A lesson in diversity

Ian Florance talks to Deb Viney about unusual routes into psychology

Deb Viney rapped our knuckles in an e-mail, highlighting ‘the lack of acknowledgement by the BPS and The Psychologist of graduate members who are not chartered and therefore presumed not to be practising psychologists.’ Deb suggested some interesting non-chartered colleagues to interview and expressed strong feelings about ‘smashing her head against a brick wall’ trying to get a place on a clinical course. Hence I found myself interviewing her, in Bloomsbury, where she works as a diversity adviser.

Deb proved forthright in describing her work history and the disappointments of not getting into clinical training, while emphasising her use of psychology in other spheres.

Climbing the walls
‘I grew up on a Hampshire council estate and was pretty academic – I got good O-levels but no one suggested university, and I wanted to be a nurse.

Deb’s parents were divorced when she was 16 and the next year, halfway through sixth form, she became pregnant. ‘My mother said I did it deliberately and she blamed my father’s departure! I never did understand exactly how Dad’s presence might have acted as a contraceptive… I resisted overt and covert pressures not to keep him, and my son will be 30 later this year. He’s doing well, despite the “child of a teenage single parent” stereotypes.’ I did some mental arithmetic, to Deb’s amusement – apparently people nearly always use that information to work out her age. ‘I was living with my mother, sharing a bedroom with baby and a sister who was studying her O-levels. We moved to a hostel in the town centre “for three months” until the council could house us, eventually moving to a maisonette on the estate where I’d grown up. Meanwhile, I climbed the walls in boredom, until a health visitor suggested I go to college to keep my brain busy.’

Deb studied part time for A-levels and more O-levels but had no plans beyond keeping occupied, until her sociology tutor stepped in. He suggested that the topics that interested Deb were actually psychology, not sociology, and referred her to the admissions tutor at Portsmouth Polytechnic. They offered Deb a place, contingent on two A-levels at any grade. ‘I got two Bs. I started my degree at 23, with no prior experience of studying psychology, the same month my son started his schooling.’

‘Initially it was very lonely, but I found other mature students, with whom I’m still in touch. Psychology was really stimulating.’ Was that because it was self-revelatory? ‘No, psychoanalysis was never my interest. Neuropsychology dovetailed with my love of human physiology. I was unusual, most other students hated neuropsychology. What really changed my thinking was the in-depth exposure to the scientific method.’

Deb graduated and was joint psychology prizewinner with another of the mature students, Dianne Brooks. After graduation Deb contacted the local neuropsychology department, but her financial situation meant she wasn’t able to volunteer, as many potential trainees do. After a meeting, the Consultant Neuropsychologist, Dr Narinder Kapur, obtained funding for a psychology technician. On her second day Deb was invited down to the operating theatre to observe brain surgery. ‘I felt I was exactly where I wanted to be.’ There were other gains too: ‘I learned to network, I met a range of professionals who taught me a lot.’

A long-term campaign
Deb knew she needed ‘clinically relevant experience’ to get into clinical training. But she also had a household to support: ‘I got a post with the University of Southampton, researching the effects of HIV infection in young men with haemophilia, supervised by Professor Chris Thompson. It offered the chance to develop useful skills in psychometric testing and “psychiatric” interviews, plus the opportunity to complete a higher degree. So, pragmatically, I postponed my next clinical application. At the end of the funding, I still didn’t get accepted on the local course. I met the published criteria, but they had so many suitable applicants that I didn’t even make it to the reserve list for interview. I always felt “Why do they use an interview process, given the known biases this can introduce? Why not just take the names of those who meet the admission criteria and draw lots? It would be fairer!”.’

Deb then juggled a number of things for four years. ‘I got some part-time work teaching A-level psychology; writing up the research on a voluntary basis when I had spare time. I also ran the local assistant psychologists’ group and tried to help others get into clinical training; plus I applied for training myself, several times. I learnt a lot about post-compulsory education, I built a portfolio of part-time teaching, at every level from GCSE to postgraduate in a range of institutions. Financially, a part-time work portfolio is a nightmare, but somehow we got through. I tried other avenues, but I couldn’t get a full-time lecturer post: judging from the feedback, the non-completion of my doctoral research was a barrier. The research funding simply didn’t allow time for writing up the haemophilia project.’  

