PhD Life

Pathfinding in The Academic Fog

Written by Kris

If I asked you to tell me what a typical psychology career path in academia looked like, you would likely say PhD student, PostDoc, Lecturer (Assistant Professor), Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) and Professor – and you would be right. This is the normal path. Most universities would also agree with you and they all have role specifications in place to describe those jobs with PhD candidates and PostDocs doing the majority of hands-on work on research projects, lecturers doing most of the teaching and Profs bringing in the cash to fund the junior members of staff acting as lab heads and PIs.  However, what happens if you want to take a different path? Enter me, the reason for this blog entry, and the challenges I face trying to break the mold.

Like the majority of academics, I started by doing a PhD. In this I developed a methodology to enhance biological motion perception studies, taking it into the third dimension with more realistic models and the flexibility to add any level of context you would ever wish for whilst still being scientifically rigorous. So far, so ordinary. It was when I was looking for a PostDoc position things started to move in a different direction. The timing was serendipitous in that as I was coming out of my viva, a guy who worked in the department (who nobody knew what he did other than he ‘did tech stuff’) decided to jump ship and I pretty much started the following Monday as a Postdoctoral Fellow. I got to follow my own research interests, do a bit of teaching and supervision, and maintain the vague role of looking after the tech needs of the department – I became the man ‘who did computers’, or the lab manager for a more CV friendly term.

Unlike conventional PostDocs, a large portion of my time is spent looking after the technical needs of the department, from programming studies to soldering up microcontrollers to give people electric shocks. Unlike being a purely support role, I use my PhD training to input on collecting the right metrics, how the computer handles such instructions and generally have a hand in the technical design of a project. It’s actually the type of job most technically minded folk dream of: I am allowed to tinker with stuff, don’t have a lot of teaching and get to pursue my own research – perfect right?

Like everyone, I have strengths and weaknesses. As you may have gathered already my main strength is the technical aspects of research: the computer programming, the specialist equipment, the numbers game. I am also very passionate about teaching these skills to postgraduates and believe these will make them more employable. My weaknesses, however, are in writing. I hate writing papers (except methodologies) and generally have a hard time getting stuff down in a scientific, yet elegant, way. From a traditional scientific point of view this shouldn’t be too much of an issue as working in a team we will likely have a really beautiful writer onboard who can provide lots to this aspect, but might not necessarily have a coding background.

It turns out this combination with a heavy focus on tech can come at a considerable cost. If 95% of my day was spent looking after my own research, I would have (or at least hope to have) some significant publications on a body of related research with a suitably large h-index to boot, yet like a lot of tech/lab manager Postdocs, this is where I have struggled and the university does not quite understand my contribution. If I had a standard research fellowship this would be easily measured as it simply would be the sum of my publication and grant record. Being measured using that stick (as I was as a research fellow) I’m certainly not the strongest candidate as I don’t have the level of first author publications many others have. Even worse, many of my contributions have gone undocumented as by the time the paper is ready for submission, the programming that was handed over at the start of the project was forgotten about or taken for granted. Of course, most journal/university guidelines detail a specification for authorship and to be an author one must have a hand in the design, data collection etc. as well as writing or proofing the manuscript, and have ok’d it for submission. I would be more than willing to undertake such tasks but alas I didn’t even know these things are being written.

I have however learned to play this game and generally find it is avoidable if you maintain regular lab meetings, getting updates on the project and making sure to ask for an input on the manuscript. Granted, it can be annoying having to remind someone you spent 3 weeks carefully crafting and testing a computer program, or device, to remember to give you proper acknowledgement but it ensures you are not forgotten.

As a result of not fitting the standard mold, I have had quite a battle to find a secure job as my current institution does not take into account the critical role I have in keeping research going smoothly. My university announced recently that there would be no such role as a permanent researcher, and that all PostDocs should have external funding. This move seems to echo an article in nature regarding the so called ‘SuperDocs’ who run labs and provide critical experience to research projects having a hard time getting stable jobs.



The British Psychological Society (BPS) who accredit our degrees and act as a professional body for psychology researchers and practitioners have tried to help in this respect and publish guidelines on department staffing, explicitly stating that adequate computing and technical support needs to be protected. That said, the business side of university politics does not seem to have aligned with this message. This is of course I stark contrast to my department who value my contributions, knowledge and experience greatly when shaping research projects. However, with more and more universities run as profit making enterprise, and considering the ever-slippery economic climate, this trend seems set to continue into the future.

Luckily for me I have a very understanding department head that genuinely values my contribution, and together we have been able to work out a pathway for me to walk based upon lecturing. But, it certainly hasn’t been an easy task and over the coming years I will likely have many more contract battles.

Insecurities aside, what I do here is something I really enjoy: working in this capacity gives me a very varied and rewarding day-to-day job. Because of this, I will be devoting much of my time here to telling you about the fun technical projects I get up to, along with what I have struggled with and the solutions I have figured out. I will also likely provide some more detailed commentary on the world of academia for those interested in getting into the game.

Tally ho!

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