Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Taking responsibility for your professional development

The price of greatness is responsibility

- Winston Churchill

As PhD students our primary focus often tends to be on final products and bottom lines. We ruminate about what the thesis will be like, how to get more publications, and other external indicators of quality. In this pursuit of end goals, it can be easy to lose sight of other important factors in our education, like professional development. By professional development I mean things that don’t necessarily contribute to the final product of the thesis or a particular publication, but that contribute overall to making us better researchers. Like the famous quote goes: it’s the journey, not the destination that’s important.

There are many ways to develop as a researcher. It may involve learning new statistical or methodological skills, or attending workshops, conferences and summer schools (which I’ve posted about previously). Whatever the form of professional development, I believe the key is that students take responsibility for their own development trajectory. While a lucky few people may benefit from a supervisor who goes out of their way to mentor, guide, and shape them as a member of the research community, not everyone can expect such treatment. Ultimately, it’s up to each of us individually to take advantage of development opportunities where they exist and create them for ourselves where they don’t.

At UQ we’re very lucky to have an environment that supports professional development. Weekly seminars for RHD (Research Higher Degree) students are run on topics as varied as advancing statistical know-how to time management and achieving work-life balance. We also have an annual RHD day that celebrates the research of postgraduate students and offers an opportunity to present in front of a friendly audience.

But there are also countless opportunities for professional development outside your research institution. Attendance at conferences is an absolute must. Not only do you get great ideas from hearing others talk, there are often round-table discussions or pre-conferences dedicated to key professional development topics. Consider travel in and of itself as a professional development opportunity. There is something about seeing the processes of different labs that broadens your research perspective. Not to mention the opportunity to discuss your research with people who know nothing about it.

Oftentimes professional development requires stepping outside your comfort zone. It involves putting yourself in a position of admitting that you don’t know everything. Developing often means talking to and asking advice from people who scare you a little. Don’t forget that the benefits of professional development – that make you a better, more connected and impactful researcher – will ultimately far outweigh the temporary discomfort of putting yourself out there. The key thing to remember is that only you are truly responsible for your professional development. It’s through this responsibility that we can each achieve our own modest form of greatness.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Healthy Skepticism

In my last post I told you about some of my research on crime-scene fingerprint identification. Turns out that it’s actually a human, not a computer, who decides whether a crime-scene print matches a suspect or not. To make a decision, examiners place prints side-by-side, visually inspect them, and declare that the prints match or not, based on their training and experience.

The problem is that, even though fingerprints have been used in criminal courts for more than 100 years, no properly controlled experiments on fingerprint examiners' accuracy in identifying perpetrators had been conducted. Some experts have even claimed to be infallible, but mistakes made to date have resulted in innocent people being wrongly accused.

We wanted to find out whether these experts were any more accurate than the average person, and to get an idea of how many criminals are being wrongly set free and how many innocents are being wrongly convicted. Well, it took two years of planning and a visit to every major state police department in Australia, but we finally managed to conduct the critical experiment.

We gave 37 qualified fingerprint experts and 37 UQ students pairs of fingerprints to examine and decide whether a simulated crime-scene print matched a potential suspect or not. Some of the print pairs belonged to the "criminal" while others were highly similar but actually belonged to an "innocent" person.

The experts correctly matched just over 92 percent of the prints to the criminal. But, they mistakenly matched 0.68 percent of the prints to the innocent person. That they made so few errors means pretty impressive human performance, in my opinion.

We concluded that qualified court-practicing fingerprint experts are exceedingly accurate compared to novices, but are not infallible. Our experts tended to err on the side of caution by making errors that would free the guilty rather than convict the innocent. Even so, they made the kind of error that may lead to false convictions.

So, was my initial skepticism unwarranted?

Well, I think healthy skepticism is the cornerstone of science and rational enquiry. Fingerprint examiners make important decisions that can put lives and livelihoods at risk and the burden of proof is on the profession to demonstrate the scientific validity and reliability of its claims. We’ve worked closely with examiners, who were were eager to demonstrate their abilities, and we’ve shown that expertise with prints provides a real benefit.

Even though this one experiment consumed my existence for two years, it was totally worth it!


