Dr Lucia Suhanyiova
PhD Psychology, 2018
From Aberdeen to Advancing Aviation
Your Time at Aberdeen
Why did you choose to study at Aberdeen?
I had already been a student at the University as I was finishing my MRes in Psychology (following my BSc at Aberdeen as well). Having enjoyed the course, and our department's focus on teaching students research skills, with opportunities in a variety of areas (e.g. vision, cognition, social psychology, organisational psychology), I felt pursuing a PhD at Aberdeen would help me develop my skills as a researcher, with a supportive and friendly network of staff.
Why did you choose your particular course?
I chose my PhD, which was in organisational psychology, because I was interested in applied psychological research. It aims to understand and reduce human error and accidents within high-risk industries, such as nuclear, aviation or healthcare. Specifically, my PhD was looking at organisational cultures, their attitudes to safety and how these were translated into everyday practice in people's jobs. This area of research emerged after events like the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion, Deepwater Horizon and the Piper Alpha accident, to name but a few. This sharing of knowledge and cross-institutional collaboration was of interest, as researchers and working professionals were amalgamating academic findings with organisational practice.
What did you most enjoy about your time at Aberdeen? Did you have any particularly memorable student experiences?
The most enjoyable part of my time at Aberdeen were the people, especially my cohorts. As I am sure many alumni have said previously, the ability to build close friendships has been invaluable. I had sounding boards and commiserators who understood the challenges of doing a PhD and as a postgraduate, it was great to have these conversations with the lecturers and researchers in my department too. I liked the laid-back conversations, the continuous encouragement and when needed, the humorous and self-PhD-deprecating anecdotes. There are several spots in Aberdeen that have a sense of strong nostalgia for me as we would often visit these with my friends to maintain our PhD-life balance. To top it off, it was extremely fortunate that I managed to graduate with my some of my friends at the same time, so the graduation day was a shared celebration of our success (and my birthday, as my PhD ceremony coincided with this quite fortunately too!). So I guess I can say that I gave myself the best birthday present so far (with the ever helpful and unwavering support of my supervisor)!
If you were involved in any clubs and societies as a student, what did you enjoy most about them and what benefit do you think they have for students?
I was a member of the jujitsu club for most of my time as a student (from undergraduate until nearly the end of my PhD - roughly 6 years or so). It is a smaller club that had a variety of people practicing the martial art, so was a good platform for socialising outside of my course. It was fairly relaxed and friendly, the opposite of what people might think about people who ostensibly beat each other up for fun! It was a good break from my studies, and I cannot emphasise enough how much rigorous exercise helped me - especially if it involved punching some bags after a long, stressful day! I would encourage other students to not give up on any activity they are doing, especially during high-stress periods (like thesis write-up). I know that is easier said than done, and that people can feel overwhelmed and feel they need to work hard and prioritise getting that chapter written, but stepping away and getting a break won't delay you and will help your mental and physical well-being.
If while at Aberdeen you benefited from a scholarship, what was the scholarship and what difference did it make to your time at Aberdeen?
My PhD was fully-funded by the ESRC and my sponsoring company. Knowing that I had a maintenance stipend, university fees and funding for my research studies covered, it allowed me to focus on my studies and not to worry about my finances too much. Generally, a fully-funded PhD is preferable if possible. I did work part-time as an opportunity to save some money for what at times felt like a much-needed holiday, which was always helpful. However, in the last year of my PhD or so, I quit my part-time job to focus on writing up my thesis exclusively.
If talking to a group of prospective students, what advice would you give them to help them make the most of their time at the University of Aberdeen?
Consider what exactly it is that you are looking for in your studies (especially for a PhD) and also get to know your supervisor. What are your general aims/goals after your studies? What is your prospective supervisor like? For me, my PhD supervisor is a role model and I could not have completed my PhD without her help, both in a pastoral and supervisor capacity. Her can-do attitude and impressive experience as an academic and a consultant in the industry have been an inspiration. So I would like to use this opportunity to thank Professor Rhona Flin again for being a brilliant supervisor.
