My first experiences in alcohol use research: recommendations for early career researchers

In this article, Joella shares her first experiences of working as a research assistant on a research placement at the University of Balearic Islands alongside the Research Group in Data Analysis.The project that Joella is currently working on focuses on young people’s alcohol use, specifically in the psychosocial evaluation of alcohol use in young people of Palma de Mallorca. This evaluation includes the assessment of risky alcohol use, attitudes towards alcohol use and socioeconomic status. Joella’s role in this study is to coordinate and implement data collection. It is hoped that throughout the placement Joella will gain essential research and project management skills that will help her pursue a PhD in prevention research. Joella concludes with some key recommendations for other early career researchers who are trying to gain experience in their field.

Gaining the placement

Last September, I had the chance to start working as a research assistant with the Research Group in Data Analysis via a SOIB Jove-Qualificatscontract (Balearic Islands’ Employment Service contract for qualified young people). This is a program funded by the European Social Fund and it supports 90 employment opportunities at the University of Balearic Islands. Successful candidates had to meet the following criteria: a) to be unemployed; b) to have a Bachelor’s degree; and c) to be registered at Garantía Juvenil (“Youth Guarantee” is a programme supported financially by the European Union that seeks to promote training and employment opportunities for young people aged under 29 years). These programs encompass 15-month contracts and I learnt about this opportunity via conversations with colleagues in the research team and through my host institutions job application website.

It is not my first time working with the Research Group in Data Analysis. From 2015 to 2017, as an undergraduate student, I started working with them as a student collaborator. My role mainly consisted of supporting the research team as they conduct their studies. Being a student collaborator has been a great opportunity for me to develop my research skills as it has provided me with continuous academic training. I have practiced and improved my interviewing skills with young people. I have learnt about survey methodology (the design of a questionnaire and data collection) and above all, I have become familiar with alcohol and drugs research and the need for prevention programmes and interventions that address the issues faced by adolescents and young people.

First experiences during my placement and what I have learned about research

Since starting my post I have had a number of first experiences, each of which have taught me new things that I can apply later in my career, and that will allow me to prepare for my PhD.

  1. In my first week working as a research assistant, I attended the European Society for Prevention Research (EUSPR) conference in Vienna, held in September 2017. I have to thank Elena Gervilla for introducing me to the EUSPR. She was presenting the first results of our alcohol use study entitled “Tell me who you go with and I will tell you how much you are going to drink”. I gained a lot of knowledge from the conference and I especially enjoyed learning about other prevention studies in substance use during those three days. I loved the pre-conference workshop with Professors Michal Miovský and Roman Gabrhelík about Publishing Addiction Science in Practice where I learned about the basics in writing abstracts and articles. I also enjoyed the Early Career Networking Event, where I met other researchers and I had the chance to share information about my team’s project.
  2. In my first month, I had to learn quickly how to write grant proposals. It was my first time facing funding application deadlines and I learned on the go (and I am still learning!). I highly recommend that early career researchers search for a Project Management course to attend. In fact, that is what I did and I would recommend Coursera.org to anyone. These courses can help you to develop the skills needed to create a project plan, to write the project budget and to manage the project development. Everything you need to write a funding proposal!
  3. Recruiting student collaborators has been a first experience too. My role means that I have to train and coordinate a team of 10 data collectors to approach participants and collect data. A skilful job!
  4. I have also been involved in preparing and submitting abstracts to conferences. Recently, I have been to the Asociación Española de Psiquiatría del Niño y del Adolescenteconference with my first poster presentation entitled “Drinking alcohol in public places and adolescence: does gender influence in risky alcohol use? Keeping to the 200 – 300 word-limit and choosing an effective title was challenging, but I found the writing process and data analysis constructive. Last year’s pre-conference workshop, in addition to listening to my colleagues’ advice, proved incredibly helpful.
  5. I have also had to learn how to plan and implement a qualitative study. This year we conducted focus groups with young people to understand their attitudes towards alcohol use and their first experiences. We recruited friendship groups within the university campus, with three to six participants. What I have observed from the focus groups is, since the participants were with their friends and because alcohol use is normalised, they felt very comfortable with sharing their own experiences and opinions. On the other hand, moderating and managing the multiple conversations that occurred during the focus groups was a fantastic and new experience. The groups enjoyed talking about their first experiences of alcohol and we collected very interesting data. I am looking forward to presenting the results of this study in the next EUSPR conference.

Preparing the focus group setting

Hopes for the future and conclusions from my experience

I want to see how our current project evolves over the next few months and how it might lead to the implementation of prevention strategies and brief interventions targeted at young people. Moreover, I hope that by the end of my placement I will have a greater understanding of what it takes to conduct a research study, how data can be used and analysed, and how to plan and carry out a project. All that I need to pursue a PhD.

In conclusion, from my experience, to develop a career in research early career researchers need:

  • To search for information and study the research topic you are interested in
  • To search for research vacancies by checking websites of universities or other institutions
  • To approach researchers in your university for more information, and for general networking opportunities
  • To get involved, and collaborate with a research team at your university
  • To attend conferences and submit presentations about your research (it is also a great opportunity for further networking!)

2 thoughts on “My first experiences in alcohol use research: recommendations for early career researchers

  1. Thanks, I enjoyed reading about your experiences! Good point about the project management course! I was lucky to have basic project management course in my studies, but we didn’t cover eg any project management theories or models. It was focussed only on how to write grant applications, calculate budget etc. So it was very practice oriented. I’ve always wondered if a more theoretical course might not have been useful, too. What do you think? Did you cover any theories/models in your course and did you find them useful in practice?

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