I have recently joined the UWE Department of Health and Social Sciences as a Senior Lecturer in Psychology. I am a developmental psychologist who has studied family relationships for the past 15 years.
At UWE, I will be teaching on the undergraduate Psychology program. I will deliver teaching on research design and analysis, as well as drawing on my expertise in family relationships. My teaching reflects the central aim of my research: to understand families as they are, rather than how they could or should be. I engage students in the key debates in the field of family psychology, for example: Do children have an obligation to maintain an active relationship with their parents? How important is genetic relatedness for family functioning?
I completed my PhD and postdoctoral research at the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge. My research examined family functioning in new and non-traditional families, such as those created through the use of assisted reproductive technologies. My specific contribution to the field has been to explore how parents explain their use of donated sperm or eggs to their children and what children think, feel and understand about how they were conceived.
Most recently, my research has explored family estrangement, which is a term that is increasingly used to refer to relationships between parents, children and siblings in adulthood that are characterised by distance and negativity. In 2015 I published a report exploring the experiences of approximately 800 people who identified as being estranged from a family member. Respondents were members of the Stand Alone community, a UK-based charity which aims to support those experiencing family estrangement. The findings of this study featured in a variety of media outlets such as The New York Times and were estimated to have reached an audience of 9 million readers.
This work is particularly relevant to the ‘Promoting Psychological Health’ theme of the PSRG. For example, I have recently conducted an evaluation of the therapeutic groups run by Stand Alone for those experiencing family estrangement. I have also conducted a qualitative research that has explored people’s experiences of accessing counselling for family estrangement. As well as publishing articles in academic journals, I write about research on family estrangement for a general audience, publishing articles in Psychology Today and The Conversation. I have also written a book: “No Family is Perfect: A Guide to Embracing the Messy Reality”, which will be published by Welbeck in January 2022.
I look forward to collaborating with colleagues and to expanding my research on family relationships in such a vibrant department.
I have recently joined the Department of Social Sciences as a Lecturer in Psychology and am very excited to be part of Team UWE and the Psychological Sciences Research Group!
I am an experimental psychologist with a strong interest in methods and Open Science. I completed my undergrad and master’s in Biology at the University of Vienna, specializing in biological anthropology and human behaviour. In 2011, I moved to Scotland to do my PhD with Prof. Dave Perrett in the Perception Lab at the University of St Andrews. After I received my PhD in Psychology in 2015, I completed a post-doc at the University of Glasgow, where I was working on a five-year-long ERC-funded project on human kin recognition with Prof. Lisa DeBruine in the Face Research Lab.
While I have a broader interest in human behaviour and social cognition, the bulk of my work has focused on social face perception. Faces have a crucial role in social interactions—they provide a rich source of information, as well as a canvas to which traits, attitudes and behavioural tendencies are ascribed to, often with consequential real-world outcomes. I am interested in understanding how facial cues affect social interactions, and why: many judgments we make are inaccurate, but also extremely quick and showing significant consensus across observers, suggesting that there is more at play than mere idiosyncrasies. In particular, I am interested in the evolutionary, neurobiological, and socio-cultural influences that shape our preferences and underpin our responses to facial cues. I take a data-driven and functional approach in my work (“perceiving is for doing”), and my research is inherently interdisciplinary, drawing on models and methods from experimental psychology, evolutionary biology, and computer science.
Oosterhof and Todorov’s prominent model of face perception suggests faces are evaluated along two main dimensions that have an adaptive origin—dominance, and trustworthiness. My PhD work investigated facial cues to body physique and their relation to perceptions of dominance and attractiveness, while my post-doctoral work has explored the role of kinship cues in perceptions of trustworthiness and attractiveness. Here at UWE, I plan to continue to draw on a functional framework to investigate social perception, focusing on questions around face preferences and impression formation, and how these are affected by individual differences, environmental pressures (such as scarcity) as well as perceptual biases and stereotypes.
Covid-19 has presented challenges in the maintenance of good psychological health and well-being for all of us. As a consequence, the role of practitioner psychologists and therapeutic professionals in society has never been more vital. The Promoting Psychological Health theme of the Psychological Sciences Research Group here at UWE, Bristol includes Academic and Practitioner psychologists and those in training through our British Psychological society accredited Masters as well as our HCPC accredited Masters and Doctoral training programmes. This includes Health Psychology, Counselling Psychology and Music Therapy. Throughout the pandemic, we have mobilised our community of practice to respond directly to the challenges of Covid-19, applying our psychological knowledge and skills using psychologically informed approaches. Our insights have been applied across research, policy, consultancy and therapeutic practice.
Health Psychology and Covid-19
Our Health Psychology team led by Dr Liz Jenkinson are part of the Health Psychology Exchange project, a collaboration of UK Health Psychologists providing consultancy around COVID-19. The UWE team and Professional Doctoral students such as Natalie Garnett and Ella Guest have been pivotal in three rapid reviews exploring the effectiveness of public health messaging and interventions in driving health behaviours during pandemics, and in the development of guidance to local and national health organisations. Two of these reviews have already been developed into British Psychological Society guidance and are now informing Public Health efforts to communicate effectively with the public, particularly around vaccination. For example, our review examined existing research which measured public responses to health messages encouraging vaccination against infectious diseases in a pandemic or epidemic. We concluded that evidence suggests that in order to be effective messages need to be credible (from trusted official sources), use community-wide outreach and mixed methods, frame risk appropriately (rather than over or understating), be tailored to be personally relevant, short and highlighting the benefits of vaccination to society as a whole rather than to the individual. One key finding was that previous research and practice did not include the voice of those under-represented groups who are often least likely to uptake a vaccine. The review recommends co-production with communities in the design and dissemination of messaging to ensure they are acceptable and accessible. We are pleased to see that recent efforts have been addressing this, and that our work has been reaching a wide audience through initiatives such as Evidence Aid.
Many of our health psychology trainees are also working on the frontline of the pandemic. From delivering vaccinations, to helping clients stay healthy during lockdown through to working in our local hospitals with clients with health conditions such as diabetes, pain and long term conditions, and now ‘Long Covid’, we are very proud to continue to supervise and support our trainees as they deliver this vital work at this difficult time.
Ageing Well in Older Adulthood
The pandemic has impacted disproportionately on older people with dementia – especially those living in residential care. PSRG members have contributed to building evidence in how best to support this vulnerable group during Covid-19. Prof. Rik Cheston and Emily Dodd carried out a survey of NHS staff to look at how the pandemic had impacted on their ability to deliver the LivDem intervention. This showed that none of the NHS trusts had established plans to reintroduce the course, and that there was widespread interest in developing an online intervention instead. Consequently, they hosted a webinar attended by a dozen clinicians in the UK and Ireland to identify best practice. In January, Emily and Rik hosted two online ‘taster’ sessions for LivDem which were attended by 60 clinicians based in the UK or Ireland. The team plan further introduction sessions for Clinical Psychologists in Yorkshire and Humberside, with intensive LivDem training to be rolled out through 2021 facilitated by Higher Education Innovation funding. Rik also contributed to an ARC West rapid review of the evidence base to identify effective primary preventative and secondary reactive approaches for staff to use when caring for people who walk with intent but are unable to leave residential care.
Counselling Psychology and online therapy
The challenges of the pandemic have presented unprecedented demand for therapeutic psychological support. Our counselling psychology staff and trainees had to swiftly pivot last year to providing some or all their clinical interventions online in line with government restrictions. This includes members of the teaching team working in private practice, and students working on placements, such as NHS departments and mental health charities such as Nilaari which provide culturally appropriate counselling for clients from the BAME community. This has created many unforeseen challenges – for example, how best to work with clients remotely. Video calling platforms may provide one solution but staff and students working with adults and young people have found that providing psychological therapy over the telephone can sometimes be more accessible than video calls over the internet, for example, as some clients struggle to access a safe and confidential space in their own home.
