2017 ATSiP Conference: Technicians, VR and Qualtrics

By Martha Casey

At the end of June I attended the ATSiP conference at UCD in Dublin. ATSiP stands for the Association of Technical Staff in Psychology, and is an organisation made up of people like me from universities across the UK and Ireland. This was my third year attending; last year the conference took place in Birmingham and the year before in Stoke on Trent.

Martha trying a VR headset

It’s always interesting to meet other technicians. Our presence in psychology departments is mandated by the BPS, who won’t accredit degrees if they are taught in departments without dedicated technicians. This means that our skills and our jobs vary wildly between institutions, since we are required to be there to help with whatever that organisation specialises in. At universities with less research focus, technicians are often involved in teaching and demonstration, while at other institutions, technicians might specialise in programming, or study for theory-heavy PhDs alongside their practical work. Moreover, as the state of psychology, and the methods by which we collect data, evolve and develop, our roles have necessarily changed. This was one of the themes of the conference this year; we heard talks on the consequences of restructuring, as well as the stereotypical characterisation of technicians as “bottle washers”. In many universities there is confusion about what technicians are for, and our work can be invisible, overlooked, or misunderstood. On the other hand, it’s rewarding that we get to work in so many different areas, and one of the great things about this yearly conference is the exchange of information and ideas.


Amongst the discussion of the job itself, we also learned about many new kinds of software and equipment that have huge potential for the work we do here at Sussex – including Gorilla, a new online survey and experiment builder, and Connect2, a lab management system. Most excitingly, we heard a talk on the use of virtual reality in experiments, an exciting new development. VR has many uses both in data collection and in a therapeutic context. For example, exposure therapy for phobias using VR has been enormously successful, as VR is almost completely risk-free but realistic enough to trick the brain. Additionally, many VR headsets now come with eyetrackers or even FMRI sensors built in, meaning we can run more elaborate scenarios – with better ecological validity – and still gather data by these methods.

We were also taken on a tour of the Qualtrics offices in Dublin, which as you would expect from a fast-growing tech company, were very fancy. As well as an interesting talk on the new functionalities Qualtrics will be adding soon, including data analysis, we were given canapés, Guinness (they have a bar onsite!) and some adorable cupcakes.

Overall, and as always, the conference was a great experience. I’m already looking forward to attending next year – and to implementing what I learned this time around.


Martha is one of the Lab Technicians at the School of Psychology. You can read more about her job as a technician here.

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Emergent social identities in a flood: Implications for community psychosocial resilience

By Evangelos Ntontis.

Recently, the small village of Coverack in Cornwall was hit by a flash flood which resulted in damaged properties and possessions, closed roads, disruption, and required the rescue of several people. This was not a one-off event. Flooding is a major risk for the UK. Currently there are around 5 million people in 2.4 million houses at risk from river, sea, underwater or surface flooding, which is likely to become worse in the future due to climate change.

In general, floods can be reoccurring, as well as affect the same population over time. Moreover, their impact can persist for more than two years through damage to physical infrastructure, rebuilding and financial problems, as well as psychological effects to residents like stress, depression, and anxiety.

Photo source: The Independent

In my PhD research, I investigate how communities respond to floods. Decades of disaster research have shown that during adversity people come together, and previous social psychological research on ‘sudden impact’ (unexpected and unpredictable) events like earthquakes and bombings has applied principles from the self-categorisation theory (Turner, Hogg, Oakes, Reicher, & Wetherell, 1987) in an attempt to explain how previously unaffiliated people are suddenly drawn together in the face of adversity. What has been shown is that people unite in groups because they share a sense of common fate. In turn, this group feeling mobilises support between them, increases expectations of future support, and enhances participation in collective action. However, no research had previously examined whether the same social psychological principles also apply in ‘rising tide events’ like floods, which are usually expected and allow some time for a coordinated response.

In a recently published study, I investigated whether social identities did emerge in the flood-hit city of York, UK. York flooded in December 2015 during the passing of Storm Eva, due to a flood barrier which was lifted by the Environment Agency in an attempt to contain further damage.

