Current Staff Profile: Professor Jane Ogden

The second in a new series of profiles of current students, alumni, and staff in the School of Psychology at Surrey. Here Professor Jane Ogden talks early stage careers, embarrassing moments and creative writing with Catherine Turton and Helen Brunger.

Name: Jane Ogden

Current Role: Professor in Health Psychology

So what made you decide to become a health psychologist?

I never really decided to become a health psychologist, it just kind of happened to me. I started a degree in biology because I was good at biology A level, but I found it really boring. I wanted to do psychology but they couldn’t fit me in so I did neurobiology instead, which was halfway between psychology and biology. I found the biology part of neurobiology really, really tedious, and it put me off biological reductionism for the rest of my life! I was quite interested in the psychology courses and I did eating behaviour as my specialty area in my final year.  I then applied to do a PhD on eating behaviour and I ended up at The Institute of Psychiatry working on eating behaviour and regulation of eating.

In those days there wasn’t such a thing as ‘health psychology’, so I was just a researcher working on eating behaviour. I got my first lectureship – a part-time lectureship – teaching social psychology, which I knew absolutely nothing about having done a neurobiology degree, and then I got my first proper lectureship teaching psychology at Middlesex University. David Marks, who was the HOD at Middlesex, had just been the chair of the brand new health psychology section of the BPS, and suggested that I set up an undergraduate module in health psychology. He also suggested that I join the new health psychology section of the BPS, because it was ‘good fun’ and ‘they had really good conferences’. So I ran a module on health psychology using existing textbooks and reading up on it as I went along. I guess health psychology gave me a home as eating behaviour could have been abnormal psychology with the eating disorders people, or it could have been biological psychology with all the 5-HT Fenfluramine type people, or it could have been social psychology, but I didn’t want to be in any of those areas so health psychology was great because it gave me a real mix of all those different things together.

I then ran my first module and soon after met a woman at a conference who happened to be a publisher. She said the best thing to do as a young academic was to write a text book in your field. And so, because I had recently written a module from start to finish, I then turned it into a text book and compiled the first British health psychology text book. That’s when I suppose I really became a health psychologist, because that what I’d done. So I fell into it really.  And then I just stayed with it.

Tell us a bit about what you are researching at the moment?

I do a huge amount of research through my students; either through my PhD students, or my Masters or undergraduate students. So I research a whole range of different things that I’m interested in. For example, Helen (Brunger) is doing her PhD on the rehabilitation of soldiers with mTBI at Headley Court, Michaela (Dewe) is doing her PhD on smoking, advertising and the translation of policy into behaviour change at individual level, and Briony (Hudson) is doing her PhD on pain management and people having office-based surgery. I still do lots of work on eating behaviour and obesity. I’ve got a funded project looking at bariatric surgery and psychological support with Amelia (Hollywood), and then another study about to start on investment – which is trying to get patients who are having bariatric surgery to think about the investment they’ve already made in having the surgery (in terms of how much it hurt, how much time it has taken, the costs involved with it, how much interruption has been experienced to daily life, etc). I think I’ve realised that I get bored quite quickly, so I like to do lots of different things. I kind of react to whatever comes through my door really!

What would you say has been your biggest achievement to date, both professionally and personally?

The thing that I am most proud of in my life is my children, because I think it is the hardest thing in the world to have children and to bring them up properly. My two – touch wood – are both really lovely, and I’m very, very proud of them – and I’m quite proud of myself for having had children and for managing to keep my career going whilst seeing them as much as I possibly can without stalking them at school! So I’m very proud of that. And again personally, I’m very proud of the fact that I have three step-children who are now adults, and who mostly really like me.

Mostly?!

Well they might read that and think that they don’t like me at all and that I’m conning myself!  But they do really like me and they really like my children, and I think that is a huge achievement so I’m very proud of that as well. Professionally, I’m proud of my books. I like my books because people in the world outside of academia understand books whereas they tend not to understand papers at all, so my family and friends really like it when I write books because they can see them and hold them. When I write papers it means absolutely nothing to anybody. I’ve also got good relationships with my students and I think I always have done, and so I’m quite proud of that as well.

Tell us about your most embarrassing moment to date in your professional career?

I’m very good at having cringe moments and then burying them so that I can’t focus on them anymore. That’s a good question; I’m struggling to think… obviously I have suppressed them hugely! I remember once having to give a 5 minute oral presentation at one of the very first conferences I ever went to, and I was asked to be a part of a debate. I seem to recall making a joke which involved something to do with having wind in your vagina… everyone thought it was hilariously funny, but then I found myself wondering afterwards whether I’d overstepped the mark just a little bit! It got a lot of laughs, but I don’t know why I said it or where it came from… It was just a spontaneous bit of humour that popped out – somewhat inappropriately – I can’t remember why.

Tell us what you hope to have achieved in the next 10 years?

What I’m doing at the moment, which I really enjoy, is writing for ‘normal’, non-academic audiences. So I write for an online magazine called ‘The Conversation’, and I also have a new book coming out in February. This will be my first ever trade book – aimed at parents -and it’s on parenting styles, food, things like that. So I enjoy writing that way. I think I’m probably a journalist at heart, like my mum. I guess more of that over the coming years would be good.

Can we expect any more novels from you?

I’m not sure I can write any more novels. I’ve written one. I like writing short bits of fiction, but longer bits are really quite tricky, and then you get bored and when you get bored it comes across in your writing, so I think I’m probably not going to write any more novels.

What advice would you give to those PhD graduates who wish to stay on in academia?

I would say that academia pushes you to be focused, narrow and specialized in order to become an expert from a really young age, and teaches you that that is the best way to achieve early recognition and a successful career.  But I would suggest that you keep broad and become good at lots of different things. So you become a qualitative and a quantitative methodologist, you do experimental and observational studies, and you go away and conduct interviews. Know a lot about your own research area, but also know lots about other theories and other areas of psychology as well. Read widely; read novels and newspapers and non-academic things, and if you do that then not only will life be more interesting, and stay interesting for an awful lot longer, but also you’ll become a better academic because you can cross fertilise across different areas. If you just know about your one little area then you’ll get stuck in a rut and you’ll get bored. If you can come out of your PhD and say ‘I can teach social psychology and environmental psychology. I can teach research methods and I can teach statistics. I can also teach qualitative methods’, then you’re much more likely to get a job. You’re so much more marketable. If you come out and go, ‘Actually, I’m really good at conducting interviews and applying thematic analysis to transcripts from people with this one specific condition’, then it’s unlikely that there is going to be a job waiting for you.  So I would say that breadth is the way forward, even though you’re often pushed into this narrow career.

Tell us about the most interesting person you’ve ever met?

I went to a talk by a French philosophy of science guy called Bruno Latour – who is best known for his work in the field of science and technology studies – and he gave the most amazing talk, which was so clever and interesting, and he kept dropping in lots and lots of ideas which I really liked. He had a point but he also kept going off on little tangents. All
of those tangents were really quite interesting ideas, so I liked him. He was very good. I also saw a history person once called Roy Porter, who unfortunately died quite young, and he gave a fantastic talk – again there were just lots and lots of ideas in it. So I guess that’s what I like, people who come up with lots of ideas. I’m not big on evidence really and I’m not a great person for detail I don’t think. I quite like the big ideas and the things that make you think. Things that make you go ‘Oh, I’ve not thought of it like that before’, or ‘I’ve never seen it done like that’, or ‘That’s an interesting take on the world’. That’s what I like, as opposed to those people who constantly get bogged down in trying to find the evidence all the time.

Thanks to Professor Ogden for sharing her experiences. Keep watching this space for more upcoming profiles!