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Emily McDougal, Ellen Ridley, Rachel nesbit and Charlotte bagnall
Careers and professional development, Developmental, Work and occupational

Envisaging an inclusive research future

Dr Emily McDougal, Ellen Ridley, Dr Rachel Nesbit and Dr Charlotte Bagnall spoke to people on the psychology career path about the challenges faced by early career researchers.

03 January 2023

Navigating the academic research environment can be a challenge for anyone early in their career, but even more so for those from minoritised or under-represented groups. We spoke to five people on the psychology career trajectory about the challenges faced by early career researchers, things that can be or are being done to address these, and their vision for an inclusive future of research culture.

Although there are many hurdles to jump, we have hope that this is not a lost cause; there is much that can be done to make the research environment a positive space, providing we all do our part and commit to working towards this vision of the future. This will not only improve the environment for those with the least privilege, but for all of us.

Representation and not being alone

Imposter syndrome is not uncommon in academia, but for those who don’t see people similar to themselves around them in their work environment, this can be even more prominent and stunt opportunities for growth. For example, a woman of colour’s experience within society, and subsequently academia, is different to that of a white person; therefore, the context in which they need support is also different. Equally, a first generation academic from a working-class background has a different context to someone who attended private school. Rhys Proud, a disabled PhD Researcher at Durham University, spoke about feeling like “the odd one out” amongst people from a different social class, who might already know each other or make references to things that he knew nothing about. He also spoke about the importance of mentorship from people who understand your background because “you don’t know what you don’t know”, and a strong mentor who understands you can help you identify these knowledge gaps.

“There’s a hidden curriculum of things you don’t know unless you have a network around you to guide you, such as how to write a CV or navigate UCAS” – Dr Zayba Ghazali-Mohammed

Creating a research environment that includes diversity at all institutional levels gives people access to support networks who understand their specific context. This is already being done at the University of Glasgow, led by Dr Zayba Ghazali-Mohammed, who is a newly qualified Lecturer in Psychology. By getting the Human Resources team on side in adapting recruitment materials, job adverts now highlight all the initiatives at the university to improve diversity, such as the Race & Equality Network (founded by Zayba), the Neurodiversity Network, and LGBT Network, as well as active celebration of Black History Month and Race Equality Week. Ensuring that people feel welcome within the community, regardless of their background, is a simple way for universities to encourage diversity in recruitment and among colleagues.

Individual action to make positive change is important, but we need institutional change if we are to retain and attract a diverse workforce. The teams we work within have a huge power to influence our experience and create a community that makes us feel like we belong. Many of the ECRs spoke about the impact of having strong mentorship when navigating their academic journey. However, we know there is huge variation in the amount and quality of mentorship, not only between academic institutions, but within the same institution across departments and even across different lab group practices. So, what do we need to achieve our vision of the future? More emphasis on clear norms for mentorship and more representation at all levels of academia.

Financial and social resources

A lack of financial and social resources makes navigating the academic career trajectory challenging for many, and for some, impossible. Opportunities to broaden your CV and take advantage of conferences or research visits all require additional finances that are either not available or expected to be paid up front and claimed back, which causes unnecessary pressure. For some, particularly those from backgrounds with limited financial resources, accessing these opportunities requires working part-time, as Dr Rachel Nesbit notes:

“Although I was fortunate to be awarded a scholarship for my PhD, I still had to work alongside my PhD to keep myself afloat, whist other postgraduates had more time to work on their PhD.”

Financial pressure can also come in the form of uncertainty about the future. The norm of fixed-term and fractional contracts puts ECRs in a space of uncertainty and financial instability, which ultimately means making compromises or sacrifices in other parts of life. Dr Zoë Gallant, a mixed-race, neurodivergent Lecturer (Teaching) in Psychology at University College London, spoke about this in relation to looking for work post-PhD.

“The job insecurity meant I couldn't plan ahead, and my life was essentially on hold. No sick pay, no maternity pay, struggled to get a mortgage, couldn't even plan my annual leave.”

Why should ECRs consistently have to choose between financial security and the career they have already invested time and money into?

Social resources are also not distributed evenly which can significantly impact a researcher’s experience and ability to access the academic environment.  Social capital is often the special ingredient for getting ahead. If you don’t know anyone who is an academic and you don’t have family who understand the process then you’re at a disadvantage. Organisations such as the Social Mobility Foundation (SMF: www.socialmobility.org.uk) are doing invaluable work to change this, with initiatives such as a mentoring scheme and professional skills training programme for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is not exclusive to academic careers, but spans all professions, and aims to “provide opportunities and networks of support for 16-17 year olds who are unable to get them from their schools or families”.

