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Working in cognitive psychology

By Frances Martin

I left school determined to be a scientist but instead began a law degree. However, my early determination began to outweigh everything else so I left law and for the next eight years worked in various jobs, some science-related. The realisation that I would never be a scientist if I did not get some training spurred me to return to university. I began a part-time arts degree while working for the Bureau of Statistics and chose mostly science subjects (information sciences and psychology) so that I would have good grounding if I chose to do a second degree in the future.

At the end of my arts degree I was invited to complete an Honours year in psychology and thoroughly enjoyed the year. I was awarded a Commonwealth Postgraduate Scholarship to commence research towards a PhD and returned to full-time study. This period of my life was one of my most enjoyable and, when I was given the opportunity to work as a postdoctoral fellow, I was finally able to marry my interests in behavioural and psycho-physiological responses in cognitive psychology. As my work progressed I designed and ran experiments, analysed data, wrote up research and pursued exciting new aspects in the area. Thus my ambition to be a scientist was fulfilled.

Over the course of a week at the university I normally prepare and give four or five lectures and run two or three practical classes. A proportion of each day is spent on my research, which could involve designing experiments, analysing data, and writing papers for publication. On a weekly basis I work in the laboratory with research students and hold individual and group meetings with postgraduate students at which we discuss research issues and the results of experiments. As postgraduate coordinator, I also spend some time each day working on administration.

The university environment has enabled me to participate in a variety of interesting projects. I am currently looking at the different cognitive processes employed by males and females to attain the same end result. Psycho-physiological data indicates that females are able to use their cognitive resources about equally on two tasks, whereas males tend to focus their cognitive resources on one task. In spite of the differences in brain activity when performing dual tasks, there is little difference in the actual reaction time and accuracy of males and females.

I also worked on a project that looked at the differences in cognitive processing (using both event-related potentials and reaction time and accuracy measures) when people are under the influence of alcohol and minor tranquillisers, which showed that the combined effects on cognitive processes are multiplicative rather than additive.

I am grateful to several professors, who introduced me to the excitement of research, taught me the value of experimental method and of being organised, and one in particular who showed me that women can quietly achieve.

All the knowledge I have gained in the laboratory setting I then apply to my teaching, and incorporate into my practical classes and lectures on an annual basis. In the area of reading ability and word recognition ability, I have conducted many workshops for primary school teachers, which has resulted in a stronger commitment to early phonological teaching in Tasmanian primary schools.

My advice to students of psychology would be to stick with it, see it as a science and enjoy it as a science. It is one of the most exciting fields of research in which to work. The joy of working in a laboratory group with other students who are interested in the same area, running an experiment, looking at the data, working out whether your hypothesis has been supported or not and hence whether you have supported your theory, cannot be explained; it has to be experienced.

This field of psychology is facing a number of challenges, in particular the need to disseminate vast amounts of information in an integrated manner. We need to increase our understanding of the workings of the brain and their impacts on cognitive processes. And specifically for cognitive psychology, a major challenge is converging and integrating the fields that impact on cognitive processes - neuropsychology, physiology, neurophysiology and neuroscience, amongst others - leading to a better understanding of body and brain (and mind). Until this happens, I suspect that there will be little real progress in this field.