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Difference Between Psychology and Biology Papers

Hello, all! We hope that your spring break was restful, and you are ready to finish the second half of the semester strong. As the third installment in our series of examining the differences between disciplinary writing, we interviewed two of our tutors who study the sciences. Cole Jones came into his first half of college as a Biology major, and Maria Guay is currently a psychology minor. We wanted to see if they thought there were any differences between the two scientific disciplines, writing-wise -- let's see what they had to say!


Mary Margaret: Alright. So Amy and I are here and we're interviewing Cole for biology, though he is no longer a biology major, [however, he is a biology minor] and then Maria who is minoring in psychology. So we're going to be discussing the differences between writing within biology and psychology.

MM: Describe the formatting of writing within your discipline and let's see if there's a difference between them. So usually, what form do your writings take within your discipline?

Maria Guay: For psychology, we use APA and they're very strict on [the format]. So like the format is very structured and clear with titles and headings. But as far as the writing itself, it's just much more . . . methodical. It's not as narrative or creative as an English paper might be. It's much more about being concrete with, “This is my method. This is what I did. This is how I interpreted it, and this is my discussion.” Very methodical and concrete, which I feel like might be the same for biology. Correct me if I'm wrong.

Cole Jones: Most of the same for writing [for biology], so very concrete. It's just what I'm doing, and not necessarily making a claim as if you're just kind of summarizing the data. And then the style, from what I can remember, there was only really one teacher who wanted a paper. It was . . .a [lab report] paper, basically. And from what I can remember, I don't think there was like, MLA or APA, it was just, “hey, here's how I want it to look.” And then from there, it was oddly kind of up to you, which is very interesting. He gave bonus points for making the title page make him laugh and stuff like that. It was . . . much more loose and less like, “it has to look like this or else we're getting like 10 Points off.”

MM: Interesting. It seems that there's a difference in terms of how APA being for psychology seems to be much more important for the style. Verses for biology, it appears that maybe the content matters more than the formatting.

CJ: [The report also] had a huge focus on graphs. And everyone was in the comments, trying to help each other with their graphs. Those were probably the biggest part of that assignment.

Amy Atwood: Are there any graphs in psychology, Maria?

MG: I mean, I'm sure there are if you want them to be. But as far as the papers I've written for my psychology classes, never had any visuals. Maybe if you get more into like actually conducting research, you could have some graphs but as far as the classes here, that I took no.

AA: What is a typical prompt that you're usually given for your assignments? Like what are they typically about? What do you usually write about for your disciplines?

MG: For psychology, it's usually a case study. So the teacher will give you [a prompt like] “this individual has this these symptoms. What would be a great way to treat them? Use your psychology textbook and your knowledge to form a treatment plan.” We try to steer away from diagnosing people because we're not actually psychologists, but usually a case study is of a scenario with an individual. How would you treat them? Use your textbook and your knowledge and research to be a kind of roleplay psychologist.

CJ: Versus like, only one I personally had was that biology lab report. And it was literally like, we got assigned different parts of this huge lab project, which is the same one every year. So it's nothing groundbreaking. And then from there, you're just kind of restating what you've learned, but also what you found, if that makes sense. . . and a lot of that's like independent research and it's more so focusing on what the findings are, what argument you're making, stuff like that. But as far as things that we did for classes, it was mainly just making sure that the prompt would be, “Tell me what happened here.” And then just explaining what the numbers mean.

MM: What kind of thinking skills do you feel like you apply to your papers? And I think this kind of plays into that question, because it seems like with case studies, it's a lot more application because you're having to apply the things you've learned to kind of analyze these components that you're given. And it seems kind of similar to biology. That seems kind of like a similarity maybe between the two.

MG: Yes, I would agree as far as psychology and it's very much application based.

CJ; I think I fully agree. But like it's really really just like the stuff I've done already. My roommate Will is having to make graphs or at least have some sort of [visual] saying like, “Hey, these are the numbers” and explaining in ways that's actually understandable. Here's what this means. Here's what that means.

AA: How has being an English major improved your scientific writing?

MG: It is an expansion. Your English classes have prepared you to be a better writer in your discipline. Being fluent in, this is a little bit weird, Microsoft Word and PowerPoint and Google Docs and all that was so helpful, because I literally, and this is not me bragging but this is just me saying that, since I had used them before, I had like four people come to me. [They asked], “Please make my graph like please teach me how to format this. . .” Things like hanging indents or auto indentions on the first slide or something like that, which is almost second nature to people who have written papers in that manner before. It's so much easier to find that and it's so much easier to understand something new that you're not familiar with. I've never made a graph in Word before, but then because I am already a little bit familiar with it, at least I was able to find out how to do it quickly and then go from there. It's made problem solving so much quicker and so much easier. [Instead of] “I don't know how to do this” to “Okay, I don't know how to do this. Do I know anyone who does? And then how can I learn to do this?” I can help other people do it.

