Career File: Christine Stephens

Chris is one of the founding ISCHP members. She is currently Treasurer and has also been Chair. Currently, she is a Professor in the School of Psychology at Massey University in New Zealand–considered the cradle of critical health psychology. She co-leads the Health and Ageing Research Team, who has been conducting a longitudinal study of ageing, following older New Zealanders and their quality of life since 2006. In this Career File, Chris shares how she got to be where she is today.

How did you embark on an academic career? What prompted this path? I was a late starter in academia – I have always said that this would be my retirement career because I did not begin a PhD until I was in my forties. The prompt came because I came to University with the plan to have a change of career (I had been running a café just before that).  I began by completing an undergraduate degree that I began when I was a young primary school teacher, completed a diploma to change the degree in English studies to a major in Psychology, and then began a Masters with a plan to become an occupational psychologist.  Somewhere in that time I became interested in research, decided to go on to do a PhD, and then was fortunate to gain a lecturing job quite soon after completing the PhD. In that time I had also learned about critical and qualitative approaches to research and was very excited about developing discursive work.

What have been the highlights of your career so far? The first highlight was being introduced to discourse analysis, working with a small group of lecturers and postgraduate students to develop our skills and publish papers, while completing my quantitative PhD thesis.  The atmosphere at Massey was very supportive of exploration and new ideas and I was surrounded by a great group of people sharing and discussing the dramatic shifts in social psychology that were occurring then. In particular we had some leaders in post-structuralist thought on the staff, and a burgeoning health psychology team with strong interests in these approaches, with inspirational international visitors who were keen to contribute to and learn from the discussions. This was an exciting time for me.

Other highlights have been funding support from New Zealand agencies to conduct the applied research from a critical health psychology perspective that we thought would contribute to wellbeing for all.  In the last 10 years or so, this practical focus has shifted to ageing research and I have enjoyed working with a broader group of colleagues from different disciplines in New Zealand, Europe, and the US. 

The other main source of gratification for me has been to see so many of my PhD students become successful academics, some of whom still work with me or contribute in other ways. It is very satisfying to realise that such past students are fully fledged grown ups with their own research and teaching agendas.

Can you tell us about any career challenges and how you have you tackled these? I have been very fortunate in becoming an academic at a time in which Universities were largely run on academic principles (soon to change radically after I was first appointed) and successful academic careers were achievable.  Since that time I see that the challenges are much greater for young teachers and researchers today.   Although there are some amazingly talented and highly motivated young academics around us, the road to a successful and relatively stress free career is much more difficult. I think that my greatest challenge is to support these younger academics in any way that I can.  In giving advice to students, I made sure that they understand the new challenges of an academic oriented career before they decide to embark on a PhD. It is a hugely worthwhile career but not for the faint hearted these days.

Can you tell us a bit about your role and experiences in ISCHP?  I went to Aston University in Birmingham for the second critical health psychology conference. At that meeting, we auctioned donated goods (like copies of journals) to help cover the cost of this first conference to follow the inaugural meeting at St Johns.  All attendees also participated in forming the new society which we named ISCHP and elected Michael Murray as the first president.  Kerry Chamberlain was also responsible for offering to hold the next meeting in New Zealand, so that threw us New Zealand members(3) into the Society organisation at the deep end.   The Aston conference was already experimenting with novel presentation formats and was very inclusive – students, early career, and well known Professors were mixing and exchanging ideas and socialising together. I met Wendy Stainton Rogers there and she whisked my off to her house out of London, where she kindly put me up for the weekend and continued our conversations.  I have attended every ISCHP meeting since.

Since that time I have been on the executive group, often on conference organising committees, and always interested in the growth of the Society.  In 2009 I became Treasurer which is a role I continue to hold today. In 2009 I became Chair elect of ISCHP and was Chair from 2011- 2013.  I am very pleased to see the next generation of ISCHP organisers grow into a strong and vibrant group.  We have an extremely capable Chair at present in Gareth Treharne, a wonderful conference organising Chair in Radomír Masaryk, and a strong and engaged group of executive committee members. I am particularly admiring of the development of our communications and dissemination systems under this leadership. The society is in strong hands for the next steps.

What are you currently working on? In New Zealand, I work with the Health and Aging Research Team which was developed with my co-leader, Fiona Alpass.  The team is focussed on running a longitudinal study of older people called the Health, Work, and Retirement study because we are tracking health trajectories from the age of 55 into the 80s and beyond (as our participants’ age). 

Chris and Fiona Alpass – co-leaders of the Health and Aging Research Team

With my colleague, Mary Breheny, I have written papers and a book about a Capability Approach to ageing. We propose this as the basis for a shift from individually based oppressive healthy aging policies toward environmentally focussed understandings of support for wellbeing for all older people.  We use this approach in our quantitive and qualitative work. This year we begin a longitudinal qualitative study of older caregivers who also work.  I am also engaged in community participatory work which focuses on assessing the supportive quality of housing and neighbourhoods for older people by older people. With local and international colleagues I am developing a project to theorise the nature of intergenerational spaces – urban spaces that allow for the social integration of young and old.

Who/what inspires you and why? I am inspired by just about everybody I work with. I still love going to conferences and am always invigorated and motivated by hearing about the work of other people.  I have been fortunate to have worked with so many different inspiring people across the years. Alan Radley, Michael Murray, Kerry Chamberlain, Christina Lee, Wendy Stainton Rogers, Catriona Macleod, Catherine Campbell, Ian Lubek, among others, have all been hugely influential and supportive at different times. I am also inspired by my academic peers, younger academics and some amazing students.

What is the piece of work you would like to accomplish and be remembered for by the academic community? I have been too eclectic across my career to imagine that I will be remembered for anything in particular. Having moved from work on PTSD in occupational settings (a thread I continue to supervise projects on), into women’ health research, and then into broader concerns with inequalities and community work, and then into ageing where my new focus in on the environment, I have shifted from group to group, making new friends and colleagues but losing close connections along the way.  Most of my editorial board work has been in health psychology but I am now beginning to be invited onto gerontology boards, and was recently made a fellow of the American Gerontological Society. I’m afraid this shifts me from my roots in Health Psychology itself as I move into an increasingly interdisciplinary environment. This means that I will never be known for anything in particular, but it’s an exciting journey!

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