Get to know PhD Student – Olivia Burton


In this month’s newsletter, we would like to introduce PhD student, Olivia Burton from the College of Education, Psychology and Social Work. Her supervisors were Associate Professor Glen Bodner and Dr Paul Williamson.

Olivia’s recently submitted thesis, “Judgements of Solvability: Elucidating the First Stage of Meta-Reasoning” received outstanding results from the examiners. Her research explored people’s ability to quickly and accurately judge whether briefly presented problem-solving tasks were solvable or unsolvable. She also explored whether these judgements about a problem’s solvability corresponded to whether people would later go on to successfully solve these problems.

We asked Olivia to share what led her to a Phd and why it is important, the most enjoyable and hardest parts of a PhD journey and what the future holds.

Tell us about yourself

I was born and raised on Kaurna Land and began my undergraduate psychology studies at Flinders in 2013. During high school, I had very little interest in science and tended to avoid it as much as possible. I was confused about what path to take after high school and selected a Bachelor of Psychological Science, admittedly knowing little about it. The fantastic psychology academic teaching team at Flinders won me over straight away – I was absolutely engrossed from my first semester. Although I dreaded Research Methods and statistics classes at first, it quickly became one of my favourite topics. I loved learning about how we can use the scientific method to measure and predict human behaviour, and it also sparked several of my own empirical questions about behaviour. My curiosity motivated me to apply for Honours.

What led you to undertake a PhD? What inspired or motivated you?

One of the key pieces of advice I was offered when undertaking exams during my undergraduate psychology degree was to “work on the questions you know how to answer first”. The advice was supposed to help me to skew my efforts towards the questions I could successfully answer, with the goal of maximising my grade. However, despite using this advice, I tended to perform quite poorly on exams! I would spend a lot of time on exam problems I thought were simple, but were challenging to solve, which left me little time to work on the problems I could solve. It was clear that I didn’t understand my own knowledge to help me to effectively regulate my effort on exams. These experiences really inspired my interest in metacognition (i.e., “thinking about thinking”) and how we self-regulate our problem-solving efforts, which culminated in my PhD research.

What is the topic of your PhD and why is it important to you?

The broad topic of my PhD is metacognition about reasoning; that is, how well people understand their cognitive processes during reasoning and problem-solving. When we problem-solve, we are constantly making decisions and monitoring our problem-solving processes. We might ask ourselves questions like, am I on the right track? Should I change my problem-solving strategy, or stick to my current one? When we finally generate a solution to a problem-solving task, we usually have some idea about how confident we are in our answer.

A lot of research has been done about how confident people are in their final problem-solving outcomes, and whether their confidence corresponds with their objective problem-solving successes or failures. However, there is little research to show how people make judgements about whether to actually engage in the problem-solving process. Given that there is nothing to be gained from attempting a problem you can’t solve, and much to lose from abandoning a problem you can solve, judgements about problem solvability are critical for allowing us to strategically regulate our time and effort during problem-solving. Given my previous woeful exam performance, I was very curious about ways of improving peoples’ problem-solving performance and effort regulation by improving how accurately they can judge problem solvability.

Tell us about your research

My research explored people’s ability to quickly and accurately judge whether briefly presented anagrams were solvable or unsolvable. After judging solvability, I measured people’s ability to solve the anagrams. I found new evidence that people’s immediate judgements about problem solvability could distinguish solvable from unsolvable problems. However, even though these judgements were accurate, they did not predict how well people could problem-solve. I also explored the impact of several moderating factors including how the judgement and solving tasks are designed, as well as individual differences in cognitive reflection (i.e., a person’s tendency to engage in more reflective and analytic thinking, or to use intuition to make decisions). My research provides new insights into how to optimise judgements of solvability toward the goal of enhancing people’s problem-solving performance.

What has been one of the most enjoyable parts of the journey?

The highlight of my PhD journey was presenting at the 1st Meta-Reasoning Conference at the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies in December 2022. Completing a PhD during a pandemic was challenging given that there were limited opportunities to engage in face-to-face conferences and to really network and integrate with the research community. Given that my research area is quite niche, it was incredible to finally put a face to the name of all the papers I had been citing! It was also great to “nerd out” with the international meta-reasoning community, create new connections, and bond with other PhD students who are also studying meta-reasoning.

What has been one of the hardest parts of the journey?

My original primary supervisor left the University in late 2019. Changing supervisors involved revising the PhD project to a degree, which was certainly challenging at first. However, under the guidance and consistent encouragement of my new supervisors, I was able to successfully complete the PhD and achieved some successes during my candidature – in particular, I won a conference award and had one of my papers published in a Q1 journal. It is possible to successfully complete a PhD even if you change supervisors, and I’m evidence of that.

What are your future goals and plans? / Where do you see your career heading in the future?

Now that my PhD is done, my next goal is to complete a Master of Clinical Psychology. The skills I have gained from completing my PhD have provided me with the critical thinking to underpin knowledge about evidence-based practice. I am also really interested in applying metacognitive principles in therapy (metacognition features heavily in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy as clients are encouraged to challenge their maladaptive thoughts and feelings). I’m currently enrolled in a program, and I will begin studying again next year.

What advice would you give to those who are about to undertake a PhD?  

My key advice is to approach research with curiosity, and to be willing to update your knowledge/beliefs based on your research findings. Particularly for those who are doing more experimental PhD projects, be prepared to be disheartened by certain results, but to also show curiosity in these results. Dismissing an experiment because it didn’t show the findings you were hoping for is a problematic approach – instead, think about how you can adapt the experiment, and show curiosity in the findings rather than disappointment. Avoid seeing these “failed” experiments as failures. They can still tell an important story.

My other key advice would be to learn how to approach feedback in a way that motivates you to succeed, rather than as a personal criticism. Receiving negative feedback is always tricky, so allow yourself to feel any feelings you need to. However, feedback is there to improve your research skills – very few people begin a PhD automatically knowing how to conduct research perfectly. Criticisms of your work are inevitable, so modifying your thoughts about it will help you to self-regulate the feedback in a way that helps you to improve in the future (and hopefully require less feedback!)


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