Just the beginning of the story…

Ella Rhodes reports from another fantastic annual conference of the Psychology Postgraduate Affairs Group (PsyPAG); with additional comments from Society President David Murphy.

The Psychology Postgraduate Affairs Group (PsyPAG) recently held its annual conference at Sheffield Hallam University. Amongst scores of excellent talks, themes of change, careers and wellbeing ran throughout. Our journalist Ella Rhodes and Managing Editor Dr Jon Sutton were there. 

Change

In his opening keynote Vice Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, Professor Sir Chris Husbands, described our radically changing world and the importance of scientists and their stories in combatting the worrying trends we see today. ‘Focus on big ideas not small problems, a question that’s increasingly important is what are you doing with your time? What’s the big story behind the small, focused problem your work is focused on? Tell your story beyond the academy.’

The importance of telling the stories of science, and the role of change as part of that process, was also tackled in a workshop led by PhD student Olly Robertson (Keele University), with Dr Jon Sutton. Robertson – who also spoke earlier in the conference, on the ‘ineffable release’ provided by swearing, and its possible psychobiological basis – pointed out the many problems in science communication, from plain inaccuracy to the extreme over-stating of findings. Good storytelling has a role to play in engaging audiences with research, she said, leading a series of tasks for the workshop participants to develop their own research stories. 

Sutton has worked for 20 years helping psychologists tell the stories of their work. He said that while telling stories in psychology was relatively easy given people’s innate interest in others, many seem cautious about doing so. Change is a great place to start, he said, pointing to Will Storr’s recent book The Science of Storytelling. Human beings are primed to notice change and beginning a story with a focus on something which either has changed or is about to is a good way to engage readers. 

While the move to open and transparent science has led to what some call a ‘renaissance’ in psychology, Sutton said we need to find the story around open science to truly engage those outside the academy – including the media and policy makers. Many of psychology’s big names have, in the past, been master storytellers while sometimes smoothing over the facts or not including necessary caveats. As Diederik Stapel said about his fraudulent practices in his own work: ‘I wanted to manipulate the truth and make the world a little more beautiful than it is’. However, Sutton argued, in real, messy, uncertain science there is still room for narrative, storytelling and true public engagement (for example, recent discussions over screen time). He gave some advice: Try to find the story of change in your work, try to convey big ideas in small phrases (‘complex doesn’t mean clever’), and put the people back into your story – they are, after all, what makes the subject so interesting.

Change is also at the heart of Dr Emma Norris’ work at UCL’s Centre for Behaviour Change. A former PsyPAG Chair Norris’ Keynote covered the post-doctoral life, her PhD work on physical activity in children and her role on the Human Behaviour Change Project. Norris is working to develop an ontology of human behaviour change for the project, which aims to synthesise evidence on behaviour change interventions using machine learning techniques. Eventually this system will be able to identify key interventions and research for specific behaviour change questions and challenges. 

Norris said it had been a big change moving from relatively independent research during her PhD to working at post-doctoral level and being one small cog in a large machine. She encouraged the post-graduates in the audience to seize opportunities to become more involved with groups such as PsyPAG, to embrace existing skills and work towards developing them, concluding: ‘Everyone’s route post-PhD is really different. Don’t feel under pressure to do a certain thing… you don’t have to have the perfect job straight out the gate, sample the variety and remember there is always something to learn from rejection.’

Reinforcing Norris’ view of the importance of the connections made through PsyPAG, Professor Madelynne Arden opened her keynote speech pointing to her various roles in PsyPAG in the 90s. It’s remarkable that all of those she served alongside – Professor Chris Armitage, Professor Rory O’Connor, Professor Diana Harcourt, Dr Heather Buchanan, and Professor Neil Coulson – have gone on to great things in our discipline. PsyPAG can certainly lay a claim on being the future of psychology. 

Since 2013 Arden’s work has explored ways to help people with cystic fibrosis stick to their demanding medication regimes. She has recently completed a trial of an intervention which uses interviewing techniques to identify motivations for taking treatment, educates patients on the importance of treatment and tracks patient medication adherence and feeds back to patients when they reach goals. The intervention focuses on successes rather than failures and encourages those who are low-adherers to initially set achievable goals and build on them.

Patients are also given action plans to help them to form a habit of taking medication – for example encouraging them to think ‘when I make a cup of tea I’ll take my treatment’. Results from a larger randomised trial of the intervention across 19 sites and 608 participants is expected later this year. Arden said she hoped adherence data would become part of the care package for everyone with cystic fibrosis and she and her colleagues are on track to achieve this with support from NHS England.

