Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Psyc update - 30th March 2010

First semester is well under way and the research is getting done!! I thought I’d give a quick summary of what’s been going on over the last month or so.

Conference Preparation
The first big local (Australasian) psych conference is coming up in a week or so. The Experimental Psychology Conference (EPC) is to be held in Melbourne this year and a large contingent of cognitive and perception psychs are busy getting their presentations and posters in order, booking flights and accommodation, and sussing out what mischief they can get up to when south of the border. While I’m not attending (Matt, Will, and James are, so stay tuned to see what they trouble they cause in Melbourne), I am keenly monitoring the process of creating a poster because I'll hopefully be presenting one in San Francisco later this year!

The first major milestone of the PhD is confirmation and tends to happen about a year into the program. Up until this point you aren’t technically a PhD student, you are a PhD candidate, which essentially means the university hasn’t committed to you or your research yet. You need to convince a panel, representing the school/faculty/university, that your planned research is interesting, innovative, and feasible enough to continue. Since a lot of the latest batch of PhDs started about a year ago we are having a lot of PhD confirmation talks. The ones I’ve seen so far have gone really well. It’s great to hear what projects other people have been beavering away at. I’ve found attending conftalks helps me overcome the facade of pretending to understand what my friends are researching. There are one of two outcomes for me: either I finally understand what they do, with the help of their finely-tuned explanations and diagrams, OR, I still don’t understand, which by this point is no longer hidden by the facade but exposed as glaring fact (“What do you mean you don’t get it? You were at my conftalk, right?!”)

Assassins’ League
I can’t give too much away about this, it’s terribly secretive (though I’ve already been chastised for blabbing to anyone who’ll listen). It’s a tense game of cat-and-mouse that lasts for two weeks, played exclusively among psych students and faculty, and not for the feint-hearted. I won’t say any more about the actual game but I will say that it’s a really fun way to get to know others in the school. Currently playing are a bunch of second-years, some masters students, some PhD students and some RAs. You never know who’s coming for you... Anyway, if you are interested in finding out more please visit this site.

So, fun times around the school. Almost makes a fella wanna do a PhD ;)

- Morgan

Are you studying Psychology@UQ and want to contribute to theuqpsycblog??
Send Will an email to find out how: will.harrison@uqconnect.edu.au

Friday, March 26, 2010

Freudian Slippers

Academia. My Dad was a UQ man, my husband is an academic, and I've been at Uni myself on and off since the mid-1980s - so I can't say I wasn't warned. For those who are curious, I'll attempt to describe a week in the life of a new lecturer.

Monday. Is supposed to be my writing day. My dropping-the-kids working-from-home writing-without-interruptions day. We're way into March and this is the first Monday that it's actually worked out. And I've woken up with a splitting headache and an upset stomach. Luckily I've just joined a writing group based on the helpful guide "How to Write a Lot". These writing groups are springing up all over the School: small cells of academics huddle together and contract to meet specific writing goals during the week to which they hold one another accountable. So I can't crawl back to bed and be sick. Must. meet. writing. goals.

Tuesday. Start the day with an hour of clinical supervision. I love clinical supervision. You get to work on fascinating cases without the direct responsibility for treatment. Today's cases include a teenager who has been badly bullied for his effeminate ways. I watch a DVD of a session in which the teenager is explaining his anger management strategies to my intern on the whiteboard. I'm proud of my intern. This client is going to be ok.

Lunchtime: RHD committee meeting (that's research higher degree). Due to the large numbers of RHD students in Psychology, including the large number of out-of-load PhD students (a parlous state that I myself am familiar with), Eric and co have worked up a set of milestones to help students keep on track: confirmation; mid-candidature review and thesis review. It's anxiety provoking for the students and its anxiety provoking for me because I now have 4 milestone meetings to chair and I'm falling behind. I wonder if it's possible to be out-of-load in my committee job?

Wednesday. Big day. There are 25 first year undergrads due to start my "Tuned In" program today – a music based emotion regulation program designed as an alternative to CBT. My Doctorate student Carly is leading six groups (3 now and 3 wait listed control groups) and we have interns as co-therapist in each group. I’m nervous about how the Uni students will respond to the program. Carly texts on Wed evening that they all turned up and gave the activities a go: drawing their imagery; describing their body sensations; the meaning of lyrics. Relief.