‘I didn’t even get on the reserve lists for my local courses and I didn’t want to lose my support network, so I couldn’t apply more widely. One feedback letter suggested that my interest in neuropsychology went against me. The gist was “we’re interested in training clinical psychologists, we don’t want people who, afterwards, will go off and do neuropsychology instead”. But the only route into neuropsychology was to complete clinical training, then undertake a specialist course. I got a letter published in The Psychologist about it. I visited Professor J. Graham Beaumont, he agreed to write a supportive letter to The Psychologist.’ So this is a long-term campaign! Deb grinned.

‘I eventually concluded that the courses were looking for applicants interested in psychotherapeutic approaches. I suspect it’s changed now, judging by the neuropsychology posts advertised in The Psychologist. But psychology was, and is still, a divided, rather “tribal” profession. People from the different groups just don’t talk to each other enough, let alone develop multi-interest group research projects.

‘Many of the people in senior posts when I was applying to be a trainee (1989 to 1997) had come into psychology when the training used an apprenticeship model. In conversation, some admitted that they wouldn’t have met the criteria to get into the current training courses.’

On an even keel?
So 1997 marked the big change in Deb’s career. ‘Some of my work was at a small college in Southampton, and in the staffroom I saw a notice advertising a full-time post as Disability Coordinator. The job description was all in my areas of interest, and a permanent post with full-time salary was very attractive. I decided it was time to try something new: I had smashed my head against a brick wall long enough.’

Deb was appointed, and seemed to finally be on an even keel. ‘Wrong! Just months after I was appointed the college was absorbed by the University of Southampton. There were no plans for a disability coordinator at what was now New College. I ended up at the university, in a busier job, with fewer hours and therefore less pay.’

This disability coordinator role was new to Deb, but her previous experience helped. ‘Having studied, researched and taught helped me understand the issues from both the student and staff perspectives. My psychology knowledge and skills were critical in many different ways, for example many impairments have a neuropsychological component and it helps to understand the underlying processes. I also became a disabled person myself, thanks to the onset of some chronic medical conditions, so I had personal experiences to draw upon.’

Deb’s write-up of the haemophilia project continued during this time. ‘I was working towards a doctorate, but my studies were officially suspended. I re-registered in 2000, but was advised to submit it as an MPhil, rather than a doctorate. The research project took 17 years from start to finish, I was bitterly disappointed not to get my doctorate, but I was absolutely determined to complete the work. Those young men gave me large amounts of their time, including some who were dying. To leave the work unfinished would have been disrespectful.’

Deb worked to enhance the disability service over the next eight years, the team grew considerably and it developed a national reputation. ‘But I began to mark time. There were two obvious routes out to try: either to seek a Head of Student Services post or to broaden out my specialism in disability into wider equality and diversity work. That’s how I ended up at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London as Diversity Adviser. It’s a fascinating job!’.

A diverse job
As explained in the other piece in this month’s ‘Careers’, SOAS is a unique organisation, part of the University of London, and its academic staff specialise in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Over the last few years it has seen a student occupation of an exhibition that Deb organised (a protest on the Israel–Gaza situation) and another occupation of the director’s office over the UK Border Agency’s treatment of some externally contracted cleaning staff who turned out to be illegal migrants. Deb’s job must be interesting, to say the least.

‘I report annually on the school’s data monitoring, and SOAS is more diverse in its student and staff cohorts than most British universities: for example, we have people of over 100 nationalities on campus. Yet SOAS could still do better – the proportion of women academics is under 40 per cent, and we have a relatively low overall proportion of mature students, for example.’

‘I advise on compliance, legal issues, policy. We’re still changing from having been a largely white, male staff, who were the “people who taught the Foreign Office officials about the colonies” to the realities of a post-colonial world and a much more diverse academic community.  There’s always very lively debate, but rarely much large-scale trouble. There’s also more to do – institutions still don’t support some students as well as we could in their experience of living alone and studying in such a huge city and on academically demanding courses.’