In your social life, engage in different societies, clubs or activities. Now is the best time to explore them. Make friends within your cohort and department as well - there are a lot of after-work socialising opportunities there as well. As a PhD student, go to as many conferences as you can, but prioritise the ones that are most relevant or interesting to your area of work. (At the time of writing this during the Covid-19 pandemic, I am aware that your physical access to such opportunities might be limited, but I would encourage you to explore these virtually and talk to your department to see what work they are doing in facilitating the social interactions in the pandemic. Fingers crossed!).
And lastly (but not least), always look after yourself. There are people around who are happy to offer advice and support, be it the University counselling services, your supervisor, colleagues in the department or your friends. I cannot emphasise how important it was for me to have our 'moan sessions' with my PhD cohorts, particularly during the inevitable rough patches that come with the challenge of doing a PhD. Also be wary of oversized seagulls and consume food out on the University lawn at your discretion!
Your Time After Aberdeen
What was the title of your first job after graduating from Aberdeen?
Human Factors Specialist at NATS.
What did your first role involve?
I was offered the role of a human factors specialist within the aviation industry. It involves a variety of tasks in my team, such as the training of controllers, delivering training courses to external clients (across aviation and healthcare domain as an example), working in airspace design to change how traffic moves - think of it as motorways in the sky, working on digital towers and R&D (research and development), which focuses on innovating future air traffic management tools.
Since I started, I have been primarily working on the R&D branch, given my research background, and have enjoyed a pan-European collaboration on projects with other air navigation service providers. It means I have spent a lot of time in simulators, testing tools and their design, usability and impact on human performance, such as situation awareness, workload and ability to anticipate and plan for traffic. I am interested in automation and AI to help manage human performance, such as using machine learning to develop a linguistic model for air traffic management. That means teaching the computer air traffic controller phraseology, which is very unique, so it can identify issued commands and reduce manual input, as well as potentially detecting readback inconsistencies (i.e. controllers and pilots issuing and repeating instructions to each other). I am now Senior Human Factors Specialist.
Given the current situation with the Covid-19 pandemic at the time of writing, I have been placed on furlough for most of the time. I am, however, positive about the role of aviation in the future, as it is critical in keeping the world connected.
Please briefly describe the journey from your first job after graduating to where you are now.
I had finished my PhD and was looking for jobs before my thesis hand-in. It took me roughly six months to get a job. I was unemployed during this time and was pursuing networking opportunities where I could, and my PhD supervisor supported me in this as well.
Was your degree at Aberdeen essential for getting to where you are now? If so, in what way?
Yes, due to my background in safety culture, I found I fit NATS' values of safety and their goals well, because my research closely mirrored their ambitions, and I had creative ideas on how we could take these goals further. My PhD supervisor had put me in touch with an employee within NATS who worked in safety and our first conversation lasted over an hour with us 'talking shop', both about my research and what NATS was doing. It was a really enthusiastic conversation and I didn't feel uncomfortable knowing that it would be as hard as I anticipated to use what skills I have gained as a researcher to transition from academia to aviation.
When I found there was going to be an upcoming vacancy for my job in the department, I sent my CV and cover letter to my current manager of our team and was encouraged to apply.
I did not have an aviation background, of course, but I did thorough research of several resources (think like a mini literature review) prior to my interview to learn as much as I could ahead of my interview.
In my CV, I had to reframe the 'transferable' skills in a slightly different language than is used for academic CVs, so they were more output focussed, and to show that I was able to manage and organise my work well (core skill of a PhD!). When it came down to the interview, knowing I did not have the necessary background, the feedback I had received was that they appreciated the 'technical' thinking and the skillset (independence, project management = managing your research, communication) I had developed and applied during my PhD.
One Top Tip
As it is, I feel some of the advice generally given may not be applicable in the current situation (e.g. in-person networking, visiting workplaces to get shadowing experience), but I would like to emphasise to continue your professional development in any way you can, be that reading relevant literature, or seeking opportunities appropriate to current times (e.g. webinars), which may be more accessible than before as we shift to digital working (at least for the time being).
Also, as they always say, networking is key. I had the opportunity to be put in touch with several professionals, courtesy of my PhD supervisor, and whilst some of them were not aware of any suitable vacancies, they were extremely helpful in reframing my perspective in terms of what employers wanted from me - as I mentioned, knowing how to use the right language to highlight your skills, because as a PhD, you will have many.
Generally, people have been very helpful and kind, and they appreciate candidates making the effort.