Helen Watt is an ARC Future Fellow and Professor in the Sydney School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney.
As a motivation researcher she specialises in the study of youth, as well as teachers’, achievement and career choices. She has published extensively in both areas and from her research on STEM education and gender.
As a research leader in educational psychology she has held editorial roles, served on editorial boards and international research groups, including setting up the international network www.genderandSTEM.com.
Her contributions to the discipline have been recognised by national and international research awards from professional organisations including the Society for Research in Child Development, the American Educational Research Association and Australian Association for Research in Education.
I'm a motivation researcher: I'm interested in why people want to do what they do and how that shapes their occupational and life pathways. This includes young people, and how their aspirations for the future take shape, as well as teachers’ developmental pathways (who are a major influence on youth). My research is mainly through large-scale and longitudinal studies that can show how motivation develops.
I'm not sure that I was deliberate and goal-driven in choosing this research focus. I've just kept ‘following my nose’, following my interests, and investing in my knowledge and skills development, and that’s ended me up here. I think it's important to keep looking for connections and how things fit together as you go.
My PhD study was around gender and mathematics. I picked mathematics as a subject that people consider prestigious, but also sex-typed (more boys and men). Since there are not really gender difference in achievement, why is it that girls feel they’re less capable than boys?
My most exciting moments were early on in my academic career getting awards that I never imagined getting, and didn’t even know existed. The first prize I got was for my undergraduate coursework results - I thought it was a library fine, but it was actually a cheque from the university! That was very exciting. As was the University Medal for my honours research.
My proudest moments reflect things that I know I have worked very hard to achieve - my Future Fellowship, my first publication in Child Development I’d rather list outcomes that have been successful, but, of course, I haven’t won more things than I have won. I guess that’s part of the story that not everyone realises.
People who are more junior in their career imagine that it’s somehow all success. But there’s a lot of failure: failed grants, whole sections of publications that you have to remove. Keep them all though; nothing’s ever wasted.
Impact and Legacy
One of my important contributions has been to consider educational and occupational choices within the broader landscape of young people’s valued life goals. Because they're not deciding in a vacuum: they care about things other than the prestige, interest or social utility value of the occupation that they choose. They have other personal valued life goals that play into their decision. My longest-term youth cohort of 1,323 students who I started tracking in early high-school, are now in their mid-40s, which is amazing for tracing long-term outcomes.
Paul Richardson (Monash University) and I are at the forefront of the field of teacher motivation research. Previously, teachers weren’t really studied as people in their own right; they were really considered as trainers of students. But teachers are a very large workforce who we need to care about, quite aside from their impacts on students. An important legacy will be our findings concerning teachers’ career trajectories, satisfaction and wellbeing. At the moment, teacher education doesn’t aim to prepare teachers psychologically in terms of coping strategies or boundary setting or anything like that. It's all curriculum and pedagogy.
Paul and I have been tracking a sample of 2,007 teachers in Australia (and parallel samples elsewhere) from when they started their teacher education in 2002 until their mid-careers, and onwards. One interesting finding is that people who initially were motivated to teach because others encouraged or persuaded them to, actually showed negative outcomes on commencing teaching. That was a bit puzzling.
We turned to self-determination theory (SDT), which distinguishes autonomous (positive) from controlled (negative) motivations where you are externally prompted, and our findings then made perfect sense. Understanding which motivations prove positive versus maladaptive for long-term outcomes, as well as which motivations prove malleable to what contexts or training, will be important for nurturing the positives and remediating the negatives – rather than simplistic ideas about selecting entrants to teacher education based on their expressed motivations, for example.
Advice to Younger Researchers
What would I say to my 18-year-old self? I don’t think I would say anything, because if I had said ‘Do you realise how hard a PhD is and how many years that’s going to take up?’ I would never have done it!
My main advice would be investing in yourself so that you can be the right person, in the right place, at the right time. Remaining open to opportunities, networking, attending conferences. You need to get to these and hear what people are thinking, hear the dialogue and the debate.
I’m quite competitive with myself rather than others. We know from the motivation literature that it’s adaptive to have goals that are about developing your own knowledge, and improving your own performance. These are called mastery or personal best goals. So it’s nice that I possess adaptive motivation!
What I Love About the Job
The autonomy, definitely. In what other job do you have complete and open possibility to pursue what you care about and are passionate about? And where investing in your own knowledge, understanding and skills is considered part of the job?
I love that I can continue to grow and nourish my interests for a social good.