‘A lot of my work is very specific to particular issues, for example recently the SOAS Students’ Union voted to request some gender-neutral (unisex) toilet facilities. We’ve now begun the development work, but given the practical details, the cultural diversity of the community and other factors, the implementation may be less than straightforward.’ And your psychological skills must be hugely useful here? ‘Absolutely. I’m often involved in discussions where I have to try to understand what people really mean, rather than what they say, to negotiate between different, genuinely held, views and still come up with a practical solution that all involved can accept. Academic institutions have highly skilled discipline specialists who may be neither drawn to nor skilled in management or leadership roles. Applied psychology can help one communicate persuasively, and people do value timely specialist advice.’

In exploring Deb’s suggestions for other interviews, I got unanimous comments that she is energetic, forthright and a skilled networker, qualities she uses in her additional voluntary role on the Executive Board of the National Association of Disability Practitioners, a professional organisation for further and higher education staff supporting disabled students.

‘My experience shows there are lots of ways to apply psychology – even if you meet disappointments along the way, you can use it outside the relatively narrow routes to chartered status. I have three challenges for the BPS. First, let’s develop routes to chartered status that allow demonstration of knowledge and skills through a portfolio of evidence, as an alternative to the current formal training routes. Second, let’s see the BPS and The Psychologist acknowledging more the activities and needs of Graduate Members who are not working towards chartered status. Finally, let’s find out what happens to the thousands of psychology graduates who don’t complete one of the chartered routes. What careers do they go into?’

Managing is applied psychology
I walk over to the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) complex after sitting at the café in Russell Square surrounded by tourists, students and a very noisy film crew. The walls display artefacts from, and books on, many different cultures. I get lost in a photographic study of Moslem architecture, then Paul Webley arrives and ushers me into his office. Paul’s a hugely enthusiastic, friendly and honest interviewee. I ask him how he got from there (teaching and researching economic and social psychology) to here (head of a unique institution with Europe’s largest concentration of academic staff concerned with Africa, Asia and the Middle East).

Paul grew up in Hayes in the London Borough of Hillingdon, which George Orwell famously described as ‘…one of the most godforsaken places I have ever struck’. ‘We used to go up to do our Christmas shopping in London and I fell in love with the city. I became an economics undergraduate at the London School of Economics. At the end of the first year I’d won a scholarship but I changed course in my second year to social psychology. I‘d enjoyed social psychology as a first-year option, but the deciding factor was that a lot of the economics I was being taught was plain wrong. In the 1970s the Phillips curve, which maps the relationship between inflation and unemployment, didn’t reflect the reality. The whole area of indifference curves – which represent consumer preferences for goods to which they are indifferent – had been studied empirically by a psychologist – Thurstone. Economics seemed like idealistic model-building; psychology was a way at getting to reality. So, I finally got my degree in social psychology. I did a PhD and then spent a year teaching social psychology at Southampton. But I really hit my stride when I moved to the University of Exeter. I stayed there for 26 years.’

Paul describes meeting Stephen Lea, Head of the Psychology School at the University of Exeter, as a huge influence on his career and interests. ‘The mentor role is hugely important in academic life. A mentor is someone who takes an interest in you and provides an exemplar of behaviour. Stephen has been Deputy Vice Chancellor, Dean of Science and Head of the Psychology Department so he provided advice and reassurance as I made decisions to move from teaching and research into what I’d suppose you’d call administrative roles. There’s a tradition of historians and psychologists becoming deputy vice chancellors at Exeter.’

Paul regained his interest in the links between psychology and economics. ‘Psychologists, not economists, were equipped with the tools and interest to review demand curves in human beings and other animals. At the time economic psychology was seen as rather strange and marginal – a sort of dim light refracted through the hard gem of scientific economics. You can argue that this allows thinkers more freedom, but it can also count against you, given the way academic disciplines work. Daniel Kahneman’s Nobel Prize for his work on judgement and decision-making has changed people’s attitudes to economic psychology. Last year I ran a summer school in economic psychology – the first teaching I’d done for seven years! The majority of delegates were economists, which is very different from when I started.’

Paul says that he loved research and teaching at Exeter. ‘It wasn’t just that I was fascinated by the subject. I used to use different techniques to get students engaged – balloon debates, posters, discussions, case studies. When I taught a course in psychology and the law we went to law courts to get experience. I finally understood the importance of real engagement when I took a ski party leaders course many years ago. Encouraging engagement and attention, creating a relationship with students results in good marks. Actually on that course I just scraped through. I was not that good as a skier but on my assessment run I skied out of my skin. I was overjoyed just to pass.’