Meanwhile I'm giving an evening lecture to 150 third year students on Psychoanalysis. Freud’s theories are easily criticised in this place and time so I have to work hard to make them relevant and interesting. I consider wearing my Freudian slippers to the lecture but my superego wins and they end up on a slide instead.

Thursday. Meetings. An interesting meeting with Kim (the Director of Clinical Programs) and a visiting academic from NZ who is touring clinical programs here and in the UK to benchmark the way clinical training is done. Listening to Kim it’s hard not to catch his enthusiasm about what we're doing.

Friday. Start revising a rejected paper in preparation for our writing group at 2. Everyone has met their goal this week and Natalie gives us immediate chocolate rewards. More clinical supervision and then finally 4pm Friday comes around – staff club time. Everyone said the first year with all new teaching, new systems and policies to figure out is a killer. It is. But the rewards are great. So far so good anyway....

-- Gen Dingle

Are you studying Psychology@UQ and want to contribute to theuqpsycblog??
Send Will an email to find out how: will.harrison@uqconnect.edu.au

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Check. This. Out.

It’s not every day you literally get to see inside your own head. Last year I participated in a brain imaging study. My friend who was running the study just emailed me videos of the scan of my brain and I can’t stop watching them!!!

The first video is a scan going from the front of my face to the back of my head. You should see the vague outline of my nose, then eyes, then frontal lobes appear. At this point I’d like to thank my frontal lobes for giving me the ability to create blogs and such a hilarious personality.

This next video slices through my head horizontally starting from the left side. The first thing you’ll see is my left ear, and then the left side of my brain. If you pause the video about half way, you should see my corpus callosum. It’s the white thing that can be found right in the middle of my head and kinda looks like the top of a mushroom. It’s also the bit that connects the two sides of the brain. You might remember my blog post where I mentioned that Kim Peek was missing this part of his brain!

I was quite hesitant to post these videos because I feel like there’s something really personal about them. It’s kinda like people are seeing me stripped of my clothes, but in a completely different way to me being left naked. If consciousness is purely a result of what’s happening inside the brain, then these videos are really the most bare I can be. Weird.

Will Harrison. (Click here for my personal website.)

Are you studying Psychology@UQ and want to contribute to theuqpsycblog??
Send Will an email to find out how: will.harrison@uqconnect.edu.au

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Tutoring Take Two

There’s something very energising about the start of a new academic year. For those of us not yet jaded by the research process it brings with it the prospect of new and exciting research ideas and results. For others it may invoke stresses and anxieties as you prepare to meet the challenges of yet another fast paced and hectic year. Adding to the excitement and the atmosphere of a new year is of course the return of students, in particular the new cohort of first year students who, this semester, have flooded the department in unprecedented numbers.

Last semester I was given the opportunity to tutor first year statistics and this semester I’m back at it again, out of the lab and into the tutorial room. Although I have no experience with which to make the comparisons, it would seem that tutoring first year students is in some ways quite unique. Unlike students in later years, first year students enter the tutorial room unsure of what to expect, filled with the anxieties of entering a foreign environment yet with an eagerness and enthusiasm to learn.

For a large number of my students, my tutorials represent their first experience in a University learning environment. This lack of experience and freedom from expectation as to the format a tutor and tutorial should follow, affords me a certain freedom to define my role as a tutor and the forum in which I teach.

I believe it’s very important to create an environment where students feel free and confident to question anything and everything I say. I know when I went through undergraduate I always viewed my tutors as exceptionally intelligent people (which I’m sure for the most part they were) but also that they were always right and that they new better than me. Certainly from my experience as a tutor this could not be further from the truth.

So if you’re a student reading this, my advice is to never let your curiosity go unsatisfied. Tutors are there to facilitate your learning not to “teach” you the material. So engage with your tutors and take the opportunity to put forward your own ideas. As well as benefiting the students it’s also a rewarding experience as a tutor when my class engages with me in discussion of ideas.

