Alba Tuninetti interview

What do you currently do?

I am currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Bilkent University (Ankara, Turkey). I am also affiliated faculty in the Interdisciplinary Neuroscience program at Bilkent. Before that, I was a postdoctoral research fellow at the MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour & Neuroscience and the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language in Sydney, Australia.

My main research program focuses on second language speech perception, both its behavioral and neural underpinnings. I also work more generally in psycholinguistics and neurolinguistics, examining word learning, effects of bilingualism on language processing, and expanding psycholinguistic work to understudied language populations. I also teach undergraduate courses and mentor and supervise undergraduate and graduate students.

What skills did you gain from completing an Education or Psychology PhD that helped in your career after graduation?

One of the things I noticed the most about my graduate education in Psychology (specifically from Pitt and the LRDC) was the professionalization experience and advice they gave us. In particular, understanding how to present your work to large (and general) audiences, how to network, and how to approach the job market after a PhD. More than once, I passed on the advice and knowledge I gained from my mentors, committee members, and professors to many undergraduate and graduate students outside the USA. I've passed on information on email lists, online job boards, the structure of the job market (especially for those seeking positions in the US coming from outside the US), and general advice on approaching potential mentors. I didn't realize how lucky I was to have all that information until I moved abroad! In particular, the willingness to be open, accepting, and encouraging of positions outside of the traditional academic structures has been very helpful in terms of my own supervision and mentorship now. I was also lucky in the sense that I could choose to move far away, so I specifically searched for opportunities outside the US (hence my postdoctoral and current positions). The networks and people I met at conferences and workshops, both domestically and internationally, were key to being able to do this because I was exposed to researchers outside the US who were looking for the skillsets I possessed and were willing to supervise and mentor me in a completely new setting.

What advice would you give to students pursuing Education or Psychology PhDs that you wish someone had told you?

Practically, I wish I had spent more time learning programming and computational approaches to my field! This may be field-specific though. But generally, I would say that keeping up with the best stats and methods practices will be incredibly useful as you start an independent career (both within and outside academia). Although it may be painful, I'd recommend staying on top on those – trying to catch up later on can be more painful!

I've stuck to a more 'traditional' academic track and I think one of the things that has struck me those most as you move down that track (e.g., PhD > postdoc > assistant professor) is how much more independence and responsibility you're given. Of course, we know that abstractly – but in concrete terms, I've noticed there's a lot more of 'figuring things out as you go' in my most current position. It's assumed that you know what you're doing and you can just be left alone to do it and figure it out. I think one of the things that makes the transition a bit easier is to really understand and know what your working style is and how you best manage your time. If you can figure that out early on, I think it helps both as a grad student and in future positions!

I think one of the more 'abstract' pieces of advice I have for current students pursuing Education or Psychology PhDs is to try and build both internal and external support networks. I think it's been incredibly helpful to me to see friends both within and external to academia thriving because you can get a lot of your own energy and drive from knowing that others are succeeding. I'm sure everyone says that having friends and support networks is important – but I can't stress enough how much it's helped keep me sane!

What advice would you give students to help them with the job search?

Definitely contact the people you meet at conferences, workshops, seminars, etc. Those people may know of certain opportunities that are coming up, that may have only just recently been advertised, or may themselves have funding or grants that they can use to fund you. Sign up for the conference and society email listservs, distribution lists, job board postings, etc. I found my postdoc in Australia that way (advertised through a discipline-specific distribution list) and I found my current position in the same way. If you’re able to search outside the US for job opportunities, it’s a really great opportunity to get exposure to how academia and industry functions in a non-US context. I’ve had my eyes opened in terms of just general structure of academic and non-academic institutions, funding bodies, and opportunities outside academia in the Australian and more-EU-centered contexts. Make sure to tap into your support network for potential opportunities but also for just reading over your cover letter or looking over your CV/resume – don’t be afraid to ask for help! (And I recognize that this is advice that I should take for myself more often too!)

One of the main things that helped me situate my experiences in academia was talking to people outside academia (both those that have gone through graduate schooling and those that haven’t). Not only does the diversity of situations and positions provide a good way to relativize your own position, but it also helped me realize the skills that one picks up during a PhD that are applicable outside the traditional academic structure (e.g., project management, working in teams and working individually, supervision, delegation of responsibility, writing for general and specific audiences, synthesizing information, etc.). I think these are important skills to highlight both within and outside academia, even though we may take them for granted or not even realize we have them!