Ph.D., University of Cambridge

Hayden Handerson: Enjoy the privilege of research

University of Cambridge

Interviewed by Nowreen Priyanka

Interviewer’s note: Thanks Hayden for sharing your story about your experiences as a doctoral student at the University of Cambridge. The University of Cambridge is a very well-known research institution in England and in the world.

Hayden Handerson

Ph.D. Student

Social and Developmental Psychology Department, University of Cambridge

I grew up in a small town in the Texas Hill Country.  She is studying how children are cross-examined in the legal system and ways that we can improve the procedure.

A little bit about me

I went to the University of Texas always thinking that I would eventually go to law school. Because of that, I majored in psychology just out of sheer interest, with no intention of actually having a career in the field. However, when I learned about forensic psychology (psychology and the law) I became completely enthralled. I graduated from UT and worked for a year at a law firm while applying to graduate programs all over the world. Miraculously, the University of Cambridge accepted me as a Ph.D. student in the Social and Developmental Psychology Department working under Dr. Michael Lamb.

Why I chose to study at the University of Cambridge

How can you say no to the opportunity to study at the University of Cambridge?! But I applied to Cambridge not because of the university, but for the professor, Dr. Michael Lamb. He is more impressive to me than the school, particularly for his work with children and the legal system. He has tremendously contributed to improving how child victims are forensically interviewed and questioned in court and it is an honor to be a part of his team.

My research area and its importance

Psychology and the law encompass many topics that have been reflected in pop culture. Making a Murderer, anyone? Some topics include eyewitness testimony, line-up procedures, jury biases, false confessions.

I study the problematic questioning of children in court which potentially leads to

(1) unjust verdicts and

(2) traumatizing experiences

that affect the child’s welfare. If you’ve ever heard of the Daycare abuse hysteria from the 1980s (McMartin Preschool, Wee Care Nursery School, etc.) then that is the perfect example of what can happen when children are asked suggestive, repetitive, complex, or credibility challenging questions.

Research continues to show that the way we question children in court contradicts all current literature- for example, children have to wait over a year sometimes before giving their cross-examination. Children are asked confusing questions and give an answer rather than ask for clarification. Children interpret a repeated question as an indication that their previous response was incorrect; thus, they change their response to please the interviewer, NOT because it’s the truth. In addition, children are very attuned to the suggestion of adults and often acquiesce to whatever response the adult suggests he/she wants.

My dissertation is examining a pilot study in the UK which is attempting to improve these conditions. Children’s direct examination is oftentimes pre-recorded, however, they must return to court months and years later to be cross-examined. In this pilot study, the cross-examination will be pre-recorded. In addition, Ground Rules Hearings take place to instruct the attorneys on appropriate question types. It is a huge step that legal practitioners are willing to try to adopt the new procedure, and I’m hopeful that this new protocol will improve conditions for children!

I think it’s very important to be well rounded and not let the stress of graduate school dominate your life.

Funding and/or scholarships as a Graduate Student

I’m an international student and I do get funding. I am on a fully-funded scholarship from the Cambridge Trust, and they have been very generous. It is enough to pay for school and accommodations, with spending money left over. I have a bit of my own money as well that I use for traveling around Europe on the weekend but I think the scholarship intends to provide you with everything you need!

Because I’m am an international student, the undergraduate process is COMPLETELY different at Cambridge than it was in Texas. Thus, I wasn’t a TA (they call it supervisor) this year, but I will be next year. It’s a great way to search for undergrads to help you with your research and to make a few extra dollars on the side.

What I like most about being here

I absolutely love being a graduate student. You get the best of both worlds- the work side: you usually get some funding, you work productive days, and you generally are in a more mature environment, as well as the school side: you have so much flexibility and a great social environment! It’s really easy to get caught up in the stress of being a graduate student but every few days I have to remind myself to take a step back and chill. You don’t want the pressure of the “title” taking away from the incredible opportunity you’ve been given! One of my favorite pieces of advice is “Enjoy the privilege of research” and I try to adhere to that.

My background as an undergraduate student

I studied psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. IT WAS SUCH A DIFFERENT TRANSITION. Obviously, moving halfway across the world, one would expect some changes.

