Feeding a thirst for psychology

Dr Josephine Perry has some advice based on an unusual career path.

In hindsight it was probably a midlife crisis. Deciding at 37 that there was more to life than the stresses of a corporate job, dreaming of working for myself, starting out on IVF and guiltily researching an area I was fascinated in, but had no qualifications or knowledge and which seemed to be full of some of the most intimidatingly intelligent and insightful people, ticks all the midlife crisis boxes. A few years down the track and I am in a very different place. The IVF successful and a baby now piquing my interest in child psychology, attempting to run my own sports psychology consultancy and completing the final stage of the British Psychological Society route towards becoming a Chartered Psychologist in the field of sport and exercise. I find myself considerably poorer financially, but far richer in life.
 
When I left school I didn’t know sports psychology existed as a career. I’m not sure it even actually did then. I went into the career path of someone looking for fun and excitement combined with far too much nosiness; journalism and then public relations. It was an absolute blast. Whether as a journalist or PR the adrenaline of working on a big story is intense. Seeing your name in print, or that of the company you represent, is a buzz. And if you are a news fiend then managing corporate crises is a fascinating process with which to be involved. But when you reach a corporate level where you no longer do the job you love, and instead manage others to do that same job, it can be time to reflect.
 
My period of reflection coincided with a race. I compete in Ironman Triathlon. We swim 2.5 miles, cycle 112 miles and then run a marathon. It takes us anywhere from 8 and 17 hours to finish. In 2013 I was in Australia for the Melbourne Ironman. 2000 of us stood on the beach that morning watching the waves. They were big waves. Really really big waves. I was terrified. Even the Aussies were looking queasy. The commentator, trying to keep everyone’s nerves at bay, told us “you can’t control the conditions. You can only control how you feel about them.” It was my lightbulb moment. I realised I could choose if and how to be impacted by those waves. I chose excitement over anxiety and started the race (around 10% of the field didn’t). I finished in a personal best time.
 
The power of focusing on just what I could control stuck with me and over the next six months I researched sports psychology. I left my corporate job. I signed up for a psychology conversion course, and then an MSc in sports psychology and then onto the BPS stage 2 process. I estimate it has cost over £20,000 in university and BPS fees. Ten times that in lost salary. But getting to work on a daily basis with athletes and learn so much from them, my supervisor and others about the importance of psychology in performance means it has been worth every penny. 
 
Starting many years behind most others in my field after spending 17 years in a corporate environment has probably made me a little evangelical about the importance of using psychology to understand our own behaviours, and those of others. Coming from outside the profession though I have noticed we can sometimes be poor at disseminating what we do, in a way that captures people’s imagination. People have a thirst for knowledge around psychology. We can feed that. But often we don’t. Instead we sometimes fail to effectively promote our research and our profession. Publishing in journals is seen as the holy grail, and while it is for university REF scores, this often bypasses the stakeholders who could use our research and knowledge to make better public policies, funding decisions or advise government ministers.
 
In fact these stakeholders may never actually get read important journal led work at all. Figures collated by Asit K. Biswas (National University of Singapore) and Julian Kirchherr (University of Oxford) suggest that of the 1.5 million peer-reviewed articles published each year, 82 per cent of humanities based articles, 32 per cent of social science and 27 per cent of natural science articles are never cited. They estimate that on average, a paper published in a peer-reviewed journal is read by only 10 people. Even if policy makers wanted to read those articles they would struggle as access is usually prohibitively expensive and the length and style makes them difficult to digest for those not versed in academia.

So, to get research findings and discussions out into the wider public arena and to impact policies and debate, the media is essential. As a former communications specialist I can see two ways to do this.

The first is to build a strong online and social media profile so people can easily access your information. Platforms like twitter don’t just help you push out content or research but also to connect with others in your field of specialism and build direct engagement with those interested in your area. They are increasingly the first place people go to learn about you and your work. As an example many book editors, when receiving a proposal, will now often google the potential author to see their online profile, how many twitter followers they have and which magazines and newspapers they are quoted in before deciding whether they have a big enough profile to sell a book.

