Professor Rory O’Connor is the Director of the Suicidal Behaviour Research Laboratory at the University of Glasgow.
What are your research interests?
Primarily I am interested in the psychology of suicide and self-harm, and how psychological risk and protective factors fit more broadly into a biopsychosocial framework. I am particularly interested in a few different aspects. First of all, for as long as I’ve been researching suicide, I’ve used theoretical models from different areas of psychology and beyond to better understand and map the complexity of suicide and – more recently – I’ve used such understanding to inform the development of interventions. One of the biggest challenges we have as a field is that for too long we haven’t identified a sufficiently detailed framework of the psychological – and other – processes that underpin suicide risk and we haven’t mapped these onto interventions. I think one reason that we have not been particularly effective at developing interventions is that, for too long, their development has not been theoretically driven and we’ve adopted a one-size-fits-all approach. The challenges of working in mental health science are discussed in a recent Lancet Psychiatry Commission on the future of psychological treatments research, of which I am a co-author. This is definitely worth a read. The second aspect that I am focused on at the minute is better understanding the transition from suicidal thoughts to suicide attempts. This is an important topic as there are marked differences in those who think about suicide and those who make the transition from thinking to attempting or dying by suicide. Much of our research on this within the Suicidal Behaviour Research Lab (SBRL) at Glasgow is guided by the Integrated Motivational–Volitional Model of Suicidal Behaviour.
Please briefly describe your career path?
My career path has been fairly linear in that I went straight from my undergraduate degree to a PhD programme. Then 3 years later I started my first lectureship at Strathclyde University at 24, and I have remained in Scotland ever since where I have gone through the academic promotion track from Lecturer/Assistant Professor through to Professor. I have always been involved in professional organisations throughout my career, initially via the British Psychological Society, and in the last 10-15 years, I have been involved in suicide-specific organisations such as the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP), where I am a current Vice President and the International Academy of Suicide Research (IASR), where I was the first UK-based President. It is really important that we, as academics working in the field, make those links beyond our own host institutions because the networks that we build are really important for career development, mentorship, academic stimulation, collaboration and research dissemination. The other really nice thing about being involved in IASP and IASR is that they are multidisciplinary organisations that bring together expertise irrespective of discipline and that coming together has been really important. It has given me a much more rounded understanding of suicide risk and who we can reduce that risk. If I was to do things over again, I would probably go for a postdoctoral position between my PhD and lectureship but I recognise how fortunate I was, getting a tenured position so early in my career.
Can you tell us about any career highlights/lowlights?
One of my career highlights has been co-editing the International Handbook of Suicide Prevention (initially with Steve Platt and Jacki Gordon, and then with Jane Pirkis for the 2nd edition), which is now in its second edition. It was a lot of work but it was a highlight – or achievement – as we were able to bring together over 110 contributors in 44 chapters from across different backgrounds, countries, continents and disciplines. I am also really pleased with how the Integrated Motivational–Volitional Model of Suicidal Behaviour has been received. When I first published it in 2011, I didn’t think about how other people would use and test it, how it would take on a life of its own; this has been, and continues to be, really exciting. Actually, I refined the IMV model with Olivia Kirtley (Leuven University), an ex-PhD student/post-doc researcher with me, earlier this year – the published paper is available open access from our website (www.suicideresearch.info). Another highlight has been mentoring students and early career staff. It is one of the most important and rewarding parts of my job – and something which is central to the ethos within the Suicidal Behaviour Research Lab. Yes, publications and grants are important obviously, but watching people develop over the course of undergraduate, through PhD and their early career is great.
In terms of lowlights, the thing about academia is that there is always much more rejection than there are acceptances; so it is important to continually remind yourself that, more often than not, you will experience rejection in terms of grants and publications. A good friend of mine, Ronan O’Carroll (Stirling University), always reminds me that it is important to celebrate your successes! Another lowlight, not directly related to my career, but two devastating experiences that have affected me immensely, were losing two important people in my life to suicide. These experiences changed me as a person, hopefully in a good way but they continue to challenge me daily.
What advice do you give yourself on difficult days and do you have any key tips for getting through difficult times in academia?
Academia is about teamwork so always remember that you are not alone and that everybody else who works in academia will similarly be receiving rejections and feeling low or experiencing imposter syndrome. It is important that we all acknowledge that. I have a number of mentors, and go-to people in my life, including my twin brother Daryl who is also a Professor of Psychology at Leeds University – and on tough days I contact them. It’s really important that we reach out and look after each other.
What do you look for from ECRs in general/when hiring?
Enthusiasm and passion are probably the most important characteristics for me beyond the standard academic credentials. A team player, someone who also uses their initiative and who is compassionate and thoughtful.
What is essential to your wellbeing?
Tennis. When I play tennis, it is the only time in my daily life that I properly switch off because I have to focus on hitting the ball! It blocks everything else out.
Interviewer: Kirsten Russell (@Kirsten_Russell) is research assistant and a PhD student within the School of Psychological Sciences and Health, University of Strathclyde (firstname.lastname@example.org).