Reflections on being a psychologist working in a UK medical school

An anonymous perspective on the valuing of different forms of research.

For the past two years, I’ve been working as a PhD student in health psychology in one of the UK’s medical schools – which, of course, is dominated by academics and medical doctors who like to think of themselves as ‘superior’ or ‘the hard, real scientists’, especially when conducting research that involves cutting up mice brains or investigating zebrafish genes. Now, of course, I understand the importance of their research, and I would never question their research contributions to the medical field – especially because my knowledge of mice brains and fish genes is rather limited, as you might imagine.

On the flip side however, my ‘colleagues’ never miss an opportunity to mention their opposition to qualitative research, and to criticise its contributions to the field. Now, I have learnt to become resilient to the ignorance and perceived superiority, but sometimes my resilience fails me and I simply have to vent. Being the psychologists we are, we know what can help: a good dose of psychological writing therapy. So here goes.

I am currently supervising a very keen BMedSci student who is taking a year out of her medical degree to learn about research: she started in September, and we have already produced a paper and submitted to a journal, and are starting an interpretative phenomenoloigcal analysis (IPA) study soon. I think this is a huge achievement – learning how to conduct a systematic review, the important of qualitative research and conducting an IPA study – and I am very proud of my student. Despite this success, just the other day one of my colleagues said something to her along the lines of ‘Just compare yourself to all your peers who are spending hour after hour in the lab, and what are you doing? Five to ten hours of interviews as your data collection – how does that compare?’ Sometimes I really do ask myself, what are they thinking?

Firstly, if they are questioning the integrity of the research I am supervising, then I should be the one they talk to; and secondly, who are they to question that anyway with their complete lack of knowledge about qualitative methods? – I would never dream of questioning their methods I don’t know anything about!

The perception of qualitative research as ‘soft’ or ‘unscientific’ has obviously not been demystified yet among the medical community – and the expansion in collaborations and multi-method studies seems to have done surprisingly little to change this. It’s utterly frustrating, and I am sure many of you know exactly what I am talking about – and I keep telling myself that it’s all about small steps, like having BMedSci students doing qualitative projects and having mandatory teaching sessions with medical undergraduate students about the importance of qualitative research. But I wonder if we have to wait for a whole generation of academics to retire before we can do qualitative research in the medical field without the integrity of our research being questioned?

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