If I haven’t been made to look silly in front of my class at some stage throughout the semester then my students haven’t done their job. I can report though that I’ve been caught out more than once this semester already and it’s only the second week of tutorials...

All the best for the year folks

Are you studying Psychology@UQ and want to contribute to theuqpsycblog??
Send Will an email to find out how: will.harrison@uqconnect.edu.au

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Share the Experience

The best thing about a PhD is the people you get to work with. I share an office with human factors and organisational researchers, I lunch with cognitive neuroscientists, and argue at a journal club with evolutionary psychologists. This diversity creates unique opportunities.

Recently, the HFES-UQ Student Chapter organised a field trip to a local hospital to check out Tobi's PhD work. Tobi has set up a patient simulator in an Intensive Care Unit (ICU). It's a $50,000 doll that breathes, blinks, has a pulse, takes real drugs, and pisses its pants. I thought the study was amazing but, of course, this was all in a day's work for Tobi.  

The PhD is often a very personal experience. But I think sharing that experience with fellow post-grads, who are likely suffering the same problems and experiencing the same daily roller coaster of emotions as you, is really important. So show your comrades your lab, clinic or field study. It may seem mundane to you, but I'm sure we'll be sufficiently impressed by your brilliance!

Matthew B. Thompson
President HFES-UQ

The control room -- eye tracker, head-cam, two HD field cameras and the mannequin control system.

Are you studying Psychology@UQ and want to contribute to theuqpsycblog??
Send Will an email to find out how: will.harrison@uqconnect.edu.au

Friday, March 5, 2010

Questions unanswered

Stuck in the middle ground between earning a degree and starting a PhD means I am often easily confused. I, therefore, ask lots of questions. Actually, scratch that. I would like to ask lots of questions. I don’t, which is probably linked to my initial comment about being easily confused. I don’t often know what’s a sensible question, which, when asked, announces to my peers that I am an intellectual, or what’s an insensible question, which, when asked, exposes me as the fraud I am.

What stops me asking questions? Many things, though mostly it’s my interior monologue second-guessing myself. Is my question relevant? Has it already been covered? Am I wasting time by asking it? Should I already know the answer? How can I put my question into words? How do I put it into words AND sound smart?!

This cloud of confusion suddenly lifted in spectacular form last night. I, along with 1500 of Brisbane’s atheists, evolutionists, and critical thinkers, enjoyed a public lecture by Prof. Richard Dawkins about his current book ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’. Richard went through each chapter of his book and summarised the most important parts for us/those that hadn’t read the book. It was when he covered Chapter 11: History written all over us, that my ears piqued. Richard said:

Look at whales, they have land animal written all over them. Even look at humans, they have aquatic animal written all over them.

Aquatic..?! He didn’t mean....?! No....

From this point on I had it. I was going to ask Richard Dawkins a question!! My interior monologue started playing up but I fought hard to quash it. I spent the rest of the Richard’s lecture thinking about how to ask my question and how to look suitably intelligent in the process (half of the psychology school was there after all :P ) The lecture finished and the audience was called up to microphones located at the front of the auditorium to ask questions. After a moment of deliberation I shot up and squirmed through the stalls to get to the microphone. Knee-caps shaking with anxiety, but with a calm and collected face on, I waited for my turn.

In the end I didn’t get to ask the question. Richard could obviously tell I was going to say something amazingly profound to stump him, or that I was going say something profoundly stupid and look like an idiot. Either way he called the question-asking short, just before I could ask mine. For those of you that care I’ve written it in full below.

Relating this back to asking questions, I actually learnt during my undergraduate degree that asking questions in lectures is a really efficient way of clearing up areas of uncertainty. Somewhere between graduating and floating around the psych halls I forgot that. Maybe it’s my (falsely-held?) belief that once you have a degree you’re actually supposed to know something and I felt I didn’t. I’m not so sure. Regardless, students should ask lots and lots of questions and I will endeavor to do the same.

- Morgan

“Richard. When you were talking about the huge history within us you mentioned that whales have land animal written all over them and that we even have aquatic animal written all over us. I trust you didn’t mean aquatic in the sense of Elaine Morgan’s aquatic ape theory (theory in second sense)? I understand this has been rigorously challenged and perhaps debunked. Do you think that interpretations of evolution, such as Elaine’s, hinder or help the communication of evolution to the lay-person?”

