Psychology in the UK


Update: Richard Byrne is an emeritus professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of St. Andrews in the UK.

Unlike the USA, most academic primatologists in Britain are employed in psychology departments. Just like in the USA, very few primatologists are found in zoology departments (which are in fact now mostly called “biology” here, and very often include no researchers who study whole, live animals). Joanna Lambert’s advice in her piece “Careers in Zoology” about being seen as an “ecologist” or “evolutionary biologist” holds good here, too, if you are trying to get a job in a biology department; and similarly, doing so is very hard. Unlike in the US, there are few biological anthropology departments in Britain, and cultural anthropology has no use for us primate researchers! (The contrast is here between physical and social anthropology, but the meanings and turf delineation are the same.) Joanna Lambert’s advice about getting a career in anthropology is just as valid in Britain, but the jobs are much scarcer.

Psychology, in contrast, has been something of a boom subject in Britain, led by buoyant student demand. Literally hundreds of jobs have become available in recent years. Psychology is a very varied discipline, and primate research contributes only to one small part of it, so many of these jobs wouldn’t have been available to primatologists-but enough were to make this a good source of employment. Psychology is now where most UK primatologists work, and that’s especially the case in Scotland.

Obviously, psychology departments are simply not going to accept a researcher whose major interests are gut biochemistry, plant phenology and wildlife conservation: even on the most generous interpretation, these cannot be laundered as psychology. On the other hand, the mainstream of cognitive psychology and neuroscience is now refreshingly sympathetic to the need to understand the evolution of the human mind by comparative study of animals, in particular primates. This is good news, if your main interests are in social complexity, learning, manual skills, group formation and socioecology, sexual behaviour, or in fact anything that in humans would come under the broad umbrella of psychology. And provided that gut biochemistry and plant phenology can be clearly related to a primate’s foraging strategy, social grouping, and hence to its behavioural interactions, you can still study nutrients and trees when necessary. (“When necessary” can of course include “Always”!)

One intriguing difference between the US and the UK is in the acceptability of certain terms: this is well worth understanding, if you are interested in a career in primatology within academic psychology. I’ve noticed that the word “sociobiology” has polarized people so much in the US that it is now largely used as an insult: it seems to imply an extreme right wing, absurdly reductionist, and grossly naive person who tramples over other people’s sensibilities. This has never happened here, and the word still means the respectable scientific study of the biological underpinnings of social behaviour. The Benchmark Criteria for a good psychology degree, published very recently in the UK, mention sociobiology as an important part of the core area, Biological Psychology. So, by all means point out that your primate research has relevance to sociobiology! “Evolutionary psychology” in Britain also seems to have a rather different meaning, a broader one. Here, the term has been used for quite a few years to refer to a new kind of comparative psychology, one that has got past the bad-old-days of treating rat/lemur/monkey/ape as a scala naturae, and instead takes a broadly comparative approach to behavioural data from animals, especially primates. Like sociobiology, evolutionary psychology is listed as part of the benchmark syllabus for psychology in Britain. However, in the US, an energetic group of researchers who work directly with human data and basic evolutionary theory (but seldom with animals) have gained rather a monopoly on meaning for “evolutionary psychology”. This narrower sense, included within the scope of the wider British meaning, is also gaining ground over here. Psychology departments would likely be interested in an applicant who studied evolutionary psychology only in the narrow, human sociobiology sense current in the USA. But in Britain, a much wider comparative psychology meaning of evolutionary psychology would also be understood as a part of mainstream psychology: so here, calling yourself an evolutionary psychologist is a useful umbrella for many ways of studying primates, when the data are interpreted in an evolutionary way that helps us understand human nature.

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