Almost two months after the floods I visited and got interviews from 17 residents. I interviewed flooded, non-flooded, and indirectly affected residents (who faced neighbourhood disruption or limited access to resources, but did not have water entering their properties), and my aim was to explore whether people felt as part of the community, what motivated such feelings of togetherness, and whether social support was a function of this emergent unity.

I found that similar processes to ‘sudden impact’ events also occur in ‘rising tide’ disasters like floods, and that there were multiple pathways through which people felt they identified with the flood survivors, regardless of their flood status. For example, flooded residents talked about a sense of shared fate that united them with the other flooded people. For non-affected and indirectly affected people, previous group boundaries collapsed and unity emerged because the flood event was perceived as an injustice towards the affected residents, because it was perceived as a disruption of routine life, and interestingly because it hit an area the residents of which were perceived as unprepared. Also, it is important to note that residents came together because of sharing similar goals in terms of recovery, as well because of a reportedly lack of supportive infrastructure. This emergent togetherness was also linked to the provision of social support, at a practical, emotional, and collective level, with residents providing resources to the affected, gathering and organizing donations, assisting in cleanups, listening to people’s problems, giving advice, and coordinating with each other to carry out tasks impossible to execute individually. However, I also noted negative experiences from residents who did not feel included in this emergent community spirit; residing in an area outside the scope of the collective response, losing one’s supportive networks, or failing to see others adopting group-helping behaviours was described as generating negative feelings.

Through this exploratory study I and my supervisors shed some light on the ways that communities respond to floods, and the role that shared social identities can play. Indeed, people in ‘rising-tide’ events can come together similarly to ‘sudden-impact’ events, the support mobilized during these instances of unity can enhance people’s collective resilience and the overall resilience of the community. Thus, I argue that while pre-existing networks are crucial for the response and recovery periods, government policies and emergency responders should take into account the emergent community spirit, consider how they can be a part of it and foster than hinder it, and assist in its continuation over time.

Original post published in Crowd and Identities: John Drury’s Research Group Blog. The full paper “Emergent Social Identities in a Flood: Implications for community psychosocial resilience” has been published at the Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, and can be found here.


Turner, J. C., Hogg, M. A., Oakes, P. J., Reicher, S., & Wetherell, M. (1987). Rediscovering the social group: A self-categorisation theory. Oxford: Blackwell.

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It is just the beginning

By Judi Luxmoore


I’ve completed my degree! Hooray! Now I just have to decide what I want to do for the rest of my life… No one can prepare you for what life is like after university. If you are anything like me, when you were younger you were in denial about life existing after you finished your degree. Being in education my whole life, I always knew what the next logical step would be – school, then A-levels, then taking a gap year, and finally going to university to study psychology. Now, however, I find myself desperately trying to design the next step of my future, unable to rely on society and people I know to tell me what I am meant to do next.

Ever since I can remember I have wanted to work in mental health, romanticising that the perfect job in this area would knock on my door and present itself to me. Little did I know life is not that easy. Psychology is a very complex field, with endless options and employers all demanding the most passionate, hard-working and determined individuals, with a lot more on their CV than just a degree. Becoming one of these top 1% of people seems an impossible task. Yet here I go, trying to be one of them, and making difficult decisions between staying in education, getting a job, getting some relevant work experience (unpaid of course, because the most important work for society ironically gives the least money), moving back home, or curling up into a ball and hoping that adulthood would leave me alone.

After exhausting the free advice from the careers and employability centre and my academic advisor, as well as having endless conversations with anybody who will listen, I have decided to do a post-graduate course that will qualify me for a mental health practitioner job. Whether this is the right decision or not, at least I made a decision, and I look forward to seeing whether it was the right one. Because you will never know whether the career path you decide on is the right one until you give it a go, the only thing you can do is take that leap and see what happens. After all, you will probably have to do many jobs before you find the perfect one.

But for now, remember to give yourself a pat on the back for completing your degree, take a breath and relax, because nobody expects you to conquer the world on day one!

