Representing the voice of early-career preventionists: introducing the new Lead of the EUSPR Early Careers Forum

In today’s blog post, we introduce Samuel Tomczyk, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Greifswald, who will be the new Lead of the Early Careers Forum (ECF) of the European Society for Prevention Research (EUSPR), starting in September 2017. We also say good-bye to the outgoing Lead and initiator of the Forum, Angelina Brotherhood, doctoral researcher at the University of Vienna. Through a written interview, they both reflect on their careers so far and their role within the ECF.

How did you start working in prevention research?

Samuel: Well, having finished my master’s degree in psychology, I was interested in continuing the academic track. However, as I had worked in projects that combined psychological practice with academic research before (e.g., human resource development), it was important to me that my future work would comprise both aspects. Furthermore, I was always fascinated by the aetiology of problems or (mental) disorders and diseases. Therefore, prevention research provides a great fit for me, because I can investigate how certain behaviours or disorders develop, and which interventions are effective in preventing their escalation. This is particularly important with regards to children and adolescents, since lifestyle and health behaviours that affect (mental) health are often established early in life. Consequently, my dissertation focused on patterns and trajectories of polysubstance use in adolescence and emerging adulthood.

Angelina: Actually, it was a bit of a coincidence. I was near the end of my sociology studies and my family was constantly asking me what job I could possibly do with such a degree. To prove that sociology has value outside academia, I applied for an internship at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The prevention unit was looking for an intern with knowledge of the statistical software package SPSS, and since I had just completed several University assignments using SPSS, it was the perfect fit. I didn’t know much about prevention back then, so the six months there were a great opportunity for me to learn more about drug use epidemiology, prevention and treatment. Later on, this experience led to a successful application for a research job in international prevention policy and practice, and I’ve worked in this field ever since.

What do you like most about working in this field?

Samuel: The combination of practical aspects, such as development and implementation of prevention programmes, with rigorous research to ensure high quality, efficacy, and effectiveness, is a core aspect of prevention work for me. In addition, I appreciate the idea of preventing disorders or diseases. Although there are multiple definitions of prevention that may make it difficult to connect all aspects and coordinate interdisciplinary work at times, I think that its range is one of the main strengths of the field named “prevention”. I would like to illustrate by reporting an example from my work on alcohol use in adolescence: My focus was on developing, implementing, and evaluating a prevention programme for binge drinking. During the theoretical development, I could rely on vast research on mechanisms, and theoretical models of binge drinking among youth, as well as previous evaluation trials. Implementation and evaluation of the programme were conducted according to international methodological standards. In the next step, meta-analyses critically review trials, such as ours, to solidify evidence and identify effective components of prevention programmes. Finally, national and international experts conclude recommendations for policy and practice based on these results. In Germany, I have witnessed multiple societies and panels discussing these implications and recommendations regularly and vividly. I think that the EUSPR provides such an opportunity on an international level.

Angelina: I love a lot about the prevention field. Let me highlight three aspects. Firstly, prevention researchers are generally likeable, down-to-earth people who are also very passionate, trying to have a positive impact on the world. I reach this conclusion again at every meeting of the EUSPR, and I’m really happy to belong to such a community. Secondly, in this field, I actually spend most of my time interacting not with other researchers, but with policy makers, practitioners, and other people who are responsible for prevention in the real world. This allows me to have many interesting discussions and obtain important insights for my work. Finally, I like the idea that my work can have an applied value. I’m glad that in this field “impact” does not depend solely on the number of publications in peer reviewed academic journals, but on being able to communicate with stakeholders in prevention policy and practice. Working in prevention, it really feels like you can make a positive contribution to society as a researcher.

What have been some of the challenges you have encountered as an early-career researcher so far, and how have you addressed them? What “best piece of advice” would you give to an early-career researcher in the prevention field?

Samuel: One of the main challenges as an early-career researcher was to get an overview of the current research in the field, and find a niche for myself. While there are many areas of interest, the academic field is highly competitive, and there is rapid development, particularly regarding (behavioural) addictions and the scientific process overall. With changing paradigms in data management (open data) and publication processes (open access), it is much more difficult for early-career researchers to identify core publications and discussions in their field, and limit their own aspirations so that they can achieve their goals in time. I think that guidance or mentoring is even more important now. More experienced colleagues may not always be as knowledgeable when it comes to modern technology, but they are surely very knowledgeable in terms of the scientific process and community. My primary suggestion for early-career researchers: listen, read, and listen. Also, if you have started to draft an idea for your dissertation or your research project, do not be afraid to ask others for their opinion, and discuss it critically, if possible with experienced researchers from a similar field, but not directly involved in your work/group.

