this kind of thing like swapping modules and all.

Check out my guide to NTU Psych Modules here.

Other FAQs

What’s the average grade for module X / FYP?

Assume all modules, including FYP, follow the bell curve. This means that your performance is graded relative to how your cohort did, rather than the absolute score you got on your assignments/exams. Let’s say you got 40/50 for a recent test. It’s a 80%, but if the cohort average is 45/50 then you’re unlikely to be getting an A for that test.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is normal_curve-1ftn8yh.gif
pictured: a representation of the normal distribution, or the “bell curve”.

The next question you might have is: how many % of students get a certain grade? Well, nobody knows, because it is not disclosed for obvious reasons. My PERSONAL guess (so don’t quote me to the office) of the grade proportions are:

  • 15-20% of students will get any A (A+/A/A-).
  • 70-75% will get any B (B+/B/B-).
  • 10% get C and below or dabao.

A further EXAMPLE to illustrate. Referring to the diagram above, most students will get a B+/B (the blue regions). A smaller proportion of students will get A- and B- (e.g. the red regions). The smallest proportion of students will get A/+ and below B- (yellow). So on and so forth. Again, this is only an example.

Suffice it to say: the average is a B+. You are most likely to get a B+. “But I am a genius and work really hard,” you lament. Sure – you’re still most likely to get a B+, based on the principle of regression to the mean. My estimate is a B+ because I notice most people around me in HASS graduating with a Distinction, which is a cGPA of 4.0-4.49. It may also be a B in certain courses. Finally, note that a minority of modules (smaller classes?) may be exempted from the bell curve. Nothing’s ever for certain in this murky bureaucracy.

There’s a variant of this question that I also get: is the bell curve steep? Huh? Bell curve differs meh? I don’t know. I assume all modules are curved in the same proportion. Surely there must be some guideline, or students in different schools would be graduating with different proportions of honours.

For more information, see this post written by the incumbent NUS President Prof Tan Eng Chye for an illustration of how the bell curve grading system works.

Is X course/module competitive? (Or: what’s the vibe of the course?)

Yes, it is. It is competitive. I mean, what answer were you expecting? Students fight tooth and nail every year to secure a spot in your course at NTU, NUS, and all the other universities. Why would you think that it would get easier after you’re admitted? But that doesn’t mean you have to be [only] a slave to the rat race. Make the best of your time by focusing on discovering yourself and pursuing what you love.

Do you have Past Year Papers to share?

Past year papers of all courses in NTU can be accessed here (under E-Resources). If it’s not available there, it doesn’t exist. To the NTU Psych students reading this: the Psychology programme does not provide PYPs. Thank you.

Are NTU and NUS different? Which one should I choose?

Nah, not to me. Tbh I bet people couldn’t tell the difference between a NTU and NUS student, ceteris paribus – they’re “functionally equivalent”. (Fun activity to try the next time you’re in a group interview – “Guess the Uni!”) The biggest inter-university difference comes with SMU imo, because students there are trained to make themselves heard. You might hear some casual comments like “NUS is more rah rah” or “NTU is more laidback” but dig a bit more and you’ll find that there are no specifics to these statements. The two universities are more similar than different. But which university do the really outstanding students pick, you ask? Neither – they’re overseas in the US or UK under government scholarships ASLDJSKFJS

Pick the course that you’re more interested in, not based on the abstract “culture” of the school. See my NTU vs NUS Psych post for a comparison of the two programmes.

Is Uni as stressful as poly / JC?

Uni is like Poly+. Same thing at a higher difficulty. More stressful, because the cohort has been further “pruned”. To underestimate the poly students in uni is to make a mistake. We’re very good at what we do, or we wouldn’t be here, because the bar is higher for us.

I feel like JC is a long-distance marathon while Uni is closer to a series of sprints. I think the stakes are higher for the A levels because you basically only have one chance to make it or break it. In Uni you arguably have multiple chances, and the system is a lot more flexible than people give it credit for (e.g. S/U, dabao, 1st sem invulnerability). Not sure about the stress, but JC students are free to leave their comments below.