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Tips for prospective conversion course students

By Emily Rayfield

Conversion courses, such the MSc in Experimental Psychology at Sussex, are unique experiences, and in lots of ways unlike both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. This is because you are covering diverse UG modules at lightning speed. Before starting at Sussex in September I wasn’t sure what to expect, so here are some tips that I hope are helpful!

  1. Use the library. I spent a looot of money on books before setting foot on campus and finding out that there are great resources, and that readings are often uploaded to StudyDirect too. It’s worth working out what books are going to be most useful before buying! 
  2. Don’t panic. In your first week, you will receive your reading list and then, when you find out your deadlines you will explode – mentally. But soon you will get into your rhythm and give birth to a huge, beautiful timetable you never knew you had in you.
  3. Read up on writing in Psychology (or the discipline of your course). This could make a huge difference to your grades. There is a simple but specific format to essay structure in Psychology that you need to get your head around. How to Write in Psychology was invaluable for me.
  4. Use office hours. Going to see your tutors with your essay plans is something very useful and very easy to feel too busy for. Especially if you are coming from courses where you haven’t had to write scientific essays. At the very least it will reassure you and could dramatically change your grade.
  5. Which leads me to my next point. For Arts students, or any non-science / non-maths buffs, the Statistics and Neuroscience modules could hit you hard. Which is how we all felt at the beginning of term, and we were all okay – and dare I say it more than okay – Statistics was our collective favourite by Christmas. Read up over summer if you can, or re-watch the lectures over term and you will be fine.
  6. Lean on each other. That special bond of being especially hungover with your friends is sort of what you will have with your course-mates. The bittersweet relationship where you really do feel each other’s pain. Because conversion courses are intense as much as they are interesting and engaging. You will support each other, feel like you have known each other for years, and drink a lot of coffee together. Set up a Facebook group too, you have no idea how useful it will be for questions / information / memes.

Finally, if you are thinking of making your application – do not be dissuaded! It is no secret that conversion courses are not easy – but it would definitely not just be your arduous means to BPS accreditation. The density of the course makes it great, too. You learn more in the first 6 weeks than (it feels like) you ever have in your life, and being pushed to your limits makes you realise how much you are capable of.


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Why I recommend trying something outside of your comfort zone

By Tamara Albaja


How did I discover my inner passion for working with children? Two words, Social Detectives.

What is Social Detectives?

Social Detectives is a structured yet flexible curriculum and teaching process that focuses on social skills development using applied behaviour analysis; specifically teaching interactions. It is delivered by the team at the TLC (www.thetlc.org) and has been running as an after-school and holiday scheme in Brighton for 5 years. It is designed for pupils aged between 6 – 10 that are diagnosed with Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), who are in mainstream placements (with or without additional support), supporting families who feel their children could benefit from gaining social competence. It was also open to siblings and friends of the target pupils. Sessions went from 9:00 am – 3:00 pm. They consisted of dozens of activities from play and leisure time, to teaching interactions, to self-assessment activities. Each session had different, specific themes ranging from ‘being a good friend’, ‘thinking of others’ and ‘going with the flow’.

What is Autism Spectrum disorder (ASD)? 

ASD is a life-long developmental disability, for which the causes are unknown. Diagnosed children typically find it challenging to interact, communicate and relate with others. No cure has been established but there are several interventions that are available to help children and parents, for example, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, ABA, educational support, and a brilliant curriculum that aims to implement all these interventions into one, such as Social Detectives.

How did I start, and what were my roles as a volunteer?

At the beginning of my Easter break (2017), I volunteered to help with the TLC team that delivers Social Detectives. Volunteering is something I really enjoyed doing, and not just because it now looks great on my CV, but also because the experience I gained was completely worthwhile. My job was to collect data about student or staff (with the supervision and guidance of the team), to help setting up games and activities, as well as to  prepare snacks and drinks, and  assist students with completing self-assessment documents and detective games.

How has Social Detectives been a life changing experience for me?

