This blog was written by Dihini Pilimatalawwe, a final year undergraduate student at the University of Bath studying psychology. Dihini spent her placement year working with the Applied Social Science Group at the PCU.
With my return to the final year of my undergraduate psychology degree at the University of Bath, I have been spending quite a bit of time reflecting and reminiscing on my placement year at the Primary Care Unit at the University of Cambridge”.
Perhaps like many psychology students, I am drawn to the alluring world of academia and research. During my time at university I wanted to have a chance to gain experiences and relevant skills that would help me pursue a career after graduation. The opportunity to take a placement year was therefore important to me. My research-based placement was with the Applied Social Science Group (ASSG), led by Dr. Robbie Duschinsky, which I found to be a welcoming and tremendously supportive team.
If you are an undergraduate looking for a placement in an academic setting, or if you are about to start your placement with your new research group, it might be helpful to know what I found most valuable during my placement.
1. Team ethos of communal knowledge dissemination
The ASSG fosters a team-wide ethos of support and development. If someone on the team has a particular ability or skill they are more than happy to teach and guide if anyone reaches out for help. Group members regularly message one another to pass on knowledge or signpost particularly useful resources that may benefit others.
The team members are profoundly committed to one another’s development, with a strong democratic ethos in which everyone can teach and learn. This sort of work environment as a placement student felt so nurturing that I felt comfortable stepping outside of my comfort zone.
2. Interacting with a multidisciplinary team
Being in a research group allows you the chance to work alongside and learn from a variety of individuals. Particularly within ASSG, alongside the Master’s and PhD students, I got to chat and seek advice from clinical practitioners, social workers, Experts by Experience and even the group’s children’s-poet-in-residence, Laura Mucha!
The diversity of background of the team’s members allowed me to engage with different perspectives, learning novel solutions and getting introduced to alternative understandings of subject matter that was initially learned in lecture halls or for a final exam.
Furthermore, being a part of a research group enabled me to see first-hand how people with different backgrounds approach research. Intersectionality is a foundational value for the group, and their studies adopt a holistic yet nuanced approach.
Whilst their work is thematically tied to mental health, family relationships and safeguarding of children and young adults with social work involvement, it is not dictated by specific domain limits or the classic theoretical or methodological boundaries of particular academic disciplines.
I was exposed to more novel ways of conducting quantitative and qualitative research than in my research methods module back in first year, and also was supported to try my own hand at research using a variety of different methodologies.
3. Working on real research projects
As a research assistant I got to learn and develop my research skills in a practical manner through working on academic papers. This included large-scale projects such as a a mixed-methods analysis on a large set of patient clinical records to investigate the way mental health systems characterise and perceive safeguarding needs of children and young people involved with the social care system. The ‘learning on the job’ element of placement year provided an invaluable method of gaining a deeper appreciation and understanding of how theories and understandings taught in my degree are applied in real research.
Being an active part of the research process also helped me appreciate how iterative research can be. In practice it is not a sequential approach like the research cycle taught to undergraduate psychology students, rather it often moves between stages as feedback may refine and sharpen theory, methods, or even the basic research question within a programme of research addressing a particular topic.
For example, during the collaborative write up stage of a research paper relating to the construction of risk within news media during the Covid-19 Pandemic, my supervisor Dr Tessa Morgan and I realised that our findings were going beyond the initial research question of identifying who was constructed as ‘at-risk’ during the pandemic. Rather it seemed the construction of risk categories changed and evolved due in part to cultural values of relational connections between New Zealanders and thus we reworked the research question to focus on how risk categories changed.
4. Learning from Experts by Experience
Working in a research group gives multiple avenues for learning and developing. And in ASSG, you get the chance to discuss ideas and learn by interacting with a team of Experts by Experience (EbyE). EbyE refers to individuals with personal experiences of a service, like the social care system. Within ASSG, they are project leads incorporated and actively participating in various points of the project, rather than an advisory body. They share their experiential expertise, shaping the research process along with the other members of the team. I spent time during my placement with the EbyEs and I was able to see first hand their role in the development, conduct and overall production of research, ultimately allowing for a greater level of nuance and care to be taken.
5. Career development and guidance
Following my year at ASSG I have become more convinced that pursuing academia is the career path for me. Additionally, I now have a greater sense of confidence, thanks in part to many illuminating discussions and guidance from various team members. By being able to learn about a diverse group of people’s individual trajectories I have become aware of my options for pursuing academia.