My university allows high school students to shadow academic staff for their work experience. I think it’s a great idea. It got me to thinking though, what do they or anyone contemplating entering academia, need to know? Here’s my two cents.
The fundamental thing anyone contemplating academia needs to know is that there are many, many, many more PhD students than there are academic jobs. Stats vary, but only about 40 to 50 percent of the people who complete a PhD will actually get a job in academia. The few who manage to secure a job, almost always have to travel interstate or overseas to do so.
From my own observations, the few who break into academia have this in common:
- A lot of first-author publications, usually in high impact journals (essential).
- An ‘in’ with a research group – perhaps they did a mini-post-doc during their PhD at another lab or, secured a highly prestigious scholarship often used to cherry-pick future employees (advantageous)
- Teaching experience (advantageous)
- Conference presentations, media coverage of one’s research, involvement with research organisations in the field (advantageous)
- Industry skills. Many of the psych PhD’s I know who did manage to get an academic job also had a qualification as a psychologist which gave them an edge, particularly for more applied post-docs (possibly advantageous)
The more of these boxes you tick, the greater your odds of success BUT, it is entirely possible that you still will not find work in academia.
It is also very important to remember that not finding work in academia often has very little to do with your capacity to be an academic. With so many brilliant people completing PhDs and so little funding, supply is just way too high for the demand. So if you are one of the vast majority who have found a career outside of academia (not by choice) know that you very much were just as capable as the people who did get in to the ivory tower.
I’m a big fan of being practical. So, given the odds of academic work are so low, what can you do about it?
- Choose a project and team that will help you tick those boxes I mentioned. From day one, develop a clear plan about how you and your team (your supervisor, research higher degree support services, uni career counselors, journal club, partner, family, friends) are going to get you ticking off those boxes. That plan will change, and repeatedly. But as they say, a dream without a plan is just a wish.
- Make sure you have a solid, viable, ‘Plan B.’ If you take one thing away from reading this post, please, please let it be this! This is every bit as essential as point #1. The most obvious Plan B though there may be others, is to have a clear and viable pathway into an industry related to your PhD. How? Make connections, do internships, choose an applied project, do a research project proposed by an organisation involved in that industry and/or, do a double degree that will give you an automatic qualification in industry like I did.
I haven’t written this with the intention to scare you or to scream DON’T DO IT! What I am hoping is that you might go into the decision-making about whether to do a PhD more informed. These issues are discussed far too infrequently in academia, despite their consequences for incoming PhDs.
Anything else to add? Any stories about breaking into industry, in particular?
Having written an honours thesis, I thought I knew what I was in for with the final write-up phase of my PhD. Granted, I understood that it would be a lot more intense this time round, but surely not all that different? Wrong!
The write-up is probably the most bizarre part of the whole PhD and that’s saying something because the whole degree is pretty bizarre; spend four years on a project with only one goal: demonstrating an original contribution to research. Who spends four years on any project with only one official deadline with the risk of getting scooped or finding nothing new by the end? Me, apparently. But I digress.
Through a series of unfortunate events my write-up timeline leaves me needing to churn out a chapter of my thesis, more or less from scratch, each fortnight. If you’re writing a traditional (giant book form) thesis like me, a chapter could be the giant literature review / introduction at the start of your thesis, a write-up of a study you’ve run or, the giant discussion / conclusion at the end of your thesis. The discussion and intro chapters can be a bit shorter, but generally each chapter is the length of an honours thesis. I have six of these chapters to write…
Without further ado, this is why the write-up phase reminds me of society’s caricature of the teen years:
- I am a total night owl. I am up to the wee hours and struggle to surface from bed before 10 a.m. As a self-confessed lark, this is easily the most amusing part of writing up.
- I wear a uniform. So the standard write-up uniform of pajamas or exercise gear might not be quite the same as my high school uniform, but still.
- I consume the weirdest foods at the weirdest of times. I find myself eating biscuits at 3 a.m. or having lunch for breakfast. Sometimes I forget to eat because I get so caught up in my thesis! And then there’s the writing sessions fuelled by Snake lollies. Another novelty for me, as I often go for months without chocolate or lollies.
- I get lost in day-dreams. Sadly this time round these ‘day-dreams’ are thesis related notes to self about how to fix up chapters etc. and generally, they lead to being scatterbrained about all things non-thesis. Like the time I put scissors in the pantry…
- Mood swings. One moment I’m on top of the world because I finally finished a chapter, the next I discover my statistical software has turned part of my data into Latin. It swings in roundabouts.
- I’m worried about getting my assignments in on time. Whether it be chapter drafts or the final thesis, it’s a constant battle to push through all the speed bumps in my way to get this thing done once and for all. As a result I have no days off and have now experienced pulling all-nighters on an assignment for the first time in my life.
To those of you out there in the midst of writing up your PhD, I salute you. Do you related to any of this?
For those of you about to embark on this phase, I sincerely hope your experience isn’t like mine. Some of my experiences of the write-up phase are a byproduct of my unforgiving timeline and huge thesis,* but the general consensus with other PhD students is that most people will experience these things to some degree at points throughout writing up. On that note, I can’t stress enough about how important it is to take care of and be kind to yourself. You are more than your PhD and more important than your PhD.
*I’m doing a Clinical PhD so my thesis should be only two thirds the scope and length of a standard PhD. As it is, one of my four studies would have been enough to substantiate a full PhD.
I’m quite proud to say that a few months ago, I finished my last ever psychology placement. This means that I’ve now completed over 1500 hours worth of assessments, therapy sessions and everything else that makes up the day to day activities of a trainee psychologist. What is particularly special about reaching this milestone, is that the last time I thought I had,* I wasn’t able to celebrate or reflect on it because I had to rush overseas for a family emergency.
