Our psychology majors are typically headed for one of two careers: they want to help people as counselors or clinicians, or they want to extend out knowledge by becoming behavioral scientists. Both routes are potentially rewarding options, and both contribute importantly to society. Both also require ethics and integrity.
I’m thinking about this as I sit in a quiet office as our students enjoy Spring Break. The need for integrity does not begin when you enter the the counseling center or the laboratory and end when you leave. It’s a quality that you must possess and display all the time, or your work will not be taken seriously. Years ago a student explained to a a colleague of mine that she had to miss an important in-class exercise on the day before Spring Break (probably an exam, but it could have been anything) for a good reason (maybe an unchangeable doctor’s appointment, or a dead grandparent — the stated reason doesn’t really matter). Then she posted photos of herself and some friends at he beach (or on the ski slopes, or wherever) with a boast about taking off early for Break. Students left behind were none to happy about this, and of course the prof found out. She was thereafter known to us as Spring Break Girl — we doubted her word at every juncture, and I’m sure thought long and hard about offering positive recommendations on her behalf, as she could not be trusted.
I had a similar recent experience. A student indicated that for transportation-scheduling purposes she had to leave early for Break, resulting in her missing a class. Given that Break is scheduled at least a year in advance I am never happy about this kind of thing, but there’s little I can do about it (class is important, material covered is hard to make up, and attendance counts toward the grade, but students have their priorities). So, I acknowledged that leaving early is not a good idea, but wished her a good Break. Then that evening, hours after the class, I attended a local concert and who should be in the audience but… her. I don’t know why she chose to lie about her reason for missing class, but I will remember this incident.
Students: the opinion that others have of you is important. Academic success (doing well on exams, writing good papers, excelling on standardized tests) is important, and makes a difference to your future success. But so too does how people feel about you, and whether people trust you or not. I routinely ask myself one simple question before I write a positive letter of recommendation: “Is this student someone whom I could recommend to a friend?” Obviously if the student cannot write a simple sentence, or routinely fails exams, the answer is “no” and I will not write the letter. Similarly, no matter how academically gifted the student is, if the student has demonstrated that s/he is not to be trusted the answer is also “no.” If you’ll lie about something as trivial as the reason for missing a class, what else might you lie about? Therapy and science both require integrity; if you plan to go into either of these areas don’t squander the trust that others are willing to place in you.