Emma Blakey

“Where are they now?” WRDTC Alumni share their post-PhD experiences and achievements…

Emma Blakey (Psychology Pathway, University of Sheffield)

blakeyI submitted my thesis in December 2015 and started a three-year post-doctoral position at the University of Cardiff in January 2016. My PhD examined how goal-directed cognitive skills develop in early childhood. My new project at Cardiff is examining the development of time and causality perception across childhood. I’m researching a bias that occurs when we perceive events that are causally related (e.g., turning on a light switch and the light coming on). We perceive the timing between two causal events to be shorter than when these events do not have a causal relation. This occurs automatically without our awareness. It’s a bit like when we repeatedly press a traffic light button, believing the lights will come on faster the more we press it. Although this bias has been documented in adults, we know nothing about the developmental origins of these biases and whether they change with development. My job is to come up with novel ways to measure this in a way that will be engaging for children and also that’s simple enough to meet their limited cognitive skills. The project appealed to me because it has big implications for consciousness, perception and sense of agency and it is an inter-disciplinary project involving Psychologists and Philosophers from different Universities.

In reflecting how I came to this position, I think getting experience running additional projects and working with teams of people has helped me develop skills and the confidence to run this project. I think that the ESRC White Rose network has some excellent opportunities for funded students to develop their skills in these areas and I tried to make use of them when I was a PhD student. I applied for and was granted a WRDTC Overseas Institutional visit award to run a three-month project at the University of Alberta. This was one of the highlights of my PhD and I would highly recommend applying for this scheme. With the support from the ESRC grant top-ups, I was also able to present my work and get feedback on it at conferences. If these opportunities are not available to you, there are other ways to get additional experience running projects and often external grants available to fund conferences. For example, me and some friends in the Department of Psychology decided to set up a research group in our spare time to investigate something called Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. We all happened to be interested in this phenomenon and thought it would be fun to do some research on it. Although doing our PhD work was priority (and as you’ll know, PhD’s take up a lot of time!) we steadily worked on this over about a year and half and we were able to run two studies. I think it helped that there was four of us involved so we could delegate tasks. This was such a great experience and I would highly recommend teaming up with people in your department with shared interests to work on something together.

When you are a PhD student, there are a lot of demands on your time and a lot of potential opportunities/training/conferences you can go to. I sometimes found it hard to decide what would be the best use of my time. Throughout the process, I tried to see my PhD as an apprenticeship: I aimed to get as much experience as possible in other areas that interested me and that I thought I would enjoy (so it wouldn’t feel like work). For me this was supervising student projects, writing for the media and running public engagement events. I tried not to feel guilty about spending time on these other projects because I think it’s important to leave your PhD with a wide skill set. I think taking this ‘apprentice’ perspective helped in three ways: first it helped me develop skills which I found later were often criteria on post-doctoral position job adverts; second, I gained more insight into what I wanted to do after my PhD; and finally, having a few other mini-projects helped to keep my motivation up as I went through the typical ups and downs of PhD research.