Back before I started studying Psychology at Sussex, I was extremely passionate about understanding individuals and groups, and studying the unconscious mind, as well as concerned about enduring patterns of behaviour, thought and emotion that make up an individual’s personality. From reading articles, to watching endless Ted Talk videos, to volunteering at hospitals, nothing really stood out to me as much as Social Detectives has. The reason behind this is that the curriculum showed me what schools all around the world are missing. The Oxford Dictionary defines school as an ‘institution for educating children’, and an “institution at which instruction is given in a particular discipline.” They sometimes forget that humans are curious beings with imagination and with the ability to critically think beyond what the syllabus tells them. Why is that we hear the phrase ‘I hate school’ more frequently than “I love it”? Mark Twain stated that “college is a place where a professor’s lecture notes go straight into student’s lecture notes, without passing through the brains of either.” Schools emphasis on numeracy and literacy is important, but it often leaves little time to teach students real life skills, such as critical social competencies: how to be a good friend, how to rely on one’s self, learning from and embracing mistakes, understanding our emotions – the list goes on!

Seeing a social skills program like Detectives in action showed me how applicable and important these skills are. As one of the younger ‘detectives’ stated “I enjoy social detectives more than school because we are given more points and more breaks!”

What ideas could schools take from Social Detectives?

The Motivation system

Many studies have shown that effective classroom management systems involve positive reinforcement. This keeps students motivated to complete tasks demanded from them, to follow the rules and to learn new skills. Social Detectives focuses on giving pupils points for any positive and appropriate behaviour they carried out. At the start of each session, detectives predicted how many points they would get, they would 500, 1000 and 5000 point challenges- and ‘hero points’.  Each detective had their own points boxes where they kept their points in. I found that this technique kept most pupils motivated and wanting to join in activities. At the end of the day, ‘detectives’ sat together and counted their points, then at the end of week all the points were counted up and each Detective was given a certificate displaying their points, and were given a rank (e.g becoming an Inspector or Sheriff!)

Relax time

In other words, meditation. It was not until last year when I discovered the art of meditation, and even after a year there is so much to learn. I have read many articles, blog posts, and watched endless discussions and talks about the benefits of meditation on young children, but I had never seen it being used anywhere! here the staff (or lieutenants as they are called!) make sure the children sit down after lunch time and before home time, and one of the team leaders gives them breathing instructions. Although some of the children might not understand the benefit of this, the advantages are clear after a few minutes of being still and breathing. I observed that a few students had mixed feelings towards sitting down in total silence at the beginning, but as the days went on they slowly eased into it.

Life & Social skills

The topics that Social Detectives touch upon are ones that should not only be taught in schools, but everywhere; from universities to homes and work places. We are often too busy focusing on the materialistic side of life and we forget how important it is to be true to our emotions and beliefs. We forget that we have certain feelings and because talking about our mental health is not fashionable, we tend to avoid, numb or suppress them. Not only does this scheme tries to teach children how to express their emotions, it also looks at how to self-regulate them. Most of us will never be taught what to do when we feel a desired or non-desired emotion arise. Social Detectives teaches children what to do when they feel overwhelmingly sad, anxious or angry. I remember one of the children once said ‘I know someone … I will not say any names, but when he is sad he tends to force a smile, and pretend that he is happy so other people do not know.’ Having this mind-set at such an early age, I believe, is a gift. It will surely help instil the compassion and understanding that there is more than one way to look at someone who is in need of emotional support. Social competence is a critical ability to help navigate our increasingly social world- whether that is at home, at school, at work or online. Academic competence will only take you so far, the ability to connect, communicate and collaborate with others is a core skill set for the 21st century.

Last words

You are not your mind, to realise that you are not your thoughts is when you begin to awaken spiritually Eckhart Tolle

Volunteering with ‘Social Detectives’ has made me raise some tough questions about the way we should approach our children. If we focus and invest our energy and time into guiding them to become the best versions of themselves, we will undoubtedly see a brighter future. One ‘detective’ that generated a number of questions in my mind was this child who was completely attached to the idea that he was autistic. He would find it uncomfortable to say people’s names, and when asked why, he would blame it on being autistic. Could it be that most of the things that scare us are just in our heads? Is it possible to feel content with ourselves through eliminating these thoughts? Would we think differently about ourselves if we were not to be labelled?

