playing to your strengths


I'm 35, and investigating PhDs having just finished a psychology conversion course in which I scraped a Distinction with a hilarious 69.6% (they had to round it up!). Although during the course I was really won over by science and the whole quest to find hard evidence, the fact remains that I most intuitively think in a philosophical manner. Thankfully there is some overlap between psychology and philosophy and it means that I'm pretty good at theory. But on the negative side I'm not great at experimental design. It's hard turning enormous freewheeling ideas into measurable variables!

So today I'm ruminating on whether I'm so undisciplined as to make a poor scientific thinker and this will count against me re: publications/jobs, or whether my philosophical tendencies make me a creative maverick who can bring something new to the psychological party!

How have you guys found ways to play to your strengths in choosing topics/methodologies? And have you had really hard grind where you have had to simply try and improve upon a skill that is fundamentally weak? You can't all be good all-rounders, dammit!


Hey Ogriv

So have you got on a PhD course then or are you thinking about maybe applying? In answer to your query I definitely play to my strengths which are playing around with concepts and theories and philosophies, and have tailored my PhD in the social sciences to utilise this. If I were doing a more quant focused research and methodology then I would be miserable and useless quite frankly. However, there is room to use different methodologies and philosophies in my course - is there such flexibility in Psych, or is it more science-based??


Hi Jayney
Am meeting with the supervisor of my final year project next week to discuss PhD. Then funding to think about!

Psychology is a hybrid area cos it evolved from philosophy. But now with neuroimaging techniques etc. we can investigate the mind in a scientific way. The interface between is fascinating. On the course I was quite good at the quant stuff, and although I came onto the course as a social constructionist, I leave it with a respect for biology!


But I worry that the world actually wants proper scientists whom they can fund to do useful things, and that they will end up a lot more employable than me (I'd like to work in academia). I felt lucky reading this forum that my course was considered science for this reason. It seems a lot more risky to be in humanities and I salute those of you who are as it seems even harder to find a foothold in the world/academia.

I suspect I will end up discussing all this with my supervisor, who at least does know my work up until now. Interdisciplinary thinking is great, but will anyone pay you for it?!?


Well, it is always useful to bear in mind that your intial PhD plan is not going to be the same as the one you submit... So you may have a theoretical/philosophical 'change of heart' along the way... !! Do what makes you happy and remember: you are in this to produce something original, if you think you can challenge the mold - do it!! Sounds exciting!


I have an interdisciplinary project and one of the other disciplines is psychology. It is very hard to fund interdisciplinary projects - I did not come under the remit of any of the research councils.

If you want to stay in academia then it is not quite so urgent that you have an obviously useful, applied topic - but the more cutting edge the better. Psychology is a very popular field and there is a lot of competition for jobs. It can be done though - I wouldn't let that put you off.

Although I was originally a scientist I got into this area largely via an interest in philosophy. My main strength though, seems to be translating word problems into number problems and messing about with the numbers. I guess I will always be an empiricist at heart.


probably this won't be very useful to you:

on the one hand,

yes, do play to your strengths. the interdisciplinarity can help you find your own niche. it will be a lot easier to be original and soon you will find yourself to be "the" expert in your topic. i gather the brand of psychology you are talking about is strong in quantitative empirical research and biology. who needs another psychologist who is good at stats? no-one - there are plenty out there. but a psychologist who really understands theoretical concepts? well, that's something else altogether!


on the other hand:

as Smilodon said, and i'm in a similar situation, funding is hard to get for interdisciplinary projects. being highly original also means inventing everything from scratch - quite a challenge, and sometimes gets little recognition. you are in danger of "not being a real psychologist" while "not being a real philosopher" either. to be successful, you really need to do the work (reading, research, thinking, writing...) for two PhDs - one in each discipline. you might find support lacking in one or in both disciplines. so, in a way, PhD level is the wrong level to start going interdisciplinary.

tough decision! some of us have chosen to go down that path. others have chosen differently. good luck in making your decision!


Like you i came from a 'quant' Psychology background, and my PhD is in social constuctionist psychology and is very interdisciplinary, although all within social sciences. Definitely go for it - i would have been bored to tears with a 'mainstream' psych research project - what lots of depts want is someone who can offer both quant and qual stuff - thats quite hard to find in psychology, so if anything, you'll be making yourself more employable you are if you can teach, say, stats as well as qualitative research methods.


Totally identify with Shani's comments. I have found myself reinventing (or inventing - who knows...) the wheel and having little support (well, none really) because no-one else crosses the disciplines that I cross in quite the way that I do. But it's good to have your own patch.

About the maths thing. I am pretty good but far from being a professional mathematician - I meet a ton of people in psychiatry who can boggle my mind with thier maths skills. But I have, happily, come to realise that I have a particular skill for manipulating thoeretical concepts via numbers (if that makes any sense). I didn't know that when I started out - it has become apparent and it's probably the skill I will always depend on.


Hi Ogriv, there is a place under the Sun (and in psychology) for different people. You definitely will find a way how to apply best your talents:)

PS: I am the opposite to you- brilliant in empirical work but rubbish when it comes to theory. And always envied people like you.


One word of warning.

Its easy to confuse qualitative research with playing around with "out there" ideas and having an "anything goes" attitude. To succeed in any branch of psychology be (social, clinical, neuroscience) requires the application of rigour, following a clear methodology and being able to think critically (not the same as just slagging something off).

Sure your epistemiology may not always be based on logical positivism like the natural sciences, but it still has to be internally coherent, fit some sort of model and persuade an audience of peers.

The sort of maverick that challenges existing theories, critique and provide credible alternatives is always welcome in psychology. The type that brandish unsubstantiated, ill-researched ideas that provide nothing new tend not to go too far.


Hi and thanks for all your replies. I think my course surprised me by persuading me of the value of empiricism, if anything. As I had been very critical of it previously. And although I did well enough in research methods, I am aware of my own weakness in experimental design. But in deference to my new paradigm, I am willing to work on that weakness in order to make my work more robust. What usually inspires me in terms of initial ideas are traditionally philosophical concepts, but I do hope to explore them in an empirical way.


As I am so elderly lol it is unlikely I'll do an MSc first, so it's quite daunting being like a freshly hatched graduate and going straight to PhD without a Masters to get me further used to empiricism.

But also the classic debate about the best way to understand people (via their 'objective' behaviour or their subjective experience) is fascinating and so maybe one day there could be a rapprochement between quant and qual approaches.

Cheers everyone - I'm off to read a book on experimental design!


Hi Ogriv,
There is actually now a move in some subjects back towards qualitative research and away from quantitative. This is because the quantitative approach is very limited in what it tells us. For example it might tell us that nine cats out of ten prefer Whiskers but it doesn't tell us how or why. Even if you were to give the surveyed cats a multiple choice test and asked them to circle the reasons they liked Whiskers, you would still be manipulating the research because you were only putting a set of pre-determined (by you) set of answers before them. Some cats might circle the answer that was the nearest to what they thought but not exactly what they thought, others might circle a reason why they liked it but mean it in a different way and some cats might have answers that were not included in the choices you gave them. Also if you wanted to find out cats beliefs and feelings about Whiskers and why they held those beliefs, there's nothing else you could do but ask them!