Published: 16 March 2020

Meet the academic: Peter Hegarty

Professor of Psychology, Peter Hegarty shares why you should study for a masters in psychology and the qualities of a good postgraduate student.

professor of psychology
Please could you introduce yourself – perhaps you could tell us something that isn’t on your staff profile page?

I am from Dublin and I come from quite a musical family. Although I started off playing music in churches, I was – at one point in the early 1990s – the bass guitarist in Ireland’s only live salsa band. I studied jazz a little bit both in Ireland with Ronan Guilfoyle and with Diane Vavra in the San Francisco Bay Area. I’ve also sung in choirs and community operas.

How and why did you become an academic?

The only other things I ever really considered were clinical psychology and music. Academia is a much better fit for me and I would not have been good enough at either of the other two to make a living out of it. Despite the ups and downs, it has been the right decision.

What excites you most about your current role?

At Surrey, I am part of a growing department, home to lots of young international lecturers and a lively community of postgraduate students. Every year we welcome 200 new students and I get to deliver a module about the most important and influential people and events in the history of psychology. There are also opportunities for interdisciplinary exchange in areas such as Sex, Gender and Sexualities studies, particularly with colleagues in the Department of Sociology and the School of Literature and Languages. I have had challenges at Surrey over the last 17 years, but this is a promising time to be here.

What is your particular area of academic expertise, and why are you passionate about it?

I started my PhD in judgement and decision-making in 1993 and embraced opportunities to expand my interdisciplinary knowledge in gender and sexuality studies and in the history of science. I’m a social psychologist and a historian of psychology with an emphasis on sexuality, gender, and social equality and an interest in how we live our lives in scientific and technically mediated cultures. My interests in social psychology and in the history of psychology have met in my most recent work on the history of how the field and profession of psychology engaged with movements for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender liberation, empowerment and equality in research, legal advocacy, and public engagement in the US.

Why should people study at postgraduate level in your academic area?

Students will learn to critically analyse the history of a social psychological concept and use their insights to develop a social psychological research proposal that engages the historical change that is happening at present. As we are at the juncture of huge historical changes in politics, technology, and the conditions for human life itself, the question about whether the past is thought of as unique historical events or as amenable to social scientific laws of order needs smart minds on it so that psychology can be scientific, humanitarian, and a form of advocacy for social change.

What are you looking for in a postgraduate student?

I am most impressed by good scholarship and critical thinking. The capacity to be able to ask a good research question is important, and the openness to letting that question be informed by data is important. I like it when students can articulate what they value and what they would critique in my research that they have read – that way I know that my expertise will be useful to them, that they read deeply, that they have a position to develop and a project to become passionate about.

Is there a particular memory of your time at Surrey (so far) which stands out for you?

Not so much a single memory but rather a place, the route from my house to Surrey Sports Park through the fields early on a Summer’s morning, where you can usually see rabbits scurrying and – very occasionally – a stag running across the rugby pitch.


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