Nav Kapur is Professor of Psychiatry and Population Health at the Centre for Mental Health & Safety, at The University of Manchester and an Honorary Consultant Psychiatrist at the Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust.
What are your main research interests?
My career has been focused on suicide prevention research but with a particular focus on mental health services and patient care. I have a clinical background, I’m a psychiatrist by training and services have been the thing that really interest me. So when someone turns up to an emergency department or an outpatient clinic- What kind of treatment do they get? How does that affect their outcomes? That’s what we’re about here [at the Centre for Mental Health and Safety, University of Manchester, UK], and I hope that all of our research has a practical real-world focus.
Can you give us a brief overview of your career path so far?
I like the way you say ‘so far!’ Sometimes I worry that when someone asks you for a career retrospective then your career might already be over….So I trained in medicine at Leeds and I knew fairly early on that psychiatry was going to be my career choice. It was between that and general practice, because I felt those were the two specialities where you could use your communication skills, which is something I always enjoyed. Once I found psychiatry, I really felt that was for me because it was complex in all the right ways. In some ways there are no cut and dried answers. It’s really interesting as well, trying to explain people’s behaviour or mental health and consider what (if anything) doctors might do to help. That really grabbed me. As for research, well, at first I was really quite sceptical about academia because I thought it might just be self-serving nonsense! I was sceptical about what difference it actually made. You know, did people actually read papers? If people didn’t publish papers would it leave the world a more impoverished place? But then, actually doing it I slowly got turned on to the idea of applied, high quality research as a way of influencing practice and benefiting people’s lives.
So I had done my clinical training, and completed a Masters which was my real first experience of conducting a proper research project. I found that I took to it really easily. I found it interesting and a pleasure to do. The project was on the mental wellbeing of junior doctors, and I got to work with a really fantastic mentor. Plus, it generated lots of controversy, so it appealed to my slightly contrary side. Then a research job came up, and I was second choice for that. This is a bit of a recurrent theme running throughout my career, which is that of being some kind of a substitute! Academic life is full of rejections, it’s full of challenges. But being second choice is no bad thing. So I was second choice for that job, which was a full-time research role, so I thought why not, let’s try this. Doing that job was when I thought that this was for me. The project focused on self-harm, which led to my first publication in the area. It was energising, challenging and really fascinating suddenly going from a heavy clinical workload to having to organise your own time. After that I knew I wanted to be an academic.
Then it’s funny how things happen. There was a phone call asking me to apply for a six-month temporary job in Manchester. I ’d been really impressed by the vibrant department in Manchester during my research project. Looking back, I was a bit mad in a way – moving for a 6 month post with no guarantee of further funding – but you’re young, so you think “Yeah we’ll move.” So in 1997 I moved to Manchester as a temporary lecturer. I then applied and failed to get a job in Oxford, which in retrospect has worked out well for me (sorry Keith), much as it would’ve been nice to work with colleagues in Oxford. So I got a permanent job in Manchester. I then went from lecturer to senior lecturer. That was lucky timing again. A job came up with Louis Appleby. We had a minor academic skirmish (documented in the dusty pages of the Psychiatric Bulletin in the 1990’s) so I was a little wary. But as soon as I met Louis I knew we would work well together. Again I was second choice for that job! Over the next few years things went from strength to strength, so I decided that rather than move I would stay here for my Chair. It’s been great. But my career hasn’t been planned in any way. It’s all to do with timing really, it’s just what kind of happens. It’s funny because when you are looking back, you almost construct a narrative but it wasn’t planned, it all just happened….
Having touched upon rejection as a part of academic life, what would you say are your career lowlights?
I can’t really single out a low point. One of the things that’s really important in academia (and also in life), is to have a short memory for bad stuff that happens. And to keep things in perspective – perhaps it’s not such a disaster in the whole scheme of things when that paper doesn’t get published in your first choice journal?
The rejections are hard but once you accept them as part and parcel of what we do, it becomes easier but it’s still hard, and really hard at the start of your career. I remember vividly sitting down with a mate of mine and saying “When am I ever going to be able to get a paper published….? Those (in polite company I can’t say what I called all journals) just aren’t getting it.” And I remember we hatched various plans, and one came together and we got a publication out of it. But it was hard early on, and I remember the same thing with grants. “I’m never going to be able to get a grant, everyone hates what I do, reviewers aren’t seeing any value in my work”. The good thing is that eventually it happens. So for people starting out I would say just keep at it, its part and parcel of what we do. It’s not very nice, and there is no room for the horrible rejections and reviewers comments that we’ve all had, but if you accept being turned down sometimes as inevitable then you kind of get over it really.
And how about career highlights?
You publish studies that you’re proud of, studies that have taken ages to get together because they’re very complicated. Then you’ve ended up with a really interesting result which will impact practice. People will have those research highlights and I think those are great, but I think for me the things that have affected me most are the people I have met along the way.
You get to meet some great, interesting, kind, wonderful, funny, charismatic people in our line of work, which is a privilege. Not just to meet them but be mentored by them as well. That’s something I think is really important for people starting out in academia, choose your mentors carefully and make sure that you take something from each of them. Look at them and reflect on the things you really like about them. “So I really like the way they chair a meeting, but I’m less keen on how they manage their work/life balance”, so you take what you can from them. It’s about stealing what you can I think, and that’s worked really well for me.