Careers

Career development, public engagement and the messy routes into academia many experience were all up for discussion. PhD student Alex Lloyd (Royal Holloway, University of London), who was selected and trained in giving a talk at a TEDx event, gave some excellent advice on communicating research to the public. He suggested seven ways to open a talk including asking a question, telling a story or using humour – but only if you’re funny. 

In developing the body of a talk he suggested using a story arc, and gave examples of seven types including the hero’s journey, involving a ‘hero’ leaving their familiar land, or layering multiple narratives called nested loops. To finish a talk Lloyd suggested zooming out, moving onto the bigger picture of what your talk may mean, calling people to action, or returning to a point or story you told at the beginning.  

Critical Psychologist Dr Laura Kilby (Sheffield Hallam University) reassured the audience at her workshop that even when a career in academia starts ‘really badly’ it doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the road. Kilby had finished school at 16 and had a previous experience of being quite cruelly dismissed by an academic at a university open day when enquiring about courses. She had five children under the age of eight when she started her undergraduate degree; while she felt initially as if people would mistake her for a member of staff, and had thoughts of quitting after her first statistics lecture, she persevered. 

Kilby gave some excellent advice and said she hoped that sharing the disastrousness of her own start would be helpful. Getting her first post-doctoral position was a case of ‘dogged determination’: although she applied for 11 posts during her PhD, she was shortlisted for only one. She suggested that people use the contacts they have in fields which interest them, find allies early, and seek out conferences in your own field so as to avoid networking nerves. Eight years on from beginning her my first academic post as a Lecturer at Sheffield Hallam, Kilby is now a Reader in Social Psychology and the REF Coordinator for UoA 4. 'I love doing what I do,' she concluded, 'and I am so glad I persevered through the early challenges'.

Dr Jennie Drabble (Sheffield Hallam University), Senior Lecturer in forensic psychology and self-confessed Game of Thrones fan, posed a question in her keynote talk on moving from PhD to post-doc – how do you know there is an afterwards? Also a former PsyPAG member, Drabble spoke of the support and encouragement offered by meeting others in postgraduate study and found her first academic job to be something of a baptism of fire – helping to write a new accredited MSc in Forensic Psychology, dealing with heaps of paperwork and balancing research and teaching.

Drabble’s own research on the wellbeing of 10,000 students found half had experienced suicidal thoughts at least once; she is keen to extend this work to look at academics. The people in the room, she said, could help to change the culture of academia from within, help to move away from the publish or perish culture, the expectation of working extremely long hours with little time for life, and taking leave without the subsequent guilt. 'Get into the habit of carving out time for yourself', she advised.  

Wellbeing 

Drabble’s talk was not unusual in its focus on wellbeing. As a group PsyPAG has always had an ethos of providing support and encouragement, and this was a theme which ran throughout the conference. One lunchtime session brought the worlds of heavy metal and wellbeing together in grand style. 

Clinical Psychologist Dr Kate Quinn set up Heavy Metal Therapy after speaking with a client about their recovery journey. While it is not strictly speaking a therapy it offers a place for metalheads to share their love of the music and the ways it helps them cope. 

We have come a long way since the moral panic over metal in the 80s and 90s, with many finding solace in its themes, sound and emotion. This was illustrated beautifully by a mindfulness session to the sounds of Metallica led by mental health nurse Angela Glaves.

Quinn explained that metal can help people to honour the aspects of themselves which are sometimes buried away. The Heavy Metal Therapy website, and its presence on social media platforms, brings together metalheads who want to share their experiences of the music, song lyrics, writing and poetry. Quinn and her colleagues write blogs on some of the evidence behind the group, which has found metal can bring benefits to wellbeing. 

Counselling Psychologist David Smith led a workshop on the importance of compassion and mental health for students. He explained that our primitive reptilian brain, which notices threat in our environment, and the later-evolved rational parts of the brain, add up to a somewhat disastrous combination which give humans the unique ability not only to feel stress when under threat, but to ruminate over those threats and potential future threats. 

By developing our compassion, or the brain’s ‘soothing system’, we can learn to calm those overly threat-sensitive areas of the brain. Smith said by practicing mindfulness we can become more aware that we have evolved to feel certain ways, but these feelings do not always reflect reality. ‘We need to have compassion, it can be easy to slip into being critical about what’s going on, but compassion would say we’re not to blame for this it’s how evolution, life and the environment has shaped us.’

Second-year PhD student Fathima Kodakkadan (Anglia Ruskin University) has been looking into the stress and resilience of parents who have autistic children in the UK and India. Originally from India herself, and having worked in the country as an assistant psychologist, Kodakkadan saw the stress of parents first-hand. Psychology in India often incorporates western values and uses western diagnostic tests without looking for cultural factors and their effects. 