Lets raise children who wont have to recover from their childhoods. Pam Leo.



You Are a Social Detective: Explaining Social Thinking to Kids (2010) by Michelle Garcia Winner, Pamela Crooke, Kelly Knopp

Crafting Connections: Contemporary Applied Behavior Analysis for Enriching the Social Lives of Persons with Autism Spectrum Disorder (2011) Mitchell Taubman, Ron Leaf, John McEachin et al.

National Autism Center (2009). National Standards Project – Addressing the Need for Evidence-based Practice Guidelines for Autism Spectrum Disorders. National Autism Center Report.

Iovannone, R. Dunlop, G, Huber, H. & Kincaid, D. (2003). Effective educational practices for students with ASD. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 18 (3), 150–165.

DiSalvo, C. A., & Oswald, D. P. (2002). Peer-mediated interventions to increase the social interaction of children with autism: Consideration of peer expectancies. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 17, 198–207.

Reichow B, Volkmar F.R.  (2010) Social skills interventions for individuals with autism: evaluation for evidence-based practices within a best evidence synthesis framework. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorder,,40(2): 149-166.

Wong, C., Odom, S. L., Hume, K. A., Cox, C. W., Fettig, A., Kurcharczyk, S., et al. (2015). Evidence-based practices for children, youth, and young adults with autism spectrum disorder: A comprehensive review. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. doi: 10.1007/s10803-014-2351-z (see also, National Professional Development Center on ASD)



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Surviving or Thriving? Lifelong mental health in children with chronic physical illness

Chronic physical illness affects large numbers of children and families. Worldwide, 1 in 5 children has a chronic physical illness, including arthritis, asthma, cancer, chronic renal failure, congenital heart disease, cystic fibrosis, type-1 diabetes, and epilepsy. With the advances of medical therapies in the last decades, more and more children with chronic conditions live for a long time (Perrin, Bloom, & Gortmaker, 2007; van der Lee, Mokkink, Grootenhuis, Heymans, & Offringa, 2007). But how do these chronic conditions effect children in their adulthood? Does having a childhood chronic physical condition enhance the chance of mental health problems in adulthood? A recently published meta-analysis conducted by our research group (Secinti et al, 2017) focused on this question.

Having a chronic physical illness during childhood is a serious burden on its own. This is because the illness affects normal activities, may limit the child’s ability to function, or result in needing help from others or long periods of hospitalization (Stein, Bauman, Westbrook, Coupey, & Ireys, 1993). But having a physical condition also impacts mental health because these children face serious challenges in their daily lives due to their physical conditions (Ferro, Boyle, & Avison, 2015). A child with a chronic physical illness is more likely to have emotional problems than a healthy child. For example, children with chronic conditions are more likely to have emotional problems, such as anxiety and depression, as well as have behavioral problems (Pinquart & Shen, 2011a, 2011b, 2011c).

So, what happens to these children when they grow up?

We wanted to understand what happens, as children with chronic physical illnesses grow older. Do their emotional problems decrease, or persist and become more severe? To answer this question, we reviewed the literature on multiple childhood chronic physical illnesses (i.e., arthritis, asthma, cancer, chronic renal failure, congenital heart disease, cystic fibrosis, type-1 diabetes and epilepsy,) and found 37 studies that had been conducted in multiple regions across the world to assess the link between childhood chronic physical illness and adult emotional problems. We then analyzed the data provided by these studies, combining the information from more than 45,000 participants.

What did our study find?

The main analyses revealed that individuals with a childhood chronic physical illness were more likely to experience anxiety and depression in adulthood. Specifically, the odds of having depression was 1.31 higher and the odds of having anxiety was 1.47 higher in those with childhood chronic illness than in those without. This is an important finding, as it suggests that the effects of having a childhood chronic physical illness on the risk of emotional problems persist beyond childhood and adolescence into adulthood.

