'I feel more able to step out of my comfort zone'

Kellyanne Findlay, from the University of Strathclyde, introduces several student voices on the Erasmus+ scheme.

Since 2013, Psychology students at the University of Strathclyde have had the opportunity to participate in a credit-bearing research placement. Students work on research projects with our European partners during the summer months (as part of the ERASMUS+ traineeship scheme), and this experience forms the basis of a final year class.

Over the years, students have consistently described the personal benefits of the research placement, above and beyond the academic benefits. Students report increased confidence and many describe the experience as life-changing. With uncertainty over the continued funding of experiences such as these, it is important that student voices be heard.

Rebecca Johnson – 2016-17 student

Do not be guilty of possessing a library of learned books while lacking to learn about yourself.” – Erasmus

My Erasmus placement took place at the University of Limerick (UL), Ireland, where I was given the opportunity to work with a lecturer in psychology. Their research allowed me to focus on understanding human resilience to depression in the face of adversity. Upon reflection, Erasmus’ sentiment, that learning about yourself is a valuable aspiration in its own right, proved more pertinent to my placement than I had anticipated. I feel as though my Erasmus placement allowed me to reflect on myself as well as hone my skills as a psychology researcher; so much so that I often credit the experience as the push I needed to apply for the MSc Research Methods in Psychology course on which I am currently studying. My internship undoubtedly allowed me to reaffirm my passion for psychology through viewing my chosen field in a working environment rather than from a purely theoretical perspective. I experienced both the benefits and challenges of this endeavour.

Immersing yourself in a working environment in another country is vastly different from holidaying or travelling abroad – it pushes you mentally as well as physically. My placement was not plain-sailing. I had several difficulties and much miscommunication with my supervisor. I also struggled terribly with an anxiety disorder.  However, experiencing life from such a different perspective spurred me on personally as well as academically. It encouraged me to write, read and reflect so I could realign my time and energy to focus on my academic priorities. I feel that the positive and stimulating atmosphere in Limerick allowed me to reconnect with my own mind and body, which felt almost impossible to do in my more hectic student life in Glasgow. I feel that this period of calm introspection fully allowed me to see my passion for psychology as an academic subject transform into a feasible career plan. My notebooks contained a sense of clarity and excitement as this feeling became more concrete and attainable through my time in Ireland.

By helping me to discover my capability and subsequently my confidence, the Erasmus placement allowed me to return from my placement with a renewed sense of self-belief. With this newly fortified enthusiasm, I threw myself into the final year of my undergraduate psychology degree and saw a change in the way I tackled larger projects. The difficulties and challenges I had faced in Ireland provided me with an unwavering belief in myself and my abilities. I believed I was capable of anything I put my mind to. I had attained a placement I believed was unattainable; travelled across the pond for the first time in six years (an anxiety disorder had kept me from the dizzying heights of RyanAir); single-handedly motivated myself through a summer of unpaid work and time management, with little to no immediate social support. I had proven to everybody, but most importantly to myself, that I was capable of anything if I was willing to take a chance on myself. Thanks to this renewed mindset and a work ethic, instilled in me from a summer of hard grind, I finally acknowledged my ability and pushed myself to a First Class Honours degree.

Attaining my First Class degree solidified what I had learned in Ireland; ‘if I believe in myself and put in the work, I can attain my goals.’ This pushed me to apply for an MSc which I am currently studying. It gave me the confidence to work with the national charity tackling Scotland’s mental health and speak on national television about my anxiety disorder and mental heath experience, to encourage individuals to believe in themselves and seek help. Without anticipating it, my foray to Ireland removed me from the comfort zone that was my life. It showed me what I was truly capable of and taught me that setbacks should be seen as challenges to overcome.

Limerick allowed me not only an insight into another country and culture, but an insight into myself. That's something that I’ll forever be grateful for. Erasmus is an experience that is both a literal and a metaphorical journey – one which has definitely shaped, enriched and inspired me. That is evident now as I confidently navigate my way through PhD applications.

Heather Craig – 2017-18 student

During the current academic year, I participated in the International work placement class. During summer 2018, I was allocated to the Biological Psychology department of the Humboldt University of Berlin. I worked on a large-scale PhD study, investigating the relationship between brain activity during social stimuli processing, such as facial expression and eye gaze cues, and how it is mediated by oxytocin levels. I was part of a very international team, working collaboratively with a group of interns to collect data.