Senior Lecturer Christine Ramsey-Wade from the counselling psychology doctorate team has also been finding solutions to the challenges of delivering trauma-focused interventions remotely, such as Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing. These interventions are needed now more than ever, so some rapid research is being carried out into how best to translate these more physiological or experiential therapies online with Christine collaborating with EMDR UK on a new externally funded research bid to further investigate the effectiveness and client experience of different forms of EMDR when delivered online.
Music Therapy in education settings
Covid-19 has impacted the mental health and well-being of students at all stages of their journey through education. Adam Kishtainy, lecturer on the music therapy programme and lead for the music therapy clinic at UWE, is supporting two final year Masters students, Laura Wilson and Luke Howell, to run a music and wellbeing group at the UWE Centre for Music led by Kat Branch on the Frenchay campus. The music group makes use of active vocal and instrumental improvisation approaches, directly from music psychotherapy practice, as well as relaxation using music to encourage people to express themselves creatively and reflect on any mental health issues they are experiencing at the moment. Students from any programme can self-refer to this group. This team aim to provide a safe space to address immediate well-being issues through dynamic music making at this difficult time.
Adam is also running an outreach project, as part of the Glenside Clinic, in Bristol Metropolitan Academy and Briarwood Schools, taking in 6 of the Year 1 music therapy trainees on placement and delivering individual music therapy for their students. These schools have limited resources for psychological support and the opportunity to provide additional support for students at such a difficult time has been hugely appreciated.
PSRG psychologists and practitioners have risen to the challenge of Covid-19. We mobilised our community of practice to apply our psychological knowledge, skills and therapeutic approaches to promote good psychological health and well-being for our clients, through our research and through policy, consultancy and practice. Further challenges lie ahead, but the contribution of the psychological professions is clear. Psychology is front and centre in responding to the challenge of Covid-19.
This past autumn, we were fortunate to welcome five new lecturers to our Department who have joined PSRG. We are excited to have these phenomenal researchers join our team. All of our new members are early-career researchers who are looking to expand their research profiles, so please do reach out to them if you see potential for collaboration!
My name is Trang, and I recently joined the UWE Department of Health and Social Sciences as a Lecturer in Psychology in Individual Differences.
I originally came from Hồ Chí Minh city, Vietnam. I completed my undergraduate degree in Psychology at Aberystwyth University in 2012. After completing my MEd in Psychology in Education (University of Bristol) and MSc in Psychoanalytic Theories (UCL), I started my PhD research in 2014 (University of Bristol), which focused on the psychological well-being and socio-cultural adjustments of EU/international PhD students in the UK. I collected longitudinal questionnaire and interview data over 15 months to understand some significant factors and changes over time using mixed effects modelling, thematic analysis, and narrative analysis. As a mixed methodologist, my primary research interests include mental health and well-being in HE,staff and student well-being, and intercultural practices in education.
My academic work and experience centres around individual differences in well-being and socio-cultural adaptation, and how they can be studied within multicultural social contexts. My research projects between 2014 – 2020 have been around HE student well-being and transitions, with various foci on aspects such as extenuating circumstances, BAME student experience and attainment gap, assessment and feedback, and currently I am collaborating on a project looking at UG students’ psycho-social wellbeing and their sense of community during COVID-19 and online learning.
I also work as a research volunteer for a mental health foundation for student mental health, and previously as a mental health champion for staff mental health at universities (as part of the Mental Healthy Universities initiative with Mind). I love teaching and learning about teaching, and while I am aware of the stress of moving to blended/online teaching on everyone in our sector, I also found the experience very useful in rethinking my approach to teaching and research in general, and in particular how we can address issues with equality and diversity through the new platforms.
I recently joined the UWE Department of Health and Social Sciences as a Lecturer in Occupational Psychology.
I completed my MSc in Social and Applied Psychology at the University of Kent in 2016, and stayed on at Kent to complete my PhD. My PhD focuses on perceived leadership potential, exploring a preference for leadership potential over leadership performance in leadership evaluations and the extent to which it is influenced by a pro-youth bias. My thesis took a mixed methods approach, employing thematic analysis, correlational research, and experimental studies. My research interests also include representations of age and ageing, age and gender stereotypes in leadership, and the impact of wellbeing at work initiatives on employee attitudes.
Previously, I worked as a Business Consultant for Bailey & French. In this role I worked with organisations to develop and implement workplace solutions founded on positive psychology research, covering areas such as leadership, wellbeing, and performance. Before that, I worked in learning and development in the Financial Services industry, specialising in leadership development.
I am an ‘applied’ social psychologist, with an expertise in verbal lie-detection using psychologically-based, ‘proactive’ interviewing protocols.
I studied BSc Forensic Psychology at the University of Portsmouth (UoP), obtaining a 1st class classification in 2013 and winning the Departments John Denis Award for best undergraduate dissertation. This project applied metacognitive theory to verbal lie-detection.
My PhD examined the effects of sub-optimal recall settings (i.e. reporting events after delays or in contexts when events were incidentally – rather than intentionally – encoded) upon the popular verbal veracity cue ‘richness of detail’. My PhD discovered evidence of a ‘stability bias’ (like) effect impacting liar’s statements after delays, a finding that has been independently replicated since.
In 2015 I became a full-time Research Associate at the UoP, working on two core projects: a High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG) funded memory-based lie-detection project, and a Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats (CREST) funded project developing the Verifiability Approach (VA). The outputs from these projects have been published in academic peer-reviewed journals including: Law and Human Behavor; the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition (JARMAC); and Acta Psychologica. I have presented our findings international and won the first-place (student) prize at Cambridge during the first Decepticon international conference for our research applying the VA to insurance fraud settings.
In 2019 I became a PTHP Lecturer (and tutor) in the School of Education and Sociology (UoP), before being appointed to Lecturer of Social Psychology in early 2020. In September 2020 I became Lecturer in Social Psychology at UWE Bristol.
I recently joined the UWE Department of Health and Social Sciences as a Lecturer in Psychology.
I previously studied at Coventry University (CU) for my BSc and MScR in Psychology. I was then awarded a teaching and research scholarship at the University of Bristol (UoB). I moved to Bristol in 2016 and joined the Tobacco and Alcohol Research Group (TARG). My PhD explored the effects of acute and chronic alcohol consumption on emotional face processing. I completed work that aimed to extend our understanding of how alcohol impairs our ability to process key social information that has the potential to influence behaviour (especially important given the social context in which alcohol is typically consumed).
My research interests include psychopharmacology, social drugs, alcohol-related aggression, alcohol policy, health outcomes, and emotional face processing. I am a big advocate of open science and reproducibility and believe strongly in the accurate dissemination of research findings. Because of this, I actively involve myself in public engagement events. Examples include the yearly Bristol Neuroscience festival, Women in STEMM (Ada Lovelace), and an Alcohol Labelling event hosted by TARG.
I am delighted to join UWE Bristol, and the excellent researchers at PSGR.
I recently joined the UWE Department of Health and Social Sciences as a Senior Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Psychology. Prior to joining UWE, I was a lecturer at Middlesex University for 3 years, where I was the curriculum lead for sport and exercise psychology, lead a football science degree programme and also developed an MSc in Sport and Ex Psychology. Prior to this role in academia I worked in elite sport, with Fulham FC across their senior and junior teams and then with Sunderland AFC, supporting their senior team. I studied for a BSc ‘Sport and Exercise Science’ and an MSc ‘Sport and Exercise Science (Psychology)’ at Brunel University (London) between 2006 and 2011.
