Playing a small part in a journey of discovery

We hear from Rachel Mulholland (Glasgow Caledonian University).

If I am asked about my career, about what it feels like to be a senior lecturer and practitioner occupational psychologist working in a university, it seems like an easy question. But to do the answer justice, I need to go beyond what I like and dislike about my career: I need to reflect more deeply about the joys of the job and to be open about its challenges and demands. Luckily, as a psychologist in love with workplace issues, exploring work and its complexity is close to my heart.

Unlike many lecturing staff in psychology, I have come to this place in my career via a non-traditional route, as a practitioner occupational psychologist. In some respects my long and winding road starts in my undergraduate days, when I was lucky enough to lead the Student Industrial Society at Queen’s University Belfast. It was made up of a diverse bunch of students from different disciplines (e.g. business, biochemistry, aeronautical engineering and psychology) who were interested in industry. We often visited workplaces and took part in events to help us learn more about work processes, and the range of opportunities and challenges that existed within them. They were great fun and it was illuminating to see how many different aspects of the workplace had people at their heart – the things we were being taught about in social psychology, individual differences and cognitive psychology, were to the fore.

This led me to realise that occupational psychology was the domain I wanted to pursue. One could study and work within varied types of organisations and industries, and use a mix of core knowledge domains at individual, group, and organisational levels of analyses. I loved the variety of subjects covered, from human factors, to leadership, to what motivates people in work.

That variety has served me well in my career. I have drawn from both the public and private sectors, giving me a strong understanding and appreciation of different approaches to work and professional issues. I have developed leadership and entrepreneurial training programmes; assessed and counselled people for work; led multidisciplinary research and project teams; and developed and delivered lectures for professional, industry and university students. It is perhaps these latter aspects of my work which gave me specific skills to transfer to the role of senior lecturer at Glasgow Caledonian University. So began the next (and continuing) stage of my career to date.

One of the major challenges I faced when I came into lecturing was the realisation that on the surface it seems very similar to the design and delivery of customised training programmes, where you are focused upon development and learning. However, there are critical differences between them. For example, they can be very different in terms of the length, learning outcomes and diversity of learners being exposed to your teaching and learning materials. As John Biggs highlights in his 2003 book Teaching for Quality Learning at University, it is less about being the expert and moreabout being a facilitator of learning. This has led to an important and interesting shift in my own thinking. Working as an ‘expert’ in the field where you apply your considerable knowledge to work on real organisational issues, and then having to step back and think about your knowledge from the perspective of a ‘novice’, makes for some challenging times. You have to change the way you share knowledge and learning and also have to realise that to some degree you are a ‘novice’ in a new job role!

This made me realise the need to undertake further development, and this came in the form of a Post-Graduate Certificate in Higher Education. This helped me to better understand the professional standards and diverse issues that are important to the work role of a lecturer, and enabled me to gain professional membership of the Higher Education Academy. I learned about applying psychological learning theories in different ways and it made me reflect on how we use the same words to mean different things when we wear different professional hats. I came across new concepts such as ‘constructive alignment’ and I learned about the reality of being a student who was holding down a job at the same time as studying (an experience increasingly part of the lives of modern students). Importantly, it helped me to grow as a lecturer, and it made me think about the changes that we often have undergone as our knowledge has moved beyond Bloom’s initial level of learning.

For example, you can forget how much underpinning academic information, practical application and deep learning has taken place in your own development. You can assume that others have the same levels of understanding, background knowledge and appreciation of issues that you have yourself. You can also forget what it felt like to be a ‘student’ – the classes and lecturers that you enjoyed because they interested you, and others where you felt unsure about the topic and were afraid to speak and discuss issues because you felt self-conscious.

There are also the courses taken by students just because they have to! I came into the university with the somewhat naive conception that all students were as interested in my field of study as I was myself. But instead it was clear that they come to my modules with a range of diverse motivations and interest levels. That’s part of the joy and challenge of lecturing – you are faced with a broad mix of students who have a varied set of expectations, knowledge and interest in the topics you teach them about. You are trying to build upon their knowledge base and scaffold their learning, but the big challenge involves helping them to engage with the subject matter as much as possible. As a lecturer you want students and learners to dig deeper and learn more about the topic under scrutiny. But you are also trying to help them develop their academic and personal skills in a wide range of areas including reading, navigating and using large amounts of data (in different forms), and formulating critical arguments about their newly acquired knowledge using a range of different formats (e.g. written and oral). I love to use my professional knowledge and experience to test their view of the workplace as a one-dimensional structure to one that is a changing, dynamic and challenging place.

This is another one of the true joys of working in this field: seeing how your students open their minds to new theories and evidence, which allows them to analyse and understand issues from different perspectives. When you see students gain the confidence to challenge assumptions and go beyond the materials presented in lectures and seminars to present the depth of their understanding in a topic, you know that you have played a small part in their journey of discovery, and it is very rewarding and satisfying to experience this. But at the extreme, where some students struggle to engage and understand, the challenge you face is to help them to achieve their potential and to reach their own particular goals (this might be to ‘do better’ in the module, or their desire to ‘just pass’ your module, or even perhaps to look at alternative options that may be more suited to their talents). Doing this is very demanding – not just in terms of preparing lectures and seminars but also in dealing with the range of issues that can arise in a learning setting.

Upon reflection I feel that this is an area where the cross-over of coaching and training skills developed as an occupational psychologist have helped me to consider and offer support. Embedding feedback and opportunities for self-reflective learning is a vital technique to help students review their academic and personal goals. I often stress that as future graduates it is important for them to think like professionals of the future and take responsibility for decisions and conclusions they make.

All of this has been very rewarding, and to be nominated and shortlisted in Student-Led Teaching Awards and last year to actually win the award for ‘Inspiring Individuals’ was a pleasure and privilege. But so much for the ups, what about the downs? In the current climate of workload demands and metrics used in the higher education sector, there are areas of the job that can be very demanding. I have had the dilemmas of teaching many different modules and having to balance administrative and lecturing work with research ambitions – as many of us in the sector might recognise, this often means working at weekends, in the evenings and holidays. At times my knowledge and background in stress management in the workplace, and dealing with organisational change, have helped me to understand and deal with such issues, and even to work with colleagues to offer relevant short sessions and courses. At other times, being part of research teams has offered collegiate support and the opportunity to do applied research in employability.

So on balance, I love my work (past and present) and see myself developing further in the applied research area of occupational psychology, as well as hopefully continuing to inspire, support and help new learners to fall in love with psychology the way I have myself.

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