Initially, I was drawn to the work placement as I was considering a career in psychological research but wanted to gain more work experience before graduating. During my placement, I had an opportunity to work with equipment that would not typically have been available to undergraduate students at my home university: electroencephalogram (EEG) for example. Prior to this experience, my knowledge of EEG research was purely theoretical, so I felt fortunate that I had the opportunity to put this knowledge into practice. I also learned to use new computer programmes related to EEG such as BESA Calibration and Brain Vision Recorder. Being asked to create and deliver a presentation about EEG and answer questions about it further consolidated my understanding and really gave me a well-rounded perspective of EEG use in psychological research. Now, having completed the work placement, I am motivated to continue my studies and I plan to study Research Methods in Psychology at Master’s level next year. After this, I hope to complete a PhD or gain further experience as a research assistant.

Living in a foreign country for three months seemed daunting at first, but I really appreciated living in a completely new city and becoming familiar with it. I had the opportunity to travel whilst on placement and visited several places outside of Berlin such as Brussels, Copenhagen and Malmo. Travelling alone was an interesting experience and, for the most part, it went well. However, it was not without its challenges. This was highlighted after a weekend in Copenhagen. I arrived at the airport to discover that my flight to Berlin was cancelled. In an unfamiliar city on my own, and without a phone, I felt lost. After spending several hundreds of pounds and crying in front of the woman at the help desk, I managed to find another flight to Berlin later that day. When this flight was also subsequently cancelled, I had to stay in Copenhagen an extra night until the next flight. I did at least get to stay in a swanky hotel though! In retrospect, I didn’t handle this situation very well, but I know that I could do so better in the future. While I would prefer travelling with others, I now know that I can be entirely self-reliant and travel in an unfamiliar city on my own if I need to.

While it was not always easy living and working abroad, it was an extremely rewarding experience. I developed resilience and adaptability in new and challenging situations. This has been especially useful now that I’m in my final year of university. I’ve also learnt to manage my time better and I have more confidence in my academic abilities. Additionally, it has encouraged me to make the most of extracurricular activities and get more involved in my university’s psychology department. On a more personal level, I feel more able to step out of my comfort zone and do things that I would not have previously said yes to.

Julie Regamey – 2017-18 student

During the summer between third and fourth year, I had the privilege of taking part in an Erasmus+ internship at Humboldt University in Berlin that formed the basis of a final year credit-bearing class. I spent 12 weeks working on my own MRI data analysis in the lab of molecular psychology. Although it wasn’t always easy, I had an absolutely fantastic time in Berlin doing this internship. I gained many different skills (such as running a data-analysis, literature review and software skills), but I also grew as a person and became more independent and confident as a result.

I ran my own analysis of MRI data available from the Human Connectome Project to attempt to correlate a network property of the brain called the Rich-club and measures of intelligence. I conducted a review of articles about the Rich-club and also brain connectivity and intelligence, in order to build a solid foundation on which to base my analysis. I also had to learn to code in order to use Matlab to analyse the variables for the 500 participants. Surprisingly, I really enjoyed working with this software and learning to code allowed me to think in a new way about data analysis.

While working independently on this project, I had supervision from some incredible and talented researchers who inspired me to work hard at my project, but also to consider a career in research. I really appreciated running this project. I picked up skills such as problem solving, time and resource management, working with experts in the field and literature review skills for a complex topic. These skills have been particularly useful during my final year at university, as I have learnt to study autonomously and consistently throughout the semester. This experience has notably been helpful towards my dissertation; indeed, I have also learnt to work independently but also collaborate with other students (as I did at Humboldt) then also learn about a new topic in depth and be able to take initiative with my dissertation. Overall, this Erasmus+ experience has enabled me to be more confident with my abilities during my final year.

The academic experience was fantastic, but I did so much more than just work and study during my time in Berlin. I got to explore on weekends and during my time off with my flatmate, or with my many friends and family who came to visit. I was in Berlin for ten weekends and I never ran out of things to do! There are plenty of museums, Check-point Charlie, the soviet war memorial, Badeshiff, Teufelsberg (an abandoned American spy station from the cold war) and plenty of bars and clubs, my favourite of which was built in an abandoned car park above a shopping centre. Essentially, Berliners enjoy repurposing abandoned buildings! Overall, Berlin is filled with fun and unusual things to do. This experience of another culture helped me broaden by horizons and allowed me to be more independent in other areas of my life. Indeed, I was no longer shy or afraid of going places and doing activities alone, which enabled me to try out new things in my everyday life.

Overall, I got a lot out of this experience. I got to discover an up-and-coming field of research I hadn’t even heard of before. I gained technical skills such as coding and literature review, but I also developed some broader aspects like my learning technique as a whole, work ethic and perseverance in the face of difficulty. I learnt to work and run an analysis independently, but also got to work with some fantastic people who helped me so much. All in all, my internship was a great experience.

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