An inspired wander through PsyPAG

The 33rd Annual Conference of the Psychology Postgraduate Affairs Group (PsyPAG) was held at the University of Huddersfield, our Journalist Ella Rhodes was there.

This year marked my fifth time at PsyPAG, a conference which brings together PhD and masters students as well as recent psychology graduates. PsyPAG isn’t like other conferences – the camaraderie is infectious. These students are enjoying the experience of academia, being open and honest about the real struggle of PhD life, admitting mistakes and missed targets and deadlines to a room of knowing laughs, and taking failure on the chin. Other conferences could take a leaf from its book. This year PsyPAG boasted fascinating research and fantastic workshops, and to tap into all this knowledge I decided to ask the delegates about the advice they would give to the first-year undergraduate versions of themselves.

The first keynote speaker was Professor Viv Burr (University of Huddersfield), who gave a broad introduction to the ideas behind social constructionism. This theory suggests that what we think of as objective reality is actually multiple and diverse constructions of the world, and those who share a society and culture will have a common perception of the world.

After some milling around and chatting with PhD students a common thread in the advice they gave their first-year undergraduate selves was to keep more of an open mind during their early studies. Many said they wished they had realised earlier that clinical psychology was not the only option. Current chair of PsyPAG Holly Walton, also a PhD student (University College London), gave several pieces of fantastic advice to her first year undergraduate self.

‘If you didn’t get the A-level results you wanted you might have to go through clearing, so may not get into the university you wanted to get into to. I want to say to my younger self that’s absolutely fine! Although it might seem like a big deal at the time it could be a good thing.’ Walton said that during a degree, undergraduates should not underestimate the role of friends, family and colleagues to provide support throughout what can be a tough three years. ‘I had a very set idea on what my career would be – I wanted to be a clinical psychologist. But I’d say be more open minded. As I went through the undergraduate degree I realised research was a good thing to do and was very interested in that, although I hadn’t really considered that before I did my degree.’ Walton also suggested that undergraduates should seek out groups that marry with their own interests – the skills you pick up working on committees or attending conferences are more valuable than you may realise. ‘It’s okay to find things difficult and it’s okay not to do well in something – everyone has strengths and weaknesses and that’s fine. So do your best, keep going, and take the advice and feedback you get on board, and do what you love – your passion will shine through.’

Forensic Psychologist in training Anna Thompson (University of Nottingham) kicked off a crime symposium with her research on community interventions for people convicted of intimate partner violence. She has been exploring why drop-off rates in these interventions are so high and pointed out that those who half-complete such a programme have an increased risk of reoffending.

Thompson found those offenders who completed a brief scale exploring their goals and concerns for the future – the Personal Aspirations and Concerns Inventory for Offenders (PACI-O) – were more likely to complete the intervention. Those who completed the PACI-O and dropped out were more likely to do so for employment reasons than those in the non-experimental group – Thompson suggested the PACI-O may have made them consider their employment goals. She suggested that PACI-O could be a useful, brief motivational tool to use prior to an intervention to impact on the rates of drop-out.

One of this year’s award winners for his work on the Nuffield Research Placement programme at the School of Psychology, Cardiff University, was Michael Scott Evans. The programme gives young people from low socio-economic groups the chance to learn about university life and learning. He was awarded the DART-P (Division for Academics, Researchers and Teachers in Psychology) and PsyPAG Teaching Award for excellence in teaching psychology.

I asked him to tell me the main piece of advice he’d have for his first-year undergraduate self: ‘My advice would be to have the confidence to approach academics whom I found inspiring, and engage with them in an informal mentoring capacity so that I could gain a deep understanding of the various career paths that a psychology degree would open to me. In parallel, I would also advise myself to have the confidence to present a poster at the BPS student conference in order to meet inspirational and motivational keynote speakers whom are able to ignite passion and enthusiasm.’