Currently, my primary research interest is in mental health and wellbeing in elite sport. My PhD project is investigating perceptions and engagement with mental health support services in English elite football. I therefore have taken interest in areas around mental health stigma, literacy and support systems, which I imagine would map on to other research being carried out in the department.
I am also currently engaged with The Royal Marines, looking into the development and measurement of psychology programmes within the force. This is in its early stages, however is covering a breadth of occupational and performance psychology themes.
As an applied practitioner I am accredited by the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES) and am currently on an accelerated pathway to obtain HCPC status with them.
The Sexual Health and Well Being Interest Group #SHWIG@SHWIG is a group of researchers planning and doing research on sexual health, well-being and sexual violence. @SHWIG is a special interest group within the Psychological Science Research Group @PSRG at UWE.
Sexual health/well-being cuts across many aspects of our lives including relationships, behaviour and families as well as societal level issues of freedom, identity and inequalities.
In a time when clinical sexual health services have been cut to the bone and work focused on test, trace and treat, preserving the wider prevention and health promotion roles within sexual health/well-being has become even more important.
Applied research on sexual health and well-being and its impact on the real world is fundamental to our work and highlights the inequalities and civil rights barriers we see evidenced in higher rates of Sexually Transmitted Infection and HIV for racially marginalised groups, sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement and the evolution of reproductive freedoms through greater access to abortion.
Our group works across academic disciplines around these issues. What is the balance between harm and good and patterns of power and structural inequality? How does this shape freedom of identity and sexual identity; what is societies’ contribution to driving sexual violence via restrictive social and gender norms of what it is to be a ‘real man’. What is the contribution of informal sources of education such as porn on and how do sexual identities change? How is this reflected in the growth of online transactional sex?
@SHWIG is bringing all of these issues together under the virtual umbrella of a research into practice orientated, interest group based in a digital space, the @SHWIG#SHWIG lives on twitter and is housed within the Psychological Research Group at the University of the West of England, intersecting with the Sexual Violence Research Network also at UWE.
Lead by @DrJaneMeyrick, a health psychologist and public health specialist, we are a crosscutting multidisciplinary group of researchers and research informed practitioners. Contributors work across sexual health services, outreach, abortion services, criminal justice, sex work support, sex education development, sexual violence prevention and specialist services, all of which speak to this wider agenda. We have launched this online interest group to support the interaction of disciplines around these key topics and we hope to share cutting edge research webinars/podcasts/twitter conversations in order to showcase members research and promote transition to real world change. Innovative work underway includes interviews with black men in London around sexual health; the support needs of sex workers and patient voice lead transformation of abortion care. But we also want to reach out and create bigger networks with those sharing our interest, for example, disclosure of sexual violence and abuse in universities and sexual health services is a piece of work which connects higher education, sexual health and specialist sexual violence counselling services.
We want to share the learning and to grow the knowledge through understanding from multiple disciplinary viewpoints.
We bring important tools to bear on this topic starting from a public health perspective of prevention and harm reduction, using concepts of prevalence, (what is the size of the problem), employing the evidence base, (what has been shown to work best). Finally framing this, within a wider ecological model of how we understand the world that maps issues onto the individual, family, community and society that determine them.
Embarking on a PhD can be one of the most rewarding, frustrating, liberating, challenging and exciting adventures of your professional life. However, it isn’t for everyone and should not be undertaken lightly. If it works for you, it can be incredible. If it doesn’t, it can be painful.
Within PSRG at UWE Bristol we are helping to grow the next generation of researchers and academics. As a result, we often have conversations with our students, our graduates and graduates from other universities about the whys and wherefores of PhDs. To help shape these conversations, we’ve put together the following blog as a repository of frequently asked questions and links to other sources of information that might be helpful to those considering embarking on a PhD journey either with us or elsewhere.
So, if you’re thinking about studying for a PhD in the UK (my colleagues from the US tell me things are very different over there), read our blog below for some honest truths and links to even more information about topic areas you should be chewing over. Namely we will cover:
In terms of eligibility, on paper the answer is often “yes” for many people. At UWE for example, many PhD programmes only require a 2:1 at undergraduate level or a Masters at merit level or higher (see UWE’s criteria here). If you have undertaken a Masters, this grade will often supersede the importance of your undergraduate degree result (see also here).
But, although you can go straight from your undergraduate degree to a PhD, the step up is a big one. This is why a Masters, or a Masters by Research (which focuses more on research and independent study; read more here) can be a sensible in-between step. There are multiple benefits from both including:
gaining more research skills
seeing if more independent learning with less structure is for you
learning more about building and managing working relationships with a supervisor(s)
While many institutions do not require you to already have a Masters, some funded PhDs include an entire Masters as part of your studies (e.g., the SWDTP). And at many institutions, like UWE, you will take Masters / higher level modules as part of your doctoral studies.
Importantly, if you are considering studying for a PhD without a Masters do carefully compare the differences between undergraduate and PhD study before you begin. Resources like the following can be useful when contemplating which route to take (1 and 2).
Perhaps even more important than thinking about your “eligibility” to study for a PhD, is the question of “suitability.” In short, it is important to ask yourself if you can be self-directed, independent, and focused enough to study one thing for at least 3 years, possibly longer. Do you have the passion and commitment to work on one subject area for that length of time?
A PhD is a big commitment, it can take over large swathes of your life for the duration of study. It will also, inevitably involve some downs as well as ups (see here for more on the “turbulent nature of doctoral research.” So, it is important that you are studying something that you feel committed to and will see through.
It is highly likely that prospective PhD students anywhere will only be accepted onto PhD programmes if they can show that they are: i. likely to complete their PhD and ii. will do so within the time limits of the institution. Further questions to ask yourself can be found here.
Getting funding for your tuition fees and even a stipend to live on is both a very appealing and a very competitive process. In this section, we discuss funding and how being funded or not can influence the focus of your PhD topic.
Tuition fees for standard postgraduate research programmes in the UK are set by “UK Research and Innovation.” They are often lower than taught undergraduate and taught postgraduate programmes, although fees for International students will be higher. More information about PhDs fees at UWE can be found here.
But remember, tuition fees are not your sole expense. Accommodation and other living costs will often end up being much more than the cost of tuition fees alone. As a result, some self-funded students combine working in another job with their PhD studies and complete some or all their PhD on a part-time basis.
If you secure a funded post that has been advertised, it is likely that you will work on a programme of study that has been somewhat pre-determined by your supervisor. And of course, many students are very happy to do this due to the security of the funding and getting a PhD.
If you self-fund, or get a doctoral loan (see below), you should take the opportunity to “shop around” to find a supervisor who is interested in exactly the research topic you wish to study. After all, you are paying to study yourself – so your topic of study should reflect more of your passion.
And, of course, it is also possible that you approach a supervisor – work up a funding proposal together, and then both apply for funding. In terms of this pathway, UWE is part of the South West Doctoral Training Partnership, where exactly this process happens. But again, remember, securing any form of funding is a competitive and demanding process.
Listed below are some of the funding routes available to prospective PhD students:
National Research Councils
Funding for PhDs can be awarded by the different research councils in the UK, each covering a specific academic sector. Research councils post research opportunities on their websites so keep an eye out for research topics and calls that interest you.
Funding from universities
Universities can offer scholarships, studentships and other PhD funding opportunities which can cover tuition fees and stipends. See for example here.
There are pros and cons to self-funding, even now it is easier to get a doctoral loan (below). Some interesting perspectives from self-funding PhD students can be found here and here.