Tangen, J. M., Thompson, M. B., & McCarthy D. J. (2011). Identifying Fingerprint Expertise. Psychological Science. [PDF] [Press Release]

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Finding the One

Popular culture instils in us the belief that for everybody there is someone out there for them. That perfect person. That one in a million. It is a romantic notion and if we succeed in finding that ‘perfect one’ we are offered the promise of endless happiness and fulfilment. Unfortunately finding ‘the one’ is not easy. It can be a path of uncertainly, the right way to go is often obscured and wise men agree that we must be patient in our pursuit. In some ways this reflects how I feel about my quest for the perfect PhD topic.

I never had my heart set on any particular occupation. As I went through high school I felt with each passing year that my interests were becoming more focused, but selecting which course to study at uni was a long and difficult process. I finally decided to study psychology and that decision kept me focused and busy until last year when I realised that I would again be faced with another of those momentous life altering decisions. What now?

So I applied for graduate jobs and contemplated whether or not I should do a masters where I could put the thing things I had learned to good use by helping people in the ‘real world’. I even considered going abroad, but something about the buzz you get from conducting research, finding out things that no one before you has ever known and coming to understand what it is to be human kept me here at uni working in research.

So now that research has taken my fancy, it seems that the natural next step is to do a PhD. By many accounts, however, it seems that the world of academia is ultra competitive and cut throat and as a PhD student you only a few short years to stand out above a field of already tall poppies. It is also a long time and a lot of work to spend on something that you don’t love.

With this in mind, I want to find my one in a million - my perfect topic. Just like the path to true love, the path to the perfect PhD topic remains uncertain. In some ways I know that I may never find ‘the one’ and that I may grow to love another nice topic (but a girl can still dream can’t she?). Even though the perfect topic remains elusive, the quest through the maze has lead me to explore new ideas, try new techniques and meet new people and for now that isn’t so bad.

- Belinda

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Psychology: More than just listening!

The first part of my post today is about understanding what psychology is. Psychology is the study of mind and behaviour, and I think many people (including myself) often forget the variety of ways in which this field can be studied.

Most people I meet outside of psychology a) think I mean clinical psychology when I say I study psychology b) don’t know you can do research in psychology and c) assume by research I mean give people surveys about their feelings.

Most students who I meet in psychology either aren’t interested in or don’t know about research. Generally they get into a bachelor of psychology to become a clinical psychologist. I can’t blame them for this, as I had no idea what a degree in psychology might lead to when I started. It was only in 3rd and 4th year that I began to understand a little about psychology research, and how fascinating it could be.

So most people don’t really understand how varied ‘psychology’ can be. However, even those who realise this tend to be interested in one area, and dismissive of others. They don’t realise how related these areas can be, and suffer from the opposite problem – they understand how varied psychology is, to the point of thinking of each area as a separate entity!

There are a lot of different people who end up studying ‘psychology’, and many of those aren’t happy with all the ‘sciencey-stuff’ they have to learn on the way to becoming a practitioner. Or in my case, unhappy with all the ‘people-stuff’ learnt on the way to studying brains. But each part of psychology can help inform others, and generally you can find a way that it applies to the area you’re most interested in. For example, child psychologists need to understand how adults work to see where the child would normally be heading. Organisational psychologists benefit from the latest research in how our attention works in particular settings. Clinical psychologists should be aware of the latest brain imaging studies regarding their patient’s conditions. And what is the use of doing all this theoretical and technical brain research if not to inform practical work? Neuropsychologists need to be aware of current practice to ensure their work is covering the important issues.

It really excites me when I find a student who is interested in research. It even excites me when I find a student who has HEARD that you can do research in psychology! And I think this side of psychology should be more publicised, with all the amazing and varied things that it can offer. Psychology isn’t just for people who want to help others, it’s for those interested in how people work, respond, feel, think, move, and react (and I’m yet to meet someone not interested in at least one of these aspects of humans). It ranges from how children’s sense of self develops, why crowds react in anger, how gamers' skills transfer, where in the brain emotions are processed, to when vision and auditory signals interact.

If you’re interested in learning how people work, consider taking a look at psychology, but don’t rule it all out if you don’t like the first thing you see, because there is so much on offer!


Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The results are in, and I got nothing!

