On fitting in: Triumphs and challenges of a psychologist in a music department

Because my academic background is split essentially 50/50 between music and psychology, I found myself after my PhD not only daunted by trying to navigate the academic job market (as I assume most recent PhD graduates are), but even quite unsure of what type of academic department I wanted to work in. Having completed my PhD in a psychology department, I had some confidence I could fit in there, but also found the task of being asked to teach general content on visual attention or personality a bit uninspiring. I also sometimes found it difficult to connect with my undergraduate students, who all seemed to want to be clinical psychologists and weren’t particularly interested in music beyond whatever they were listening to on their train journeys to and from class. At the same time, I engaged in occasional nostalgic musings about going back to a music department (since this is where I started my academic career as an undergraduate), but had not actually set foot in one since 2009, and had very little knowledge of how music departments in the UK might be similar or different to the US, where I was born and initially educated. I’ve now ended up through some combination of both strategic and random choices, luck, and stress in a music department, which has been, in some ways, a big adjustment after almost 5 years in psychology. Because I had very little idea what to expect coming out of my PhD, I write this post primarily with the aim of communicating what my experience has been like to other people who might be situated between the two disciplines, in the hope that some of these thoughts might be of use to others who need to find a place to ‘fit in’ despite a mixed academic background.

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Combining my love of music with my love of science

One of my favourite parts of working in a music department is teaching and interacting with music students. I love teaching music students about psychology, and the scientific method in general. It’s a great feeling to get to be, in many cases, the first person to ever ask these students to think about music in terms of underlying psychological processes—how and why we respond emotionally to music, the role of social contexts, and how musical expertise is developed throughout a lifetime of exposure and/or deliberate practice. My teaching is motivated by the questions that I myself used to ask as an undergraduate, which no one seemed to be able to answer sufficiently when I was studying in a quite traditional music conservatory (for example: How do the cadences and harmonic structures we’ve learned to label in music theory classes actually impact upon a listener? How does musical memory work, and how can it be refined to the point that playing a whole recital programme from memory is a breeze?). One of the caveats to teaching psychology to music students is that one often has to start from a relatively basic level, since students vary greatly in terms of their previous experience of scientific and analytical processes, but I personally don’t mind this since I’ve had the good fortune of working with highly motivated and interested students in Durham. These students have often been able to accomplish more than I ever expected over the course of a year of study (check out some of the products of their labours in our DURMS journal).

On the other hand, doing my research from within a music department is not always easy. I often find myself needing to explain why I require basic resources (space, equipment, etc.) that would be automatically provided to any staff member in a psychology department. In addition, my department is based within the larger Faculty of Arts and Humanities and, again, even at this higher level of governance there are fairly few cases of people doing the sort of research I do. So it can be difficult to make a case for certain things even at the faculty level, as similar research to mine tends more likely to be taking place in other faculties (sciences and social sciences). However, there has already been some flexibility around this; for instance, I was given start-up funding for my lab in a similar way to the procedures the university employs for staff members in sciences. One way in which I aim to continue to improve this situation is by regularly communicating my research, across the faculty and university, in order to promote a wider understanding of what music psychology is and what is required to do this sort of research.

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Another great aspect of our department is its historic location!

The fact that the type of research I do is very collaborative and team-based is also quite foreign to many music scholars (and arts and humanities scholars in general), who have often made an entire career out of writing single-authored publications. Because of the need for collaboration, my colleagues and I have initiated various practices like fortnightly lab meetings and other activities for our lab group (e.g., an annual Music & Science Symposium). These practices have sometimes been met with a bit of suspicion, or at least uncertainty, from colleagues in terms of what we get up to in these lab activities, as if we are forming some sort of cult (despite the fact that the lab meetings and symposia are freely open for anyone to attend if they are curious or interested!). Along similar lines, one group of people who are often crucial in the sort of research I do are postdocs. When I first arrived at Durham, I myself was on a 2-year postdoc contract and was the only postdoc in the department at the time. Because of this, there was not a lot of clarity in terms of what should be done with me (Was I actually a staff member? Or just a slightly too old student? Should I have a real office?), and although such procedures have improved since then (we now have six postdocs in the department, including a couple in our lab group), there is still work to be done. Although I’m sure it varies at different departments and institutions, I would imagine there are clearer procedures in some departments that traditionally have more postdocs working there on a regular basis.

In sum, there are various trade-offs to consider here, but I don’t think there is ever one perfect solution for people who work in interdisciplinary subjects. The most important things to me personally are the presence of intelligent, interesting and easy-to-work-with colleagues, motivated students, and an environment in which I can get my research done, which, so far, I am lucky to have. As long as I have these things, I think I can manage the other challenges as they come up.

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