‘We need the BPS to understand who we are’

Our editor Jon Sutton meets Jenny Terry.

Jenny Terry is a PhD student at the University of Sussex and Chair of PsyPAG, the Psychology Postgraduate Affairs Group of the British Psychological Society.

What have you been up to today?

I woke up early, and I’ve been preparing for a supervision meeting. I lecture part-time and do my PhD part-time, since January, so today’s a PhD day. I’ve been working on a data analysis plan for a big multi lab study that I’m doing as part of my PhD. I was collating some questions on that. And also on a side project that Andy and I are doing, about using fictional narratives to teach statistics concepts, and whether it helps.

That’s Andy Field, he’s your supervisor. How many years are you into that PhD?

Technically, I’m in my final year, but because of the shift to part time, that’s now been spread out. So my funding goes on until the end of December 2023. Hopefully, I’ll finish quicker.

Is it relatively common now then, for PhDs to be part time and combined with a teaching role? 

It does still seem pretty rare to get a lecturer position before being closer to finishing than I was. My work is just such a close match for what they were looking for. But in general, it is very common for PhD students to be teaching, but less common to be part-time.

I remember it with some horror. Do not begin your first teaching session as I did, by saying ‘Well, I probably know about as much about this as you do, but we’ll get through this together.’ 

I think I’m guilty of saying things very similar to that. But I really love teaching actually. Particularly teaching stats and methods… the added complexity and the added challenges that come with that motivates me. 

It is still presumably a thing that surprises a lot of psychology undergraduates, the fact that there is quite a lot of stats involved in their courses?

I’m not sure. I think that might be a bit of a myth. Certainly, I don’t think students are prepared for the extent to which we teach stats and methods, but a lot of them will have come from A-level and they do a research project, they are taught some basic stats, so they’re not completely unaware. Andy did some research for the Higher Education Academy on various aspects of teaching, statistics and psychology. Over 87 per cent of the students surveyed did say that they were expecting statistics.

What about PhD level, when the demands on analysis ramp up? I left academia in part because I just didn’t really feel that was ever going to be my forte, and I struggled with the idea of a future of having to go down the corridor to ‘the stats person’ in the department. Are you ‘the stats person’ in your department?

I’m in a department with Andy! And Andy’s other PhD student is way better than me. But we do get ‘How do I do this in R?’, ‘What analysis should I do for this?’ But should researchers be experts in everything? The different components of a research process, they require so many different skills, it is a lot to expect somebody to be expert at everything. We can contribute to others’ research as the stats person, but then it isn’t as valued as the person that came up with the idea or writes the paper… there’s a bit of a disparity there.

You’re alluding to the kind of the idea of ‘Team Science’, where different people do different roles. But I agree you should get a lot of credit, because what I found is that whether you knew the methods of analysis impacted whether you thought of the design of the study in the first place. People who know about the methods just see the whole process differently. 

Absolutely. It’s difficult as a postgrad, and this is something I’m really struggling with at the moment, actually, this feeling of imposter syndrome, especially now taking on a lecturer role. I feel like I should know everything about everything to do with stats and methods, and of course that’s impossible. But even having some idea, ‘oh, there is a type of analysis that can do this type of thing’, it does help plan research and come at it from angles that you wouldn’t have done otherwise.

That feeds nicely into the importance of the postgrad community and PsyPAG… in my experience, PsyPAG is very good for helping people deal with those feelings of imposter syndrome. On an emotional level, but also in terms of practical support. If you don’t know something, then PsyPAG can be a place where you find somebody who does.

Exactly. For me, and the other members of PsyPAG that I’ve spoken to about this, the single best thing about PsyPAG for us is the community and the contacts that we’ve made. Some of these are professional relationships, people to collaborate with and so on… but it’s the friends that we make, and having a group of people that can empathise with what we’re going through. I did it earlier actually, I messaged Maddi Pownall and other friends, some that have also been involved in PsyPAG, and said, ‘I’m having an imposter syndrome day… That is the absolute essence of PsyPAG, that sense of community and support.

And it’s a lasting community, people stay in touch with people they met through PsyPAG throughout their careers. 

When you say what you’re going through, the experience of doing a PhD varies across the postgrad population, but also across time. Both of those things interest me, because my PhD was the time of my life… a great sense of freedom, and everything seemed to work out smoothly. But ever since doing it, I’ve been very aware that is not the experience all PhD students have. 

Absolutely. It touches on so many different issues.

I have been lucky, in that I have a great supervisor, and the people I have come in contact with in my academic life have been wonderfully supportive, down to earth and sensible. They’re not trying to make me work 24 hours a day or anything. So I haven’t experienced that toxicity. But I know people that have, and that is a big issue. And it’s not necessarily toxicity of individuals, but toxicity of the expectations of academia in general. When they’re saying it’s tough to be a PhD student, that’s often what they’re referring to. 