NTU vs NUS Psychology: The Lowdown

Considering Psychology as a degree, but can’t decide between NTU and NUS Psychology? We’ve got you covered! With 4 friends from NTU and NUS Psychology, we answer 10 frequently asked questions about the experience as a psychology student in both institutions. We also provide the nitty-gritty details, and offer some tips on how to thrive if you do choose to pursue Psychology in either university!

copped from @nus_memes

Questions to be answered (Ctrl-F to jump to the question straight, e.g. “Q3”)

  • Q1. Did you choose NTU/NUS Psych, and why?
  • Q2. What were your expectations for the Psych course when you first entered? How has the actual experience been similar and different?
  • Q3. What is the process for getting modules in NTU/NUS Psych like, and how has the experience been for you?
  • Q4. What are your favourite modules so far, and what modules have you not taken but want to?
  • Q5. (Because NUS allows seeing grades before S/U) How has the S/U function helped you? For NTU students, what are your opinions on this? 
  • Q6. Share one favourite memory you made in university.
  • Q7. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice before entering university, what would it be?
  • Q8. What research opportunities are available for students in your batch, and have you taken up any of them? How was the experience like?
  • Q9. What career opportunities have you been exposed to? 
  • Q10. What resources do you recommend for incoming students to your university’s Psych programme?

Profiles of our guest interviewees (names tagged to social media profiles)

Gwyneth (NTU): Year 4 doing Psychology and Sociology as a 2nd Major at NTU. Spends all her free time blogging or reading specific genres of manga (yes very boring). PLEASE support her by sharing this post/blog with ALL your friends. Find her @gwynethtyt everywhere.

Tarif (NTU): Year 2 NTU Psychology Major, pursuing a minor in Youth Work and Guidance. In his free time, Tarif enjoys taking long walks amidst nature and scrolling through TikTok and Facebook for funny content. A pragmatic idealist, Tarif can often be caught contemplating life, seeking greater meaning in the work that he does. Beyond his musings, he lives by the phrase: all is well!

Terance (NUS): Year 2 NUS Psychology undergraduate. Doesn’t like balloons.

Ye Rui (NUS): Year 2 NUS Psychology undergraduate. Enjoys watching shows, gaming, and playing soccer. HATES cucumbers.   

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on the failure to fail

Two weeks ago, I had my first classes at McGill University. It is a gorgeous, sprawling institution located in Montréal, a city in Canada’s province of Quebec. (Took me a while to get that sentence too – geography eludes me.)

Introductory day was spectacular, setting my existential crisis into motion. I walk into morning class to be greeted by a course syllabus with no exams and massive class participation. Anyone who knows me recognises my enthusiasm for group work. And a poster exhibition worth 40%. What? But the module is on the sociology of science! I’d be a fool to let that go for some adjustment issues.

Three hours later, I am late for a seminar because it is a 15-minute hill away from the second lecture, and also because of my abysmal time management. (There’s no way around either.) I awkwardly fumble for a seat at the makeshift discussion space, made up of four rectangular tables aligned such that sixteen people can stare daggers at each other simultaneously. Sixteen. The instructor is devastatingly charming, up to the point he casually mentions that everyone in class will inevitably and individually lead a class discussion. You could pull that phrase apart into single words and I’d be as horrified. Individually / lead / class / discussion.

I share my personal difficulties with being nervous in social situations with two friendly classmates, as they walk me to my fourth and final class out of goodwill. They are mildly sympathetic. Or not. Could I chalk it down to cultural differences or personal weakness? I have no answers, and it doesn’t matter.

I attempt to strike a conversation with an aloof, if cordial, student seated beside me in the lecture theatre. She doesn’t catch my accent half the time. It’s fine. I won’t be seeing her in the next lesson, or the next, or any of the following lectures really. We sit in silence, and I make a comment on how the theatre is packed.

She replies: “Ah, don’t worry about that. The numbers start falling off in a few weeks.”

Me, intrigued and dumb: “Why? Is it because they drop the class?”

Her, blandly: “No. They just stop coming.”

well, there’s that.

I leave the theatre confused by my professor’s rambling on development, colonialism, and what the definition of “betterment of society” really entails. I am emotionally and socially depleted, and I don’t have anyone to go home to. To mitigate my nagging loneliness, I go searching for John William’s Stoner near my place as an alternative to the more scandalous books I currently possess. It’d be easier to read in public. There, on level 2, an older man’s fingers dance across the piano at an adjoined café as mine run across pages and glossy covers. The book’s not available.

