Alumni Stories: Joanna Kołak
"I think it’s important for students entering the job market to figure out their strengths and focus on developing them, invest in themselves by taking extra training, become specialists in a field that interests them. I think it’s also important to self-promote, highlighting your strengths and experience (even if it’s experience gained through an internship, placement, or student organisation) in cover letters and interviews. Being confident and taking the initiative."
Name and surname:Joanna Kołak
Place of residence: London, United Kingdom
Position: University researcher
Degree subject at the Jagiellonian University: Master's degree in Psychology, Bachelor's degree in Portuguese studies
What is your best memory of studying at the Jagiellonian University?
My best memories are those of being involved in various student organisations. I was the deputy chairperson of the Scientific Association of Psychology Students, the editor-in-chief of the students’ magazine ‘Stimulus’. For 5 years, I was also active in the student Radio17. I first hosted a programme about travelling and then a programme on blues music. I was also active in the ‘Rozdroże’ Academic Tourist Club. These activities shaped me very much as a person because I met wonderful and inspiring people there. I am still friends with many of them despite the distance between us. I also acquired a lot of valuable skills there, which are useful in my professional work.
How did your career start? What were the turning points?
My professional career started while I was still studying psychology. In my fourth year, I joined the LangUsta Laboratory for the Psychology of Language and Bilingualism as part of my Master’s thesis and joined the research team on a large project at the Institute of Psychology of the Jagiellonian University and the Faculty of Psychology of the University of Warsaw. We studied the linguistic and cognitive development of Polish bilingual children. In the summer before my fifth year of studies, I went to London for three months to collect data for my MA thesis and, at the same time, to help set up the research in the UK. I was then training researchers to collect data for us on the ground in different cities in the UK. I liked the research work in the project so much that when I returned to Poland I offered to fly to London from time to time to coordinate the research. As a result, a year later I was living in London permanently, because I was so drawn to life there. I wanted to do a PhD in psycholinguistics and continue my research on childhood bilingualism. During my first year in London, I helped to close our big research project, and I also completed a distance-learning degree in Portuguese philology. I wrote an undergraduate thesis on language mixing by Portuguese people living in London. A year later, I started my PhD, which I did remotely at the University of Warsaw (as a continuation of the research I was involved in during my MA). At the same time I also started working as a researcher at the University of Manchester. I worked on a psycholinguistic project with excellent researchers and learned a lot during that time. Especially when it comes to research techniques, data analysis and writing scientific articles.
How has education contributed to your career development?
During my psychology studies, I gained a broad knowledge of the psychology of child development, the psychology of language and bilingualism. I use this on a daily basis in my academic work, which is the study of children’s language development in a digital media world. Studying Portuguese (which I started when I was in my 5th year of Psychology) gave me extensive meta-knowledge about language and further inspired me to go into psycholinguistics. While doing Portuguese Studies, I also understood much better the mechanisms that are involved in learning an additional language. This has been important in the development of my professional career, as I am now researching how to support children’s language development and how to enrich their language environment.
Tell us about your current job. What are you doing now?
I am currently working as a researcher on an ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council) grant at the University of Salford, Manchester. As part of this grant we are investigating the educational potential of tablet apps for pre-school children. We are also designing experimental apps for learning new words and testing whether children aged 2-4 years can learn from these apps. We have developed the first systematic tools to assess the learning potential of apps for children aged 2-5 years. In the last three years I have also lectured in developmental psychology, social psychology and individual differences, as well as psycholinguistics. As of October, I am moving mainly into teaching. As a lecturer I will be responsible for coordinating three subjects. On top of this, I have developed my own business, in which I popularise knowledge about bilingualism and child development in the world of digital media. I run a popularising account on Instagram (@joanna_kolak) and a website. I popularize knowledge about bilingualism, child development in the world of media and bilingualism in adults. I offer consultations and webinars for parents of bilingual children and for professionals working with these children. My main audience is Polish people living on all continents and raising children bilingually.
What are your biggest challenges now?
One of the challenges is still the pandemic and remote working. Since March 2020, I have been working exclusively remotely as our university has not fully reverted to office work. As a result, our last study with children had to take place online. We worked for a long time to change the format of this study so that parents and children could participate remotely. Because we are studying children’s interaction with tablet apps, this is made more difficult by the fact that not all parents have tablets at home that are compatible with our app. As a result, we often send our tablets to parents, which is a logistical challenge. In addition to this, I try to combine my work at university with my own business, which sometimes involves working non-standard hours.
What is life and work like in the city/country you live in?
I live in London, so life here is quite busy, but the further away from the centre you live, the calmer it gets. When I moved to London, I wanted to keep my job at Salford University in Manchester. We had an agreement that I could work mostly remotely, but I should turn up at the university a few times a month. However, my move coincided with the pandemic, so I haven’t had to travel between London and Manchester for work so far. When I was still living in Manchester, it was a real pleasure to work (it still is now, only remotely). The staff at the university were incredibly helpful and open, including the administrative staff. The atmosphere at work was supportive and positive. I really like the fact that in the UK employers have the well-being of their employees as one of their main objectives.
What is your definition of success?
To do what you like, to have pleasure, fulfilment and profit from it. I don’t perceive profit only as something material, but also as gaining new valuable experience, which enriches us not only professionally, but also privately.
What tips do you have for current students who are just entering the job market?
I think it’s important for students entering the job market to figure out their strengths and focus on developing them, invest in themselves by taking extra training, become specialists in a field that interests them. I think it’s also important to self-promote, highlighting your strengths and experience (even if it’s experience gained through an internship, placement, or student organisation) in cover letters and interviews. Being confident and taking the initiative. From my experience I can say that many times rather than wait for someone to offer me something, I took the initiative myself and made suggestions as to what I thought I could offer and how I would do it. Don't be discouraged if someone says no to you - the most important thing is that you try. And if you do get turned down (whether at an interview or at a later stage when you’re applying for a promotion), ask for feedback so you know what you can work on in the future. It may sound trivial, but I also encourage you not to be afraid of your dreams and to take very small steps towards achieving them. Enjoy every little success and believe in yourself.
How do you envision the Jagiellonian University’s collaboration with graduates?
I think that gathering the experiences of graduates is very important – asking them for feedback on the usefulness of their studies in their professional development, and then using this information to improve the quality of their studies. I think it would also be great if graduates could take advantage of the training offered by the Jagiellonian University, which would help them develop unique skills that would be useful on the job market.