Social Psychologist & Lecturer
"The sixth form year book had photos of all of us, and someone had added a strapline to each photo. One of my friends was labelled ‘most likely to appear on the cover of Vogue’. I was ‘most likely to live at Greenham Common’"
By Laura Makin, Intern
22nd June 2017
Maths, Physics, Chemistry (Psychology in Upper 6th)
Preston Polytechnic (now UCLan):
Nene College (now University of Northampton):
Lectureships at University of Derby, University of Worcester, Loughborough University
How was your university experience, were you part of any societies?
It was okay. I made two good friends there (one sadly died a few years ago, very young, with cancer). I spent the first term going back home (Chester) and to visit my then boyfriend in Aberystwyth. I didn’t feel very connected to the university or other students. My university experience as a postgraduate was a complete contrast – I finally met like-minded people and colleagues. I got a PhD studentship at was then Nene College – now University of Northampton. Nene’s route to becoming a ‘full’ university was to successfully graduate 50 PhDs, and I was lucky enough to be interviewed by the woman who became my supervisor – Dr Eunice Fisher. We ‘clicked’, and that was that. I discovered my interest in social interaction, and skill at analysing ‘talk’, then.
Did you always know you wanted to study psychology? Is there a particular moment you remember where you realised it was what you wanted to do?
Well, I probably am one of the ‘Cracker’ generation. But really I took psychology because I was bad at physics…!
What attracted you to study social interaction in particular?
It was an accident, really. My supervisor had a research project looking at interaction in university classrooms. At that point, although there was lots of research on school classrooms, we knew very little about university ones. My interest initially was in gender and interaction in university tutorials and small group work – starting by thinking about whether or not male students dominated the floor space, or interrupted female students, which was a common research question for classrooms. I quite quickly became dissatisfied with work that started out assuming gender difference was the key to what might happen in any given situation. As a feminist, I felt that gender was impacting social and professional life in many ways, but wanted to capture it differently. I had a second external supervisor, Professor Derek Edwards (at Loughborough), who introduced me to a particular method for studying social interaction called conversation analysis. This method enabled me to identify episodes of interaction in which gender was demonstrably relevant to participants. From there, I went on to study all sorts of interactional settings, from patients calling the doctors to people calling for help with neighbour disputes; from police negotiators trying to help suicidal persons to commercial sales calls.
Where have you worked as a lecturer?
My first job was at the University of Derby (1997), as a Lecturer in Social Psychology. I moved from there to University of Worcester (2000-2002) – I was married at the time to a bookseller in Hay-on-Wye, and Worcester was the nearest HE place to work. I commuted back and forth for two years. Then I landed my dream job working with the leading interaction and language analysts in the Department of Social Sciences at Loughborough University (2002). I’ve been there since, and carved out a very successful career, becoming a Chair in 2009.
As a professor, what are your day to day responsibilities?
My job involves teaching (at undergraduate and postgraduate levels), supervising my PhD students, my own research (collecting and analysing data; writing about the findings), working with different stakeholders (training the people I’m studying, such as police officers or doctors; co-designing a project with organizations; doing public engagement to tell people about why studying social interaction matters – from TED lectures to speaking at the Royal Institution).
What is the best thing about teaching?
I currently teach Forensic Psychology, and cover topics like offender profiling, eyewitness testimony, ‘how to spot a psychopath’ – my students might not have heard about ‘Cracker’ but the topics are equally compelling more than twenty years later. I also teach important but upsetting topics like everyday sexism, sexual violence and assault. That can be rewarding and painful as it can open a route for students to talk about assault. They suddenly understand what counts as assault. All students should have someone they can tell – even if they do not want to take action – so they are heard, and can be directed towards support.
It’s also very rewarding to supervise PhD students – they are some of the best and most enjoyable professional relationships one can have. And I was very lucky to have my own supervisor, Eunice – we are still very much in touch (she is long retired) and became good friends after I’d completed my PhD.
What more do you think can be done to encourage girls into science?
It needs to become an entirely unremarkable, un-noteworthy and unaccountable thing.
What challenges have you faced over your career?
In terms of what we might call ‘gender’ challenges, none. Maybe I’ve been lucky. I’ve done lots of research on gender, showing the ways it impacts on everyday life. Working in a social sciences department – populated by figures who write about society, gender, feminism, racism, class, and so on – well, people generally live and act according to political ideals. The biggest challenges have been to do with the idiosyncrasies or personalities of the odd individual, here and there (whether a manager or a senior academic in my field – wherever there are humans, there will sometimes be problems!).
Which women personally or professionally inspire you?
My supervisor, Dr Eunice Fisher, is undoubtedly the most inspirational professionally. I also take a lot of inspiration from family and friends.
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
Yes, absolutely. From an early age. The sixth form year book had photos of all of us, and someone had added a strapline to each photo. One of my friends was labelled ‘most likely to appear on the cover of Vogue’. I was ‘most likely to live at Greenham Common’.
What is one piece of advice you have picked up over your professional life, that can apply to any career, which you would like to pass on?
That’s difficult! Maybe it’s ‘keep it brief’. The ability to be clear and concise is useful in many areas of professional life!