Career file: Abigail Locke

Abigail Locke

Abi is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Bradford as well as being acting Associate Dean for Research & Knowledge Exchange in the Faculty of Management, Law & Social Sciences and about to become Head of Department. Abigail is a critical social/health psychologist, often applying a discursive lens to her research and has interests around gender, identity, parenting, social media and health. Much of her research work focuses on societal constructions of ‘good’ motherhood’ and ‘good fatherhood’, and she has applied this lens to issues around stay-at-home-dads, advice to parents and infant feeding methods.

How did you embark on an academic career? What prompted this path? I had eclectic interests and came to academia quite early on in my working life but almost didn’t come at all! My first degree was in Psychology, having also done it at A-level. I think I was a social scientist from the start and took A-Levels in Sociology, History, Philosophy and Psychology, so I had some sense of where my interests lay from early on but not the precise focus of where I would end up. From each of these A-Levels, I decided that it was Psychology that held my interest most. Interestingly my work, despite being classed as psychology, working from a critical and qualitative angle enables me to have keep these different interdisciplinary lenses.

After my degree, I trained as a primary school teacher and was considering Educational Psychology as a career option. It was at this time that I realised that, although I loved teaching, I also needed to be out there exploring and documenting. All of my training courses prior to that point had included a long independent study, where I’d done a piece of empirical work and it was this that really held my interest. Therefore, I worked out that I needed a career path where I could combine my teaching with exploration of new ideas.

I enrolled for a PhD initially as a part-time student so I still carried on as a primary teacher alongside the doctorate for a couple of years. I was lucky enough after that time to gain a competitive ESRC Scholarship for the remainder of my studies and I gained a PhD under the supervision of Professor Derek Edwards as part of the Discourse and Rhetoric Group (DARG) in the Department of Social Sciences, Loughborough University, UK.  Derek taught me to question all of the assumptions that we take for granted as knowledge and ‘facts’. A key bit of advice that he gave that stays with me was take two steps from what we think we know.

What have been the highlights of your career so far? Well there are the obvious ones. Getting my PhD in 2001 was the clear one. Getting my first lectureship the same year was another. Becoming a Reader (2010) and then getting my Chair in 2016 were clear highlights. With some difficult health concerns, I was never sure that I would get to see my Chair so that felt like a very strong personal achievement. 

There are other more unseen highlights though, for example, getting my first paper published, graduating first PhD students and subsequent ones when you can see how much they have grown over their periods of study. Other highlights included the first time I was asked to be an external examiner on a doctoral thesis. All of these are highlights in different ways, but they are also markers that you are doing the right thing and on the right path.  

A personal highlight was meeting my partner and having my children. Incidentally this also provided a focus for my work into gender and parenting cultures. I’ve been doing work around this area since the mid 2000s and it remains a key focus for me.

Can you tell us about any career challenges and how you have you tackled these? The biggest career challenges are also personal ones and that is health concerns.  We tend to take health for granted until something comes to change that. I was 37 with two young children and a full-time job when I was diagnosed with a life threatening condition in late 2008. There are really no words to express how hard that time was for my family and I, but also how it changes absolutely everything.

We waste so much time and energy sweating the small stuff and not seeing the bigger picture.  The treatments, subsequent recoveries and effects of that condition are life changing and remain part of my everyday existence. This is something that I have learnt to manage alongside everything else, academic life and family. In terms of how I tackled this, I’m not sure that I was given a choice! I had to keep working as there were hungry mouths to feed but it also showed me my strength and resolve.  For that I am grateful.  

In terms of more mundane, everyday career challenges, it is trying to mix the demands of academic life with being a productive researcher. In more recent years, and as I’ve gone up the career ladder, more and more of my time is taken in management type roles alongside my teaching and research. For the past eighteen months, I’ve been Associate Dean for Research in my Faculty and am soon to move from that to become Head of Psychology.  These are both key roles and I am pleased that I have undertaken them.  However, as an academic researcher, this combination of roles does require a high degree of time management to enable me to fulfil all of my tasks.  Sometimes I am good at this, sometimes not so much!

My passion for my research does keep me going but it is really important to remember look after yourself and not work too many extra hours.  I like the movements for ‘self care’ and ‘slow scholarship’ that are coming into the academy. I think that is important and necessary, particularly in what are becoming increasingly pressured times. That said, I cannot fully adopt it as it wouldn’t necessarily work in my situation as it would be the research that would end up falling away as all of the other work needs to be completed for my professional role.  My body does tell me to slow down when I’ve been really pushing at work though so I remember to listen to that.

Can you tell us a bit about your role and experiences in ISCHP?  I remember when ISCHP first came into being as it was at the end of my doctorate but I was never in the position to attend in the early days, either through work commitments, maternity leaves or ill health. This all changed in 2013 when I was part of the organising committee for the Bradford conference. It was at this conference that I came onto the committee as an International Representative. I then went to the following two conferences in South Africa and Loughborough.

In 2017, I became Secretary of ISCHP. ISCHP is a wonderful organisation to be part of. I have met some wonderful academics from around the globe and at different stages of their academic career. The lack of hierarchy is really refreshing and unusual in current academic climates. I enjoy the melting pot of ISCHP conferences where a whole host of ideas and approaches come together in a respectful but challenging way. We need more of this approach to academia and I do hope that the ethos and openness of ISCHP remains in increasingly difficult times in the academy.

Who/what inspires you and why?  I have respect for people who stand up for their beliefs and have the courage of their convictions, even if it isn’t the popular discourse. I think that this is needed more and more in these difficult times.  I also have great respect for collegiate academics. The neoliberal academy has created an unhealthy competitive climate where the first author and Principal Investigator are celebrated (and often promoted), and academic citizenship is largely ignored. This is often, but not always, gendered.  There is an alternative way and I’ve been lucky enough to work with some like-minded academics where we rotate the key roles and check our egos at the door!

What is the piece of work you would like to accomplish and be remembered for by the academic community?  That is a really difficult question. I’m mid-career so I hope that there is much more work to come!  As I said earlier, I’ve been working in areas around parenting and gender since mid 2000s and I see my work continuing in that vein to explore parenting cultures, gender and parental subjectivities.  There is much more to say in this field and some excellent work coming out from scholars around the globe.  Watch this space…

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