– Ben Alderson-Day, 2nd July, 2019
I am an Assistant Professor in Psychology at Durham University, where I have been a post-doc since 2012. I first came to Durham to work on Hearing the Voice, an interdisciplinary project funded by the Wellcome Trust – and since then I have been working on topics to do with voices and voice-hearing pretty much non-stop.
Before 2012 I had actually been more of an autism researcher. My PhD at Edinburgh was all about how autistic kids used language in their problem-solving, and towards the end of it I got interested in the topic of inner speech, or talking to yourself in your head. I had been in touch with an autism researcher at Durham about collaborating after my PhD, and he put me in contact with Charles Fernyhough (inner speech researcher and new PI of Hearing the Voice).
I knew switching across to voices, and a broader topic like psychosis, would be tricky, but I wanted to give it a go. About a year into the project though I was a bit stuck. I was fairly convinced I wasn’t the right person for the job and that I had bitten off more than I could chew. Because the project was an interdisciplinary one, involving philosophers, theologians, literary scholars, medievalists, it wasn’t your standard post-doc. But even so, I felt like I hadn’t made the progress I should have done: studies were behind, research questions muddled, ethics applications delayed. And, that September, the International Consortium of Hallucinations Research was coming to Durham: a network of some of the most prominent researchers in the field. We were hosting their biannual conference, and having a visit from our steering committee. It felt like a recipe for Imposter Syndrome.
As it happens, I was wrong to feel worried about them coming. Some senior researchers were keen to grill each other about their work, and they wouldn’t make an exception for you, but almost all of them were forthcoming and supportive. I met a number of people whose work I had admired for a while, and many were interested that I had come from a different area (autism). What really made the difference, though, was a long conversation at dinner with two ECRs who were a bit further along than me in their careers: Kelly Diederenand Remko Van Lutterveld, who were at the time both post-docs at the Utrecht Medical Center, working with Iris Sommer. I was a bit of a fanboy about their work (and still am), which was all about experiences of hearing voices in people who aren’t experiencing psychosis (sometimes known as non-clinical voice-hearing). What surprised me, though, was that they knew of our work in Durham. More than that, they were supportive of what we were trying to do, understood the difficulties and delays that research brings, and encouraging for what lay ahead.
Since then I have drawn on many different kinds of mentors in navigating the ups and down of research. I have collaborated with Kelly and Remko, and drawn on advice from ECRs like Kristiina Kompus, Elaine Niven, Sam Evans, and David Smailes, along with a number of my colleagues at Durham and various senior researchers. I’ve had to learn things like MATLAB (oh god), R (argh), SPM (click what where?), and FSL (well, nearly) and I’ve had to ask a lot of others for their patience and time. I clearly still have Imposter Syndrome, all the time, but I also feel lucky to have had the means and opportunity to form new collaborations and make new friends. If you don’t have means to make those connections, research can be a fairly lonely place.
In 2018 Cassie Hazell and I founded the ECHR group. We are probably aiming to do too many things at once – conferences, collaborations, blogging – but at least part of our aim is to make those conversations between ECRs more available, particularly for those who aren’t part of big labs or major research centres. Over 50% of our membership are studying for a postgraduate degree (e.g. an MSc or PhD in the UK), and they face greater uncertainty about their future careers than ever before. We hope that the ECHR will be one way of sharing skills, experience, and opportunities around – whether its invitations to speak at another university, co-writing a commentary, sharing data, or just meeting for a drink at a conference.
Right, now back to that overdue paper…..
At this point you might rightfully ask “What they hell were you using in your PhD? MS Paint?”. Look, if it’s good enough for Jim’ll Paint It, it’s good enough for me.