Blog Series #3 Undergraduate Dissertation Research in SoE: Showcasing Psychology in Education Undergraduate Dissertations

By Dr. Amanda Williams  School of Education

This is the last entry in the series (Blog #1 and Blog #2) celebrating our 2019-20 Undergraduate Dissertations. In this post we highlight the research projects conducted by BSc Psychology in Education students Samantha Meyerhoff (supervised by Dr Charlotte Flottmann) and Sorcha Hewes (Dr Felicity Sedgewick). These projects apply psychological theory and research to better understand the lived experience of at-risk individuals in our community. Both have been executed with thoughtful integrity and present interesting findings.

We are very proud of Samantha and Sorcha for the excellent work they have produced. The projects are outlined in more detail below, along with advice for working successfully with dissertation supervisors.

The Role of Antenatal Classes in Parent Wellbeing- Samantha Meyerhoff

This project examined whether antenatal classes prepared participants to cope with being a new parent. Individual interviews were conducted with six parents who had attended NHS antenatal classes within the last 5 years. Thematic analyses of interviews indicated that while pregnant parents had high expectations for their antenatal classes, however postnatally they felt unprepared for the demands that birth and childcare placed on them. Parents did not feel that their antenatal classes adequately prepared them for the reality of childbirth and postnatal care, and this negatively impacted their wellbeing. Samantha argues that proving standardised classes with more realistic information about what to expect postnatally is likely to improve new parents’ mental health.

This project has foundations in Samantha’s previous experience working as a Nanny. In this role she would commonly have conversations with new parents about how unprepared they felt for birth and childcare, despite having participated in antenatal classes. The importance of this topic was solidified while completing a Q-step internship with a private antenatal company. In this placement Samantha was responsible for conducting a quantitative survey examining postnatal depression and well-being, during which she learnt about the mental health challenges that new parents face. Building on these experiences, Samantha focused her dissertation research on better understanding why, despite trying to prepare with antenatal classes, individuals struggle with the transition to parenthood.

According to Samantha’s supervisor Dr Flothmann, Samantha was passionate about this topic.  “The results from her research stand to make practical contributions to benefit professionals and empower new parents alike. This work is of real clinical significance.”

Autistic Women’s Experiences in the Workplace – Sorcha HewesThis project examined Autistic women’s perceptions of challenges and strengths in the workplace. Interviews with nine Autistic women from diverse occupations were thematically analysed. Participants indicated that after diagnosis, support in the workplace was easier to access but this didn’t go far enough to address their needs. Participants did not perceive Autism to be understood by their colleagues or management; even after explaining their needs these might not be addressed. This most likely reflects the fact that Autistic women the in the workplace appear to be coping well, despite underlying anxiety caused by this masking. Sorcha argues the need for general awareness raising about Autism in the workplace.

Sorcha’s interest in this topic was first piqued during her 2nd year work placement with Venturer’s Academy, when she attended a talk about teaching Autistic girls. During this presentation it became clear that Autism is manifested differently in women, resulting in a later diagnosis which can cause difficulties in women’s professional lives. This reality was reinforced in a lecture delivered by Dr Sedgewick for the Cognitive Psychology and Special Education unit. Sorcha next looked to twitter to see how this was manifested in lived experiences, fuelling her passion for the topic. In her dissertation research Sorcha used Autistic women’s authentic voices to examine the type of support workplaces should offer.

According to Dr Sedgewick, it was clear that Sorcha was passionate about her project, and this shone through her work. “Sorcha was very careful to make sure that she made her research a positive experience for her participants, who often had not had the chance to tell their stories before. Even when these were emotional or difficult, Sorcha prioritised their voices, and ended up with a thesis which was high quality, reflected her values, and will be appreciated by the community she worked with”.

Working with Your Supervisor: Advice from the Other Side

Students interviewed for this series each mentioned the importance of their supervisor for achieving a high-quality project. So how can students starting into the process facilitate a positive working relationship with their supervisor? Although this is a professional relationship (read: be prepared for your meetings and submit things on time), it is likely that your supervisor will take on more of a mentor role in order to best support you through the dissertation process. Here is what you should do to make the best use of your supervisor, according to the students interviewed for this series.

  1. Communicate with your Supervisor. Ask them questions and let them know if you are having difficulties. Estelle Wu notes that after expressing her confusion over case study designs, her supervisor was instrumental in providing methodological resources that solved the problems she was having.
  2. Take their advice. Use your supervisor’s experience to inform your own project. Samantha Meyerhoff encourages students to “Take their supervisor’s advice on-board. They are trying to help you.”

Concluding Thoughts

Our Undergraduates have produced impressive research projects, and we are very proud of them. Building on their individual passions and experience acquired over their three years of study, these projects stand to make academic and applied contributions. It’s clear that the scope of research would not be possible without supervisor support.

And so I will end with a note of thanks to our team of supervisors. Your enthusiasm for mentoring dissertation students makes this unit a pleasure to coordinate. Shall we do it again next year?