These loans are provided by the UK Government and can be used to cover both fees and living costs. The amount you get is divided equally across each year of study, and you will not have to start paying it back until your income is over a threshold amount. Eligibility for this loan depends on a number of factors, a list of which can be found here.
Funding for International students
There are several funding options specifically for International students. These can be important as tuition fees for International students are considerably higher than for home students. More information can be found here.
When deciding on studying a PhD you will likely have strong ideas on what you want to study and even where you want to study – but make sure you also feel very secure with who you are going to be studying with/under. Your supervisor or supervisors (see below) will be among the most significant people in your life during your PhD. They will guide and support you throughout the process, so it is vital that you find people who meet your needs.
Obviously, the process will differ between funded versus a self-funded PhD, but for both, before you commit, try and work out how you will differentiate between:
a supervisor that will really help you get your PhD
a supervisor who may end up hindering your progress
You need to be as sure as you can be that you are a good working match with each other. So do some research around their research passions, check they align with yours. Make sure, before you commit, that you ask some probing questions. You may wish to ask about the amount of contact time you will get or about students they have supervised before and their success rate as a supervisor. You may want to try and speak to their current or past students. If, when you are asking any of these questions, you are not happy with the answers you get, or you feel you already know more about a topic area than your supervisor: that could be a red flag and a sign for you to investigate other options.
Unfortunately, the supervisor-student relationship is not always cohesive and effective and can lead to issues. Unanswered emails, unannounced absences and unsuitable replacement supervisors are just a few examples of how it can go wrong and leave the student feeling confused, losing confidence in their abilities and their research. The following articles delve further into these issues (1 and 2).
The bottom line is simple, your relationship with your PhD supervisor really matters. Make sure you choose someone that will meet your needs both in terms of taking you on and when your studies get into difficulty.
One further thing. As hinted at earlier, generally speaking you will have more than one supervisor. A director of studies (lead / principal supervisor [n.b. different unis use different terms) and a secondary supervisor. The role and structure of secondary supervision can vary from PhD to PhD and place to place. Often secondary supervisors can bring complementary expertise or provide different viewpoints. Read more about their possible roles here. So just to complicate things, you don’t just need to be thinking about one supervisor – you need to be thinking about a supervision team!
Further guidance on how to choose a supervisor and supervision relationships can be found at the following links (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7).
This is an interesting topic because there are pros and cons to both staying at an institution you know and moving somewhere else. Some of the pros to staying at a familiar institution include established relationships with staff and processes. It may also be beneficial to stay in the same area if you have family or friends you do not wish to move away from. In some cases, your current institution may also be a leading centre for your research.
However, it might also be the case that the leading centres are somewhere else. Or even though it would be comfortable to stay within a geographical area or institution you know it might be better to look elsewhere. It might, for example, be useful to experience different research cultures and new locations. Some even suggest that staying at the same place for UG, PG and PhD study suggests a lack of willingness to move out of your comfort zone. Just to confuse things even more, some students live in one place but are registered for their part time PhD hundreds of miles away.
In short, you need to weigh up the pros and cons to determine which option is right for you. There are no firmly right or wrong answers. But there are several important points to think through when considering where you should study and live for the next few years of your life.
There is an interesting thread debating both options here. And further advice on where to study here.
It may sound strange to start thinking about your life after a PhD before you even start your doctoral research – but it is an important subject for now. Ask yourself: “Both, why do you want a PhD AND where do you want it to take you?”
Once you have a PhD there will be many routes open to you: continuing as a researcher, in academia or with a research-based organisations, teaching, or using your PhD skills in a non-research / learning setting. But now is also the time for some truth telling. Just so you have your eyes open from the outset.
“Continuing in academia” is a very natural aspiration for many after completing a PhD. However, for many years now, there have been many more people with PhDs than there are academic jobs in UK universities. The academic job market is both oversaturated and very competitive. That is not to say that academia is no longer an option for PhD students – it is the vital first step. But you might need to prepare yourself for a longer and more uncertain road than you were expecting.
This blog, is a sobering but important read. It notes that 70% of UK PhD holders have left the academic sector 3.5 years after graduating. And, of the 30% still within universities, it is unclear how many are employed on “teaching only” or “fixed term contracts.”. As with elsewhere in the UK workforce, casualisation and precarious working is an issue in academia too.
Of course, many people either always planned to move away from research after their PhD or decide to do so during or after they complete their doctorate. Your PhD gives you many valuable skills for a multitude of roles in many fields. Many doors open with a PhD. An interesting case study of living your values post a PhD can be found here.
We hope that this blog has been a useful read and gives you some more information on issues you were already aware of and some new questions to think through and consider. Importantly, none of the information above is designed to put anyone off studying for a PhD – but is offered instead to enable you to go into this exciting process aware and with your eyes fully open. Indeed, in a 2019 survey, across 50,000 postgraduate researchers at 107 institutions, satisfaction levels were at 81%.
This blog was co-written by an amazing graduate student from another university who already had their MRes and was working with members of PSRG to further their research skills. Alex, thank you for all your time and effort in helping put this blog together. And to everyone else, we welcome contact from anyone near or far who wants to work with us and help us with our work. Please contact: PSRG@uwe.ac.uk.
We are excited to welcome two new social psychologists to PSRG! Matt and Emily joined UWE in January 2020 and have recently joined the Promoting Psychological Health theme of PSRG. Read on to learn more about our newest members!
My name is Matt Wood and I have joined the UWE Department of Health and Social Sciences as a Lecturer in Social Psychology.
I conducted by BSc in Psychology and my MSc in Health Psychology here at UWE. I then moved to Newcastle where I joined the EPSRC Centre of Doctoral Training in Digital Civics to conduct my PhD. My PhD was about how young people construct and contest a gendered and sexual identity through digital technology, using discursive psychology to consider how young people talked about sexual bodies, sexual cultures & sexual health.
The majority of my work is situated in Human Computer Interaction (HCI). At its core, this is about how people (users) interact with computers, and a great deal of work in HCI is focused on interfaces and making these more usable. HCI is however an incredibly broad field, incorporating perspectives from computer science, psychology, sociology and design, to name but a few.
Broadly speaking, I am interested in the qualitative dimension of social computing. This means I’m interested in the role digital technologies play in our social interactions with others – which of course has become highly topical since the pandemic of Covid-19. But in adopting qualitative methods, I am interested in unpacking the ‘messy reality’ of the social role of technology in people’s lives. These can often be contradictory, difficult, and intercept with other aspects of people’s lives, including identity and personhood. A great deal of my PhD was spent looking at young people’s talk/discourse around digital technologies, and how they positioned these in negotiating a gendered and sexual identity.
I am thrilled to join the dynamic researchers at PSRG, and I am excited to call this interdisciplinary group my research home. In May 2020 I was awarded a Vice-Chancellor Early Career Research Award to explore the qualitative dimensions of immersion in virtual reality, with an application to Science Communication, which I’m conducting in partnership with UWE’s Science Communication Unit.
My name is Emily LeRoux-Rutledge and I have joined the UWE Department of Health and Social Sciences as a Lecturer in Social Psychology.
As a Canadian, who has lived in Kenya, France, Bangladesh and the UK, it’s perhaps not surprising that I’ve been drawn to research on identity and migration. My current research looks at how the identities of refugee and diaspora groups in the UK are affected by ongoing violence in their countries of origin, and how this impacts wellbeing.
Broadly, my research examines the identities of marginalised groups in global contexts – which encompasses a lot of things! For example, I look at how the media constructs narratives about people, how people interpret media narratives, how people construct their own identities, and how they negotiate their identities in the face of local and global narratives about who they are, and who they should be. I use primarily qualitative methodologies, and take a narrative approach to identity.
