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Calling new and expecting parents… and their babies

Hughes Hall student, Zahra Khan, is recruiting. She tells us here about her research at Cambridge Babylab as well as her journey from a state school in Northampton to Hughes Hall for a Masters in Psychology, and being a woman of colour at Cambridge.

Zahra is currently working alongside researchers from the Cambridge Babylab research group on a study looking at ‘COVID-19 in the Context of Pregnancy, Infancy and Parenting’ (CoCoPIP).

Tell us more about your research

We want to understand the physical, psychological, and social impacts of COVID-19 on expectant and new parents, and how young infants are affected by changes in the way we interact with others. We also want to understand how the effects change over time, gathering information from families at four stages of the parenting journey: the second trimester of pregnancy, the third trimester, when baby is 0-3 months and when baby is 3-6 months. 

We are still recruiting so I would love to invite any expectant parents, or parents to an infant, to take part! Our survey is here and fathers are very welcome to take part too!

For my MPhil thesis, I am exploring ‘Maternal perception of postnatal bonding and infant behaviour during COVID-19 in the UK’. This is a qualitative study which aims to investigate how new mothers in the postpartum period have bonded with their infants in lockdown. I’ll also look at how new mothers report their infant’s behaviour and explore if this has been affected by the pandemic. Understanding more about people’s experiences is the most interesting part; the hardest is not having easy access to libraries and labs due to restrictions. 

How did you become interested in psychology?

I became fascinated with psychology through my interest in philosophy. I was studying A-level ethics and philosophy (I went to a great all-girls state school in the East Midlands) and there was a module about the nature of the mind which looked at sensation, perception, intelligence, memory, and free will, which I found fascinating.

I was accepted on a 4-year Psychology BSc degree course with one year working in an industry placement. This enabled me to gain valuable experience and was really inspiring. My placement year was at University College London Hospitals as an assistant psychologist working within perinatal mental health. This experience showed me the positive change service users can make with the help of clinical psychologists supporting their health and wellbeing. In my second year, I also volunteered at St Andrew’s Healthcare Northampton which provides specialist inpatient care for people with challenging mental health needs.

What do you think is the main challenge on the road to becoming a clinical psychologist?             

The field of psychology, especially clinical psychology, is extraordinarily competitive. In the UK, the standard route to becoming a Clinical Psychologist is obtaining an undergraduate psychology degree which is accredited by the British Psychological Society (BPS), followed by building up your clinical and research experience through working or pursuing a masters, and finally a three-year full time taught Clinical Psychology doctorate (DClinPsy). Many aspiring clinical psychologists don’t realise how competitive a doctorate course is until they are already on their undergraduate course. DClinPsy courses are NHS funded and some universities accept as few as ten students a year from the thousands of applications they receive. But the demand for clinical psychologists is increasing and additional spaces on the courses are becoming available each year so the future is looking brighter!

Gaining clinical or research experience alongside undergraduate studies can help make you a competitive applicant for graduate jobs or postgraduate study so try to volunteer if you can.

Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students and especially BAME female students are often underrepresented in postgraduate education settings including Cambridge University. How have you found your experience with regard to equality and inclusion?

In my experience, the University has a proactive and inclusive approach to equality and encourages under-represented groups to apply to Cambridge. I have enjoyed meeting fellow students who are also from ethnic minority backgrounds through University events (pre-covid) and happy to see that their extraordinary achievements are being voiced, valued and supported. 

I am involved with ‘ClickCambridge’ which is an online programme that aims to support Black, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Arab and other ethnic minority students with the information and skills needed to apply to leading British universities. My involvement includes presenting information to students about postgraduate psychology. It’s great to see such initiatives at Cambridge helping to widen access, acknowledge the very apparent problem of underrepresentation in higher education and being proactive in doing more to tackle inequality of ethnic minorities within education. 

Have Cambridge and Hughes Hall served you well?

My experience of Hughes Hall itself has been great; college staff are really supportive and always there for you in times of need. Hughes is a welcoming and warm place – there’s a great sense of community.

Some BAME students may have a perception that a prestigious institution like Cambridge isn’t a space for them. This may be due to concerns of not fitting in, expecting to only meet private school students, fears of their experience as a person of colour not being understood. These are valid concerns to have when you have experienced inequality before.

I would say to BAME and state school applicants that there is a space for you here no matter what background you are from and you will meet like-minded people who look like you. Have belief in yourself and apply, don’t let imposter syndrome hold you back from achieving greatness!

What about the future?

In 10 years’ time I hope to be a clinical psychologist or working within psychological research, contributing knowledge to global scientific literature and helping to better the mental wellbeing of service users. Having said that, the pandemic has taught me that we can plan ahead as much as we like but things are never certain, so we sometimes just have to go with the flow!


Thank you to Zahra for taking the time to tell us about her research and experiences. If you would like to share details of your work and time at Hughes Hall, please email comms@hughes.cam.ac.uk.