Paul was Head of the Psychology Department at Exeter for 10 years. He decided to stand down on Stephen Lea’s advice: ‘You can be in a post for too long. The new Vice Chancellor suggested I stand for election as Deputy VC, and I won.’

For Paul this was the big step-change in his career. ‘Heads of department are barons in a kingdom. They look at and worry about their patch. I was suddenly forced to look at how it all fitted together. I spent a few sleepless nights thinking ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’ But the VC was and is another great mentor and facilitator. I went on the top management programme at the Leadership Foundation. One morning I woke up and thought, ‘I can do this.’

Paul was head-hunted for his job at SOAS and went through a fairly gruelling selection process. ‘As you can see, my career is something that happened to me rather than something I managed and directed.’ SOAS is a high-profile institution; a college in the University of London founded in 1916. Paul describes its early years as being ‘part of the imperial enterprise’. But now he sees it as connected firmly to the areas it studies: ‘Our academics visit and stay in different regions regularly. Their laboratories are whole countries, regions and cultures. The strategy for our 2016 centenary described SOAS as a British university. It was quickly pointed out that it’s a world university.’

Over 40 per cent of SOAS’s 4600 students are from outside the UK. It offers over 350 degree and 100 postgraduate programmes and possesses one of the great European academic libraries on Africa, Asia and the Middle East. ‘I had a combination of teaching, research and management experience which helped me understand the issues. The fact that I’m not a specialist in one of the areas SOAS deals with was, in a way, a help. I couldn’t be accused of favouritism.’

Paul found many differences in the role. ‘When we’d made unpopular decisions at Exeter, the VC got the criticism; I got very little. Being number one is quite different from being number two. You get attacked and some of this boils down to personal abuse. We've had occupations, demonstrations, disputes and a strike, and sometimes this has been associated with extremely personal criticism – this can be hard to take. I’d also been at Exeter a long time and knew the culture. When you’re starting in a new job, how do you find out what’s going on without undermining your direct reports? This is much easier in smaller institutions. Your role as a head of an institution is to manage managers so you have to take special steps to keep connected with what’s going on at the grass roots of the organisation.’

Paul also points to representing SOAS, rather than managing it, as a much larger part of the role than he had imagined. ‘Communication in both roles – as manager and spokesperson – works on different principles than when I was an academic. As an academic psychologist you get used to speaking when you’ve got something new to say; as a VC you repeat things until someone finally takes notice.’

Paul seems relaxed and engaged as he discusses his role, but says: ‘Being outside of your comfort zone is frightening but stimulating. During a trip to Kurdistan in my last year at Exeter I met two prime ministers in one week, one of whom seemed to be writing down every one of my suggestions and comments for future action. You have to think on your feet.’

Having discussed his role, Paul thought about what he’d said, then commented: ‘I suppose some people might criticise me for taking on the job as a career move. But the fact is I’ve never wanted to be a head of an institution in a generic sense: I wanted to be head of this one.’ And he’s proud of his achievements. ‘The year I arrived we were projecting a deficit of £800,000. We’ve had surpluses now for four years. Only 25 per cent of our income comes directly from government, and I expanded our fundraising development office, which has raised significant sums of money for scholarships and academic projects. And this year we won a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for our language teaching. We’re in a better place than we were. I’m not underestimating the financial problems ahead for the whole HE sector. Things are going to be tough and there is still some resistance to new initiatives. But I start from the view that we should be accountable for what we do. Academics need to recognise this, and that taking care of the finances is necessary in order to achieve excellence in research and teaching. I refuse to put my head in the sand or allow other academic staff to.’

Which is where Paul’s training came in. ‘Everything I do contains a psychological component – from negotiating with unions, understanding the sensitivities of a hugely diverse academic and student population, dealing with policy makers and other stakeholders. Economic psychology has a strong theoretical underpinning, but it is an applied field as well – it deals with people’s choices, judgements and preferences. SOAS is a wonderful institution and a great opportunity to apply what I spent so long teaching and researching. Managing is applied psychology.’

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