Decolonisation and accessibility of resources

Another important way we can improve the future of research is to work harder to decolonise and improve accessibility of education and resources within psychology. Alongside her colleagues, Zayba has been addressing this by including opportunities to discuss the missing history of psychology (e.g. women, LGBT, neurodiversity, race) within her teaching, and for students to write and reflect upon the fact that everything isn’t as it seems in psychology research. Including such opportunities in teaching will become easier if BPS guidelines for accreditation allowed for some more flexibility and creativity within the undergraduate curriculum.

Accessibility is also an important issue for a variety of marginalised groups. We spoke to Dr Naudia Moorley, a researcher at the Banner Sun Health Research Institute in Arizona, USA, and the conversation we had demonstrates that these issues cross borders. We discussed the cultural implications of language and expression, which results in different communication styles across cultures. A majority of the current curricula and assessments were created without marginalised groups in mind, thus making it more difficult and at times completely inaccessible for those groups, leading to lower performance compared to the normative group. This issue is also relevant in other contexts, such as for neurodivergent or disabled researchers. Having more diversity at all institutional levels, but particularly those who design curricula, is an important first step towards closing this gap.

Online events increased significantly during the Covid-19 pandemic and made opportunities such as conferences more accessible to a wider range of individuals. Keeping online events a norm now that we are able to hold in-person events would be a simple way to improve accessibility. The cost of travel and accommodation to such events can be too high for some, and those with disabilities or caring responsibilities can benefit from online options when being away from home may not be feasible. Rhys also spoke about his experience of being a speaker at a conference and that presenting can easily be made accessible with small adjustments to the environment, such as access to a wireless slide changer and alternative locations to speak (i.e. not just behind a lectern). Simple changes such as these can ensure that resources and opportunities are accessible.

Vision of the future

So taking all of this together, what future do we envisage for research in psychology? As we have heard from our ECRs, there are clear barriers within Higher Education, from limited diversity and representation in the workforce, minimal accessibility and a lack of financial and social resources. These barriers can make academia difficult, or impossible, to navigate. The individual proactivity of our ECRs has led to some big wins in decolonising and improving accessibility of education and resources within psychology, but systemic change at an institution level, to date, falls short. We are at a fork in the road, where simple changes, such as supportive mentorship, equity in financial resources and fair distribution of social resources, can make the future look very different.

“It’s the smallest things I’ve done that took the least amount of time that have had the biggest impact” – Dr Zayba Ghazali-Mohammed

This is just the beginning. If we keep the conversation going, both within and between institutions and contexts, then we can make change happen and our vision of an inclusive research culture can become a reality.

Contributors

Dr Emily McDougal is a developmental psychologist and is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at University of Surrey. She completed her PhD in 2019 at Durham University. Emily is broadly interested in cognition and academic learning, particularly for neurodivergent children.

Ellen Ridley is a PhD student in the Centre for Neurodiversity & Development at Durham University. Ellen’s doctoral research investigated social strengths and challenges in the genetic condition Williams syndrome.

Dr Rachel Nesbit is a developmental psychologist and researcher interested in children and young people’s mental health and play. Rachel completed her PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London in 2019 and is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Research Collaboration in the University of Exeter Medical School.

Dr Charlotte Bagnall is a Lecturer in the Psychology of Education at The University of Manchester. She is a mixed methods researcher, and her research is focused on improving children’s mental health within educational settings. Charlotte’s PhD (Keele University and Manchester Metropolitan University) focussed on how to improve children's emotional well-being over the primary-secondary school transition.

Together, Emily, Ellen, Rachel and Charlotte founded the ECR Developmental Network to provide a platform for anyone identifying as an ECR in Developmental Psychology to network, present research and discuss ideas, and be supported to develop important skills and experience. You can find out more via our website (https://sites.google.com/view/the-ecr-developmental-network/home) or reach out on Twitter (@ECR_DevNetwork).

Thank you to all who spoke to us about their experiences and views on inclusivity in psychology research:

Dr Zayba Ghazali-Mohammed, Lecturer in Psychology, University of Glasgow

Rhys Proud, PhD Researcher, Durham University

Dr Zoë Gallant, Lecturer (teaching), University College London

Anneliese Knop ALC, Mental Health Counsellor, Alabama USA

Dr Naudia Moorley Psy.D., Researcher and Clinical Practitioner, Banner Sun Health Research Institute, Arizona USA