It seems that all the challenges of the PhD process are being exacerbated by all sorts of factors. In the last few years alone, we’ve gone through Brexit, Covid… that has had really dramatic effects on people’s research and mental health, their financial situation, and we’re still recovering from that and will be for a long time. There’s the rising cost of living, strikes. It’s all making the issues within academia even more salient. The rise of student debt too… when you get to this level, you’re carrying a lot of debt.  

Looking back, I guess I was so lucky to arrive at the PhD years when and how I did. And in terms of the expectations at the end of it… I had a couple of papers in the bag early on, and in the REF environment I knew I should be ok for a job, but I wasn’t even really thinking ahead. When I go to postgrad conferences now, I’m struck by the ambition and competition amongst you, that I don’t remember feeling at the time. It’s a generalisation, but you seem much more clued up as to what’s coming next.

I think we have to be. There is so much uncertainty. Certainly speaking for myself. We put so much into this and it does take a lot out of us. We’re more mindful of being prepared for what comes next. And I think the levels of competition in the academic job market have risen, and there’s more precarity. There are greater expectations on early career researchers. Most PhD students I know are not only doing their PhD research, but they’ve got various side hustles going on. There’s probably some selection bias going on there… the people I come across, like PsyPAG volunteers, are generally inclined to doing more. But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to make yourself stand out. There’s a lot of pressure on us to do a lot of extra things.

That pressure to stand out touches on other issues as well around the pressure to publish eye catching things, feeding into discussions around replication and reproducibility.

Maybe. There’s certainly still the pervasive culture of trying to publish something new and novel. It occurred to me about a year in to studying statistics anxiety that actually, if I were to be researching math anxiety, that’s more likely to hit the newsstands, to receive funding…

So why did you choose statistics anxiety? 

When I was doing my undergrad, I saw a lot of students suffering, becoming really anxious and worrying about stats and research methods components. And the reason I got into psychology was I hate seeing people suffer unnecessarily. Being in stats classes so much, it was the thing that was there in front of me, and I just found it fascinating. Are there things we can be doing, that relieve that anxiety so students will feel more confident about statistics and improve their comprehension of things? That’s important, not just for students want to go on into research careers, but statistical literacy can help in life. Think about what’s been coming our way during the pandemic, Boris Johnson’s 5pm briefings and so on. There’s graphs and charts and facts and figures everywhere. The amount of misinformation that’s around as well, it would be good if more people were able to look at these things critically.

So what are the techniques to reduce anxiety? You’ve mentioned the use of narrative and I know Andy’s done a lot of work with the graphic novel type approach.

The graphic novel / fictional narrative is the same thing. There’s quite a lot of research that suggests that using humorous examples, fun examples, can reduce anxiety. But there’s not been enough research and there’s not been enough rigorous research. It’s quite ironic, that a lot of areas within statistics education literature, there is a lack of tightly controlled studies. 

That’s something else that attracted me to it – ‘oh, this needs some work’. A lot of work to be done to improve the literature, and there are so many things that I still want to learn for myself to improve my own teaching practice. 

Some people describe the PhD as ‘learning more and more about less until you know absolutely everything about nothing’. Has that changed over the years?

I don’t think so, we’re still expected to focus on a pretty narrow topic, but the PhD process is a learning process. If I hadn’t done my masters, and learned about things like the replication crisis, I would have probably gone down a social psychology route. There are always things that we can learn that will draw our attention to other areas or make us change direction. But there is still pressure to create your own research brand… becoming known for one specialist area.

It has never really occurred to me before, that the competitiveness of the process doesn’t sit that naturally with the collegiality of the PsyPAG community.

It’s funny, I was thinking the same thing a minute ago. There is competitiveness, but it doesn’t seem to actually bear out in action. We’re not all sitting there worrying, ‘I need to get another paper out because the person next to me has got two…’ Well, perhaps there is a bit of that internally sometimes, but certainly in my experience, it’s never felt like that. If me and my colleagues were going for the same job, I think we’d all be very sporting about it. And yet, job competitiveness is rife. So it’s interesting. There’s a real solidarity amongst the postgraduate community that seems to always win over any need to get ahead.

So last summer, PsyPAG was brought into the BPS family. You took over as chair on that actual day. 

How do you see the specific challenges facing postgrads in 2022, and what could the BPS do for you?

That is such a huge question. The BPS aren’t responsible for every issue that we’re facing at the moment, but we need the BPS to understand who we are so they can help where they can. The demographic of the PhD student is changing. Looking just at the PsyPAG committee, 50-odd people at a time, in any given year, our demographic has changed a lot over the years. There are more mature students, for example. We’ve got mortgages and families and other careers, a lot of us are working full time or part time in other jobs. Often, there is this perception of the PhD student as somebody that’s maybe just finished an undergrad or masters, they’re in their early 20s, living in cheaper, shared accommodation, without these expensive responsibilities and that is often not the case. Our stipends, for those lucky enough to have them, are only around £15-16K per year but when we turn around and say that the £38 membership fee is still exclusionary to some people, it feels like we’re not being believed, or being listened to. 