Bethan Elliott (Cardiff Metropolitan University) won the PsyAPG Undergraduate Award for her dissertation research on the role of Instagram in recovery from Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). She pointed out that on Instagram, a photo-sharing social network, there exists many accounts set up by people who have struggled with serious mental illness and who use their accounts to document their experiences and offer support to others in a similar position. Elliott interviewed six current and former account-holders aged from 18 to 25 all of whom had a diagnosis of MDD and other comorbid diagnoses. Using thematic analysis she found four themes within the content of her interviews – the view of Instagram as a therapist, as a search engine for health information and as a social instigator for finding friends. The fourth theme was that of Instagram as a perpetuator – some of the interviewees highlighted the darker side of this type of account, some people with mental-health related accounts post disturbing content regarding self-harm or suicidal ideation and some became over-reliant on the platform. Finally Elliott asked her participants whether they would recommend a recovery account and all said no. She concluded while the platform is helpful for seeking support and information it may also be harmful.

Winner of the Rising Researcher award, Tamsyn Hawken (University of Bath), told us in a pre-recorded talk about some of her research exploring the experiences of young carers. She then gave some stellar advice on how early-career researchers can look after themselves and foster a resilient attitude toward their research. Hawken said reaching the point of experiencing burnout encouraged her to explore self-care: she suggested that people try it for themselves by making the most of tea and lunch breaks and seeking activities they enjoy. Asking oneself ‘If I could give my mind and body one thing right now what would it be?’ can help guide you towards self-care that helps you as an individual.

Athina Tripli (University of Derby) was named as this year’s Master’s Award winner for her research on police officers working with young convicted offenders in the Youth Offending Service. She found a majority of her 480 participants reported high levels of emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation and moderate levels of reduced personal achievement.

After a psychogeography-inspired wander (or dérive) led by Dr Alex Bridger, exploring how capitalism and gender seeps into our built environment, we were treated to a keynote speech by Professor Nigel King (University of Huddersfield). His research has examined the assumption that nature is universally more appealing to humans than manmade environments. His in-depth qualitative work has shown that people experience nature in wildly different ways and a single natural scene can be viewed in myriad different ways – affected by a person’s own life experiences and circumstances.

On the final day of the conference Professor Daniel Boduszek gave an energetic keynote on his work on psychopaths. While previous models have suggested that criminal or anti-social behaviour are key aspects of psychopathy, Boduszek argues this is not the case. Instead he suggests while criminal behaviour may be an outcome of psychopathy it isn’t a core component of all psychopaths.

Boduszek has put forward a new four-factor model of psychopathy which includes affective responsiveness, cognitive responsiveness, interpersonal manipulation and egocentricity as its main components. Testing this model in various demographic groups including children, students, the general population and prisoners he has found no significant difference between the samples in terms of the prevalence of psychopathy.  

I found some time to garner more words of wisdom from the PsyPAG crowd. Hanouf Alshaer, a third year PhD student at the University of Bedfordshire, said she was confused at the start of her undergraduate course but working and speaking with others had revealed the right path for her. ‘I have spent time reading and meeting lots of people at conferences, talking with people about the issues we need to tackle and what we need to see in the future, where research should be going. These conversations help you choose whether to go this way or that way, this time is a good opportunity to understand what has been done and what needs to be done and form your direction.’

Tim Dlamini, University of Huddersfield, another third-year PhD student encouraged undergraduate stydents to come to conferences. ‘You don’t have to present anything just go and see other researchers and students presenting, it helps you get into that mode and get that real-world engagement with other academics. When you are an undergraduate you really don’t know when you’re going to end up and it really motivates you to see people talk about their research, where they started as undergrads and their personal journey through academia and that could also help you get research ideas as early as possible.’

- Next year’s PsyPAG conference is being held at Sheffield Hallam University. To find out more about PsyPAG and its activities see psypag.co.uk. For more ‘advice to your undergraduate self’, see next month’s ‘News’ where we will put the question to speakers from the Society’s forthcoming careers events.  

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