CJ: Um, I would agree a little bit with like the formatting or like just having knowledge of how to use different softwares, especially when using citations.

MG: I feel like being an English major helps with that because usually when I see people in the Writing Center for psychology or like any science based paper, usually [it’s because] they have no idea what to do with citations, whether it's like MLA or APA. But I think being able to communicate clearly and concisely has really helped me with my psychology papers. [That’s a] skill that I got from being an English major and taking English classes. There's such an emphasis on being able to communicate; every word has a meaning, and so use your words wisely, rhetoric and all that jazz. And so I've been able to transfer that skill.

MM: Do you think that being a psychology or biology major or minor has helped you improve your English writing?

MG: I don't know if this has necessarily improved my writing or just shown me a different route of English that I could take. Because prior to college, I just thought English was just creative writing and literature and funsies. But taking psychology classes, I've gotten really comfortable with APA and kind of that format of, just doing research, doing a lit review, having a method, discussing your findings and your interpretations. I only write in APA now even in English, and being able to apply that same structure to my English classes, even if it's not a research study in an English class, I think is what I've gotten out of being a psych minor.

CJ: I definitely think for the biology side, they kind of really do go hand in hand as you go higher and higher up. Less so for the freshman classes, which are. . .mostly memorization based, but for the higher level chemistry and biology classes, the few that I took, it's a lot less of, “tell me what this does.” And it's more so “this person's having this or this thing is happening within the cell. Explain why and explain what happens.” Or like, “let's say I have 500 milligrams of this coming into the cell. How is that going to change it and why would that change it?” And same thing with literature or English or English writing. It's the Dr. Miller question: “Why is that doing that? Why? What does that do? What effect is that having?” And so it kind of goes hand in hand especially for those upper level ones where you're having to. do some critical analysis of it, which is in literature as well.

AA: Do you think students think there's a difference between the writing within psychology and biology, or that they just kind of lump those two together as being very similar?

CJ: I think for the most part it's considered separate. . . Like there's a lot more writing going on in the non biology sides of things. You have chemistry, I think there may be more writing. But for the most part, biology writing is going to be limited to research or lab reports. Lab reports are a little bit different because you're trying to make sure you just include the information that you already have, if that makes sense. Where psychology I feel may be kind of going more into the information I have. “Here's what I think that's doing." That's just a guess, I may be wrong on that.

MG: I mean, as far as the science itself, I think people are aware that [they’re] two very different things, although it's not because psychology is also very biological. But as far as the writing, I feel like people, probably me personally, I thought they were the same. I guess I just hadn't really thought about it. And maybe that's the issue that people probably don't think about it.. . And and so they're like, [it’s] not different. Why would it be different when it is very different.

AA: Yeah, everyone just assumes that like all disciplines probably write all the same and that the only difference is citation style.

MM: Do you have a certain tip or a certain piece of advice for students who are engaging in those disciplines? Make sure your writing is X or when writing this keep this in mind?

CJ: Unfortunately for biology majors, mine is to write about something you care about. And that's a little bit tough, because like, it's not always something you care about. Well, I say that for people who enjoyed biology, maybe it is, but I did not. And so that was a little bit tough, but even if it is like a lab report you absolutely hated, or you didn't understand, write out a first draft. If nothing else to help you learn it yourself. And then after that, when you get to this point, you know on paper, then you can start forming your point. “Okay, what do I not know? How can I articulate that into something I know and then move on from there?” And so I guess my answer is, don't be afraid to write a sloppy first draft and get words on the page. Because if nothing else, that's going to help you understand. Now you're not having to start with nothing, at least. You're 10% there. You may even be 70% done and you just didn't realize how good the first draft would be. Getting what you know out to see what you don't know.

MG: I think for psychology. . .my biggest piece of advice would be [to recognize] your professors are very willing to help you because they understand that you probably did not have any psychology classes before coming to college. And that it is a very different style of writing than you're probably used to. Asking your professors for help if [you say] “I don't know how to set this up, “ or, “I don't really know how to do these citations”. I'm just thinking of one in particular Dr. Mann and Dr. Heard, who are the two professors I've had, I think, for my entire minor, they're very willing to show student examples that have done really well. . . So that would be my biggest advice. I think that's what helped me the most in my psychology classes was having examples. And just following those, not plagiarizing them obviously, but getting an idea of what the professor expects and the professors in the psych department, at least the two that I had and who most students will also have, they are more than willing to help out.


We hope this advice helps you in any biology or psychology related papers you have to write.

Happy writing,

Mary and Amy

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