Having events or training that are very cheap, even £15, is good but a lot of people still can’t afford it. It can be the difference between putting food on the table or heating your flat. It is a very real thing that we’re facing… especially master students, where there’s virtually no funding. The only way to do a Masters is if you’ve got either a source of funding from a parent or family, or there’s somebody else that’s supporting you, or you’re working pretty much full time. There’s just no other way to do it. And the knock on effects of that… we have to take on extra paid work, we have less time for research, to volunteer and do those things that connect you to the rest of the post grad community. It’s pretty tough for a lot of us.

And that has a knock on effect on the diversity of the profession as well. 

The issue around value for membership isn’t unique to postgrad level, or to our organisation. Any amount of money is a lot if you don’t feel like you’re getting any real value. What would you like to see as benefits?

I’ve talked with PsyPAG colleagues about this, and several come to mind:

  • Full fee waivers for those that need them;
  • Careers advice and mentoring (as in, a team we can go to for help, not just one-off events). That could include a collaboration hub, a resource where ECRs can connect with more senior researchers to work on projects together;
  • Free access to training events;
  • More funding for grants – particularly around accessibility (e.g. carers grant to assist with childcare for conferences, grants for assistance at conferences for people with disabilities, etc.);
  • Support for bullying/harassment (online and within universities, such as from supervisors);
  • Support for advocating in work-related issues (e.g. disagreements about authorship, being coerced into overwork, abuse of a power relationships etc.).

There also really needs to be a type of membership that allows access to PsyPAG for those that aren’t usually eligible for BPS membership (e.g. did a degree in a different country/subject). We’re excluding a whole swathe of people from our community that belong in it. 

Some of those benefits suggest postgrads would be happy to see more work being done with their money that had an effect further down the line, on issues they are facing, as opposed to ‘Give me X amount of goods and services in return for £X’.

I’d like to think so. But some people aren’t in a position where they have that choice. In terms of a paid career, we’re not even at the beginning, really. I was reading some blurb on the UCU website about the future of the profession, and they have this whole scheme set up. They’re saying, ‘you don’t need to pay to be a member. We recognise that at this time, you need the support.’ I think that should be true of the BPS as well. We’re at a time where we need that support, but we are future paying members, and I think most of us would rather pay slightly higher fees in later years. Make it feasible for somebody that does need the support now to have that fee written off. 

So we do have members questioning whether they’re going to renew because they cost outweighs the benefits. We’re told we get a copy of The Psychologist, but that’s already sitting around in our departments; we can access BPS publications, but we’ve already got institutional logins. Our committee members just feel like we’re paying to volunteer. Whilst that’s a noble thing to do, it’s not always a practical, feasible thing to do.

I will say that the Research Board and Member Network groups have been incredibly supportive. We will keep pushing back where we can. We’re not trying to be antagonistic for the sake of it, we need to be heard, for our concerns to be taken seriously. 

In terms of the kind of wider postgraduate climate, what do you think needs to change?

Funding. It needs to take into account that the average demographic does seem to be changing. We need to get a handle on exactly what’s going on there and make reasonable adjustments. Stipends go up by a few quid every year, but that’s not really going to make a difference given the cost of living increase. And there are outrageous disparities for all sorts of groups – black, ethnic minority, LGBTQ+, working class, disabled, international students, and so on. We need to continue to address that. PsyPAG have just ratified a new EDI Officer post which we are now recruiting for. We are determined that this isn’t tokenistic, but that it will enable us to better represent and address EDI issues from the postgraduate perspective, as well as helping ensure that PsyPAG itself is more accessible and diverse.

There’s also a more visible bullying culture emerging in psychology, disproportionately aimed at ECRs. You’ve published articles on ‘bropen science’ stuff so you’ll know what I’m talking about. The BPS should make a stand against that kind of toxic behaviour.

Interesting. And what about you, what are your own ambitions for the future?

Just to finish this damn PhD! My research is on statistics anxiety and I’m particularly trying to work out how to measure it properly. It’s quite meta. So I’d like to get in a position where we actually know what it is and how to measure it, so that we can research it properly, and then start thinking about interventions. That’s my research trajectory. 

In terms of teaching, I look at the work of Lisa DeBruine and the #PsyTeachR team at Glasgow and they’ve got all these fabulous materials online for teaching R… I’d love to create something like that for statistics, with pedagogy that is based on empirical research.

Everyone ends up just saying ‘just get this damn PhD finished’, it feels like a millstone around your neck the more you progress, I suppose. But what you said is a far better way of encapsulating the PhD process than my ‘learning more and more about less and less’… really understanding a topic inside and out, to pick it apart and go through that learning process with it. It changes you, as you’re getting more and more into it. It’s a beautiful thing, the best years of your life… it never gets better than the PhD!

I’m glad that I’ve managed to eke out another couple of years to be honest… I enjoy it. But yes, it would be nice to actually finish!

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