|Smart Futures interviews Andrew Allen, Postdoctoral researcher at UCC.
What's your job title?
Postdoctoral researcher, Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre & Department of Psychiatry, University College Cork.
What are the main tasks, responsibilities and skills required?
I’m a psychologist with an interest in cognition (how people think) and stress. At the Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre and Department of Psychiatry I’ve been involved in carrying out or collaborating on a number of studies, such as looking at the effects of probiotics (live microorganisms you ingest) on stress and cognition, as well as the effects of exercise on cognition (e.g. memory and problem solving).
Describe a typical day?
There’s a variety of things one does in this role. I could be reviewing the research literature, reading existing papers and writing a critique of these. Or I could be doing data entry or data analysis. I could be completing a study visit with a research participant-this could involve getting people to do memory tests, looking at the stress response (seeing how people respond to a nasty situation) or measuring EEG (reading brain activity via scalp electrodes). The lab I work with has a lab where we can analyse biological samples, so I could be working on saliva or blood samples as well, looking at stuff like stress hormones or immune system activity. And, of course, answering emails. I also do some teaching work, giving a few lectures on neuroscience as well as psychology, covering topics such as stress, sustaining concentration and creative thinking.
What’s cool about your career?
You’re involved in looking at interesting questions, hopefully to a view with getting your name in print in international journals that other researchers and thinkers read and are influenced by. You’re working with people who are pursuing the same questions as you, as well as related questions which can sometimes provide greater insight into the kind of areas you’re interested in.
What are the main challenges?
Any job has repetitive/tedious tasks to carry out, and research is no different. This could be entering psychological questionnaire responses into a computer package or adding a large number of saliva samples to apparatus for analysis.
Who or what has most influenced your career direction?
I decided I wanted to be a psychologist when I was around 14, after reading a number of books in the area. I thought about being a psychotherapist, but became drawn to research during my Bachelor’s degree (in psychology and economics at Trinity College Dublin)-there were any number of people at Trinity who would have influenced me in this decision, including other students as well as professors.
Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with?
I’m happy with my lifestyle, although I say this as someone who’s quite absorbed in my work-working in research at a university is not really a 9-to-5 kind of job most of the time. I’m not married and don’t have any children, so I can’t comment on balancing career and family!
What subjects did you take in school and did they influence your career path?
Besides the compulsories, I took economics, which I went on to study at university, and which I still have some interest in (when I have time!). I studied Physics as a science subject, although with hindsight biology would have also been a good choice in terms of my current career! You can’t do Psychology for the Leaving Cert, so if any subject influenced me to study psychology I’d say English-the novel can give you some insight into human psychology, after all.
What is your education to date?
I went to Catholic University School in Dublin city for secondary. After the Bachleor’s in psychology and economics mentioned above I did a Master’s by research in psychology, again at Trinity College Dublin. I then got a studentship to complete a PhD in Psychology at Cardiff University- this was a great opportunity, as they have a world-class School of Psychology. That led to my current work at University College Cork, working with pharmacologists, neuroscientists and psychiatrists as well as psychologists. For a bookish person it’s been a wild ride.
What advice would you give to someone considering this job?
Going down the research route in psychology, you need to have enthusiasm and drive-you will most likely have to do a PhD, which can be a period of hard work for relatively limited financial reward. You need to publish articles on your research work, as well as write grants to fund your research, so being able to express yourself clearly in writing is crucial. Although there are days when you have to get on with same-y stuff, an ability to think creatively and critically can really help you get that bit further in your career. You don’t have to be radically creative, but an ability to see where research has gone thus far and how new studies could take the field further is an important skill.