Caroline Boyer Ferhat

Meet Dr. Caroline Boyer Ferhat, Psychology

Dr. Caroline Boyer Ferhat

Associate Professor, Psychology; Division of Arts & Behavioral Sciences Chair

Expertise: Developmental psychology and cognitive and early childhood development


A Good Listener

When I was growing up, everyone always commented that I was a good listener. I was interested in people and what they had to say and why. I was told over and over that I should go into psychology. When it was time to choose a major in college, I discovered that I actually liked it. And it has stuck ever since.

I grew up in a rural town in Pennsylvania. I did a lot of babysitting and I became interested in family dynamics and why kids do what they do. For my career, I decided not to go the counseling route — which is what most people think of when you mention psychology. In counseling, you use talk therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, getting them to change their thought patterns, the way they respond, or their behavior, in order to adapt to whatever is going on in their life and help them to function.

Instead, my focus is on developmental psychology and understanding people. I work more on the processes. Why do you do what you do, how do you do what you do? What can we do to facilitate that?

Researching Preschoolers

During college, I got a degree in psychology, with a certificate in human development and a minor in education. While in graduate school at George Mason University in Virginia, I studied developmental psychology, with a focus on preschoolers’ cognitive development. I like studying younger children — particular three- and four-year-olds. Unlike infants, they can tell you what they want, why they want it, and what they’re thinking. They say the craziest things.

My research focused on the self-awareness of preschoolers. Are they aware of both their body and their abilities? Do they recognize how large their bodies are in terms of space? Do they understand their own abilities in terms of cognitive processes? Do they know if they aren’t really good at math or do they think they’re wonderful at everything? Are the kids who are more self-aware better equipped cognitively, as opposed to the ones who are kind of naïve about their own abilities?

I worked with Head Start and the first graders in the local public school, giving cognitive interventions. What can we do for you if you are at the bottom of the group to help boost you up?

Why The Woods

After graduate school, I looked for a professor job. William Woods was very appealing to me because you could walk across campus and meet several people you knew. And everyone was so friendly. At my graduate school, I would teach 60 students in one section. You didn’t know anyone’s names. I like that I get to know the students here on a personal level.

The Building Blocks of the Psychology Program

My first year, I worked with the other psychology professor, Dr. Julian Hertzog, to revamp the entire psychology program. My big focus has been getting William Woods students into graduate school. If you want to go into psychology, you really need a graduate degree. We researched what graduate programs are looking for and developed an undergraduate psychology program to match.

Our program is purposely very broad. We lay the foundation so that students can get a taste of different types of psychology and then specialize when they move on to grad school. If they specialize too much during their undergraduate years, they may have a challenging time if they want to change their focus. They’ve boxed themselves in and made it difficult to get into a graduate program or find a job in their new area.

Psychology students at William Woods take some general psychology courses, with additional classes that focus on children and adolescents, lifespan (birth to death), cognitive, abnormal, social, research methods, and statistics.

Electives are where they can test the waters with a variety of classes or specialize in a specific track. If students are interested in developmental psychology, they can take more developmental classes. If they’re interested in clinical or counseling, they can take a counseling class.

By focusing on a foundational approach to psychology, you can change your mind and still graduate with the same degree and opportunities.

What Can You Do With a Psychology Degree?

Students always ask me what can you do with a psychology major. I teach a class called Careers in Psychology and I tell my students that they can do anything with their degree — it depends on how they market it.

With psychology, you learn how to understand people — a skill that can be used in so many different ways. No matter your career, if you’re going to work with people, you have to know how to actually work with people. You have to be able to interact, hear their stories, and understand what they need.

When I first started at William Woods, we had a lot of students who were interested in clinical and counseling psychology and ended up being counselors. In the past few years, however, we’ve seen more students interested in industrial and organizational psychology (I/O), which is using psychology in the workforce. It’s a newer field, but it’s growing. It often involves leadership development, where you train leaders, help teams collaborate, analyze behaviors in the workforce, and figure out what makes people more productive and happier at work.

I focus on graduate school because I think it’s important for their careers, and we’ve seen a lot of our students get into excellent graduate psychology programs. They could also go into communications, marketing, human services, etc. Many students come in thinking they want to be a counselor, but we open their eyes to other possibilities. Then they say, “Wow! There is so much more I can do with this degree.”

Psychology Combinations

This is a great field to mix with other programs at William Woods.

We have equestrian majors who take psychology courses so that they can go into careers in therapeutic riding. Students interested in I/O may pair it with a business degree, so they better understand working for companies. Criminal justice or political/legal studies majors who want to go into profiling or work with the police department or the government need to understand human behavior. If you’re going into social work, psychology is a very important background to have. People destined for the medical field may add on psychology to learn about being empathetic and understanding what makes people tick. You can also study biology and psychology for a career in occupational therapy.

A lot of the students I teach are in the education department. They’ve learned the curriculum and how to put a lesson plan together. But I tell them that psychology is where you learn how to get to know your students and connect with them. Your lesson plan may look great, but if you can’t connect with a student, it doesn’t matter. You need to be aware of the cognitive discrepancies within the classroom, and how to adjust a lesson plan to a student who is bored or struggling to keep up.

The possibilities are endless.

Internship Opportunities

Fulton is an amazing place for psychology internships, which most people find surprising. We’re a small town in rural Missouri, but we have a lot of local resources and our department has many connections. I take students on a tour of the Cremer Therapeutic Center (a drug rehabilitation center) once a year and they’re all amazed and hungry to intern there. The Fulton State Hospital is also nearby, which gives students the opportunity to volunteer in the minimum or even maximum security areas. Students have done internships in preschools, police departments, and special needs camps, and practiced their I/O skills at local companies.

The Importance of Psychology Research

It’s vital that our students conduct research during their time here. Graduate schools all emphasize research in the application process. Psychology students have to take a class called Research Methods, followed by Statistics. In the fall semester, they learn how to collect data and create their own data-based research project, and then give a poster presentation on their findings. In the spring, they learn how to analyze that data and tell the story, rounding it out with an oral presentation.

I’ve also done a Mentor-Mentee project (which is a great faculty-student research program sponsored by William Woods) with different students for the past few years. We work 1-on-1 on a research project based on both my and the student’s interests. We build it so that it will be applicable to the student’s career and present our findings at local and national conferences.

I believe that research is crucial, so we are expanding this type of project into an advanced psychology class that is available to more students. Over the course of the semester, we will research a topic as much as we can, then pick the research up with the next group the next semester. Students will be able to tailor the work to their own interests.

The Psychology Club

For students who want to get to know other psychology students, a great avenue is the Psychology Club, which is completely student-run. They make all of the decisions and coordinate everything. It’s a social group that plans events and promotes awareness of psychology. Some years they run research projects and present them. Some years they do service projects. This past year, students focused on awareness and different awareness months. For example, they had a student on campus talk about her traumatic brain injury for traumatic brain injury month.

Psychology is an intense career path. The more students can show prospective employers and graduate programs that they have actually experienced the field, and that their approaches were successful, the better off they are going to be.

Learn more about the William Woods Psychology program