Angelina: I have struggled with feelings of inadequacy. In the early years, I always hoped that no one would ask me my age or how long I have been in this field, as I worried that people would value my opinion or my work less if they knew the “truth” about me. (In fact, I once had a horrible experience at a conference – not the EUSPR! – where a senior researcher wished me good luck and walked away, once he’d found out I didn’t have a PhD!) I also struggled with the fact that I hadn’t studied drugs or public health, that I’d entered the field by coincidence, so I suffered from the “impostor syndrome” and was always worried that somebody would ask me a question I couldn’t answer. Luckily, it’s now over 10 years since I started that prevention internship at the UNODC, so now I don’t worry anymore about anyone finding out my biological or my academic age. I’m also more relaxed now about not knowing stuff (although of course I still panic sometimes). Over the years, I have amassed knowledge in certain areas, and I do feel confident speaking on those topics. I’ve also learnt that many preventionists have studied subjects unrelated to prevention and “ended up” in this field more by chance than anything else – that has also made me feel more confident. Although fear can sometimes be positive and motivate you to work harder, at other times it can be a barrier (e.g., when you’re too afraid to ask for help). My advice would therefore be to be patient and not be too hard on yourself – eventually you’ll be older and (a bit) wiser. Time will do that for you.

Angelina, you were one of the “founding mothers” of the ECF, and have served as ECF Lead for quite some time now. How and why did you decide to establish the ECF?

Angelina: When I was up for election for a position on the EUSPR Board in 2014, I decided to make my early career status my unique selling point. I promised that if elected I would seek to represent the voice of early-career members of the EUSPR and explore ways to better support and engage early-career preventionists. When I was indeed elected onto the Board, I started feeling quite passionate about putting this idea into practice. As an early-career researcher, I myself have experienced challenges (as noted above) but I have also been very lucky (e.g., I’ve benefitted from having competent and supportive mentors). I felt it would be nice to help others entering the academic world to have a positive experience. Once I started pitching the idea of a platform or forum catering to early-career needs, the feedback was so overwhelmingly positive that there was no turning back. I was very lucky that Kimberley Hill, another early-career preventionist, was there already during that first year to jointly plan and set up the Forum (a list of all Committee members can be found here).

Samuel, what do you plan to achieve as ECF Lead over the coming months?

Samuel: First, I would like to continue the path that the previous ECF Committee has created. Thus, I want to continue providing quality content to all ECF members via our mailing list and personal communication. As the EUSPR conference in Vienna is approaching, I will also analyse the feedback that we may receive during the conference, and apply it to preparing next year’s conference and ECF events. Moreover, I will focus on one of my main goals, improving quality in prevention research. Currently, educational curricula regarding research methodology differ greatly between academic institutions across Europe. To address this issue, a guide of helpful articles and instructions will be constructed. Another idea is to conduct workshops for early-career researchers across Europe, but it is too early to talk about details now.

Angelina, what are your plans without your duties as ECF Lead?

Angelina: I actually gave birth to a baby girl earlier this year, so I’m pretty busy at the moment! Over the next two years, I hope to achieve two things. Firstly, I hope to spend a lot of time with my daughter. Becoming a parent has given me a whole new perspective on prevention. There are so many decisions to take – how to react when she is crying, how to find a balance between ‘alone’ time and ‘together’ time, and so on. I’m obviously very aware of the important role parents and other care-givers play in ensuring positive outcomes for children, so it’s rather daunting and I often feel like it’s a crash course in being a prevention practitioner. Secondly, I still have my doctoral studies to complete. I started the fieldwork before my daughter was born, and I hope to continue this work later this year, with a view to completing my thesis by 2019. Therefore, while I’m sad to be handing over my duties, it will also be somewhat of a relief. I’m looking forward to seeing how Samuel and the other new Committee members (to be announced in September) will develop the ECF further, and I would like to thank the other outgoing Committee members (Kimberley Hill, Aniek van Herwaarden, Dijana Jerković) for their fantastic support over the past years.

About the authors:

Samuel Tomczyk is a postdoctoral researcher on prevention in civil protection at the University of Greifswald, Germany. Samuel completed his doctorate in Psychology at the University of Kiel, focusing on multiple substance use in adolescents. In addition to his research, he has worked on the development, implementation, and evaluation of school-based prevention projects. His main interests include health across the life span, substance use, and methodology in prevention research. Samuel will be the new EUSPR ECF Lead starting in September 2017.

Angelina Brotherhood is a doctoral student at the Institute of Sociology, University of Vienna, Austria, and a Visiting Research Fellow at the Public Health Institute, Liverpool John Moores University, UK. Her thesis is a mixed-methods study on how perceived characteristics of everyday spaces relate to substance use. She has worked on various policy- and practice-related activities, including evidence reviews and quality standards in drug prevention. From 2014 to 2017, she served on the EUSPR Board and led the Early Careers Forum. You can find her on Twitter as @pbm_AB.

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