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What it’s really like to be a psychology researcher

It’s no surprise that many of us are fascinated by psychology – understanding the human mind is as intriguing as it is complex. But how much do you know about the career options available to psychology graduates?

Many students start out studying psychology with big dreams to become clinical therapists, without realising other potential career paths until much later. Becoming an academic researcher is a path that ends up appealing to many, because it provides an opportunity to work at the cutting edge of scienctific knowledge and investigate fascinating theories.

For PhD candidate and sessional academic Sasha Davies, being a psychology researcher means working to unlock the mysteries of so-called ‘baby brain’; the potential impact of pregnancy on women’s cognitive functioning as they transition into motherhood. Her research is part of the Baby Brain Research Project within Deakin’s Cognitive Neuroscience Unit (CNU).

Sasha’s research uses a sensitive neuroscience technique called electroencephalograph (EEG) to look at whether pregnancy causes subtle differences in brain wave patterns associated with executive functions such as decision-making, problem-solving, working memory, inhibitory control and attention.

Outside of the CNU labs, Sasha also lectures and tutors across several undergraduate units within Deakin’s Faculty of Health. In this article, she explains the ins and outs of her role.

Find out more about studying psychology online at Deakin.

What led you to becoming a PhD candidate/researcher/academic?

‘I originally started out studying psychology at university with the goal of becoming a clinical psychologist. Then, in my fourth year of undergraduate as an honours student at Deakin’s School of Psychology, everything changed.

‘As part of my honours studies, I was working very closely with a wonderful supervisor and small group of peers on a small research thesis and this led me to discover I had a far greater passion for research than I did for clinical work. I loved the mental challenge, the analytical approaches, and the feeling of being part of this big world of scientific knowledge.

‘So, by the end of my honours year, I had abandoned my original pursuit of the clinical pathway in favour of the maddening, difficult, but wonderful world of scientific discovery and knowledge – and I’ve never looked back.’

What does an average day look like for you?

‘My day-to-day is often very varied which is often a lot of fun, as it means each day brings something new and challenging. Most of the work I do is focused on reading the scientific literature in my field, writing my thesis, and conducting my studies which means lots of time at my desk and in the labs.

‘Beyond this, I also mentor and co-supervise fourth-year undergraduate students, teach across several undergraduate at first, second, third, and fourth year level; participate in and run committee meetings for higher degree by research students; chat to the media and other academics about my research, attend conferences across the world; and attend lots of lab meetings and workshops.’

What do you love most about your job?

‘There’s so many things I love about my job. I first and foremost enjoy being ‘part of science’ – making it happen, being amongst the first to uncover new knowledge, sharing it with peers and the public alike, and – hopefully – helping further our understanding of human behaviour and how this fits with the world we live in.

‘I also really enjoy the mix of collaborative and independent work the PhD experience brings with it; I’ve been fortunate enough to not only make a mark through building my own research niche, but to also work alongside some vey inspiring scientists in the field.

‘Lastly, the PhD experience offers limitless opportunity and challenge. It can take you around the world; it can allow you to be at the forefront of human scientific discovery; and you can, at least to some degree, walk your own path.’

What are some of the challenges of your job?

‘Undertaking a PhD and pursuing a research or academic career is not for the faint-hearted. There will be days, weeks, or even months when carefully-laid research plans are disrupted or delayed, when recruitment is only inching forward or is not progressing at all, when the task you have been grappling to program is still not working and you can’t figure out the error in your code, when you lose out on funding or other opportunities, and so on.

'The PhD experience offers limitless opportunity and challenge. It can take you around the world; it can allow you to be at the forefront of human scientific discovery.'

Sasha Davies,
PhD candidate, Deakin University

‘There are so many things that do not go to plan, often due to variables outside of my own control. This can be the most frustrating and challenging part of my job.

‘However, what thing that I can always count on is the knowledge that the ‘bad’ days will always counterbalanced by other times when everything runs smoothly, recruitment powers ahead of schedule, testing sessions result in beautiful clean data, the birds are singing, and your results end up confirming your hypotheses. There is always something around the corner to look forward to!’

What are the necessary skills required in your job?

‘You need to be resilient, tenacious and motivated. Having a love of science, research, and knowledge discovery is also crucial, as is the abilty to be productive in both an individual and team setting. Being comfortable with ambiguous and navigating large sets of technical information is also very helpful.

‘The most successful individuals in academia and/or research also have a range of additional skills, including: clear verbal and written communication skills, strong reasoning and analytical abilities, a creative and curious mind, technical skills such as data analytics or programming, and this magical thing 2013 MacArthur Fellow recipient Angela Duckworth calls ‘grit’ – a certain type of perseverance and passion for long-term goals.’

What school subjects and university qualifications fit this job?                        

‘Academics and researchers exist in many, many different fields; hence, the school subjective and university qualifications can vary accordingly.

‘However, the typical pathway to an academic and/or research career in psychology usually involves completing a four-year bachelor degree, with the fourth year involving completion of a minor research thesis.

‘Provided grade performance is at a good level, students can then enter the PhD program where they will complete a research thesis on their chosen topic over the span of three years (full-time) or six years (part-time). The PhD is usually the qualifying degree for those who wish to continue a career at a university or research institute as an academic or researcher.’

Think psychology research sounds appealing? Get started on your journey now by studying psychology online at Deakin.


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Sasha Davies
Sasha Davies

PhD candidate, Deakin University

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