by Sarah Marten
Dr Susan Speer is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Manchester’s School of Psychological Sciences. As well as teaching undergraduate and postgraduate students, Susan’s research interests focus on gender identity and analysing conversations in everyday settings such as doctor/patient interactions. She has an extensive portfolio of published research in well-respected academic journals.
What does your job involve?
There are three main elements to my job – teaching, administration and research. I teach qualitative research methods and my research specialism, conversation analysis to psychology undergraduates and postgraduate students on the Masters in Research Methods (MRes) course. The amount of time spent lecturing can vary from six hours in one week to two hours the next week, according to the time of year and the needs of the School. Setting coursework is also a part of my job, which for me includes asking the students to use conversation analytic methods to analyse a piece of interaction and critically appraise conversational analysis.
As well as lecturing, the teaching side of my job also involves supervising students’ research projects, both for approximately eight to ten final year psychology undergraduates and one or two post-graduate students following our MRes course. We hold regular meetings to discuss their progress.
What about preparation and marking?
When you first start as a lecturer you will spend a great deal of time preparing lectures, especially if you are preparing a topic from scratch. You could easily spend two whole days preparing a two hour lecture. Things do get much easier later on, especially if you are teaching the same subjects in subsequent years.
Marking is also time-consuming and for each of my 30 final year students I will mark one 2000 word and one 3000 word assignment. Each script takes a minimum of thirty minutes to mark, and sometimes longer. Marking exam scripts can take less time as these tend to be shorter.
Do you also have a role as a personal tutor to students?
Yes, I am a personal tutor to final year students who are doing their research projects. I also work as an academic adviser to second year students. However, I am not involved in student counselling, but would refer them to further sources of help if necessary. My role is more focussed on advising students how to write a good essay or project, and providing academic support.
How do you supervise the work of PhD students?
I hold regular meetings with my PhD students to discuss their research plans, once a week to start with and then every two weeks later on. Helping students to identify their research question is vital, which is then refined as the research progresses and data is collected and analysed. My aim is to encourage students to write up research findings as early as possible, with a view to including this later on in their PhD thesis.
I like to break up the work of a PhD into small achievable tasks, always aiming to help the students develop skills which will make them employable later on. If they do not have any research findings to submit to a journal, I suggest they write book reviews, as this provides useful experience of writing. It is important that their research is eventually published in good quality journals.
Helping students to obtain ethical approval for their data is also part of my job, and they may also need to obtain a Criminal Record Board (CRB) check if they are working with vulnerable people.
I also run regular data analysis sessions where we analyse data in a group, alongside PhD students and other interested colleagues. Encouraging students to attend conferences to present their findings is important, and we also provide lots of opportunities to present work within the University of Manchester.
What does the administrative part of your job involve?
As Co-Director of the Masters in Research Methods course I am jointly responsible for the running of this course alongside the other co-director. This role involves lots of administration, including co-chairing the exam boards and liaising with the other members of teaching staff. I also help organise the timetable and ensure our teaching slots are covered, speak at open days and induction programmes, monitor and evaluate student feedback and make changes where necessary.
What about the research side of your job?
For me, research is the main part of my job, and my key area is gender identity and how people interact as men and women. I am looking at questions such as “How do men talk?”, “How do women talk?” and “What counts as gender in an interaction?”
My research is interdisciplinary, combining social psychology, sociology, and communication studies. I spent a very enjoyable year as a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Sociology at the University of California at Los Angeles, where I trained extensively in conversation analysis. My recent research has involved me working as Principal Investigator on the project ‘Transsexual Identities: Constructions of Gender in an NHS Gender Identity Clinic’.
What is conversation analysis?
Conversation analysis is all about identifying patterns in conversation. Examples of patterns and topics studies include how people take turns in conversation, what it means to overlap with another speaker or to produce a delayed response. It also explores how actions like complaining, questioning, assessing, complimenting and inviting are accomplished and how people solve problems in hearing, speaking and understanding. A recent project involved looking at how psychiatrists communicate with transsexual patients in an NHS gender identity clinic. We were able to look at what works well and what works less well, and make recommendations to the doctors.
What sort of technology do you use?
I use Microsoft PowerPoint in lectures and for presentations, and also make use of sound files and video clips to illustrate my work. It is essential to make the data anonymous, which might involve digitally disguising faces and voices. We also use specialist software for analysing video clips and audio data. However I do not work in laboratories – most of my data is collected from ‘natural’settings.
Why did you choose this work?
I never made a conscious decision about becoming an academic! I was always good at sociology and social psychology and in the absence of clear career ideas I just kept on studying. Like many academics I have a strong ambition to achieve, and it is enormously rewarding to know that once those qualifications and publications are on your CV, you have them for life.
How do you motivate and engage the students?