The biggest change for me was the lack of structure. There is no schedule, no classes, no tests or assignments. Do you want to meet with your supervisor? Great, email him and make an appointment. Do you want to find an interesting course or seminar? Cool, you better get on Google. It is entirely self-motivated. There is no one patting you on the shoulder and giving you A+’s.

Finding a supervisor and settling

My field is very specific. This helped me because it drastically narrowed my search pool. I wouldn’t say that it was difficult to find a supervisor, but it wasn’t easy to find the right one either.

You don’t want to settle or pick a school based on the location or the university. Your supervisor will be your lifeline and you want to make sure he or she is the right person! So it’s not a process you should rush. My lab was also incredibly welcoming My supervisor told me he picks people whom he thinks will mesh with the current lab, so I came in with hopes that I would mesh sufficiently. We’re very small, with only 3 Ph.D. students, 2 post-docs, and a few masters/undergrad students, but I’m very comfortable in the lab! I’ve met one of my close friends in the lab and she studies the same topic as me.

Being a graduate student

I think it’s very important to be well-rounded and not let the stress of graduate school dominate your life. I try hard to exercise often, maintain a healthy lifestyle, make time for friends and social events, travel around Europe, and relax.

It sounds like a lot, but it’s doable! I’d rather have a full and diverse life than a life that entirely revolves around one thing, regardless of what it is! And by taking time for myself, I am actually more productive.

I think the best part of Cambridge is the college system. It is kind of like the houses in Hogwarts…

How I became interested in Psychology and Law

So I always loved the law, but I remember watching a 60 minutes documentary in my Social Psychology and the Law class that really transitioned me from law to psychology-and-law. It is a must-see, only 40 minutes long and on youtube! It’s about a woman who falsely accuses a man of raping her, and you begin to learn about the limitations of eyewitness identification. I don’t want to say anymore because you should just go watch it!

My advice for students who wants to enter this field

I would tell you not to be intimidated. Particularly because it is an up-and-coming field, oftentimes, the literature is dominated by a few certain names. Don’t ever think you aren’t qualified enough to be here doing the same research as them!

Also, to be in academia, you have to be tough-skinned. You have to be okay with admitting when you don’t know something, asking for help, and accepting criticism.

Advice for new students new to this department

I think the best part of Cambridge is the college system. It is kind of like the houses in Hogwarts. You live and socialize in your college, and it has no relation to your area of study. Thus, you can become friends with historians, lawyers, engineers, physicists, etc.

There are also porters and tutors at your college who can be incredibly helpful. In the department, take advantage of the relationship you can have with your supervisor- definitely talk to him/her! And post-docs are always a great source of advice as well.

My plans

No clue! I had no clue 3 years ago that I would be studying at Cambridge! I may go to law school, may do a post-doc, may go into industry. Leaving my options open helps alleviate a lot of the stress of “working towards a goal” that may eventually change anyways.

What I do in my free time

I love to be around people. I love red wine and socializing. I also have to exercise or I go insane. Lastly, I’ve been traveling to a different country every month so I can take advantage of being in Europe and that has been a blast!

My Favourite books

Jodi Picoult is one of my favorite authors. So is John Grisham. But that’s just because I love law!! And I mentioned above that 60 minutes documentary about Ronald Cotton (I can’t remember the name).

There is a really good documentary about the Mcdonald’s Hot coffee lawsuit too that everyone should watch! Everyone tells me that I need to watch Making a Murderer but I haven’t yet. Lastly, the podcast Serial is awesome too!

Challenges or struggles

I think it’s important to explain what turned me away from the law. My dad was a lawyer and he told me this story. He used to defend doctors being sued for malpractice. In this particular case, the doctor messed up. He paralyzed an elderly woman with his mistake, and my dad was defending him. At the settlement meeting, my dad got down on his knees and held her hands, and said, “Please take this money. You deserve it, and if we go to trial, I’m going to beat you and you will get nothing.” She wanted to settle but her children were greedy and wanted more. Thus, they went to trial, my dad won, and she got nothing. It broke his heart. I realized that being a lawyer, you’re never always going to be on the right side. Sometimes you will defend a guilty person, or prosecute an innocent person. So by studying psychology and the law, I get to work to improve the system instead!