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In conversation with Maria Cochrane, a new PhD student in the School of Psychology & Counselling at The Open University

Maria was talking to Sue Cocklin, Centre Assistant, in the Open Psychology Research CentreOriginally published on 6/12/2021

Sue:  Welcome to the Open Psychology Research Centre. Maria, you returned to study as a mature student and successfully completed your BSc and MSc. You now been awarded a PhD studentship by the Grand Union Doctoral Training Partnership. Tell us about yourself and your previous study

Maria: My name is Jacqueline Cochrane, but I prefer to go by my middle name Maria, as it feels less formal. Before being awarded my PhD studentship, I worked as a qualified counsellor and therapist. I wasn’t able to go to university directly from school, because of family financial constraints so instead I entered the workforce and raised my own family. I then returned to study and completed a BSc in Counselling and Psychology and an MSc Psychology. I did well in both degrees, showing that even as a mature student anything is possible if you want it enough.

Sue: What is your PhD about?

The full title of the project is Re-storying the body, re-storying the self: The re-negotiation of appearance norms in women’s narratives following mastectomy surgery.’ The research will investigate how norms about appearance impact on women who have had a mastectomy for breast cancer. Mastectomy, removal of the breast, is a common procedure; around 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer, with just over a third of UK cases undergoing full mastectomy. My project will investigate the meaning of the surgery for women, especially in relation to bodily appearance. This builds on feminist and health psychology findings that societal appearance norms, which for Western women include thinness, youth and heterosexual attractiveness, are influential in women’s health and wellbeing. The research will use a mixture of visual and biographical methods, in contrast to conventional quantitative health research studies.

Sue: Why is this research important?

Maria: My work roles and professional connections have shown me that research in this area will contribute greater understanding of how women cope with illness and treatment. The research findings will be relevant to academic psychology and education, and to breast cancer patients and survivors, and professionals that work with them.

Sue: What has prepared you to conduct this research?

Maria: I have always had a strong interest in narrative, bodies and health experiences, a theme I maintained through both my BSc and MSc research dissertations. I have been a counsellor for eight years, five in my own practice, and I have also worked in a range of other health and social care settings with vulnerable individuals. During this time, I have worked with women experiencing the distress that arises from navigating norms related to feminine identities and experience.

Sue: What are you looking forward to whilst doing your PhD?

Maria: I’m looking forward to reading more, including about academic debates in feminist psychology on the objectification of women’s bodies, narrative psychological accounts of health and illness, and the social psychology of medicine. The PhD builds on my previous work examining body image complexities using feminist and socio-constructivist theories. I’m also looking forward to conducting research using narrative and creative methodologies. Finally, I recognise the importance of sharing knowledge, so I am looking forward to building friendships and developing connections with other psychological academics and PhD researchers.

Sue:  We wish you the very best of luck in your studies and research, thank you for talking to us today.

Maria is supervised by Professor Stephanie Taylor and Dr Laura McGrath.

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