Published: 07 March 2016

Student research and the professor's psychological edge

Why does Professor Jane Ogden collaborate with her undergraduate and postgraduate students on psychology research projects?

"One of my Masters students has become quite interested in something called boarding-school syndrome (in which children sent away from home at an early age find it difficult to form relationships later in life). I didn't know much about it, but my late Gran used to work at Eton as a boys' maid, and through her I know a few Old Etonians who are my age.

"So my student and I are going to do a study on whether going to Eton as a child affects your relationships decades later.

"It's an interesting area that I might not have thought about if my student hadn't suggested it, and because of my personal contacts we may be able to do an interesting project together that we wouldn't have done separately.

I believe that good work should be published by people at any age and at any stage of their career.

"Becoming qualified in research methodology is an integral part of psychology education and training. Psychology students (from undergrads to PhD candidates) have to understand quantitative and qualitative methods, and carry out qualitative and statistical analysis. There's no better way to do that than through real research. And I believe that good work should be published by people at any age and at any stage of their career.

"We teach our undergraduate students research methods in the laboratory throughout their degree, with mini-projects that give them hands-on experience of learning how to do research. The dissertation in their final year is a larger piece of work, and I supervise around six individual or group projects per year.

"These could be based on an idea they have had themselves, perhaps using data they collected during their placement year, or we may devise the topic together. Either way, it's the students who collect the data, design the measurements, do the analysis and write up the project for their dissertation.

"At postgraduate level, research forms a larger part of the Masters degree and could take six to ten months. Again, the topic for the project might be the student's own idea that they've always wanted to do or a joint proposal with the supervisor, but it's the student who does the leg work. My job is to guide and mentor.

Collaborating with students on research projects has advantages for me, the University and my field of psychology too

"Whatever the level of study (Bachelors, Masters or PhD), if the research is good enough we'll submit it to journals for publication. I think this gives the student a sense of real pride in their work and helps them in the next stage of their life as they have a publication with their name on it.

"Though I strongly believe in helping students in this way, collaborating with them on research projects has advantages for me, the University and my field of psychology too.

"For example, the fact that I have 15 to 20 students wanting to work with me each year means I am less reliant on winning highly competitive external funding, and less hemmed in by all the extra constraints that come with it. That means I have more freedom to do the work I want to do, rather than only doing projects that research councils, politicians or private organisations want to pay for.

"Think about that project on boarding-school syndrome. Would anyone fund that research? I don't know, and I don't need to know. My student and I can get on and do it without waiting for funding or permission, and our results won't be open to criticism that the work was paid for by parties with a vested interest in getting one conclusion rather than another.

"The nice thing about doing projects with students is that you can be creative. You don't feel like every project has to be the best study ever, or produce the most significant results or have huge implications for changing the world. My students and I are free to say 'this is a really interesting idea, let's see what we can do with it'.

"Whatever results we generate, the students get a great experience and the opportunity to produce a top-quality dissertation (which sets them up for a good degree classification). If the research does return something significant we'll get a publication as well, but the important thing is that we can play with ideas that might not get funded any other way.

We can play with ideas that might not get funded any other way

"Here's an example. Five of my undergrad students are doing a group project based on the impact social media has on the way people feel about themselves. It came out of noticing that my nieces, who are in their late teens, spend an awful lot of time taking photographs of their friends and seeing images of themselves on Facebook or Instagram. Originally I thought it would make me completely obsessed to constantly see how I look all the time, but then I wondered if it could be good for you to see yourself looking rubbish first thing in the morning as well as glammed up and photo-ready on a night out.

"So my students are getting women to photograph and look at themselves every half an hour for an entire day to see whether that makes them feel better or worse about themselves. No-one would fund that, but it's an interesting little contemporary question. If we get significant results, that's a paper.

"And something else might come out of that, something bigger, another idea. Someone might say 'oh look, social media's got some good things going for it - we could build on that' or 'harm could be happening here – we need to investigate further'.

You can end up discovering something new together

"The one big challenge in collaborating with students is that timescales are shorter than on my other projects, so I have learned to be very pragmatic when designing studies.  Trying to work with participants such as patients, prisoners or children could mean that we run out of time waiting for approval.

"But our students are brilliant and motivated. They're really enthusiastic and love the challenge. If you can find a project that gets them excited and ticks your boxes, you can end up discovering something new together. It's great fun and the best part of my job."

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