“What kind of psychologist are you?”, asked the head of the interview panel. A year or so into my first academic job, in Glasgow, I had applied for a job back down South. “Well,” I offered, “my research is a little bit developmental, some social, a dash of forensic, there are educational aspects…” He stopped me. “No… I mean what journal do you have on your shelves, what conference do you go to?”
That was the beginning of the end of my brief time in academia. My PhD (‘Bullying: Social inadequacy or skilled manipulation?’ Answer: both) had been a breeze… hate me, but it felt easy, I had a wild time, and bagged the BPS award at the end of it. And there was lots to be said for my time in Glasgow, although I’ve written elsewhere (you can read my article ‘My Sloth’ published in the BPS Research Digest here) about how the warning signs were starting to show. But that interviewer pulled me up short. Did I want to be ‘the bullying guy’? In the words of that famous saying about academia, ‘learning more and more about less and less until you know absolutely everything about nothing’?
No I didn’t, and within six months I got the job of Editor on The Psychologist magazine for the BPS. I do wonder how Parallel Universe Jon is getting on though. I think he probably chose a main research topic on the basis of something other than what was left in a list of undergraduate dissertations… probably went for something he had a personal interest in, maybe sports psychology. He almost certainly put more into his understanding of methods, so that he could do more with his data than correlations or trotting it down the corridor to the ‘stats guy’… that might even have guided him in how to ask more imaginative questions in the first place. And maybe he was more proactive about seeking out or even creating a support network for ‘post-postgrads’, to make that leap to getting funding, collaboration, having his own students…
Instead, I’ve just been Editor of The Psychologist for nearly 19 years. I say ‘just’; obviously for someone who loves psychology, magazines and writing it might be the best job in the world. But I certainly don’t feel qualified to advise on ‘career paths’. However, there are three observations I think I can make.
- On The Psychologist, two types of ‘Career’ article crop up again and again. Firstly, pieces from people starting out which gaze enviously at the standard paths towards becoming a professional psychologist, bemoaning the obstacles and expense standing in their way; and secondly, interviews with established psychologists pointing out they took anything but a standard path. In the words of the underrated singer-songwriter Neil Halstead, ‘Who’s on the right track? Nobody I know… it’s all smoke and mirrors’.
- Whatever path you choose, or stumble into, you lot are likely to make far better progress than I ever did. When I meet this generation of postgrads at conferences, I have to smile… I chose to do a PhD because I wanted to stay on in Sheffield and get drunk with my mate Pete. You, on the other hand, seem to have ideas, intelligence, ambition, networking skills, self-care, worldly know-how and political awareness. And you use GIFs.
- Some people are suited to a life in academia, some people are not. And that isn’t always to do with how good they are as an academic. If you decide it’s not for you, there’s good info out there about all the transferable skills you can offer to employers. Of course, I’m often asked if there’s a career combining psychology and writing (or some other form of science communication). Yes, there are opportunities – many of them, I like to think, created by us on The Psychologist and Research Digest. Psychology has unique potential to make the world a better place, and we need people who can clearly convey all the beautiful messiness our science has to offer. My advice is always to find your story and tell it. Start small, maybe your own blog or a short piece for us.
I wonder if I can offer any final signposts from my ‘career-path-that-isn’t-a-path’. Well, perhaps you could do worse than ask yourself “What kind of psychologist am I?” Perhaps, like me, you’ll always be a psychologist at heart even if you don’t go down one of those standard professional routes. Perhaps your answer will be “I’m a developmental psychologist studying bullying in 7-10 year old children”. Or perhaps you’re a kind of psychologist which nobody has heard of… yet.
What do I know, I’m just someone who didn’t have any journals on his shelves because he’d spent all his money on cheese, beer and mini-discs. But I’m very confident our future is in much safer hands.
Jon Sutton is the managing editor of The Psychologist.