On my way home, I ruminate on why I’m so worried about my performance when I’m being graded on a pass/fail scale. I could even get away with missing class occasionally (obligatory disclaimer: not that I intend to). The answer, introspectively derived, is that it’s not only my performance that I’m worried about. I’m worried, and I always have been, about how others perceive me. And that is inextricably intertwined with my fear of failure, in the words of my lecturer on human motivation. To be precise, it would be inaccurate only to say that I want to do well; it’s more that I can’t accept not doing well.

I am positively sickened at the prospect of sitting in a group discussion feeling like I’m the only one who hasn’t done the reading. That happened on the second day of class, actually. I forgot to read one paper in advance, I admitted it to the four other girls I was grouped with, and the discussion promptly continued as if Thanos had snapped his finger and scattered my humiliated ashes to the wind. For all I know, half of them didn’t do the reading either, a suspicion that was highlighted when they went off-topic multiple times. But I still hated every moment of being in that situation. I don’t know how the exchange student in my group last semester back at NTU managed to pull it off (not reading any assigned articles), though I do know I did not hide my contempt for him.

don’t do shit, get hit.

I recall one class presentation where it was readily apparent to me that I was putting out inferior work. Relatively speaking, at least, because the bell curve dictates that one’s work is judged only against the performance of compeers in the same module. Standing under the watchful eye of the lecturer and classmates, I remember thinking, why are you guys paying attention now of all times!? I was wringing my hands desperately, looking anywhere but at the lecturer (and the other students too) in case they discovered my incompetence.

Throughout the ordeal, the irrepressible urge to simply up and bolt out of the classroom held me hostage – a classic flight response to a situation rapidly spiraling out of control. Thankfully, I was too petrified to budge. It was not a good day. Failing is an incredibly noxious sensation that I don’t have the resources to handle.

The problem, then: isn’t failing a necessity for growth?

I can’t bring myself to relax now, because I’ve never allowed myself to under equivalent conditions. I’m deeply terrified of mediocrity, and my talent is escaping from that inevitability.

Still, I’m learning. I missed one day’s worth of class earlier this week. (Obligatory disclaimer: whoops.) I’m telling myself it’s okay, even if I didn’t understand half of what the lecturer said in the class on development today. (At this point, I’m inclined to think it’s him and not me.) Even if I don’t have anyone to help me catch up on the content. I will get through it as I always have. There will be no caveats here, only a commitment to self-acceptance. After all, exchange promised to be a time for growth. I’m going to make the best out of it – even if it means pulling apart and rebuilding myself in the process.

bibliofailure

Okay but the real question is: is it cheating if I count my mandated class readings towards fulfilling my annual Goodreads Reading Challenge? After all, reading is reading… (I’m ashamed to say I probably still wouldn’t meet my goal even with their inclusion, though.)

my NTU URECA experience: a review

Updated 31 Jul 2021 because all the links were broken (thanks, NTU!).

I first received the invitation to join the NTU URECA programme in August 2018. It was an exciting time. Early on in the game, all the possibilities seemed so alive. So I jumped on the bandwagon and went crashing into a wall at full speed. Wait, what?

Excuse me. Let’s try again. In this post, I will recap my URECA journey over the past year for your benefit and mine. Mandatory disclaimer: I did a project relating to the social sciences, so the research process may vary with other disciplines.

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Yes that’s me and my beautiful friend Cal.

Background

All good research papers must begin with a succinct and relevant background of the topic. The current piece is no exception. URECA is an acronym, standing for Undergraduate Research Experience on CAmpus. It’s a derivative of the word “eureka”, which implies a moment of insight where a solution to a complex problem is spontaneously realised. This all sounds great on paper, but I will inform you now that the reality is nothing like that. There are no sudden moments of miraculous magic, at least not without the preparation. There is only pain, and in it some potential for growth, if you make the best out of it.

i‘m only putting pics bc i know people get intimidated by huge chunks of text.

Registering for your project

If you are interested in joining the programme, there are two ways to go about it. Both of them involve attaching yourself to a research project. The email that the office sent delineates three options, but two are essentially the same thing.

  1. You pick a project that is already available on the portal.
  2. You propose your own.

The first one is straightforward enough. Half the work is done for you. The seeds of the idea have already been sown by the professor and their team – all you have to do is to bring it to fruition. Plus, some projects sound like they promise a lot of fun. (“Psychophysical investigation on association between tactile softness perception and onomatopia”? Count me in!) Looking at the projects available this cycle, I am reminded of how the research space is bursting with creativity.

