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The Profcast: Professor Ronan O’Carroll

  • Oct 29 / 2014
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The Profcast: Professor Ronan O’Carroll

The IHAWKES are excited to post the first blog in our brand new series, the Profcast! Today, Ronan O’Carroll, Professor of Psychology at Stirling University answers our questions on life as an academic. We hope you enjoy it.

Why did you become an academic?

I initially wanted to be a Clinical Psychologist and it was hard to get on a training course, so I studied for a PhD, purely as a means of increasing my chances of getting a Clinical training place. I applied for a PhD studentship in the MRC Brain Metabolism Unit in Edinburgh, entitled “The behavioural effects of androgens in men”. We conducted a number of placebo‐ controlled studies investigating the effects of testosterone on mood, sexuality and aggression in men. I was fortunate enough to be awarded the Kinsey Institute international PhD dissertation prize in 1984. This came with a $1,000 prize, which I recall was particularly welcome at the time, as my wife and I desperately needed to buy a bath to replace a shower as we had just had our first baby. I really enjoyed my PhD studies. After I qualified as a Clinical Psychologist, I worked for a couple of the years in the NHS adult mental health services, but I realised that I didn’t want to be doing CBT from 9-5.30pm, 5 days per week. I saw an advert for a job working in a University in Canada helping to run a Clinical Psychology training programme, applied for that, and have been in academia ever since. However, I still do clinical work, 1 session per week, and I really enjoy it.

If you were not an academic what would you be?

I imagine my professional football career would be over now and I would probably be working as an NHS Clinical Psychologist

When was the first time you felt accomplished as an academic?

I don’t think I ever have. I was really pleased to get my PhD, and having your first paper published is exciting. I am sure you must have read it? O’Carroll RE (1983).  Plasma steroids and sex hormone binding globulin estimation.  Clinica Chimica Acta 134, 229-231.

What are the best and worst reviewer’s comments you’ve ever received?

When I was submitting draft chapters to my PhD supervisor, he returned them without any comments – until I submitted my draft Discussion chapter. It came back with 3 words written on it – “This won’t do”. That wasn’t my best day in the office – but he was right. If you are in this game for any length of time, you will accumulate many stinging reviews. It is always good to receive an email which only asks for minor amendments.

If you could do one thing to improve population health in the UK what would it be?

The older I get, the more impressed I am by the evidence regarding the health protective effects of physical activity, yet in my lifetime, the environment has changed dramatically to make us more sedentary. In prehistoric times, when I was young, we didn’t have a car, we walked to school, we had to get up and turn over the TV channels, we had to go to a phone box to use a phone etc etc. It worries me that we eat more and move less, and then reach for pharmaceutical solutions to lifestyle problems – we can’t go on like this.

How do you achieve a work life balance?

I firmly believe that one should try and have a healthy work/life balance. I certainly don’t work all the time and believe that having a laugh on a regular basis is crucial. I very much enjoy playing and watching sport. I hold a firmly held conviction/ delusion that I was a good football player, and I still play, though my playing style now is largely that of an immobile, complaining striker. I enjoy tennis and squash but tennis elbow is limiting that of late. Our 3 children have now grown up and left home and we have replaced them with 2 black Labrador brothers, Paddy and Finn and they are great fun (now that Finn has stopped destroying our house) and they keep us busy. I find walking the dogs a very good way to unwind. I also like socializing, watching movies, reading and travelling.

How has academia changed since you started?

I am afraid I don’t like the way it is going.  I think the research assessment exercises are hugely wasteful of time and money, and the pressure on new academics to get grants and high impact papers or be excluded from the REF is unhelpful and potentially damaging. I also don’t like the move towards seeing students as our customers, to be spoon-fed and “pleased” for the student satisfaction league tables.

What makes you happiest?

Having a laugh with my wife and kids, travelling, watching our dogs play, socialising, playing and watching sport.

What is your favourite book?

The Godfather, Catcher in the Rye, autobiographies,

Where is your favourite place in the world?

Probably Edinburgh, but I love going to new places. I really liked New Zealand, New York, San Francisco and Eilean Shona on the west coast of Scotland.

If you could go back in time and do one thing differently what would it be?

I would not have made a particular move to another University, but if I hadn’t done it, I would have always probably regretted not doing so.

Who has helped you most in your career?

In the late 1970’s, in the final (4th) year as an undergraduate studying Psychology at Edinburgh, students sometimes had 1:1 tutorials with staff. I was lucky enough to have a series of 1:1 tutorials with Ralph McGuire (who ran the Clinical Psychology training programme in Edinburgh for many years) and he really inspired me to become a Clinical Psychologist. Later in life, in 1990 Ralph encouraged me to join him doing some clinical psychology sessions in general medicine, in the Dept. of Psychological Medicine in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. I accepted his invitation and am still doing these every Tuesday afternoon, 24 years later. The next major influence was my PhD supervisor, John Bancroft. He later became Director of the Kinsey Institute in the US and was a brilliant supervisor and taught me the importance of rigorous scientific methodology. The next major influential figures were Marie and Derek Johnston. I had begun to carry out more research in the area of psychology in a general medical setting and I joined them at the University of St Andrews in 1999. They really introduced me to Health Psychology and pointed out that a lot of my work had been in the domain of Health Psychology, I just hadn’t been aware of it! I learned a lot from both of them, and continue to do so. Marie in particular emphasised the limitations of cross‐ sectional designs, relying on self- reports, and the need for intervention studies and the importance of measuring actual behavior. So the main influences on my career to date have been a clinical psychologist, a psychiatrist and two health psychologists.

What part of your job do you find most challenging?

I find it very hard keeping on top of everything. I like the mix of research, teaching and clinical practice. However, the expectations have increased as time has gone on. It is now the norm to have over 100 emails a day and it often feels as though I am frantically trying to keep up with reviewing grants and papers etc., and not spending enough time on my own research.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?

I have received lots of good advice from various people over the years, but no single piece stands out.

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