November 16, 2017

Shazza Ali, research student (PhD) at the Centre for the Study of Group Processes at the University of Kent, gives us a fascinating glimpse into her world.

PhD life is pretty diverse. The aim of a PhD is to contribute to the existing pool of knowledge and so the core process involves reading papers to see what’s out there, designing and conducting new research, presenting your findings and eventually writing them up for publication. My current research explores the link between positive emotions and positive behaviour in primary-school-aged children. In addition to conducting research, most PhD students hold other positions, such as an associate lecturer, an intern, a lab organiser, or at a part-time job.

I’m at the end of the first year of my PhD and so far so good. It’s been a learning curve to say the least, in fact, a learning rollercoaster that sped up as it got closer towards the end is probably a better description. The summer months were particularly fast-paced…

Throughout the year I designed questionnaires to explore the existing theory and test new hypotheses. In mid-June 2017 I went into schools to collect data with a team of research assistants. We explained the questionnaires to the students and helped them to complete them. We did whole class sessions with older children and worked in smaller groups with younger children. When conducting research with children it’s best to remain as impartial as you can, stick to a script and try to be emotionally neutral so that you have minimal influence over their answers. This can be quite difficult at the beginning but as the days go on you get much better at it.

At the end of June there was a 3-day conference at the University of Kent to mark 25 years of the Centre for the Study of Group Processes, which is the lab group that I coordinate, and 20 years of the journal Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, which publishes work in the field. The conference was designed to bring together people associated with the centre and to celebrate their accomplishments and the impact of their research. I was on the conference committee so I was involved in the process from start to finish. During the conference I helped to set up the venues and rooms, register the delegates and make sure that everything ran as smoothly as possible. I also presented my first poster which explained the work I’d done earlier in the year, and received some productive feedback.

The European Association of Social Psychology (EASP) general meeting – the largest and most important conference for social psychology in Europe – took place at the beginning of July 2017. It only happens every 3 years, so although I missed the deadline to submit a piece of work to present, I decided to attend – especially as it was in Granada! I flew to Madrid a couple of days beforehand and stayed with a friend in the capital. I travelled to Granada the day before the conference and met up with some fellow PhD students at the bus station. We made our way to our accommodation and settled in for the night.

The first day of the conference was quite an experience. We walked to the venue in the Southern Spanish sun and were greeted with queues of psychologists waiting to register and collect their delegate packs which contained a programme, a notebook and pen, a bottle of olive oil and a bright yellow fan – yellow was the official colour of the conference, so everything that could be yellow was yellow. The conference consisted of individual talks, symposia with 4 or so related talks, 5-minute blitz presentations and poster displays. At first I found the whole thing quite overwhelming due to the sheer size of the venue, the number of delegates (I think there were around 1500!) and the variety of talks.

One of my favourite symposiums was on the topic of “kama muta” by a research team at the University of Oslo, Norway. “Kama muta” is Sanskrit for feeling ‘moved by love: काममूत’. The researchers proposed that people feel kama muta in a variety of contexts, including family, friendship, love, nostalgia, cuteness, religion, ritual, literature, cinema, music, art and sports. Kama muta makes you feel warm, fuzzy, light, tingly and more connected to others. As a result you may want to hug someone, or call your grandmother and tell her how much you love her.  The concept of kama muta was new and interesting to me so I exchanged contact details with the research team with the hope of learning more about the emotion and potentially working on collaborative projects in the future.

On the last day of the conference I travelled to Málaga to meet some of my family. I relaxed by the beach for a couple of days before flying back to the UK to continue with data collection before schools ended for the summer holidays.

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