You don’t have to limit yourself to your own major either – you can choose to work with professors from other disciplines. Ah, now is a good time to mention: you might be interested in working with them, but they must want to work with you too. Professors are popular and they know it. They revel in it. And if they have to pick the best student to work with, they will. So prepare your résumé and a convincing argument why they should pick you over the others; you never know when you might need it. As far as I know, it is customary to meet the professor in person to express your interest and get the ball rolling (for some of my friends, it was the one and only time they saw the professor in the flesh LOL).

Anyway, me being the masochist that I am, I opted for the second option. I wanted to do something related to Psychology, but I wasn’t particularly inclined towards any existing project either. And every moment I hesitated, professors and projects were being snapped up left and right. My strategy: I identified a list of professors whose areas of interest overlapped with mine, and sent them customised emails. Customised emails = not merely replacing their names, but a brief comment on their field of specialisation and how my potential project aligned with their work.

sticks and stones may break my bones…

Prof Catherine was the professor whose work (and later on, personality) intrigued me most. Yes, disclaimer: I am her fan and I will spare no effort to put her on a pedestal from here onwards. I am kidding, but I am really not. She had no projects registered on the portal – I found her through the staff directory. She benevolently stated in our first meeting that she would be Very Busy (she still is) and due to that I might suffer (I did, a lot), but she was otherwise willing to give the collaboration a shot. It’s hilarious thinking about this now because my ideas got so butchered in the process of development that I wonder if she knew what she was saying yes to in the first place. But I am happy that it worked out with her, and I have #noragrets.

Idea development

Another pivotal part of all good research is a fresh idea. As I have mentioned, if you have opted for Option 1 (selecting an existing project), this should be relatively easier because the foundation is already laid out for you. Still, this doesn’t mean you have a license to relax. Expect to do a lot of reading and critical thinking during this period, where you need to pick out relevant literature that supports your project’s thesis. On top of that, you need to innovate by coming up with your own unique selling point of your project that makes it worth caring for. Sorry kids – plagiarism and social loafing ain’t gettin’ you through this one.

Fortunately, the URECA office offers a few workshops to help you through this process. There are some useful tips to be gleaned from those sessions. (There are also compulsory quizzes.) I get the impression that some students look upon them as a chore rather than an opportunity to benefit. Ultimately though, it’s your project, and whatever you make of the experience is what you’ll get.

For Option 2 (proposing your own project), it’s the same thing, but on harder difficulty. I took a good few months before finally settling on a central idea, and that was after redoing the whole thing at least three times. It’s not like erasing a few lines and rewriting it – more like throwing the whole whiteboard out, markers and all, and replacing it with a new set. In the meantime, I had to deal with being interrogated by my astute Prof C every other week. She caught all my presuppositions, prejudices, and paradoxes in my proposals and reflected them to me. And where I could not account for them, I had to go back and think about it until I could. There was no escape. (There is no escape from mediocrity and misery. If you can accept that, I am sure you can accept anything.)

Data collection

I underestimated the potency of the data collection process. The actual “collection” per se is time-consuming, but it’s hardly the most taxing part. It’s the preparatory work: the justification of questions, supervisor comments, the ethics committee’s approval, participant recruitment and management, booking of rooms, financial reimbursement… merely typing this makes me shiver. It is not as intellectually challenging as the idea development stage, but it is extremely tedious. Start as early as possible. Even though I started the preparatory work in March, by the time I was officially allowed to begin data collection, the exam period was already setting in. As such, my potential pool of participants was reduced (screams in small sample size).

I could afford to have 160 participants, so I had to exhaust every resource I had to get as close to that number as possible (or risk the wrath of my Prof!). Thankfully, my course department was supportive and accommodated my requests for reaching out to the participant pool. Other than that, it was posting on social media (fyi: there’s a Telegram Channel called NTU Paid Studies/Surveys for this purpose) and begging my friends.

