Setting out on a voyage! 20 years ago it all began!

It’s exactly 20 years ago today that I began my first steps in research.  After graduating in Psychology at University of Southampton, I’d applied but failed to get funding for a PhD in car driving behaviour, a topic I’d got interested in from my third year module on sex, football and driving (yes seriously), convened by Roger Ingham.  I looked around at interesting jobs, thinking of probably needing up teaching like both my parents. Back then you had to look in newspapers  for jobs. Local job were in the Portsmouth News on a Thursday! I found one looking for a Researcher to work at Warsash Maritime Centre (now Academy), a local college run by Southampton Institute (now Southampton Solent University), that taught merchant seafarers from across the globe at various different levels. I duly filled the application form and attended an interview. I didn’t get the job advertised but they ‘d found some extra money and would I take a slightly less well paid job instead. Well of course. And thus started a theme throughout my career – In almost all my jobs, I’ve never quite got the one that was advertised or I was runner up and had to wait to see if the person offered it didn’t want it. Never straight forward!

green and gray evergreen cargo ship
Photo by David Dibert on

This first job was all you’d ever want from a first job. I was immediately given some excellent tasks to do which I could build on from my undergrad work, devising questionnaires, using SPSS to analyse data, carrying out and analysing interviews, writing  literature reviews. Such interesting projects too I worked on a programme of research around the recruitment, retention and selection of seafarers. Against a backdrop of reduced numbers of UK seafarers this project looked to examine why people didn’t want to go to sea or were dropping out. This involved interviewing cadets as to why they had chosen a life at sea and interviewing sixth formers as to what their attitudes to seafaring was and why they wouldn’t choose a life at sea. Finding: many hadn’t even thought of a career at sea, thinking almost exclusively of it as Royal Navy (“I didn’t want to kill anyone”) rather than the varied careers you could have in the Merchant Navy. Sometimes there were comments about not being physically fit enough or not wanting to be away from home but mostly it was not a career they’d even thought about. The project also had strands involving looking at psychometric testing for a particularly shipping company, examining aptitude and personality tests to see if they predicted whether someone would stay at sea or not (finding:  no predictive power on any measure).

I also dabbled in other projects. For example, there was a project looking at safety and simulator training for emergencies for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA). I did the survey and analysis on this and still maintain not enough is done on the translational element of simulator training to real life, with an over emphasis on how realistic it looks rather than how realistic the training is! There was so fascinating stuff in this research that looked at how bad people are at observation, rather than doing. A theme still pertinent to work I do not on driverless vehicles. If you have hands off, feet off, driving, how quickly can someone re-take over in an emergency? The answer is people are very slow at reacting to realising there is an emergency and very slow at taking over command again, typically known as under-load-overload situations.  This was also my first introduction to using a Delphi technique, something I have used in many projects to bring together attitudes and opinions of stakeholders in projects since. There was a project looking at older people and disabled access on passenger ships, the HANDIAMI project for the EU. My first taste of research specialising in an ageing population and my first taste of working on an EU project and my first realisation that partners in such projects could make or break a project!

photography of ship
Photo by Martin Damboldt on

The best part of the job were the staff. I absolutely wouldn’t be where I was now if it wasn’t for the brilliant Mike Barnett, who headed the group, now  Emeritus Professor and the wonderful Claire Pekcan, also now Professor (here they both are talking about a project they subsequently worked on looking at fatigue at sea). I can’t thank them enough for the amount of support I got, while at the same time being allowed such responsibility and always being involved in all aspects of the projects.  They later told me, that being thrown in the deep end is the norm in seafaring (though not literally one hopes), where cadets are immediately given much to do on their first jobs onboard ships, with support naturally! And I was treated no differently as a researcher. Again given the amount of responsibility for projects at my junior stage in my career has really helped me moving forwards.  I continued to help them out with work while I did my PhD which not only helped the coffers but also continued to give me valuable insights into the merchant seafaring world, eventually leaving to take up a Researcher role at Bournemouth University in 2003. I actually really miss being involved with merchant seafaring and it’s good to see the research centre I started out at thriving well.


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