Using real life data and examples of people interacting engages and excites the students as it allows them to apply psychological theory to practical examples. And since a lot of psychology involves experiments and lab work, they find it really refreshing to engage with naturalistic examples from real life.
What are the hours/working conditions?
The working hours could potentially be endless! During my PhD I worked all hours to get my thesis finished and during my first year as a lecturer at Brunel University I was often working at weekends, preparing lectures and trying to get my work published. I knew that getting my work published was key to me progressing up the career ladder and I wanted to get my CV into tip-top shape. Having recently been promoted to this Senior Lecturer position at the University of Manchester I am trying to stick to a structured week, working between 8.30 am and 6.00 pm Monday-Friday. The working conditions at the University of Manchester are very good.
How did you get into this type of work, and which of your qualifications were the most useful?
I arrived at psychology via a fairly unconventional route. I started out with a first class degree in Sociology and Social Policy from the University of Durham, and then moved on to complete an MSc in Sociology at the London School of Economics, where I achieved a distinction. I completed my PhD in discursive psychology in the social sciences department at Loughborough University and this has helped me to secure Chartered Psychologist status with the British Psychological Society. These days it is very hard to pursue a career in psychology without an undergraduate degree and further qualifications in the subject.
During my first year as a lecturer at Brunel University I undertook the ‘Postgraduate Certificate in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education’ and this has been incredibly useful. Unless you gain experience teaching during your PhD, you will not acquire the skills you will need to teach. And I needed all the help I could get when I started out!
What skills and personal qualities are important?
The ability to structure your time well is important, as you get a lot of choice in how you organise your day. Balancing the time spent on teaching, admin and research is probably the hardest bit, and it can be very difficult knowing which one to prioritise at any one time.
What do you enjoy about your job?
I love the autonomy of the job – the fact that you can choose the research you undertake, and with whom you collaborate. Seeing my work published always gives me a buzz. I also enjoy the travel associated with presenting my work at conferences in the UK and abroad. Being able to think for a living and to push forward the boundaries of what we know about certain topics is wonderful. The vacation periods are great although contrary to popular opinion we do continue to work during the three month summer break!
Being disciplined about managing your time can be difficult, although it is vital to ensure that you get a work-life balance. It can be very tempting to keep on working! Working on your computer all day writing up research can also be isolating. Securing competitive grant money is increasingly important and can be hard to achieve.
What prospects are there and what ambitions do you have?
I had wanted to be a professor by the time I was 40 but that has lessened somewhat as I have discovered the joys of work-life balance and weekends to myself. This may still be possible, but it is not my number one priority any more. I would like to secure another research grant, and to continue to publish in widely read journals. Engaging with the media to ensure my research reaches a wider audience would be great and for this reason I want to make sure that my work is relevant and of interest to a broad audience.
How does this job fit into your work-life balance?
Academics are naturally very driven hard workers. The lack of a normal 9-5 working pattern and the knowledge that the more you publish in high quality journals the better, can mean that you tend to work all the time! In the end you find a structure that works for you, although finding that can be a difficult road. I now have the time to train for the Manchester Great Run and to attend yoga and meditation classes.
What do you know now that you wish you had known before you started?
I would have liked to have taken my Postgraduate Certificate in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education before embarking upon my first lectureship. What I learnt during the course about effective teaching, managing groups and designing assessments was really useful, but I really needed to know this before being thrown in at the deep end!
What advice have you got for PhD students and others interested in this career?
It is important to have a community of colleagues around you who you work and collaborate with. The job is most enjoyable when you are working on a research issue or problem alongside someone else who shares your interest. Publishing is far less lonely when there is another person to discuss ideas with. You also need to make sure that you choose a supervisor and university that are right for you. Don’t assume that you are not good enough to study somewhere or with someone important.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to fund PhD study, and some people end up self-funding and studying part-time whilst working. Having a first class honours degree is a great advantage, although many succeed with an upper second.
If you weren’t in this job what do you think you would be doing?
Working as a clinical psychologist would appeal to me, either as part of a team or in private practice somewhere exciting like California. Otherwise I would be a medical doctor.
Dr Susan Speer studied A levels in English Literature, Sociology and Art and Design before reading Sociology and Social Policy at Durham University. Susan then went to the London School of Economics to take an MSc in Sociology, and completed her PhD in the Social Sciences department at Loughborough University. Her first lectureship was in Sociology and Communication in the School of Social Sciences at Brunel University. After four years Susan moved to the University of Manchester School of Psychological Sciences to take up a lectureship in Psychology. She was promoted to Senior Lecturer in 2006.
Susan is the Co-Director of the Masters in Research Methods (MRes) in Psychology at the University of Manchester and is author of ‘Gender Talk: Feminism, Discourse and Conversation Analysis’ published by Routledge in 2005. Susan is also collaborating on an edited collection entitled ‘Conversation and Gender’ for Cambridge University Press and has published her research findings in many academic journals.
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