My means of obtaining data was an online survey. However, to replicate “laboratory conditions”, my participants had to make the trip down to the computer lab and complete the survey under my Watchful Eye. Upon receiving their registration deets (slyreply.com is popularly used in my discipline), I sent multiple personalised reminders (including specific time and location) on the advice of my all-knowing Prof. You can imagine the chaos that come from dealing with humans, who are inherently fickle. Some didn’t read the instructions and registered when they did not meet the eligibility criteria. Others registered a second time after not showing up for the first appointment and ultimately still did not come (why??? WHY???). But most were polite and came on time, though I would have been even more grateful if they had not mowed through my painstakingly-crafted survey in the span of a few minutes.

Data analysis

This is arguably the part where I struggled the most. At the same time, I learned a lot. While the data can be anything you make of it, you need to know what to do in the first place! There’s not much to talk about here, except that it involved yet more meetings (à la Coffee Confrontations) and actual revision. I had to scour through my archives to find my statistics notes from the previous semester, so that I could identify the limits of what I previously learnt and by extension what I was expected to know (not that it mattered, because I knew nothing). If you’ve noticed thus far, URECA is basically an opportunity to apply the material you’ve learnt in university, with some scaffolding from your professor. I ran so many SPSS tests I started dreaming about them at one point.

Prof held my hand through my suffering. I am still grateful. I remember one of our final meetings where we were deciding whether to investigate a marginally significant 3-way interaction effect. She took 30 minutes to illustrate in detail what tests I would be expected to run. At the end of it she looked at my face of despair, deadpan, and we collectively decided we would be strict about the cut-off p value after all.

Report writing

Not only do you get to improve your knowledge relating to your topic, your report writing skills will be sharpened too (I sound like an advertisement – I should be paid for this LOL). Remember those academic writing modules that we were made to take? I hope you paid attention, because those actually come into good use here. You’re given only 12 pages so every sentence counts. At least, my Prof was exacting in her expectations that there were no loose ends and all threads were tied up neatly. While my end-product was by no means spectacular or perfect, I attribute its relatively decent quality to her attention to detail. (Check out my final report here). In short, if you want to create something you’ll be proud of, set standards for yourself and be sure to communicate your expectations with your supervisor.

Other notable events

There are some events that I did not cover above. I probably don’t remember all of them but here are a few major ones to look out for.

  • ICUR-URECA (International Conference of Undergraduate Research). Optional. You get to watch the presentations from the best of the previous batch of NTU-URECA students, as well as students from other universities. It was intriguing enough for me, though it did not inspire any ideas on my part. If your project is eventually good enough, you may be selected to participate yourself. (2021 update: I submitted my FYP-URECA project to this conference, and was waitlisted. HAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHHA)
  • Poster Presentation. Optional. You summarise your project into the size of an A1/2 board and present to judges and interested passersby. They get to vote on their favourite poster for each category. It’s fun doing with friends. (Trivia: that’s where the video at the top of this page came from.)

QnA – our favourite thing

1. Is it worth it?

This is such a loaded question. But for my fans I will deliver.

It’s worth it if:

  • You intend to pursue a career related to academia, or a post-graduate degree.
  • You have some interest in research and you’re looking to test the waters before committing. In that case, think of it like a hands-on internship project. One where you don’t get paid, that is.
  • You are particularly passionate about a specific topic in your discipline (e.g. social psychology, quantum mechanics??) and you want to use this opportunity to expand your knowledge base or plan ahead. FYP-URECA is this initiative where you basically do a sequel to your original URECA project with the same professor, but this time you mark it as a FYP. This obviously suggests a great deal of dedication to a single topic. (2021 update: this paid off for me! I qualified for FYP-URECA because of this foundation I had set two years back).
  • You are emotionally and physically ready to invest a substantial portion of your time developing and cultivating an idea that may not pay off in the end (I would know).
  • You enjoy the camaraderie of suffering with your peers.
  • Having a slight tinge of masochistic tendencies in your blood also helps, because you’re going to need it when you inevitably get bashed by your professor. They can’t help it – it’s an occupational hazard, dealing with naive students. I can’t count how many times my mind felt like it was on the verge of imploding because my professor decided to ask me if I had learnt 6D multimatrix regression in stats class or something.

It’s probably not so worth it if:

  • You are unlikely to end up in academia
  • You just want to make your resume look nicer (there’s no point really – most of the research comes back with null results and gets buried somewhere in the void of space). I guess it can be a good conversation starter though. “Hey, I conducted my own student research project. I got none of the results I expected, but at least I tried.” Sounds about right to me.
  • You’re doing it for the AUs. It’s not worth it. You’ll need a lot more than that to get through it.
  • You are currently overcommitted. There’s only so much one can give. If your will collapses, so does everything else. Be ready to sacrifice something in return for a good piece of research, whether it be your sanity, your sleep, your co-curricular activities, or those nights out with your friends. My informal guideline is that you should have no more than 3 major commitments including this one (leadership positions and academics included). And that’s already a lot to handle.