I previously held a Lectureship in Social Psychology at the University of Surrey, and I have taught at both the London School of Economics and the University of Bristol. I earned my PhD in Social Psychology from the London School of Economics in 2017, my MSc in Social and Public Communication from the London School of Economics in 2007, and my BA (Hons) in International Relations and English from the University of Toronto in 2004.
Prior to my academic career, I spent ten years working in the field of international development, managing research for organisations using media and communication for development, and I continue to work as a consultant in this sector. I’ve conducted research on a wide range of topics, from public health to climate change, and I’ve worked in more than 20 countries, including Bangladesh, Cambodia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Kenya, Niger, South Africa, South Sudan, Senegal, Serbia, Tanzania and Uganda.
I’m delighted to join the Psychological Sciences Research Group at UWE, and look forward to working and collaborating with my many wonderful colleagues!
Thanks to Matt at Housecat Productions, we have videos about PSRG and each of our themes (footage recorded pre-pandemic). Check out each of the videos and the work that we do. Feel free to get in touch in the comments below or by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
An overview of our whole research group:
About our Ageing Well theme:
About our Applied Cognition and Neuroscience theme:
About our Optimising Performance and Engagement theme:
implications of nomothetic psychotherapy research
Psychotherapy research has made significant progress in providing strong evidence for process and outcome in favour of specific approaches. However, after many years of research and advanced methodologies, we are still unsure about why psychotherapy works, and how and to what degree these findings can be applied in everyday practice (Kazdin, 2009). Evidence-based approaches do not appear to be effective for everyone, and the mechanisms of change are still investigated with diverse findings. Randomised controlled trials (RCT) and meta-analyses inform policy and guidelines followed by the likes of the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Illustrating this, NICE Guidelines for the treatment of Depression state that “well-defined” depression can be treated with CBT based on its proven efficacy, however “it is not effective for everyone” (NICE, 2009). Clinicians need evidence-based recommendations to inform their work with clients. It is notable though that evidence-based practice is based on nomothetic, quantitative approaches of inquiry but what is actually demanded from practitioners is to apply these theories in an idiographic context and adjust to the needs of the individual who seeks help (Persons, 2008).
One cannot reduce psychotherapy to specific factors and cannot reduce the person to a specific list of symptoms. Added to that, each psychotherapeutic encounter is unique, in terms of transference and real relationship factors. Rigid diagnosis criteria are challenged and culturally sensitive, social models of diagnosis are encouraged in the literature, which question the constant pursuit of functionality, fulfilment and happiness (Kirmayer, Gomez – Carillo & Veissiere, 2017). In reality, clients with the same labels are likely to experience their diagnosis in different ways (Hayes et al, 2019). Moreover, each therapist has inherent biases and internal processes of interpreting each client before deciding which interventions to apply and how (Makhinson, 2012). The therapist’s training, expectations, overgeneralisations and pressure for positive results have a significant impact on the decisions they will make for therapeutic action plans. Lastly, each psychotherapeutic dyad is different, each process that unfolds in this context is a different experience for both parties. Even if the therapist follows the same approach guidelines, they will be different with different clients (Hill, Chui & Baumann, 2013). Each therapeutic encounter forms a new interaction and discussion; a new therapy (Baldwin & Imel, 2020).
psychotherapy efficacy research struggles to capture the level of complexity therapeutic
interactions entail. The findings make inferences about the general population but
do not necessarily apply to the individual (Hayes et al., 2019). Another issue
is the difficulty in defining each therapeutic modality given the new
approaches that appear and their variations in application. Too many approaches
are now presented in the literature for too many syndromes which account for
too many statistical models, and the number is growing (Hayes et al., 2019). Moreover,
there are many confounding factors when trying to measure the effects of
psychotherapy, such as the therapist’s subjectivity, training, supervision, the
therapist and researcher’s expectations and the clients’ presenting
difficulties. The researcher’s subjectivity must also be recognised in the research
process even for the most rigorous RCTs. Psychotherapy research entails bias
and the effectiveness of psychotherapy can be exaggerated. Moreover, many
studies may remain unpublished if results support null or negative hypotheses
(Dragioti, Karathanos, Gerdle & Evangelou, 2017).
back to case analysis: the idiographic paradigm in psychotherapy research
Psychotherapy is a multi-faceted, complex phenomenon. How can we understand and represent its variability in evidence-based findings? Research is moving away from protocol and approach specific treatments towards a more client-centred way of exploring psychotherapy efficacy; it instead becomes a “personalized treatment” (Zilcha-Mano, 2019, p. 694). The focus is on the implementation of methodologies which can do justice to the complexity and variability of the phenomenon of psychotherapy. Qualitative research allows the exploration of the multidimensional interactions in psychotherapy encounters and the emergence of unexpected results (Hill et al., 2013; McLeod, 2011). By implementing methods such as the Narrative Assessment Interview (Angus, Levitt & Hardtke, 1999), the Change Interview (Elliott, Slatick & Urman, 2001) or the Hermeneutic Single-Case Efficacy Design (Elliott et al., 2009), qualitative research is nowadays being used more often in exploring psychotherapeutic processes and effects.
As psychotherapy researchers, we need to pursue a route that is different to “protocol-to-syndrome.” We are moving away from labels and therapy “brands” (Hofman, 2020, pp. 297 – 298) towards elaborate descriptions of people and therapies, focusing on what works, why and how, for both specific individuals or groups that share common characteristics. The suggestion is to distance ourselves from theory-driven process and outcome studies, from measurable and quantifiable behavioural changes (Hill et al., 2013) and instead to approach the client’s perspective in an open and explorative way; to enable learning and knowledge derived from the clients’ experience of psychotherapy efficacy. In particular, idiographic qualitative phenomenological research offers the means to explore intrapsychic change. A well-designed case study provides detailed, in-depth knowledge which is readily applicable to everyday clinical practice (Persons & Boswell, 2019).
Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) is a qualitative methodology that focuses on the individual’s unique experiences of the situation studied. IPA can make a significant contribution by enabling researchers and practitioners to gain insights into client’s experiences of therapeutic processes. The philosophical, epistemological, and methodological underpinnings and guidelines of IPA allow for an in-depth exploration of the client’s experience, leading to significant conceptualisations on how therapeutic approaches work (Larkin & Thompson, 2012). It is based on the phenomenological paradigm as outlined by Husserl, Heidegger, and Merlau-Ponty (Smith, 1996; Smith, Flowers, & Larkin, 2009). It provides the framework to place the therapeutic encounter in context and analyse it; to go back to the phenomenon of psychotherapy “on its own terms.” The focus is on individuals, their subjective accounts and perceptions, bracketing the understanding of preconceived ideas, beliefs, and expectations. IPA methodology views persons in-context as they expound on embodied, dynamic, and interactive experiences. Interpretation in IPA implies moving away from the obvious, focusing on the meaning participants attribute to their experience, engaging in a dialogue with the data, and illuminating sense-making (Smith, 1996; Smith et al., 2009).