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

I’ll have what she’s having: Faking it in academia

At start of the second year of my PhD my supervisor told me it was TIME. I don’t want to name names, or implicate anyone in criminal activity, so for the sake of maintaining anonymity let’s just call my supervisor “Dr Winnifred Rose Louis”. Winnifred said to me, “Barlow, my good lass, it’s time you presented your research at a conference.”

The conference was the annual meeting of the Society of Australasian Social Psychologists, and the year was 2006. Obeying the command of my supervisor, if not the dictates of my own heart, I accordingly submitted an abstract, was accepted, packed my bags, and jetted off to Canberra. I was not, however, a calm little academic.

My main concerns ran as follows:

1. My research will be publically debunked.
2. My inadequate grasp of the intricacies of the literature will be brought to light.
3. The other academics will hate me.
4. I will hate the other academics.
5. My shyness will overcome me in all possible embarrassing ways.
6. In general, I will be discovered for the fraud that I am.

Now these fears may come as quite the surprise to those of you who know me. I am aware that nowadays my booming voice regularly rings through the psychology halls, engaged in lively debate with my fellow empiricists. But back them I was a green, wet behind the ears PhD student, and I was absolutely paralyzed by fear at the thought of strategically networking with fellow researchers. It was primarily that word, “networking”, that had me running scared. I had always thought of networking as a bit of a dirty word – I had an idea that it consisted of schmoozing and romancing people that I did not like or respect, all in a desperate bid to get ahead.

And yet… Winnifred had spoken and I had obeyed. There I was, at my first conference, sick to my stomach, and feeling woefully inadequate. My talk had, despite my worst fears, gone off smoothly. I came across as a passionate and engaged young thing, and those who attended were universally kind. That was all well and good, but the highly structured presentation was not what I was worried about – it was what was coming next.

“There are some people that would like to meet you Fiona, and that I would like you to meet.” Winnifred told me after my talk. “We are about to go and have drinks at the poster session, I will introduce you to them there.” Mouth dry and heart thumping, I escaped to my room. The social setting of the poster session made everything worse – how could I do this!?

It was at that point I made a critical decision – I would fake confidence. I would breathe deeply, straighten my back, beam a smile, and talk clearly. I, in my shy and retiring way might not be able to make it through networking, but I could certainly make an attempt at faking.

Both Men and Women can fake it.

Decision made, I marched down the stairs to the conference room where the poster session was being held, and bravely faced the waiting masses. What transpired next was a blur. Winnifred shepherded me from person to person, and eventually, confident that I could navigate the vicinity on my own, left me. To my surprise, that afternoon and in to the night I met a range of fantastic people – researchers who like me were passionate about racism and discrimination, people who could chat about statistics and theories and the wonderful phenomena of existence that we study in psychology. Suddenly, networking wasn’t so scary or so crass – really it was just chatting to people who were interested in the same things as me, who found a joke about regression funny like I did, and who could tell me personal anecdotes about the researchers that I admired.

I still maintain friendships and collaborations with researchers that I met at that first conference. When I see them at conferences now it is like a family reunion, and I am thankful that I had the presence of mind to fake what I could not legitimately produce that first time.

To this day I still fake it – producing a facsimile of confidence when I feel none, and cracking a seemingly off-the-cuff joke in my lectures that is in fact elaborately rehearsed and ruminated about. But those times are rarer, and what was once acting has become a reality – I can genuinely enjoy conferences, dinners, networking and public speaking. I suggest that this is the way that it is for most of us. We take a while to find our feet and engage with other academics outside of the comfort zone of UQ (or even here as new PhD students!). But the benefits of engaging through public speaking and networking are intellectually stimulating, socially rewarding, and infinitely valuable for our future careers. I urge you all to attend every conference you can, to present your research in a talk rather than a poster session, and to choke down your fear and approach the academics that you would love to chat to. Although scary, I promise you that it will be worth it – and remember, clichéd as it is, faking it until you make it is a fantastic approach to take.