2. What’s the workload?

  • If you are consistent with your effort and pace yourself, it’s actually not much. I could get things done the night before early on, though as the project progressed I had to start earlier in the time leading up to my meetings with my professor. Since the final product should not exceed 12 pages, it is comparable to the length of a group assignment. Considering you are given one year to do it, it’s manageable. At the time I was doing it, I was pursuing a 2nd Major, had co-curricular activities, and went on summer exchange too.

3. Should a person going on semester exchange take it up?

  • I would say no. You miss out on valuable f2f time with your professor, and that’s where you get the most out of meetings. Texts and emails can’t replicate the, should I say, eureka feeling. LOOOOOOOL. Plus, who wants to spend their exchange worrying about deadlines on a research project? If possible, I recommend you schedule URECA for one year and exchange in the next or before.
  • Truth is, I’m not sure if this is even allowed. Please write in to the office to ask; they are always there to entertain you. Prof Siva is very nice – I talked to him on the phone once. Feelsgoodman!

4. Pass/fail or graded?

  • Pass/Fail. 4AUs. You may be able to get pass with merit (or some kind of special award) though. I was awarded the title of “NTU President Research Scholar” on the basis of outstanding achievement, though I have no clue how common it is. They don’t give stipends anymore, beginning from my batch. I was registered in Sem 2 (HE9015 Undergraduate Research) but the entire duration of the project was one academic year, or two semesters.

#Protips for Pros

  • Communicate with your professor (or your PhD student-in-charge, lel). I always set deadlines in advance and there was rarely, if ever, a period of time where we both did not know what was happening. Perhaps that was because I could always feel her disapproving spirit loom over my being, but whatever goes.
  • Take advantage of the opportunities the URECA body offers. This means participating in the workshops, poster presentations, conferences, blah. You may not win, but you will learn either way. Not only was I pushed out of my comfort zone, I also learnt to identify the people around me who actually cared for the things I was passionate about. (There were not many.)
  • Plan ahead. While I did not rush to finish my work, I missed the deadline to submit it to an international body (Global Undergraduate Awards Programme). While I wouldn’t have won anyway, I feel bad that I didn’t manage to enter at all. If I had completed it just slightly earlier, I might have made it. So don’t estimate to complete your work on time, but complete it earlier. There are a lot of stages to research, as I listed through this post, so having a sense of the big picture really helps. I thought once I had gotten past the literature review phase everything would go easy but no-o-o. There is still data collection, and data analysis, and report writing, all of which were challenging in their own right.
  • Every professor has their own style and quirks. If you do not know what they’re like beforehand, you can only pray and roll with it. Being adaptable goes a long way here. Asking your seniors about your professors’ personalities as a precautionary measure is also wise. I am lucky that I met a nurturing one who was willing to make time to see me regularly, but this is not universally applicable.
  • Make your own notes of the dates and pointers provided by the URECA office. The office (or just Prof Siva, the Director?) is generally quite thorough in its instructions provided over the course of the programme, but the email content can be all over the place.

Mandatory self-plug

I mean, since I’ve written so much, I should share about my URECA project too. Let me pluck it out of the dust. Okay. I just tried to break down my thesis and hypotheses, but I gave up. So I will just put the entire paper up for view here. Like I said, it’s not an excellent paper by any means, but I’m nevertheless happy that it’s here. It’s tangible proof that I tried. And I will remember the memories that came with it. I also want to thank my loved ones, in particular V, L, and J, for being there for me.

If anyone is reading this, I hope this article helped you to know more about URECA and possibly contribute to your decision on whether to take it up or not. I’d be happy if you could share it with your friends who are in a similar situation too! 🙂 If you have any questions, feel free to contact me and I’d be happy to help.

Jul 2021 update: I’ll be writing about my FYP-URECA experience sometime, so stay tuned. You can subscribe to this blog by entering your email under the “vip club” section on the right side of the page. Or follow me at @gwynethtyt on Instagram for live updates and clownery.

until then losers!