Many moons ago, eager to impress and to rise above the clatter of all the other undergrads, I started looking for RA work. I kept my expectations low. I expected that as an untrained, unqualified undergrad I'd be doing menial grunt work. I was not disappointed. I spent three weeks coding videos for specific behaviours of couples arguing in the lab. It was depressing. I walked away feeling like a bad boyfriend, but relieved that everyone fights about the same thing - money, sex and alcohol.

Despite my inauspicious introduction to the world of experimental psychology I knew what I wanted to do. Not too long later I was asked by the professor running the study if I wanted to take the lead on a bigger, more involved study.

He (and his colleague) hypothesized that a thing called Executive Function would beneficially assist men in impressing women. Executive Function, essentially, is your ability to inhibit certain behaviours. It's a very high level cognitive capacity, and relates to all kinds of things, like delayed gratification and being a successful social agent. However, Executive Function (or 'Ego Depletion') is a finite resource. A classic study involving this phenomena involved putting participants in a waiting room with fresh baked chocolate chip cookies (or a bowl of radishes) and permitting them to either a) eat some, or b) not eat any. Afterwards, participants from both conditions were asked to persist on some impossible problem solving task. Those who were tempted but barred from eating the warm, fresh cookies persisted for far less time than those who were allowed to eat the cookies, or those who were allowed (or not allowed) to eat the unappealing radishes.

Executive Function is more than just not eating a cookie, though. It's you inhibiting the urge to punch your boss when he screws you over, it's inhibiting sexual desire and action in inappropriate circumstances or with inappropriate people (i.e. situations with dire consequences), and the list goes on. The question is why, if we have such a capacity, is it finite?

Some evidence has been produced that demonstrated that two participants (one white, one black) in an American University, when asked to speak on race relations, had a more beneficial, enjoyable and positive experience when depleted than when undepleted (i.e. in command of their full executive faculties).

From an evolutionary perspective, though, this is fairly banal. What if Executive Function - when depleted - allows people to form more favourable social impressions ... on the opposite sex! There must be a reason it's finite, and it may be to facilitate a mating advantage. If, when depleted, we make better impressions, then we may earn ourselves an increased chance at the procreative act*.

So we took a number of participants, depleted half, and stuck them in a room with a pretty girl and a hidden camera. The girl was a confederate, and was in on the trick, but was blind to condition of each participant. They then engaged in a 10-minute unstructured conversation, after which time both parties went away and answered a survey about the experience.

What did we find? Well... nothing. Not a damn thing. No meaningful p-values at all... except one. Which showed that our manipulation did the opposite of what we intended.

So the study was a bust. My first study, was a bust. In fact, it was backwards. I was nervous - as a first time undergrad - walking into the professor's office knowing that there was nothing in the data. Was it me? Did I plan it wrong? Did I confound the study somehow? Did I miss something critical, something that would have turned the whole thing around?

Probably not. We probably used the wrong kind of depletion. For instance, warm cookies makes you persist less in impossible problems, but would it cause you to be unable to inhibit saying certain things.... Thus, it may follow that the updating task we used (an n-back task [download it here]) depleted the wrong thing. It may not stop you being a cagey conversation partner, but may make you a crappier black-jack player (a task which involves counting cards, working on and updating probabilities, and taking measureable risks).

Despite being nervous the Prof just said 'Such is research...' and that was that. It wasn't me, it was the nature of the beast. Now, as an undergrad, I have a much better idea of what I'm getting in to. When I do honours next year, and when I finally hit the PhD, I have a slightly improved idea of what to expect. Though I didn't get any decent p-values, I did get a far better idea of what it's like to be a researcher and academic... and a stronger, more clear idea about what I want to do, and how I want to go about it.

*Seriously... ever met a girlfriend/boyfriend when under the influence of alcohol?


Posted by Rohan Kapitany, regular blogger at Labspaces.net on the blog Psycasm


ResearchBlogging.org Apfelbaum EP, & Sommers SR (2009). Liberating effects of losing executive control. Psychological science, 20 (2), 139-43 PMID: 19170942 Muraven M, & Baumeister RF (2000). Self-regulation and depletion of limited resources: does self-control resemble a muscle? Psychological bulletin, 126 (2), 247-59 PMID: 10748642

Muraven M, & Baumeister RF (2000). Self-regulation and depletion of limited resources: does self-control resemble a muscle? Psychological bulletin, 126 (2), 247-59 PMID: 10748642