Our study also looked at a range of possible factors that might influence the strength of this association. Our findings indicated that factors related to childhood chronic illness, such as age at diagnosis and illness duration, and participant related factors, such as age and sex, did not change the effects. We also examined the association between childhood chronic physical illness and adult mental health separately for asthma, type-1 diabetes, and cancer. Our findings revealed that patients or survivors of childhood cancer were more likely to experience depression during adulthood. We also found the similar trends for childhood asthma and type-1 diabetes, but these results were inconclusive due to small number of studies and participants.

What do our findings mean?

Overall, this study, which is the most comprehensive analysis to date, provides evidence that individuals with a childhood chronic physical illness are at greater life-long risk of emotional problems. This finding is critically important in clinical care. Mental health assessment and treatment should be an integral component of comprehensive care of chronically ill children and adolescents. In addition, we would advocate implementing interventions to improve psychological well-being and resilience for children with chronic physical illnesses as a way to reduce the risk of emotional problems in adulthood.

Last week (8-14th of May) was a Mental Health Awareness Week. May is also a month marked for awareness around mental health issues. As stated by the Mental Health Foundation: ‘Good mental health is an asset that helps us to thrive’. This is indeed the case for children who experience many challenges in coping with and adapting to life with a chronic disease. Although a good progress has been achieved in the life expectancy of these children, we now need to achieve the same for the good health of their minds.

Author: Ekin Secinti (former MSc in Foundations of Clinical Psychology and Mental Health student and EDGE Lab researcher, Ekin is now undertaking clinical psychology doctorate training at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, Indianapolis, IN, USA)



Ferro, M.A., Boyle, M.H., & Avison, W.R. (2015). Association between trajectories of maternal depression and subsequent psychological functioning in youth with and without chronic physical illness. Health Psychology, 34, 820–828.

Perrin, J.M., Bloom, S.R., & Gortmaker, S.L. (2007). The increase of childhood chronic conditions in the United States. Journal of the American Medical Association, 297, 2755–2759.

Pinquart, M., & Shen, Y. (2011a). Anxiety in children and adolescents with chronic physical illnesses: A meta-analysis. Acta Paediatrica, 100, 1069–1076.

Pinquart, M.,&Shen, Y. (2011b). Behavior problems in children and adolescents with chronic physical illness: A meta-analysis. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 36, 1003–1016.

Pinquart, M., & Shen, Y. (2011c). Depressive symptoms in children and adolescents with chronic physical illness: An updated meta-analysis. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 36, 375–384.

Secinti, E., Thompson, E. J., Richards, M., & Gaysina, D. (2017). Research Review: Childhood chronic physical illness and adult emotional health–a systematic review and meta‐analysis. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. Published online: doi:10.1111/jcpp.12727

Stein, R.E., Bauman, L.J., Westbrook, L.E., Coupey, S.M., & Ireys, H.T. (1993). Framework for identifying children who have chronic conditions: The case for a new definition. Journal of Pediatrics, 122, 342–347.

van der Lee, J.H., Mokkink, L.B., Grootenhuis, M.A., Heymans, H.S., & Offringa, M. (2007). Definitions and measurement of chronic health conditions in childhood: A systematic review. Journal of the American Medical Association, 297, 2741–2751.

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King Lab goes to Westminster

By Dr Sarah King

Last Tuesday was Posters in Parliament, a day organised by the British Conference of Undergraduate Research, to allow students to visit Westminster and present their research to Members of Parliament.  Robert Tempelaar, who spent the summer working in my lab (as a junior research associate funded by the Alzheimer’s Society), was presenting our work on testing genetic methods to alter APOE4, a risk gene for Alzheimer’s disease. There was lots of interest in Robert’s poster, including Caroline Lucas, our local MP, who I think got the gist of it!

As well as being a fantastic opportunity to show off our work to a new audience, it was really interesting to see others at work.  We watched the first parliamentary session of the day from the viewing balcony. First, the Ministers from the Department of Business Energy and Industrial Strategy fielded questions from both sides of the House as to how they are planning to support British research and industry after Brexit.  Then, the House began to fill in readiness for Theresa May’s statement on the European Council.  Coming the day after the Brexit bill was passed through Government, this was fascinating.  She said her bit and then was pummeled by questions, again from both sides of the House (I was both surprised and pleased by the number of politicians I recognised). Good deals, bad deals, no deals… Brexit may mean Brexit, but what does Brexit mean?  It was an interesting to get to see parliament in action, but I think I’ll stick with my day job!

