The unseen, unsung heroes

Peter Beaman on the life and times of a psychology technician.

Ubiquitous but unseen. A gold mine of specialist knowledge, but ‘all things to all people’. The institutional glue that binds teaching, research and admin together. We are the psychology technicians, and 27 years after I started I am still wondering if there is a rewarding and genuine professional pathway for us. As Ophelia said in Hamlet, ‘We know what we are but not what we may be.’

On 4 Jan 1988 I started working in the Department of Social Sciences at Loughborough University as the Social Psychology Technician. The previous summer I had graduated from the Department of Human Sciences with a BSc in human psychology: I viewed this as a transitional stage after graduating, and had no real sense of progressing in the post I had acquired. Early on I realised that the support of the head of department – cordiality, respect and honesty – was critical in helping move forward in one’s working life. In the first year I became the department’s first-aider and photographer, and was invited to participate in the Association of Psychology Technicians. During my second year I published the findings of my dissertation in a peer-reviewed journal and began to participate more in the classroom, going beyond assisting and advising students to demonstrating and instructing them on key topics such as research methods.

By the mid-90s new computer software and hardware became an essential part of the role, and we employed a dedicated IT technician to cover this area. I concentrated on psychology students/postgrads/staff and supporting them. I can still find myself acting as a ‘confidante’ or ‘concierge’, providing pastoral support for frantic postgrads panicking with a thesis deadline or data-recovery problems. These days we have a ‘state of the art’ flexi-teaching space (called SP Lab), with all the essential software packages shared across 60 laptops using wifi. Knowing how to troubleshoot is essential! Without a good working knowledge of IT/hardware/software you may find it’s increasingly hard to keep up with the pace of technological change.

Statistics/data analysis support is crucial in my role, and psychology technicians need numerical skills to guide students through the labyrinth of tests and interpretation of data. Our students’ practical work may involve the use of our digital CCTV lab and observation room, and a sound administrative head is required to keep tabs on the flow of audio-visual equipment. Technicians often have to deal with conflicting priorities, and effective communication, level-headedness, resilience and rapport are essential. Occasionally one can feel overloaded with demands from students and staff, but generally no ‘seismic event’ ever gets the better of me.

Having said that, having two other technicians within the department takes some of the pressure off and gives us the chance to support one another. Likewise, a solid network of other like-minded technicians available through the Association of Technical Staff in Psychology (ATSiP) has helped. As there is no one above or below me, I sometimes feel I have to manage my own duties and set my own deadlines, which can be construed as a blessing or a curse!

Career building as a technician really depends on being self-motivated and diligent. I do sometimes feel frustrated that I have never been able to break through the ‘glass ceiling’: I’ve been stuck on the same grade since 2007, and it can feel like psychology technicians are the ‘unsung heroes’ (tinyurl.com/unitechdef). Aspiring to something else may have meant leaving the higher-education sector and looking into using my skills in the business or commercial sector. But I have had the good fortune of being well mentored and supported by several significant figures at the university, and there have been numerous high points, including winning the first Higher Education Academy/ATSiP Technician-Demonstrator Award in 2007 (tinyurl.com/awardPB07); becoming a Fellow of the HEA in 2008; project managing the new Social Psychology Labs in 2009, with a budget of £300K; and receiving a student award called Lboro Legend this year for ‘going the extra mile’ in supporting learning and teaching.

So, what would my advice be for any student thinking of becoming a technical member of staff? There’s huge variety in posts, but you’re likely to need a good degree in psychology alongside personal understanding, empathy and a willingness to learn on the hoof. Sometimes workloads can be over-demanding, and support has to come from within or by emphasising one’s limits to perform miracles. You may find that being a psychology technician opens Pandora’s Box, allowing you to develop skill sets that are rewarding, interesting and provide a context for further progression. I have found that being able to swap hats frequently helps with what I would call the holistic nature to the post. Career pathways are tricky, but I do draw great pride from the frequent comment ‘You can’t leave – you’re irreplaceable, you know too much about everything!’

See also A Psychology Technician’s Lot in a Changing and Challenging Academic World (tinyurl.com/ppmxw98) and the British Psychological Society’s document Supplementary Guidance on the Roles and Contributions of Psychology Technical Staff (tinyurl.com/nqmstwp)

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Comments

I have had a lot of positive and supportive comments from both academics and other technical staff alike. Would like to feel I speak for 'all technical support staff' working in psychology and psychology related areas. Hopefully this article will start a debate about the various skills, talents and expert knowledge that many technicians have available and the success they have with promoting the student learning experience.