The second route is to get your work and expertise into the mainstream media. Alongside my consultancy work I write for sports magazines about psychology. My old and new careers have collided. On the one hand it is a privilege to write about subjects I genuinely find fascinating, on the other it is embarrassing to see how poorly we sometimes sell ourselves in psychology. In the last few years of interviewing psychologists I have battled against poor communication skills, over complication, fear of the media, rudeness and extensive arrogance. This does the profession no favours at all.

Journalists are rarely trying to ‘catch you out'. Like psychologists, they reside within a professional environment under a huge amount of pressure. They have to create more copy, quicker than ever before, to sit across numerous platforms, while being paid less to do it. ‘Investigative’ journalists are rare. Most want a newsworthy story and short, succinct quotes which simplify complex issues.

They struggle when they come across experts who are so humble they fail to give their great content the discussion it deserves. They get frustrated when their requests for a quote are met with emails full of attachments of journal articles demanding they ‘fully understand the subject’ before an interview so no time is wasted by the expert, as if the expert's time is far more important than theirs. They get offended when their request for a 20-minute interview for a magazine is met by an expert with a retort that they wouldn't even give that amount of time to the nationals. Whilst this attitude may boost the ego of the expert it simply makes the journalist determined to find someone else to quote; giving them and their research group the publicity instead. It also highlights an outdated assumption that national newspapers are where you need to be seen. When I started in communications 20 years ago being quoted in a national was the holy grail. Now  you can have far bigger benefits being quoted in online publications, where interested readers can directly click on links to your website or look up your papers on Researchgate and immediately search for more of your work.

So, knowing the importance of dissemination to psychologists, the value we can get when we share great research widely, and not to forget the delight of universities or the companies we work for when they see their institutions and your work positively discussed in the media, I gathered together nine tips for working effectively with journalists.

1.       Journalists are rarely out to get you. They don’t have time to ‘investigate’. They need complete subjects explained clearly, conscience quotes, simple examples and quick responses. Provide these and they’ll come back time and time again making you their expert, ensuring regular space and opportunities for your comments and views to be shared.

2.       Most journalists are happy to work over email so if you are struggling for time ask for the questions to be emailed over to you and you can complete when it suits you. This gives the added bonus of allowing you to tailor your answers rather than worrying you’ll be misquoted or have said something you no longer feel comfortable with.

3.       The academic world can be quite insular and full of jargon. Remember a journalist is often writing for the lay-person so needs clutter free language avoiding the use of acronyms.

4.       Be concise. Word limits are often tight. A double page piece with large photo in a magazine is around 900-1000 words. The basics are what is needed. And some quotes to bring those basic facts alive.

5.       Be clear how you would like to be known and described. But remember the longer your job title the less of your content the journalist can include.

6.       Respond quickly. Deadlines appear fast and if you miss it your rival research group may get the gig.

7.       If you are being interviewed work out beforehand what message you want to get over and prepare different ways of saying it so you fell really comfortable in getting your key points over. Keep those key points to hand.

8.       Don’t be intimidated. You have the right to ask to see the quotes they plan to use from you.

9.       Don’t be too modest. They are coming to you for your expertise. Even if you are not world renowned for your work you still know far more on your subject than 99.9% of the population. Be proud of your expertise.

If you stick to these nine rules and are polite, speedy and clear then you will have a great outlet for future research, and a profile to be proud of.

- Dr Josephine Perry is a British Psychological Society Trainee Sport and Exercise Psychologist who runs the Performance in Mind consultancy based in London. She began training in Psychology in 2013 after a career in communications. With her knowledge of the media she is keen to see psychologists work effectively with journalists to raise awareness of the profession as a whole and, more specifically, of the important work undertaken by psychologists. 

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