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The Profcast: Professor Rory O’Connor

  • Apr 13 / 2016
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The Profcast: Professor Rory O’Connor


In today’s Profcast we speak to Professor Rory O’Connor, Chair in Health Psychology and Head of Mental Health and Wellbeing at the University of Glasgow.

Why did you become an academic?

That’s a good question.  From pretty early on in my life, I wanted to be a psychologist. As an identical twin of an identical twin I’ve always been fascinated by nature vs nurture and psychology more generally.  Yes, to clarify, my father was an identical twin and I am an identical twin and my twin, Daryl, is also a professor of psychology – at Leeds University (we’re mirror twins actually).  Also, when I was 11, I met a clinical psychologist, who really impressed me and I have been pretty much hooked on psychology ever since (I had the good fortune to meet said same clinical psychologist more than ten years later while doing my PhD at Queen’s University Belfast which was great).  It was some time later before I decided that I wanted to become an academic rather than a clinician. I remember really enjoying doing a group research project during the 2nd year of my undergraduate degree; this really whetted my appetite for research, which was further reinforced by doing my final year dissertation (an experimental study on learned helplessness and depression). I loved the process, thinking of a problem, formulating it as a question and then systematically attempting to answer it.  I have also always enjoyed teaching and again, I had really positive experiences of teaching/supervision as a postgraduate and of developing an extra-mural course on mental health at Queen’s with two colleagues during my PhD.

If you were not an academic what would you be?

I have no idea! In addition to psychology, I remember the careers’ teacher at school giving me information on medicine and ophthalmology – I don’t know where my interest in ophthalmology came from, though.

From a young age, I worked in family-run businesses (arts and crafts shop and a pharmacy) and then throughout my university years I worked in retail (selling menswear, china, cutlery, luggage…the list is pretty endless). So I might have started my own business. Or I might have become a chemist – as I remember being fascinated watching my grandfather making up prescriptions (working in his chemist shop was my Saturday job between the ages of 11 and 13) and the British National Formulary intrigued me (and still does, oddly).

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

Do you ever feel accomplished as an academic? Isn’t self-doubt, rejection and feeling like an imposter part and parcel of being an academic?  Even now, though, I still get a real buzz when I – or a member of my team – get a paper accepted or we get a grant.  That’s really rewarding and makes up (a little) for the countless other times when papers/grants are rejected.  I have a greater sense of perspective now, so I am better able to appreciate the successes and rejections that academia throws up.

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

I don’t know if this is the best or the worst reviewer’s comments. But I remember getting exactly the same comments from a reviewer at two different journals – the only difference was the tense in which the review was written.  Journal A rejected the paper and then I submitted the paper to Journal B which happened to use one of the same reviewers from Journal A – and all the reviewer did was change their review from the present tense to the past tense!  The paper was also rejected by Journal B.

The most frustrating reviews are those which begin with “This is potentially a very important study and then proceed with “but…”and list a catalogue of their own pet-hates.  Amusingly, in the past I have been asked to review a paper on which I was a co-author and one on which Daryl was a co-author.  Needless to say, I declined both generous requests.

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

If eradicating health inequality is too much to ask then I’d go with removing the stigma surrounding mental health.

How do you achieve a work life balance?

I am probably not the best person to ask. Tennis helps a lot and I’ve started to (very slowly) learn the guitar.

How has academia changed since you started?

There have been huge changes so it’s hard to know where to begin.  Apart from the obvious things: universities being much more focused on targets and the seemingly year-on-year growth in student numbers – it has been great to see more and more people from non-traditional backgrounds going to university – especially those who are the first in their families to go to university.  Easily the most rewarding experience as an academic is watching students grow in confidence as they start to believe in what they can do and what they can achieve.

What makes you happiest?

Hearing my children laugh.

What is your favourite book?

Pride and Prejudice

Where is your favourite place in the world?

Paris or New York

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

That’s a difficult question, as (obviously) my past is what defines who I am.  But if pushed and I could go back in time, I would complete a post-doc before taking up my 1st lectureship…as I went straight from my PhD to a lectureship.

Who has helped you most in your career?

Hmmm, lots of people have helped me in so many different ways and have been so generous with their time.  I’d say Noel Sheehy, my PhD supervisor, because he was the first academic who took a risk on me – and who really believed in me and helped me to believe a little in myself.  My mother has always been such an important role model – passionate about her work with a strong work ethic. Having Daryl by my side (metaphorically) as we have both navigated academia has also been invaluable. I also feel extremely fortunate to have worked with great colleagues like Ronan O’Carroll who have made the day-to-day grind so worthwhile and fun.  No matter what, Ronan always has my back, even now; everyone needs a Ronan in their life.

What part of your job do you find most challenging?

Saying no.

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

I’ve received lots of good advice over the years but two pieces stand out.  1. You are your harshest critic, so try not to be so hard on yourself.  2. It is important to enjoy your successes.

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