Adhering to an existential framework,
IPA methodology does not rely on psychological theories for the collection and analysis
of data. It is data-driven, emphasizing personal experience (Smith, 2017). It
is deemed a useful method for psychotherapy process exploration as it frees the
researcher from the compounds of psychotherapy theory and gives voice to the
clients’ unique experience and intersubjective meaning-making processes
(Larking & Thompson, 2012). Phenomenological methods have been applied to
the exploration of adults’ experiences of psychotherapy during their childhood
have changed their live, clients’ experience of positive change and to psychotherapy outcome studies
(Binder et al., 2010; Midgley, Target, & Smith, 2006; Olofsson et al.,
2019; Wilmots et al., 2019). IPA applied to psychotherapy research allows for
the exploration of the clients’ perspective, the meaning they attribute to
seeking and receiving help and how they conceptualise the psychotherapy process
rendering the results useful for incorporation into everyday clinical practice
(Binder et al., 2010; McLeod, 2011; Midgley et al., 2014). IPA guidelines help researchers keep the focus
on the participants’ experiences and meaning-making processes, and can further
bolster and clarify the knowledge of psychotherapy effects from the clients’
approaches to research claim that there is one absolute truth outside of us to
be discovered (Ponterotto, 2005). As psychotherapy researchers, the
phenomenological perception of truth helps us view psychotherapy as real
however it is the individual’ consciousness that determines its reality. IPA
exploration of psychotherapy brings research back to the clients, to their
experience of change, from which we can acquire significant insight on how and
why psychotherapy works. We go back to the individual case and understand the
psychotherapy processes from their perspective. Thus, the findings are closely
linked to practice. Inventories and questionnaires may capture a small proportion
of this variability in psychotherapy change procedures, but they are restricted
to overt behaviours and symptoms whilst the questions might not be applicable
to the person’s issues. The use of qualitative research methods in
psychotherapy effectiveness and outcome research adds to our efforts to
comprehend when and how psychotherapy works in an explorative and descriptive
psychotherapy research allows for the client’s voice to be heard. Their
perceptions and interpretations of psychotherapy process and change may guide
research conclusions, theory advancements and policies. Hence, psychotherapy is
adjusted to the clients and the service users, and not the other way around. In
recent literature, a more pluralistic method of inquiry is now considered in an
effort to address the diversity of psychotherapy processes, encouraging
researchers’ reflexivity on the aspect of psychotherapy they choose to explore (Rieken
& Gelo, 2015). Various methodologies and epistemologies are now employed in
the search for an answer to why psychotherapy works. Qualitative methodologies,
and especially IPA, places the client in–context considering psychological,
physical and social aspects of their experience of psychotherapy. Like
clinicians who tailor their use of techniques to the specific client in the
specific therapeutic relationship, researchers should consider individual needs,
culture and social context, tailoring research methods to specific aspects of
psychotherapy process and change.
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Holgersen, H., & Gier Høstmark, N. (2010). What is a “good outcome” in
psychotherapy? A qualitative exploration of former patients’ point of view. Psychotherapy
Research, 20(3), 285 – 294. doi: 10.1080/10503300903376338
Dragioti, E., Karathanos, V.,
Gerdle, B., & Evangelou, E. (2017). Does psychotherapy work? An umbrella
review of meta-analyses of randomized controlled trials. Acta Psychiatrica
Scandinavica, 136(3), 236–246. https://doi.org/10.1111/acps.12713
Elliott, R., Partyka, R., Alperin, R.,
Dobrenski, R., Wagner, J., Messer, S. B., . . . Castonguay, L. G. (2009). An
adjudicated hermeneutic single-case efficacy design study of experiential
therapy for panic/ phobia. Psychotherapy Research, 19, 543–557.
Elliott, R., Slatick, E., & Urman, M.
(2001). Qualitative change process research on psychotherapy: Alternative
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Hayes, S. C., Hofmann, S. G.,
Stanton, C. E., Carpenter, J. K., Sanford, B. T., Curtiss, J. E., &
Ciarrochi, J. (2019). The role of the individual in the coming era of
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2018), 40–53. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2018.10.005
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Hofmann, S. G. (2020).
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Research, 30(3), 297–299. https://doi.org/10.1080/10503307.2019.1630781
Kirmayer, L. J.,
Gomez-Carrillo, A., & Veissière, S. (2017). Culture and depression in
global mental health: An ecosocial approach to the phenomenology of psychiatric
disorders. Social Science and Medicine, 183, 163–168. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2017.04.034
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(eds), Qualitative research methods in mental health and psychotherapy: a
guide for students and practitioners. John Wiley & Sons: Oxford, pp.
McLeod, J. (2011). Qualitative research in counselling and
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(2014). The meaningful assessment of therapy outcomes: Incorporating a
qualitative study into a randomized controlled trial evaluating the treatment
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Eielsen, H. P., & Vrabel, K. R. (2019). Change processes related to
long-term outcomes in eating disorders with childhood trauma: An explorative
qualitative study. Journal of Counseling Psychology, advanced online publication.
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This blog post provides a reflective account of my own experiences participating in Dry January – an alcohol abstinence challenge initiated by Alcohol Change UK that encourages people to reduce their levels of alcohol consumption. As an experimental social psychologist, my research investigates the influences of contextual and social factors on alcohol consumption and related behaviours. Working alongside collaborators at Edge Hill and Aston University, our work to date has suggested that frequent alcohol consumption is associated with our motivations and expected outcomes of drinking, as well as heightened attention towards alcohol-related cues. It was never my intention to blog about my experiences of Dry January; it was simply a personal endeavour that I aimed to complete. However, as the days went on, I noticed a lot of parallels with my own research, as well as becoming more cognisant about wider issues embedded in the UK’s drinking culture. I hope that my reflections below will speak to other people’s experiences associated with taking part, as well as highlighting cultural issues with our relationship with alcohol, and how we might best support those who wish to reduce their consumption.
What is Dry January?
“Dry January” is a 1-month challenge where people give up alcohol for the month of January. Typically completed with the aid of a phone app, the overarching goal is to refrain from drinking alcoholic beverages for 31-days, with badges rewarded for day streaks, drinking in moderation, reducing alcohol intake, and total dry days. At the end of each day, the participant completes an online calendar, responding whether they’ve stayed ‘Dry’, ‘drank’, or ‘drank as planned’. Given the nascent stage of this particular challenge (2013), there has been little research conducted on the benefits and potential drawbacks of Dry January. However, research has suggested that Dry January can have a range of positive health-related and psychological benefits, ranging from improved sleep, weight loss, and enhanced self-control (see De Visser et al., 2016). Further, whilst some have proposed that Dry January may lead to a ‘rebound effect’ (i.e., binge February), the majority of available research suggests that a period of abstinence can encourage longer term reductions in drinking (Bray et al., 2010; De Visser et al., 2016). This is because, after a person has made a commitment to engage in behaviour change, they are more likely to maintain these changes in the future (de Visser et al., 2017).
Reflections on Dry January
Learning about the reasons I drink
According to the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT), I am categorised as a ‘low risk drinker’ with an overall score of 7 out of 40 (anything above 8 is seen as higher risk). Personally, I would classify myself as an ‘occasional social drinker’, who rarely binge drinks but instead has ‘one or two every now and again’. Over the Christmas period, I found myself overindulging in unhealthy foods and drinking more alcohol and I therefore decided to take part in Dry January to regulate my behaviour and explore the benefits. Early in the New Year, I found it relatively easy to abstain from alcohol, simply because I felt I’d had my fill over the festive period (my AUDIT score would have been temporarily higher!). As the days turned into weeks, however, I found myself thinking about reaching for an alcoholic drink a lot more. I then stopped to think about when and why I wanted an alcoholic drink, and realised that I tend to drink to alleviate stress or to relax in social situations. In the alcohol literature, these reasons are known as ‘drinking motives’ (see Kuntsche et al., 2006), which are the valued outcomes that people associate with drinking alcohol. The examples I provide are known as ‘coping’ (i.e., to deal with negative emotions) and ‘social’ motives (i.e., to enhance interactions), but there are also enhancement (i.e., to heighten mood) and conformity motives (i.e., to avoid social pressure or a need to fit in). Interestingly, research has shown that these drinking motives are a unique predictor of alcohol consumption and related behaviours (Kuntsche et al., 2014; Merrill & Read, 2010).