The other thing that’s wonderful is the interesting experiences you have along the way. I always say we are so lucky being academics because of the types of things we get to do. Like having worked hard all day at a conference or a research meeting and then finishing the day overlooking the Tokyo skyline with a drink in your hand. That’s a real privilege. And then there is what we do day in day out. My mates who work in different fields tell me how lucky I am that I get to think for a living.
Plus the sheer variety of things we do, like public engagement. Going to one of my kids secondary’s schools and having to follow a Rapper and crashing and burning because I couldn’t engage them the way he did – without my latest music video or an outfit I simply didn’t have a chance! Other things as well. So being a substitute on a well-known gameshow, or being on a discussion panel at a science festival. Sometimes we forget that although we might specialise in suicide research, we also have a lot to contribute more broadly, so I would encourage people to branch out.
What advice would you offer to early career researchers working in suicide and self-harm research?
Advice would be putting it too strongly. People need to find their own way. For me I reckon resilience is important and choosing mentors. Also, this might sound a bit trite, but being kind. Academia is a very competitive business, let’s not gloss over that, but there are ways to behave with people. I think we’re quite lucky in the suicide and self-harm prevention field, people are genuinely collaborative and genuinely nice. I’ve often reflected on this and wondered if that’s a selection effect of the kind of people who come into the field? Or is it that we’re just lucky? I don’t know. Still, I sometimes see people (in wider academia or in the clinical setting) not behaving very well with other colleagues, in terms of how you speak to people, when things go wrong how you respond to that, and in terms of how you manage to get the best of people. So in a way it’s a cliché but I think is really important to be kind.
Another important thing for people to think about is that whilst we work in a serious field, we do really worthwhile work, it’s important not to take ourselves too seriously all the time. That’s not just suicide research specifically, but research in general. When you are so focused on something there is a temptation to think of it as if it is the only thing in the whole world and it isn’t. So maintaining perspective is really important, not take it too seriously. That will enable you to shrug off those rejections.
Related to that, we’re always comparing ourselves to each other in academia. “They’ve got more papers than me, they’re a better writer, they’ve done more public engagement.” It’s a constant battle. You need to let go of that. It’s important to celebrate our successes but also look for ways we can build and improve in the future. Continuous improvement is something that I would encourage but be nice to yourself too.
What are the key things you look for when hiring ECRs?
It almost goes without saying that we want people with the right methodological skills for the project, who are brilliantly hardworking and have excellent communication skills. Also, people who can write well. I think it’s something we sometimes neglect in academia and consider it as some sort of innate thing but it’s a learnt skill, so we can develop that. But for me one of the things that really makes me sit up and take notice is a creative spark – someone who demonstrates a combination of lateral thinking, problem solving, communication. It’s that kind of thing. It’s the kind of spark that will energise the people around them and make for a vibrant team.
Can you share any tips for dealing with difficult times in academia?
I think it’s back to keeping perspective. I remember a week where we got seven paper rejections in a row, and I was almost incredulous. I was just waiting for the pattern to change. So that was hard. I think things can become particularly difficult when things are compounded, so it’s not one thing, it’s not just work, and there’s that and then there is a grant rejection on top of it. At those times it is really important to have perspective. Step away from it, don’t think about it all the time, give yourself a break. Talking to people as well. We are blessed with good colleagues. Also for me personally, one of the very big distractions for me is my home life. I have three kids, and if I have a bad day at work (or even a good one come to think of it), no one cares when I get home. Having something that distractions you, it might be your home life, something you do, friends, but work can’t be the only thing. Plus looking after your health is important, so making sure you’re getting enough sleep, eating properly, you’re finding time to exercise, something I have not done consistently throughout my career but just because I haven’t…. Many of us will have appraisals or performance reviews and that should be something which is always brought up then – what do you think the state is of your work/life balance? What can you do to improve it.
What would you describe as essential to your wellbeing?
Great coffee! No…. having a vibrant, friendly working environment. Despite the serious work we do, people in my experience are cheerful, upbeat, enthusiastic, and up for solving problems. From a personal perspective, I used to do lots of reading. I don’t so much anymore, mainly because I need to get a set of glasses! I spend a reasonable amount of time in the kitchen and that’s quite therapeutic, except when you’ve got hungry mouths to feed, who are baying for their food. I dabbled with mindfulness and meditation, and if I had more time I’d do more of it. Travel is a wonderful thing. Seeing new places for work or leisure is really restorative. Plus a little bit of exercise, which becomes more important as you get older. I suppose one of the things that keeps me going in my day to day job, is the variety. I think I would find it hard to do a job where every day was the same. So, variety is something else that keeps me going and is essential to my well-being. No two days are ever alike!
Interviewer: Donna Littlewood (@donnalittlewood). Donna has a PhD in psychology and is a Research Associate at the NIHR Greater Manchester Patient Safety Translational Research Centre, University of Manchester (firstname.lastname@example.org).