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A Student Voice

Watch the second episode of the psychology vlog to find out how Psychology faculty listen to the Student Voice. Prof Robin Banerjee (Deputy Head of School),  Alison Pike (Director of Teaching and Learning), and Dr Richard De Visser (Director of Student Experience) talk about module and course evaluations, the role of student reps, and where the buck stops!

Students have more power than they think — make your voice heard.

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Life as a postdoc – 10 things to consider

By Dr Christiane Oedekoven


I am currently working as a postdoc in Chris Bird’s Episodic Memory Lab after doing my first postdoc in Tuebingen, in a more clinical setting. Of course, every lab is different, and obviously not everyone has the same experience, but the issues we discussed in a DREADED seminar last term might be helpful if you are considering to move on to a postdoctoral position.

  1. Interesting job

    CC_Photo by Phlebotomy Tech

Let’s face it, ideally a postdoc involves researching a topic you find interesting, maybe something you have started working on during your PhD, maybe a completely different field. In my career I carried on to research episodic memory in older adults with memory problems, which I find fascinating. To have a job that is challenging and motivating and involves learning something new is more than a lot of other jobs have to offer.

  1. More independence

In comparison to your PhD, your relationship to your PI is on more equal terms. This is especially true if you come with your own funding (if you happen to be one of the mythical creatures who manage to get a postdoctoral fellowship, for instance). But even working on a project on your PI’s grant comes with more independence than a PhD. A postdoc is a job and not a studentship anymore. Should the job not meet your expectations, you can leave without worrying about the effect on your thesis.

  1. Time/Flexibility

Working in academia often allows the possibility of carrying out large portions of your work anywhere you want to and moreover often comes with the absolute plus of flexible working hours. Instead of working a regular 9-5 job, it allows for personal preferences, such as starting later and working later or allows for working around family life. While this combination is potentially dangerous (see 10), it also holds the possibility of great freedom.

  1. Relaxed work atmosphere

Working at a university is so much more relaxed than many other offices. For me it was probably the combined experience of coming to the UK (more relaxed than Germany) and having worked in a clinical environment before coming here to Sussex. I find the atmosphere really friendly and not as competitive as other places and the hierarchies are less steep than in clinical contexts. Plus the dress code is quite casual J

  1. Job uncertainty

This is THE most obvious downside of being a postdoctoral researcher. Across the university, this is the topic research staff is most worried about. Having a postdoctoral position most likely means there is a fixed end to the project/contract you are working on, and a contract usually lasts 1-3 years.

  1. Future plans

You should ask yourself every so often: do I want to stay in academia? According to a Vitae survey 78% of research staff would like to stay in academia, but probably all of us have thought about leaving research before. What made me think really hard about the future in academia was a graph by the Royal Society in their publication “The Scientific Century”, which shows the number of people staying in academia based on recent data from HEFCE and HESA. Of everyone doing a PhD, only 0.45% eventually become professors. Is that a bleak prospect? Depends how you see it. But it is definitely worth considering how else you might be able to put your experience to work (see 9).

  1. Money

Compared to your friends who have jobs in the “real world” being a postdoc does not come with the big money. Obviously it is an improvement to whatever you earned during your time as a PhD and in my opinion number 1 and 3 outweigh this downside.

  1. Mobility

Doing a postdoc often involves moving for a job that fits your profile and/or your preferences. Different countries treat postdocs differently. To my knowledge a postdoc in the USA is often seen more as an extension of grad school and you are more likely treated as a student. In comparison it is definitely seen as a job in Europe. Here in Sussex we have come quite a long way in being recognized as research staff rather than more mature PhD students.

  1. Experience and skills from your PhD

While you might wonder which “real world” job you might like to do, the argument might come up that you have no previous experience with it. Think again. Often skills learned during your PhD transfer well into other environments. For example during my PhD I used to do neuropsychological testing in a memory clinic with the idea I might recruit patients there. While the recruitment idea failed, I learned a lot about working with patients and memory tests and this was very valuable for every job I had since, academic as well as clinical.

