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Journey to the front of the lecture theatre

Sally Adams reflects on the journey from student to lecturer as she begins a lectureship in health psychology at the University of Bath and looks forward to continued collaboration with TARG.

This week saw students all over the UK collecting their A-Level results, and I was reminded of collecting my own, 13 years ago. Disappointingly, I didn’t achieve the grades I expected. I was advised to consider a different degree course other than psychology by my school career advisor. However, even with relatively poor grades I was certain that psychology was for me. This interest in psychology has been a feature throughout my career and has motivated me when things were tough.

I managed to convince (read as: rang the same university 3 times in the space of a few hours, professing my undying love for cognition and behaviour) the University of Wales, Institute Cardiff to offer me a place to study. From this point I promised myself I would take every opportunity to be proactive and hardworking as I had been given this amazing opportunity. I finished my undergrad with a 2:1 and an offer to return to the university as a research assistant. I was invited to interview for this post with a few other students from my year. I like to think that this opportunity was the result of my work ethic and enthusiasm for the subject.

This post was the beginning of my interest in health psychology, specifically the psychology of health and well-being and the factors that underlie health behaviours (e.g., engaging in exercise, drinking alcohol, and cigarette smoking). At this stage I was still unsure whether to pursue a career in clinical health psychology or research. My experience of research up to this point was largely entering and analysing questionnaire data and the prospect of a career of “data entering” did not particularly light my fire!  However, my impression of research was forever changed during a placement as part of my masters in health psychology at the University of Bath. I was assigned to shadow Marcus Munafò at the University of Bristol and as they say the rest is history!  Without any over-statement I can safely say my mind was blown; everything I thought about research was turned on its head. My masters project investigated the role of dopamine in cigarette craving and processing biases towards cigarette cues (e.g., a packet of cigarettes, seeing someone else smoking). This was a clinical study, which involved lots of planning, developing study documents and recruitment and testing of participants. The placement was a new challenge which I relished and I was amazed at how well-designed and rewarding human lab-based studies could be.

My passion for research and specifically experimental studies was consolidated following a research assistant post in Catherine Harmer’s lab group at the University of Oxford. It was around this time I started to have my own focused ideas and research questions. Itching to start answering these questions I began to apply for PhD studentships. It was a tough time as I was rejected from several programs and I started to doubt my ability to pursue a career in research psychology. My post in Oxford brought me back in contact with Marcus at Bristol and we decided to put in an application for a PhD studentship. I was especially excited by this application as it was based on my own research questions and in a subject I was very passionate about-alcohol use.

The day I found out I received a University of Bristol scholarship was amazing, it felt like a massive step in my career journey. I was fairly late in starting my PhD, aged 26, but with several years of research assistant experience under my belt I felt ready and extremely excited to return to studying. My PhD is easily one of the best experiences of my life. Every day was different; sometimes I would be sitting in a cafe reading papers, and sometimes I would be designing experiments or testing in the lab. My PhD was an exciting rollercoaster of highs (completing studies, presenting my own research at conferences, publishing papers) and lows (hours of experiment programming, paper rejections, no-show participants), but overall it was a great experience. One of my proudest achievements during my PhD was being awarded several travel awards to attend international conferences. This required a lot of proactive effort on my part but having a very supportive supervisor was extremely important too. TARG in general was a great supportive environment during my PhD, a culture of collaboration in a research group saved me from some hairy moments.

I was fortunate enough to begin my postdoc career in TARG. I still felt I had lots to learn from working with Marcus and the research group. My postdoc has actually been the steepest learning curve of my research career, but also the most rewarding. Learning to juggle all of the roles in my post has been pivotal in preparing me to become an independent scientist. Alongside running studies and writing papers came new responsibilities including grant writing and supervision. I have been lucky enough to secure my first small grant to research a form of cognitive training for reducing cigarette use. This was a great feeling and has given me the confidence to apply for larger grants. However, as my responsibilities increased, so did my workload and rejections. Throughout my postdoc I have had to learn how to better manage my time and to delegate. I found this very difficult to begin with after doing everything for myself as a PhD student. However it has been an essential lesson to learn along with developing a thicker skin for paper and grant rejections. For me, my thirst for understanding the thought processes and behaviours that guide health behaviours has motivated me to keep working long hours and keep applying!

So, back to present day: I am due to start my first lectureship in the next few days and I couldn’t be any more nervous or excited. When I was first offered the post I was terrified about the idea of “going it alone”, but in the last few months, looking back on what I have learnt I finally feel ready to fly the TARG nest. I take with me the confidence to follow my own programme of research, management skills to begin my own lab group and my continued love of psychology. I can’t wait to return to TARG as a collaborator and an independent researcher!

This article is posted by Sally Adams