Another insight I had was that my tendency to drink alcohol in low-quantity, but rather frequently, may influence me to underestimate my true alcohol consumption. The limitations of self-report measures of alcohol consumption could be discussed at length, but the main point here is that such behaviour may be easily forgotten and unreliability reported. In addition, it may mask viewing consumption as a ‘problem’ and be an obstacle to behaviour change. Partaking in Dry January made me realise how I might reach for a drink without really counting it or thinking that I need to cut down.
Alcohol cues are everywhere
Seeing an advertisement for alcohol in a drinking establishment (i.e., pubs and bars) comes as no surprise, particularly in UK culture. However, abstaining from alcohol made me evaluate the quantity of alcohol advertisements we see in our everyday lives and the appropriateness of their placement. During a conference visit in January, I stayed at a well-known hotel chain and found promotional offers for alcohol in the reception lobby, as well as included in leaflets in my room. Throughout Dry January I became more and more aware of the number of alcohol adverts that were aired on television and decorative signs in shops that glamorised drinking. I found my heightened awareness of this very interesting and this led me to think more about something we, as researchers, call ‘cue reactivity’. Here, research shows that alcohol-related cues capture and hold the attention of those who drink alcohol and appear to increase subjective cravings for alcohol (see Field et al., 2009). Moreover, such attentional processing seems to be heightened in heavy drinkers and even abstinent alcoholics (Field et al., 2013). Such advertisements challenged my self-control to not drink by heightening my craving for alcohol, which led me to think about the implications that such advertising has for those with problematic alcohol use, or alcohol-related disorders. In the UK, alcohol-related adverts are regulated so that they do not condone or encourage irresponsible or immoderate drinking. Unlike cigarette advertising which is banned on television and heavily regulated in supermarkets (e.g., cigarettes hidden behind a screen), however, alcohol advertising appears to be much more relaxed. Let’s compare a packet of cigarettes and a bottle of alcohol, for example; the packaging of cigarettes includes large health warnings on 65% of the front and back, a brand name in standard font, and drab colours. The packaging of alcohol, on the other hand, includes limited (or no) health warnings, bright colours and attractive images, and beverages themselves come in many different colours and flavours. It therefore seems that more work needs to be done to regulate the branding and advertisement of alcohol to make them less attractive and ‘wanted’. Health warnings and nutritional labels would raise awareness of the health implications of consumption, and help people to make informed decisions with regards to drinking.
Challenging conversations around drinking
a few occasions during Dry January where my choice not to drink during social
occasions was questioned by others, and people tried to influence this decision.
Statements such as “just have one and then don’t drink tomorrow”, or “have a
beer now and then a glass of water” were voiced, perhaps with the aim to test
my self-control. This made me think about the wider conversations we have about
drinking and the societal norms associated with alcohol; we wouldn’t ask
someone why they are drinking, so why is it okay to ask someone why they’re
not? I found that the most effective way of dealing with this was to have open
conservations about the benefits of Dry January and to engage in discussion
with people about wider problems regarding the UK’s binge drinking culture (see
Pincock, 2003). It was interesting to
outline the many different reasons why people may choose to moderate their
alcohol consumption, or not to drink, spanning choice (e.g., not feeling
compelled to drink in social circles), finance (deciding to drive to a venue
rather than drinking to save money), and health (weight loss, better sleep, concentration,
and addiction). In relation to this, another challenging experience of taking
part in Dry January concerned situations in which others expected me to pay for
a round of drinks, or split the bill, when they had been drinking alcohol and I
hadn’t. In some establishments, the cost of an alcoholic beverage is up to
four-times the cost of a soft drink, so the bill might be quite surprising! Again,
this may have been overcome with a simple conversation, but the stronger
message here is that we need to be more aware of how we treat people who are
not drinking and think more carefully about how we can support them.
So how did I get on?
Out of the
31 days in January, I managed 26 days dry; 1 of these was a ‘drinking as planned’
day, whilst the other 4 were days in which I drank in moderation. Using the
phone app was extremely helpful for monitoring and managing my behaviour; over
the course of my alcohol-free days, my best streak was 14 days, and I saved substantial
money and calories. Some people have
said “so you didn’t complete Dry Jan?!”, and again I think this rhetoric is
problematic. Although I didn’t complete 31 whole days, the challenge allowed me
to regulate my consumption and cut down significantly. It also helped me to
think about helpful strategies to moderate my drinking, such as adding on an
extra “dry” day to my calendar after an unplanned drinking session, and to not
give up on the challenge if I had drank. The most positive experience of Dry
January for me, however, has been reflecting on the conversations we have about
alcohol, and thinking about ways in which we can support people who chose to
reduce their intake or abstain all together. It has also opened my eyes to
cultural and societal factors that influence alcohol consumption (e.g., alcohol
advertising), which may act as an obstacle to reducing intake. For me, Dry
January has been a fundamentally interesting reflective experience, both as a
participant and an alcohol researcher, and has aided my awareness of the
benefits and barriers that people face when making the choice to cut down or
abstain from drinking, and how we might best support them.
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Alcohol & Drugs, 71, 15-22.
de Visser, R. O., Robinson,
E., & Bond, R. (2016). Voluntary temporary abstinence from alcohol during
“Dry January” and subsequent alcohol use. Health Psychology, 35, 281–289.
de Visser, R. O., Robinson, E., Smith, T., Cass, G., &
Walmsley, M. (2017). The growth of ‘dry January’: promoting participation and
the benefits of participation. European Journal of Public Health, 27,
Field, M., Mogg, K., Mann,
B., Bennett, G. A., & Bradley, B. P. (2013). Attentional biases in
abstinent alcoholics and their association with craving. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 27,
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Gmel, G., & Engels, R. (2006). Who drinks and why? A review of
socio-demographic, personality, and contextual issues behind the drinking
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J. P. (2010). Motivational pathways to unique types of alcohol
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drinking on rise in UK and elsewhere. The Lancet, 362,
Psychology, like all disciplines, has a history. Like all histories, it is a contested one, and it often unravels within a dominant narrative that might surprise you. For instance, the birth of the psychological laboratory in Leibzig, Germany in 1879, its founder Wilhelm Wundt, and the American behaviourist B.F. Skinner are considered far more influential to the development of contemporary psychological science than the psychoanalytic insights of Carl Jung or Melanie Klein. My teaching experience suggests that, in their vast majority, psychology undergraduates are left a little dissatisfied at the end of their degrees insofar as their understanding of human behaviour is concerned. Psychological knowledge in the last 40 years has developed largely in silos and final year courses offer quite specialised explorations of processes (social, developmental, biological, or cognitive) that underpin human psychic life. Thus, rare opportunities are afforded for some sort of synthesis of perspectives that can form an even partially satisfactory answer to the question: ‘so, why do I do the things I do?’. As academics, we face enormous pressure to profess expertise in specialised topics, publish our work in journals that mainly speak to other academics, and create our brand by accentuating the unique contribution(s) we have made to the discipline. ‘I teach why people do the things they do’ sounds just as silly as it is impossible. But shouldn’t studying psychology help us understand ourselves and others around us?