In India autism is experienced very differently compared with the West. Kodakkadan explained there is a great deal of stigma with many ascribing religious explanations for the condition, and given the stigma surrounding such conditions many attempt to keep their child’s autism within the family without seeking outside help. There is a distinct lack of cross-cultural research on autism and Kodakkadan wanted to test a hypothetical model of stress and resilience with parents in India and the UK which included the roles of stigma, perceived social and emotional support, child functioning and parents’ attitudes towards their children. She carried out both a quantitative survey of 120 parents from the UK and 120 in India, as well as 15 in-depth interviews with UK parents and 15 with Indian parents. 

She found that parents in India experienced higher levels of stress than UK parents and these levels of stress in both UK and Indian populations were predicted by poor parental mental health, lower child functioning, lower perceived social and emotional support, more negative attitudes to the child and stigma. In the Indian parents she found that higher levels of resilience were predicted by higher levels of child-functioning, perceived emotional support, and lower stigma and negative attitudes towards the child. Similar findings of resilience were also found in the UK parents, however a child’s functioning did not affect resilience while perceived social support did. 

 

This could only ever be a snapshot of a packed three-day conference. Other talks we saw included Anna Robson (Sheffield Hallam University) on validating words to measure the concept of self-disgust; Nikki Dean Marshall (also Sheffield Hallam) on whether you can ‘force the other language to come out’ of bilinguals when they don’t want it to; Vytautas Nastajas on how virtual environments can affect episodic memory; and Rachel Nesbit (Royal Holloway) on whether social emotional factors in adolescence relate to facial emotion recognition. 

Completing the keynote line up was Dr Dan Smith (University of Durham), a cognitive psychologist with a particular interest in attention and the eye-movement system. He presented a series of elegant experiments which investigated interactions between the eye-movement system, attention and working memory, building to a ‘Motor Bias Theory of Attention’.

As incoming British Psychological Society President David Murphy tweeted after the event [also see below], this was 'an absolutely fantastic conference. Huge thanks to @SuzanneHodgson3 & all the organizing team @sheffhallamuni for such a great job of ensuring every detail was perfect & making everyone welcome'.

Do check out slides from the presentations, and details of the PsyPAG award winners. And if the testimonies of PsyPAG’s keynote speakers are anything to go by, you can expect to hear much more from many of these students and clinicians in the future. 

Next year’s PsyPAG conference will be held at the University of Leeds: to find out more see psypag.co.uk

Comments from Society President David Murphy:

For my first engagement as President of the Society, after becoming President of the Society in July, I travelled to Sheffield to attend the PsyPAG annual conference which was held at Sheffield Hallam University. PsyPAG is a network that exists to support anyone involved undertaking a postgraduate qualification in psychology at a UK institution. This includes those undertaking practitioner qualifications, although since training networks exist within Divisions, PsyPAG members are mostly research-based. Indeed, I found the quality of research being presented at the conference was stellar. I had the honour of presenting the PsyPAG Masters award prize to Ellen Ridley who presented her important research on understanding social relationship challenges faced by children with developmental disorders. I also presented the PsyPAG Rising Researcher award to Catherine Talbot who presented her interesting and impactful research on how social media can empower people with dementia.

Aside from the research presentations, what also stood out was the immensely valuable peer support opportunity that the conference provides, in addition to a diverse range of presentations and workshops including power analysis, data visualisation, managing your own psychological well-being and transition to post-doc. There were plenty of networking opportunities and lively social events (ranging from inflatable sumo wrestling to a gala dinner at Sheffield City Hall). In her keynote Prof Madelynne Arden, Director of the Centre for Behavioural Science and Applied Psychology at Sheffield Hallam University, reflected on the value of her own involvement in PsyPAG when she was a PhD student. Indeed, she noted that her fellow members of the PsyPAG committee are all leading psychology researchers now (including current chair of the BPS Research board Prof Rory O’Connor). Whilst I’m sure the astute researchers of PsyPAG would be quick to point out that correlation does not equate to causation, it seems clear to me that involvement with PsyPAG is not only a huge support during, the sometimes lonely and stressful experience of a PhD, but also certainly doesn’t harm your career prospects.

If you are just starting a postgraduate research qualification in psychology this year, I would strongly recommend checking out PsyPAG (www.psypag.co.uk). I do also think PsyPAG can be a fantastic forum to bring together practitioners in training, particularly in relation to peer support for the research component of practitioner doctorates within which a significant amount of common ground exists between domains. Having spent some time with the people who are the future of psychology research in the UK, I came away feeling extremely optimistic that this future is very bright indeed.

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