  1. Workload

I guess this is not particular to postdoc contracts, but there are no official working hours in our contract, but rather a phrasing along the lines “until the work is done”. The work is never done. There is always another paper to write, another analysis to do… If you would like to have a job that never comes home with you, you should reconsider. But of course this also depends on you, how much you let it intrude. While your job is great fun (see 1), having a social life outside of work might be, too.


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Thesis Boot Camp

By Molly Berenhaus

Right before the holiday season, I decided to attend the doctoral school’s Thesis Boot Camp and was pleasantly surprised by how much I accomplished and learned. One limitation was that the writing workshops mostly catered to the humanities so, in addition to sharing top tips, I’ll also be translating the strategies (on the fly) for us psych folk. I’ll also note how the strategies differ from (incorrect) implicit assumptions I’ve held:

  • Develop a routine that works for you, specifically: I’ve held onto the implicit assumption that there is a “right” way to do a PhD despite my supervisors and classmates telling me no. Despite this, I know there are others like me comparing themselves to other doctoral students and subsequently, feeling inferior. At thesis boot camp, we were encouraged to figure out what works for us
  • Try and remove any psychological barriers between you and your writing:…No one at boot camp actually said that, but I think it summarizes what Liz was trying to get across. Specifically: writing is a form of thinking. It’s difficult to form an argument until you start writing so “shut up and write!” That being said, the reason we were told previous attendees wrote as many as 20,000 words in one weekend was because it was “first draft material” or what I refer to as my “messy outline.” As we all know,  psychology articles tend to be pretty information-dense; thus, I knew that if I was going to get anything out of this intensive writing weekend, I needed to bring along some version of my messy outline and then write from that. I also spent half a day editing what I’d already written. Thus, I “only” managed to write 6,000ish words, but I still felt pretty proud of myself (for the most part).
  • On the subject of editing, dont edit while you write:Something I found REALLY helpful was the notion that multi-taking while writing is not time- or cognitively-efficient. This idea might seem like common sense, but if you’re anything like me, you rarely listen to logic when it comes to writing well, because writing a thesis is stress-inducing. Well, because the boot camp was only two days, I thought I might as well give this logical notion a whirl and by George, it worked! When I was writing content, I only let myself make tiny edits on the sentence I’d just written (because that’s how I write), and I’d try not to let myself go back and read what I just wrote (my worst, self-induced time-suck). After that, I’d only let myself do organization, content-based edits (we were encouraged to break down the process of editing into distinguishable tasks), etc and then, when I was happy with what I was trying to say, I’d copyedit.
  • Collect evidence based on facts, not emotions: we were encouraged to try out the pomodoro technique (25 mins on, 5 mins break x 3, 25 mins on, long break – REPEAT) for the morning of the first break. Liz encouraged us to base our daily/weekly goals on how much work you achieve on average during one pomodoro in addition to how many pomodoros you can realistically do in a day. I know that at least for me, if I’m feeling particularly motivated, I’ll set myself a word-count goal that is way to high. The only issue with this is that I end up disappointing myself rather feeling accomplished by the end of the day.
  • If your time management/organizationmethod stresses you out, find/make a new one: If you’re anything like me, getting through your doctorate is a mind-warp (in lieu of a different phrase). Not only is the work challenging, but, because we’re often not credited for how difficult it is to go from dependent undergrad (or whatever) to independent, kickass researcher, we end up feeling inferior to our classmates. I think this is a mind-game that more PhD students would benefit from tackling. There is no right way to do a PhD and thus, there is no right way to organize your time!

I have more notes from what I learned at Thesis Boot Camp but not enough time to write all of them up (this girl has got to finish her thesis). That being said, if you’re keen to hear more of my ramblings, I’d love to go for a coffee. If you know me, you know I’m pretty chatty. My email is mb397@sussex.ac.uk

Molly’s post was originally published in Jenny Rusted’s Lab Group blog 

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