Meet the Scientist- Kara

Hello Everyone, for this weeks “Meet the Scientist” we are taking a look into the world of social science with Kara.

For any of you unfamiliar with social science, it is very broadly the study of human society and social relationships and can encompass a huge array of academic disciplines including linguistics, geography, economics, psychology ect.  

Kara is a Presidential Fellow in Organisational Psychology at Alliance Manchester Business School. She did a PhD in Organisational Psychology at the same institution and worked briefly as a postdoctoral research associate at the Institute of Work Psychology at the University of Sheffield.  Kara’s main research is looking into workplace bullying and behavioural ethics, where she is answering questions like in what situations do employees do “bad” things at work, and how it affects them.

E: For those of us who know little about work as a social scientist, could you talk a bit about organisational psychology in general and what your job looks like on a day to day basis?

K: I’m an organisational psychologist, which means I study human behaviour at work and in organisational settings using psychological theories. In the US, the field is better known as Industrial-Organisational (IO) Psychology. It’s an applied area of psychology, so we’re trying to (ideally) find solutions to problems people face in life. Organisational psychology is a vast field and covers many areas, like leadership, well-being, work-life balance, safety, motivation, and teamwork. We are mainly a quantitative field, but there is a growing understanding that qualitative methods are needed to better understand human processes.

Today, I had two research meetings with different colleagues as we are trying to put together proposals for special issues. Like most academics now, I’m working exclusively from home, so my days are filled with various Zoom meetings and negotiating with my boyfriend who gets to use the study room! Some of my lockdown research activities have included working on datasets from my postdoc projects, analysing data, and trying to keep up with new research.

Many people in my field are interested in how COVID-19 is affecting our jobs and our experiences at work. A huge portion of the workforce is now ‘living at work’, in a way, and juggling work and home responsibilities. Some of us may feel insecure about our jobs and whether we will have the same opportunities at work as before. It is so interesting – I think a lot of interesting research will come out of this period, so watch this space!

An example of one of the many ongoing studies being conducted to look at relationships between work and COVID-19

E: How did you get into psychology?

K: I originally wanted to be a biologist! I’ve always been interested in human behaviour. Growing up, I was a history nerd who loved reading about how people lived, what they thought, and how they acted. I did the International Baccalaureate programme in school and took a two-year psychology course, which really fascinated me. I loved hearing about the experiments and development of theories over time. When it was time to decide what to study at university, I was torn between psychology and music (I also wanted to be a musicologist), and my parents convinced me that psychology would be more useful later on. The rest is history, I guess.

E: Before starting your PhD and current career in the UK, you did your undergraduate degree in the States, and you have moved around a lot as a child. What have your experiences been like in regard to being an international student?

K: I think my experiences aren’t typical of your ‘average’ international student. I went to international schools for most of my life, where the main language of instruction was English and the curricula were always North American or British. So, fortunately, I didn’t have the language barrier many international students are faced with when moving to a new country. I really admire students can learn, write, and contribute novel things in a second (or third or fourth) language.

However, I did have quite a bit of culture shock. It’s strange going to a new country and not getting a lot of the references or having to ask what the ‘done’ thing is (for example, do you show up on time to a party, or arrive later?).

I found the shift from US to UK culture more of a shock than moving from China to the US! It really is the small things that surprise you. For example, the power distance between professors and students, and the level of engagement of students in both cultures. I appreciate that the UK, like many parts of Europe, has an emphasis on work-life balance and caring for the individual as a whole. Like many international students, I was surprised by British alcohol culture, especially as I’m teetotal!

E: Following on from that, do you have any advice for people who may be looking to study, or go on to a career in another country?

If you are able, then you should go for it! But it will be difficult sometimes.

I really appreciate being able to see how things are ‘done’ in different countries and to learn new things. You feel more connected to the world, as cheesy as it sounds. From a professional point of view, going abroad can help build networks and provide a career advantage.

Try to connect with the local culture in some way, be it through making local friends or by learning the language. It will help you feel less lonely. Conversely, make friends with other international students – it’s great to have help in a new environment and people who understand your situation.  

I think it’s important to maintain close contact with your family and/or loved ones back home, if you are able. It’s tough to see your family only a few times a year and not have the support system many native colleagues or friends have in place. Make the most of your visits home and find things that help you feel better during moments of homesickness. I always tend to feel homesick when things get stressful – especially during the end of my PhD.

E: What do you wish more people knew about social science?

K: I think it’s difficult to make suggestions about such a broad field. I wish there would be more understanding between traditional STEM fields and those outside. I’ve met a few people from the former who make blatantly disparaging remarks about psychology, linguistics, economics, etc. I’m sure the reverse happens as well. I had an acquaintance tell me repeatedly that my field is a joke. There are lots of issues within psychology, that’s for sure, but I think some of this attitude comes from how society favours fields they perceive as ‘free’ of human biases (e.g. maths, biology, chemistry). I also think traditional STEM fields have an aura of the unknown, making them seem exotic, while social sciences deal with more everyday experiences that can appear obvious or uninteresting at first. Both fields are so valuable and it’s a shame that there’s a disconnect between the two.

E: And, finally, when you aren’t busy with your research what do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

K: I like doing things with my hands after hours of just staring at a computer all day. In my final year of undergrad, I became interested in cooking and baking dishes from all around the world, from French to Chinese to West African. I’m a huge foodie and my colleagues say I have good restaurant recommendations. I really enjoy history, especially social history, which probably comes from my Classics degree. I also like crafts; in the past few months, I’ve taken classes on candle-making, cake decoration, and ring-making! I like music, especially classical and indie, and video games.

Thank you so much to Kara for this insight into being a social scientist! You can follow Kara on her twitter page: @ngkarac

If you are interested in being featured in the next “Meet the scientist” please do drop me a message here, or via my Instagram/ Twitter pages 🙂

In other news- I am so sorry for a lack of posts this year. With the Covid-19 , adapting to a new work from home schedule and trying to cope with anxiety and social isolation during this period- I simply ran out of motivation. I hope you are all doing well, and I am hoping to get back into some more blogging soon. Stay safe everyone.

Featured Image: by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

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