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Working in research psychology

By Jason Mattingley

I undertook a Bachelor of Science degree, majoring in psychology, to pursue my keen interest in the neural bases of behaviour. I particularly enjoyed the neuroscience components, and worked in a laboratory during my Honours year that used neurophysiological techniques to examine the brain mechanisms of audition. I specialised in clinical neuropsychology for my Master of Science degree, which taught me how to apply my knowledge to assess and manage individuals with brain disorders.

Although I am still a registered clinical neuropsychologist, I missed the challenge and stimulation of research after my Masters and so embarked on a PhD. My research project focused on the effects of stroke on attention, and resulted in several publications in international journals. On the strength of my published work I was awarded an NHMRC post-doctoral fellowship, which I took to the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Cambridge.

I have been the Head of the Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Melbourne, which incorporated two post-doctoral fellows, five graduate students, two Honours students and several part-time research assistants. It has facilities in the Department of Psychology and the National Neuroscience Facility. I am now the Foundation Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Queensland.

Most research psychologists spend long hours devising experiments, gathering data, analysing the evidence and preparing their findings for the scientific community in the form of articles and conference presentations. In a typical day, I might plan and conduct research projects with other members of the laboratory group, analyse new data, write articles for scholarly publications, and provide anonymous reviews of manuscripts submitted by other researchers. Other tasks include: lecturing to undergraduate psychology students; supervising research projects and providing career advice; managing budgets for the laboratory's research grants; preparing applications for research funding; and reviewing grant applications.

Some of my research projects are particularly relevant to many aspects of psychology. Using a technique called ‘functional magnetic resonance imaging', we can visualise activity in the living brain as volunteers perform cognitive tasks. For the first time we can correlate the timing and location of physiological changes in the brain with fundamental aspects of perception and cognition. We are examining how brain areas involved in recognising human faces respond to emotional expressions such as fear, anger or happiness.

Understanding the way the brain represents different aspects of our perceptual world has helped us to devise more effective ways of managing and rehabilitating people with neurological disabilities, such as stroke and Alzheimer's disease. Revealing the brain bases of emotion processing may also help us to better understand some of the symptoms of psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Critical thought and analysis are central to psychological research, and to clinical practice. I learned from my Honours supervisor how to evaluate evidence, to think critically, and to communicate written ideas in a clear and concise manner. From my PhD supervisor I developed the skills to think creatively about research, to synthesise findings from broad discipline areas, and to organise my time and resources most effectively. At Cambridge University two scientists in particular sharpened my intellectual skills and introduced me to the international leaders in my field. I hope that I have been able to pass on the skills they taught me to my own postdoctoral fellows, graduate and Honours students.

As a career, research psychology is worth the many years of study. My advice to current students is to choose an area of psychology that really excites you. Research can be a grind but you will know when you have found the right area when your research feels more like a hobby than work!

Apply your critical analysis skills to everything you read and write. Make sure that what you say is clear and based on the data obtained by you or others. You must also question whether what you have read is opinion- or evidence-based and whether the methods of data collection and analysis are reliable.

One challenge is inspiring students to ask difficult questions, and helping them to learn how to think critically, rather than memorise facts for their next exam. A challenge for the future is to convince private industry that psychology research is worth investing in. I also hope to see government funding increased to levels commensurate with North American and European countries.