Interviewers: Joint Project – Aleya Arziz Marzuki, Lydia Yeomans and Christos Ioannidis (Bugle Team)

Welcome to the Tricks of the Trade series, a project meant to bridge the gap between students! This interview scheme, brought to you by the Bugle team, is meant to bridge the gap between students of different years and help younglings learn from old-timers! Join us as fellow students share their thoughts about their uni experience and give a tip or two about how to get through life at Bedford Way!

For this part of the project, we have been interviewing three postgraduate students from different areas! So no matter what year you’re on, be sure to give this a good read. Your future career may be hiding in these paragraphs.

In this final instalment of Tricks of the Trade: Postgraduate Tales, we consulted Katerina Palaiou, who is currently in the second year of her PhD in organisational/business psychology. Find out what went down:

Katerina

Please tell us a few words about your academic background, your current career status and any future plans. 

I obtained my first undergraduate degree in Greece, which was a joint degree in Philosophy, Pedagogy and Psychology. In my last two years I specialized in Psychology. Once I graduated, I decided to go to Glasgow to study a second undergraduate degree in Psychology due to accreditation complications with my Greek degree. I then came to UCL for the M.Sc. in Research Methods in Psychology, where I found Professor Adrian Furnham. I had always been interested in personality and though I was looking for a supervisor for my master thesis, I later asked him if he would like to be my supervisor for my PhD. Currently, I am in the second year of my PhD, which I will hopefully complete by autumn 2016. Regarding my future plans, nothing is concrete yet. Ideally, I would love to do what my supervisor does, which is a mix of academia and what he calls “real world” work, such as consulting.

How and when did you decide you wanted to follow postgraduate studies in your chosen area?

I initially had two offers, one for a PhD in UCL in business/organisational psychology and another in Surrey for a PhD in Counselling Psychology. Admittedly, I was not 100% sure on which path I wanted to follow.  One reason for which I chose the UCL program was that business and organisational psychology offers me more mobility than counselling. My dream is to live in different countries and experience different cultures, and being an organisational psychologist makes that easier because large companies interested in the development of their employees or/and their business will hire organisational psychologists. The second reason was my supervisor. He believed in me and has helped me grow thus far, and I felt (still do) that I could learn many things from him.

What steps did you take to secure offers in academia? (e.g. work experience, volunteering, etc.)

Until having two PhD offers and being called to make up my mind, I knew I needed some experience in both areas (organisational and counselling) before deciding what I wanted to do. For counselling psychology, I took a gap year in Athens after my first degree and before I moved to Glasgow, during which I shadowed a psychiatrist and worked as a volunteer in a facility for elderly people with dementia. While doing my M.Sc., I also worked as a volunteer for the Integrated Drugs and Alcohol Services (IDAS), where I helped run group therapy sessions for individuals with alcohol abuse problems. For organizational/business psychology, I started working, initially part time and the last year full time, as an HR consultant between my first undergraduate degree and my gap year (five years). During that time, I was screening CVs, interviewing candidates and arranging meetings with company clients. Finally, in order to develop my research skills, I got a summer scholarship in Glasgow in collaboration with the Glasgow Science museum. After that I had no doubt that research was something I wanted to follow.

How did you find the transition from undergrad to postgrad studies?

During my M.Sc, I realised people start assuming that you have a deep knowledge in the field that you’ve chosen, even if lecturers know that you don’t. It also becomes essential to work independently. During my undergrad, I worked mostly in groups (even my undergrad project was a group effort). However, I’ve learned to be self-reliant, and that has helped me a lot throughout my PhD. So the biggest, if not the only difference between an undergrad and a postgrad, is the level of independence.

Name the most enjoyable and the most challenging element of your postgraduate studies. 

Statistics is the answer to both. Stats started as the most challenging element and is now the most enjoyable. In truth, this may be a bit subjective, as I always found pleasure in challenges and learning new things. For instance, there was no relevant course available to help me in choosing the necessary statistical analyses for my M.Sc. thesis, so I thought of it on my own – a process I deeply enjoyed.

Tell us a few things about your PhD. What are you investigating, and what was your experience of securing funding?

The hottest topic in personality research in the last 13 years has been the “dark” side, or subclinical dimension of personality, which is a still developing area. My research investigates this personality dimension in the working environment. I look at how employees behave under pressure and how likely it is for them to “derail” depending on their personality traits.  My PhD is more applied and exploratory, in the sense that I receive and research data from companies, which allows me more ecological validity, albeit not being driven by a specific idea or theory.

I am also self-funded. I decided to apply for a PhD in UCL after the deadlines for scholarships, and I learned the hard way that, unlike neuroscience or clinical-related disciplines, organisational psychology does not get much funding, if any. From what I’ve gathered, it’s easier to get funding for a PhD in organisational psychology if you’ve had a job first, and discussed the possibility of a PhD with the company. Another way to gain funding might be to approach a company with a research idea in mind and propose a collaboration.

Your PhD includes direct involvement with important companies. Tell us a bit about this involvement, and what it has taught you about the place of psychology in the corporate world today. 

Luckily my PhD doesn’t involve collecting data in the traditional sense (e.g. running experiments).  It focuses on working environments, so I study real company employees. Thanks to my supervisor’s network, I get to join him in meetings with large companies, in which we explain to them how both parties can benefit from the research we’re doing. The company provides data for my PhD and, in return, I offer them consultancy. This has also been helping me develop my consulting skills, which I will need if I ever decide to leave academia.

Regarding psychology in the business world, more and more companies are realising that, in order to have productive employees, you need to have happy employees, and psychology can play an essential role in this part. For example, most of the times an employee leaves her/his job, it is not because of the company but because of the immediate manager. People quitting due to their manager costs, and if organisations are able to identify these bad manager(s), that can save them a lot of money. That’s where we psychologists come in. And that’s only one aspect of the many roles that psychology plays in the corporate world today. Organisations are realising that by applying psychological findings, a lot of money and time can be saved.

If you could give one piece of advice to undergraduates currently working their way towards a degree such as your MSc/PhD, what would that be?

If you are passionate about what you do, then nothing can stop you. Be prepared for long nights of studying, less nights of partying and more independent work. There is no information that is not available in the internet. A lecturer or supervisor will notice if you have worked hard and if you have tried to find a solution for the problems that you are dealing with.

We are grateful to Katerina for taking the time to support the Bugle with this project, and for being interested in helping out younger students with finding their place in the world. Should anyone have further questions for Katerina, she has allowed for students to come in contact. Please communicate with the Bugle if you are interested in this option. 

This is the end of the Tricks of the Trade Series! We hope this project has helped you with figuring out your way through this degree, and towards the grand world that postgraduate studies are!

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