Cognitivism is a term that has been used to describe the influence of cognitive psychology (the study of mental processes such as attention, memory, and problem solving) on mainstream psychological theory as well as popular perceptions of human subjectivity. Experimental social psychology for instance talks of social cognition, namely what our brains do when we are in groups. Many theories suggest that the social world ‘enters’ individuals via biosensory pathways and cognitive mechanisms, which can be schematically represented as diagrams (and who doesn’t love a good, self-evident diagram?) and subjected to empirical testing. The brain (or ‘mind’) is widely hailed as the seat of selfhood, and I bet that if you asked people which organ represents them best, most people would pick their brains. That is, despite emerging evidence from medicine that implicates the digestive system (gut) in interesting psychophysiological processes, few people would name their intestines as the bit of tissue they would want preserved in a jar, and I am probably not one of them. Psychoanalytically speaking, there’s nothing surprising in the finding that the gut is a significant locus of psychological activity; after all emotions have to be symbolically digested somewhere. ‘One brain per person’ is how it works, and psychology loves some good old-fashioned dualisms. And so it has come to pass that psychology will leave the study of societies to sociology and social anthropology and cast its expert light on the unit of analysis that no mortal shall divide: the individual.
Cognitivism seeps into all other branches of psychology; thus, a unitary subject that is knowable, predictable, and bound by reason emerges undisputed. How I hear you ask? Let’s rewind. Cognitive psychology arose as a direct challenge to Watsonian ‘black box’ psychology, a necessary critique of the idea that humans are shaped solely by environmental contingencies and schedules of reinforcement. It blossomed in parallel with the computer revolution and adopted much of the language of computer science (input, network, information processing, mechanism etc). Some 70 years later, this language is not confined to the study of largely involuntary brain processes such as space perception or executive function. Quite the contrary, it has implied, assumed, and naturalised the reality underpinning most of human behaviour. It’s not cognitive psychology’s claims that solidify cognitivism, in fact cutting-edge research in this area has probably moved beyond it. This is how discourse (a devilishly slippery concept) works: an ideology such as the one we are dealing with can only become entrenched if it is propped up by a myriad of supporting beams. Cognitivism engulfs reality with every university psychology department that uses imagery such as an electrode-wired person to promote itself to prospective applicants (and funders). It lurks in the most innocuous of everyday utterances: ‘it’s all in your head’. And it goes unchallenged because no self-respecting psychologist would ever explicitly defend the position: ‘we are just our thoughts’.
several problems for contemporary psychology, if one takes that to mean the
study of ‘why we do the things we do’. It is less of a problem if one is
concerned with ‘how we do what we do’, but the critique still applies I
believe. Humans are not like computers in that we possess a tricky little thing
called consciousness and an equally tricky if not more tangible thing
called thebody. Let’s pretend that there’s no such tricky little
thing as soul or spirit, otherwise this brief commentary will get derailed. How
consciousness manifests, is embodied, and interacts with other conscious beings
is, really, what psychologists are studying. We need access to more than just
cognition to understand why people fall in love, why they fight, why they
suddenly act in unpredictable ways, and what happens when many people co-exist
for prolonged periods of time. Family dynamics, ambivalent friendships, and
toxic couples won’t make much sense by illuminating the intricacies of individuals’
cognitive apparatus. Why we feel what we feel is, invariably, more interesting
to the undergraduate student than why the ‘tip of the tongue’ phenomenon
occurs. Affective cognition is cognitive psychology’s answer to the former. So
what about relationships? Cue crickets.
There are good reasons why cognitivism has prevailed, not least because it squares with scientific methods, Western biomedicine, and reasonable expectations for publicly funded psychological research to have utility and applied value. Measuring things and discovering variables that affect human behaviour often translates into practical solutions for many a modern malady. In consequence, mainstream psychology enjoys widespread applications in health, occupational, and even recreational settings. At the same time, we should not ignore the more sinister reasons. As it squares, it concurrently dovetails with an ideology of the human subject as a predictable, fixable machine that can be controlled and programmed. It delights advertisers who are in search of the ideal font, image, or message to feed consumerism. It makes sense to politicians who, through no fault of their own, are also entangled in its discursive net and therefore look to psychology to fix symptoms (or hide them) rather than transform conditions to prevent the problems in the first place. It makes people feel cleverer as it follows a rational methodology and can be delightfully illuminating to the mind that has been trained all its life to excel and produce without ever pausing to reflect on the unbearable question: ‘what and who am I producing for?’.
A little context on the writer so that the reader can more fully appreciate the vested interests in this article (free tip: all discourse carries vested interests and (dis)locations of power). I studied for a 4-year experimental psychology degree, which I enjoyed, and my first job was as a statistics instructor for the university I graduated from. After a brief detour that involved meeting Avril Lavigne and dining with Patti Smith, I trained as a counselling psychologist. Whilst in training I took issue with several other assumptions counselling psychology made (the allure of cognitivism is perhaps less felt in this particular corner of applied psychology) but I finally found a home so to speak in another sub-discipline: community psychology. After struggling for many years, I can finally combine my passion for community psychology with my expertise as a counselling psychologist and proudly co-organise the Community Psychology Festival, an annual event borne out of hope and glitter. Even though I write from this intersection, I am informed and shaped by theories and experiences that are not immediately apparent in my professional identities.
It might therefore not surprise the reader to know that I take issue not with the very existence of cognitivism, but with its obliterating influence on all other ways of conceptualising human beings. I don’t for a second believe that we are rational and unitary; our internal worlds consist of affectively laden ‘bits’ that can be pre-verbal and unconscious (this is a Kleinian view), and I have started wondering whether producing a coherent self is more of a hassle than it is to surrender to the possibility of multiple selves, even if some of them are conflictually aligned against others. ‘Make happy thoughts’ is just about the worst advice you can give someone experiencing depression or anxiety. I have a problem with cognitivism’s unintended consequence of eradicating the social dimension of what it means to live and act in this world. I try hard to instil in my students a scepticism of mechanistic claims that do not recognise just how deliciously neoliberal their implications for the human condition are (see previous blog entry on ‘resilience’ by Dr Miles Thompson). Speaking of ‘resilience’, this research paradigm is only just beginning to acknowledge that metals should be resilient, humans not so much. Imagine a person who suffers a messy breakdown at work when they are working on a temporary contract and their partner is diagnosed with a terminal illness, at a time when healthcare has been privatised. A breakdown is the healthy response here; that is what should happen in the name of ‘normality’. Quite what form that breakdown may take is a different matter; I do not wish to absolve our fictional friend from personal responsibility. I am not comfortable with ‘victim culture’ and people who are unwilling to locate their own complicity in their suffering; that is if social-material conditions allow for such agency. But to condone any notion that said fictional (yet easily recognisable) person will be described as ‘resilient’ if they continue to work with a stoic half-smile and be in rational control of their emotions is where I draw a line.
No account can ever be ‘objective’, or definitive for that matter, and I do not wish to naively scapegoat cognitivism; rather I seek to reiterate that complex institutional and social conditions have allowed it to enjoy unprecedented platforms (hello inane ‘wellbeing’ apps) and unchallenged status in the Western world. This point has been made before. Several times. It is articulated every time sacred wisdom such as the Buddhist practice of mindfulness is usurped, diluted, decontextualized, and packaged in a cognitivised version, easily available for mass consumption. Distinguished cognitive scholars have grappled with some of the issues described here, and some have actually protested the dominance of the machine as the ultimate metaphor to symbolise psychological activity (cf. Jerome Bruner’s work). How many psychotherapists must speak up to protest the irrational (the irony!) program of mass mental hygiene that IAPT has become? How many psychologists must swallow their ‘depression’ and ‘anxiety’ (50% at the last count) in mental health settings before we all agree: “The psychologists and their cognitive errors (‘I can’t cope’, ‘I’m not good enough’, ‘This is hopeless’) are not the problem here!” Clinical and counselling psychologists know that cognitive interventions have a place in working with distress, but it is certainly not the place they currently occupy. So you might ask, if this has been said many times before, and it is not a hugely incomprehensible point to get hold of, why is there need to still write about it? Hmmm…Let’s call it ‘selective attention’, shall we?
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