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London the final leg on Claire’s road to experimental psychology

Posted by Virginia on 30 March 2017

During her progression to PhD studies, Claire Machan’s curiosity for experimental over applied psychology was piqued. Her interest formed during early university studies and held fast until she graduated with her Bachelor of Psychological Science (Honours) at the Australian College of Applied Psychology (ACAP) in 2016.

Immediately after leaving ACAP, Claire began her PhD at University College London (UCL), where she will pursue the less common branch of psychology that held her attention for several years as an undergraduate and during workplace experience.

“Initially it was while volunteering as a research assistant during my first degree, a Bachelor of Science and Master in Forensic Mental Health that I realised I was interested in the experimental side of psychology rather than clinical practice,” she said.

“My honours year at ACAP was what really cemented my pursuit of a PhD in Experimental Psychology, though.”

Claire credits ACAP’s teaching style for encouraging her leaning to the scientific aspect of the discipline, where psychologists focus their careers on producing the research to support clinical colleagues in the field.

“Most people understand a psychologist to be a professional who treats mental illness, and some most certainly are. However, the critical applied approach to the curriculum at ACAP illuminated for me that it is the experimental psychologists, the researchers, the academics, they're the ones who develop theories and test hypothesis that are then applied to real world treatments, and other issues within every aspect of the society we live. That to me was a much more exciting career path to pursue,” she said.

“I was set on becoming a practicing forensic psychologist; however that soon changed the further my studies continued.”

The ACAP Honours program includes three coursework units and three research units. Claire investigated unexplored territory with the potential for further development later in her career.

“My research investigated the effects stereotypical sexual abuse schema, prejudices towards disabled people, and manipulating offender characteristics in a child sexual assault vignette had on biased victim blame attributions,” she said.

“I decided on my topic with guidance from my supervisor, Dr Ben Morrison, after a review of the literature and collaborative discussion. The variables we chose to manipulate were ones that had not been covered in past research, making the project academically novel and appropriate for future publication.”

Classroom camaraderie

ACAP had stood out for Claire when she was choosing a college, for providing learning on a scale that encouraged collaboration both in the classroom and during the essential autonomous component of the Honours course.

“Honestly, what first attracted me to ACAP was its smaller size. For me this meant a better ratio of students to educators, something that was somewhat lacking at the previous larger universities I'd attended,” said Claire.

“The campus culture took me by surprise. Initially I was in the mindset that everyone was there to finish their degrees as quickly as possible and obtain a job in the real world. That perspective soon changed.”

Having previously studied at a large university, Claire is in a good position to compare the experience of a small college to lecture hall learning where teacher interaction is limited due to the large class sizes.   

“ACAP truly instils a sense of community at its Sydney campus. I'd go so far as to say they are like a family, though maybe I just had an amazing cohort,” said Claire.

“The most refreshing thing about classes there was the lack of competitiveness between students; everyone was genuinely supportive of each other’s learning. We stressed together, had meltdowns together, but more importantly celebrated our achievements together; from the little ones such as getting through an oral presentation to the big ones like finally graduating."

Balancing work and study 

ACAP’s trimester schedule and timetable options gave Claire the capacity to earn a living around full-time study.

“The choice of tutorial times were flexible enough that I could still work part-time while studying, and it was nice to have a balance from the intensity of uni life,” she said.

“The highlight for me at ACAP, apart from my incredible peers, was definitely getting to learn from their incredible educators. It's rare as an undergraduate to be treated as an equal in the academic world, to have your opinion matter, but at ACAP it was a confidence booster to have such unwavering support from my lecturers and supervisor. They made all the difference to my success at ACAP, and furthermore inspired my pursuit of teaching alongside my current PhD.”

Claire’s London studies

Read Claire’s story about choosing her PhD topic and college:

My doctorate at University College London is quite literally a dream come true. I’m still pinching myself five months in, every time I attend a seminar and get to network with an academic whose name I've referenced from articles and textbooks - that and when I look out of my office window on campus and it's snowing!

The UK was an easy decision for me; I have family here and it boasts some of the best universities in the world.

In terms of why I chose UCL, that was partly to do with the research prestige (Top 5 globally and Top 3 in the UK for psychology), but it was more based on topic. Oxford or Cambridge would have been incredible, but for a PhD you go where you can get a supervisor with expertise in the area you'd like to explore.

For me that was with Dr Dave Lagnado in the Experimental Psychology Department of UCL. His background in casual cognition and legal decision is truly a perfect fit.

My PhD research (for now) is focussing on investigating cognitive biases and stereotypes surrounding juvenile offenders within the legal system; how they affect evidential/causal reasoning and decision-making processes/outcomes.

Eventually I hope to also establish new methodology to effectively measure and mitigate their effects. I chose this topic due to its applied implications (you can take the girl out of ACAP but you can't take ACAP out of the girl!).

There is the possibility it may significantly improve the fairness of the criminal justice system; potentially increasing conviction rates as well as decreasing wrongful convictions resulting from biased decision making, in turn aiding to divert juveniles away from incarceration and into more community based programs.