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Interview with Dr. Richard Stephens, Senior Lecturer at Keele University

Dr. Richard Stephens is a Senior Lecturer of Psychology at the Keele University in the United Kingdom and the Chair of the Psychobiology Section of the British Psychology Society. He also writes about interesting psychology research papers at his blog Cool Psychology Blog. Dr. Richard Stephens is known for his unusual perspectives on psychological research around the world. In this thought-provoking interview Stephens shares signature cases from his extensive research and why he decided to perform this type of study. He also lends insight into the practice of psychological research for the benefit of those who are seeking out different areas in the field of psychology. Dr. Stephens does not hesitate to pinpoint the specific challenges that appear for the new professional who is seeking employment in the competitive field of psychology and cites a variety of strategies he utilized to find his first job.

What event or series of events led you to pursue psychology as a professional choice?

richard-stephensHi – thanks for contacting me. I began studying psychology to try and answer questions that I was asking myself about people, the world and my place within it. Once I began I found that I really “clicked” with the discipline. I love the hands-on nature of psychology, where you can think of a question and then devise a research paper to gather evidence that will try and answer it. A good example of this is the research that I’m best known for which answered the question of why it is that people often swear (curse) in response to pain. The reality is that I picked up with psychology in my early twenties and am still here a couple of decades later!

Name 1 or 2 specific challenges you have faced in your career in psychology and the steps you took to overcome them?

Getting my first professional psychology post after graduating was difficult. I filled in and mailed off many, many applications over the summer and beyond after graduating. I applied for every psychology vacancy I was qualified for, churning out around 5-10 per week. I was eventually successful and took up a paid post-doc position at Birmingham University but it took 6 months. The step up to faculty (becoming a lecturer) after nine years in research posts also was difficult. I remember being very nervous and being unable to sleep before lectures back then. However, with practice and experience it becomes easier and now while I wouldn’t say I’m free of nerves prior to lecturing, it’s really not a big deal.

Can you give us an example of an interesting case or project that have worked on and your role in helping to achieve a positive outcome?

I’m best known for my research on swearing as a response to pain. I was curious after my wife swore in pain at times during the complicated birth of our daughter. What really piqued my curiosity was that the hospital staff had clearly seen all of this before. A midwife explained to us that swearing (cursing) is a completely normal and routine part of the process of giving birth. I found this fascinating. Over the next few years my students and I worked up a laboratory procedure for assessing swearing as a response to pain. We used the ice water challenge (or more formally, the cold pressor paradigm) to provide a stimulus that is painful but not harmful. Participants are asked to hold their hand in ice water for as long as they can tolerate, to a maximum of 5 minutes. Over the course of several papers our research has shown that swearing helps people better tolerate pain (they can keep their hand in ice cold water for longer if they repeat a swear word) and that this pain tolerance effect is most pronounced for people that swear least often in everyday life. The effect seems to come about because swearing triggers the natural “fight or flight” stress response. I have given many talks about this research in several different countries, and even appeared on TV. Currently I’m collaborating with a colleague, David Speirer, at Long Island University Brooklyn, investigating whether swearing makes you stronger.

Can you describe what a typical day looks like for you or the activities you spend the most time on at work?

Being an academic psychologist there’s never a dull moment! My time is divided between teaching, research and administration. On the teaching front I give 1-2 lectures per week on average, I spend 1 hour per week in seminar (small group) teaching, and then at my institution, Keele University, we do a lot of one-to-one teaching in the form of supervision sessions. I spend probably one day per week meeting students individually to discuss their research projects and other coursework. On the research front I spend 1-2 days per week writing research funding applications, writing research papers, presenting research at conferences or answering emails about my research. I also class maintaining my blog as research. My blog is called “Cool Psychology” and the idea of it is that I review and discuss some of the more interesting psychology research that comes out. My most recent posts include “Do the summer months make us happy?”, and “What does it feel like to die?”. My administrative roles include being the Faculty of Natural Sciences Director of Postgraduate Teaching as well as the Course Director of the MSc in Psychology and MSc in Clinical Psychological Research courses.

What aspects of your work do you enjoy the most?

Writing and interacting with students are the most enjoyable aspects of my job. I love the act of communication that is at the core of writing a research paper, a blog entry or a book chapter. Trying to get each sentence just right so that it conveys what I want to say in a way that others will understand is a very pleasant challenge, although can still be very difficult and taxing at times. Interacting with students also is enjoyable. Without seeing students I’d be sat in my office all day without seeing anyone! Students are great because they come with questions and ideas that challenge me and help me develop my own ideas and thinking. The great thing about students is that they bring an immediacy that is diverting and refreshing. And the students read and pass on their reading to me so really they are like extra pairs of eyes and ears monitoring the psychology research landscape and reporting back often very useful information.

What advice would you give to new graduates for getting hired after graduation?

Be professional. Be persistent. If you don’t get a position ask for feedback and try and use it to develop. If you’re struggling to get interviews after doing an undergraduate course, consider doing a Masters year. Above all, don’t give up.

What is the key strength you bring to your career and how would you advise new graduates to mine their own strengths to further their careers?

I’m organized, patient, I have a curiosity about the world and I genuinely enjoy the act of collecting and analyzing research data. I’m not afraid to fail, and would firmly agree that you can learn a lot from your mistakes. The main thing though I would say is that I like to think things through for myself. My advice to new graduates would be to maintain professionalism, grab all opportunities that present themselves and give it the best you can, whatever that may be.

We thank Dr. Stephens for sharing his experience and advice with our readers. You can learn more about Dr. Stephens at his blog, Cool Psychology Blog.