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research work experience

60 Second Interview with Dr Phil Brown, Researcher and Psychologist at the University of Salford

By Danielle Butler

During the summer holidays this year, I had the opportunity to work with the team in the Salford Housing and Urban Studies Unit (SHUSU) at the University of Salford. My role involved SPSS data entry (not as scary or boring as it may seem!) from surveys conducted with the Gypsy and Traveller communities across the UK. These surveys try to understand the needs of the communities by establishing family sizes, roles, and existing problems, such as overcrowding or poor access to various services including education and health provision. Once analysed, the data is presented to local authorities to establish what kinds of shortfalls exist for Gypsy and Traveller communities and these findings can then be transferred into planning and policy, having a positive impact on the lives of many Gypsy and Traveller families. This experience left me eager to understand more about the role of a researcher so, after giving him some time to take a holiday, I approached Dr Phil Brown, a SHUSU researcher, to ask him a few of my own, and some of your questions too…

WHAT PIECE OF RESEARCH ARE YOU MOST PROUD OF AND WHY?

I think you are proud of different things for different reasons. I’m probably most proud of the PhD work I did, not necessarily because it had a lot of impact but because it’s the only opportunity in your career you get to actually get stuck into something in that much depth.

Sometimes it’s also about the amount of effort. So the recent work we’ve done that has been funded by JRCT on numerating the Roma populations in the UK. Really, really difficult information to obtain but when you come up with a number that people have been wanting for a long time and there are lots of different agencies that are looking for evidence to do all sorts of things. There are a few that are small in value and small in scale but which mean a lot to individuals when they use them.

WHAT BOOK WOULD YOU RECOMMEND TO FIRST YEARS? WHAT BOOK WOULD BE YOUR GO-TO?

There isn’t actually a single book that I would recommend because mostly the books themselves should be read for a specific purpose to a certain extent, when it comes to psychology. There’s plenty of other broader topics that you can draw on, I think, in this day and age you need to piecing your knowledge together from a variety of different sources. I once got asked this question in an interview and I said the book that Brian Keenen wrote after he’d been released from being a hostage in Lebanon with John McCarthy “An Evil Cradling”. I still think it’s a pretty good book for understanding the human condition under great constraints

ANY ADVICE FOR VOLUNTEERING WORK AND/OR PAID PLACEMENTS?

Do it. Do it and make yourself known. Approach people and demonstrate that you’re competent and you’re capable and that you’re willing to learn, but also that you’re willing to do some things that are fairly low level because it’s a good way to understand how the system works. So…get yourself out there!

DESCRIBE A NORMAL DAY AT WORK IN 5 WORDS…

Stressful, enjoyable, challenging, unpredictable and worthwhile

WHAT WAS YOUR FAVOURITE STAGE OF YOUR EDUCATION?

I’m going to split and say primary school because it’s the only time you don’t realise that you’re part of a system. And my last year of my undergraduate degree because it all clicked. I got it, and after 20 years of trying to learn how to learn I finally figured it all out.

WHAT WOULD BE YOUR DISSERTATION DO’S AND DONTS?

DO plan as early as possible. Stick to your timescales as much as possible. Listen to your supervisors.

DON’T be afraid of being innovative. Adapt existing work but don’t be too ambitious because you don’t need to be. It’s about balancing innovation and producing something that is doable.

WHO IS YOUR MOST INFLUENTIAL ACADEMIC FIGURE AND WHY?

Probably, inevitably, my supervisor throughout my undergraduate and post graduate stuff which was Prof Christine Horrocks, who is now the Head of Psychology at MMU. She was inevitably influential because we spoke for hours when I was there and she gave me a new way of thinking about the world, which you can’t always get from a text book. That’s the most influential real person. The most influential academic that I’ve never met, but referenced a lot, is a guy called Sunil Bhatia who is a cross-cultural psychologist in the states. I got to a point where I was writing my PhD and I was grappling for a theoretical framework and I just read one article that he had written and I was absolutely sold and then I read loads of stuff that he had done on this one idea. He basically helped to guide my PhD to the finish line, really.

HOW DO YOU UNBLOCK MENTAL BLOCK?

I stop thinking. You have to stop thinking and move away. Do something different. Don’t keep doing it, don’t stay up all night. Close it down, wait a day and come back to it, if you’ve got the time. If you haven’t you haven’t planned enough earlier on. It’s a difficult one and everybody gets it – whether you’re an undergraduate or you’ve written 15 books you will always get mental block. Sometimes it’s just all part of trying to understand an area.

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