I think it’s really important to acknowledge milestones no matter their size and particularly PhD related ones because they are so few and far between. So presented with the opportunity, my placement buddy and I celebrated with party poppers, plastic winner medals and party horns! The photo we took of the two of us after we’d walked out of the clinic for the last time, grinning from ear to ear, is one that I will always love. It reminds me of all the steps that got me there, the people I met along the way, and all the ways in which I grew as a person and a therapist.
It’s hard to even begin to articulate how pivotal that final placement was for me. At the time I knew that it was changing how I wanted to operate as a person and as a therapist, and it continues to do so even now. I learned so much about how to be a therapist, not just the nuts and bolts of therapy, but clinical decision making, my strengths and weaknesses and how to craft my own style. I had the privilege of walking beside clients on their journeys and learning from them, my supervisor and colleagues how best to assist. I learned the value of process work and self-reflection, and most importantly, I learned that I could be a therapist. It remains the highlight of my degree and among one of my life’s experiences that I am most grateful for.
One of the main consequences of the whole experience is that my ideal career path now looks very different. I began an Honours degree in psychology thinking that I wanted to do a Clinical PhD. Ultimately though, I saw myself focusing on diagnostic assessments in the area of autism. Early on in my Clinical PhD I figured I’d split my career between research and clinical practice in autism assessment with perhaps a bit of therapy work with typically developing children thrown in the mix. Now, thanks to this last placement, I want to work as a psychologist in adult mental health while also doing autism assessments. It’s a funny turn of events for someone who had a very clear idea of what they wanted to do and why from a young age! I don’t have any regrets though.
What I wished I could have told myself at the start of my placement journey/found useful:
- Read ‘The Making of a Therapist’
- No placement is too far away
- Ask students about which placements they have liked / disliked and why
- If you feel you’ve missed out on developing core skills, approach the university with your concerns, it will be worth it.
- Stay on top of your log-book
- Do not feel obliged to make work for yourself at the start of a placement to meet your weekly hours. You will more than make up for them as your case load builds.
- It will be hard. You will feel incompetent. This is a good thing, it means you’re learning and self-reflecting. Don’t be too hard on yourself.
- If anyone says they are 100% confident / perfect as a therapist, they are lying! It’s that lack of complacency and self-review that makes a good therapist.
- Make like a sponge and drink in whatever learning opportunities you can.
- Share, hoard and organise resources you come across as you go along
- Your supervisor is an ally – if you’re stuck, tell them why. Tell them what you’re working on. Ask for feedback. Give them feedback about what is and isn’t working.
- Celebrate the milestones, the big and the small.
- Develop a self-care routine – debriefing is a really important part of that, so is tea🙂
Teapot. Image created by phdancer.wordpress.com
*If you’re understandably confused by how you can mistakenly think you’ve finished all your placements – follow the link to ‘Looking Back on 2015.’
I’m on hiatus again. Another intermission from my PhD. Note to self when I return – blog about Schema Therapy book and end of placement forever.
The inaugural Psychology Book Club post is here!
This month’s offering is “The Making of a Therapist” by Louis Cozolino.
The Whistle-Stop Tour
- Intended audience: Trainee and early career psychologists
- Content: A 213 page guide to common pitfalls and experiences of the new therapist
- Readability: Easy to read and relate to with plenty of ‘take home points’
- Practicality: Questions posed throughout help you work out how to apply the advice
- Cost: Kindle $AUD 21.50; Hardback copy from the Book Depository $AUD 35.67
- Publication details: W.W Norton and Company Ltd. 2004
- Overall rating: ★★★★★
The Extended Review
I’ve read a few books aimed at early career psychologists but this is easily my favourite. Cozolino provides a witty, honest and practical account of the common concerns of beginning therapists and how to address them. The book is split into three sections: getting through your first sessions, getting to know your clients and getting to know yourself. He covers just about everything from Imposter Syndrome to counter-transference. Don’t be put off by the Freudian language though. I found that it all made sense and could easily be applied in my own clinical work even though I don’t come from a psychodynamic orientation.
The take home points for me were Cozolino’s observations about self-knowledge, the idea that we each need to be aware of, manage and even make use of, our own personal experiences and biases within the therapy room. Cozolino’s stance on this issue was that simply “being professional” by making sure we are aware of ethical codes, guidelines and our own limitations isn’t enough. Too often being professional means staying only “above the neck” and something I’m realising in my own training is that you can’t do therapy well if you’re completely in your head.
I feel I don’t have the words to explain this idea well enough. I guess it’s one of those things you have to experience yourself to truly appreciate the difference but perhaps the infinite wisdom of Heart and Brain from The Awkward Yeti comic series will help. I think doing therapy above the head is like leaving Brain completely in charge, he gets the job done but sometimes he missed the point entirely and makes things unnecessarily difficult. The view Cozolino and I share is that ideally therapists harness Brain and Heart, allowing Brain to focus on the theory, the science, the ethics and the strategies and Heart to focus on being present, open to experiences and meeting needs to build therapeutic rapport and model healthy coping. This latest offering from Nick Seluk about Brain and Heart seems pretty apt: http://theawkwardyeti.com/chapter/heart-and-brain-2/.
Price wise, ‘The Making of a Therapist’ might be a little out of reach for the student budget. However, I consider this book recommended reading for all trainee and early career psychologists who do therapeutic work, so maybe try to find it in your local university library if you can.
March’s book will be “The Schema Therapy Clinician’s Guide” by Farrell, Reiss and Shaw, because it’s gathering dust on my shelf and I think it will be useful to revisit for the work I’m doing at the moment! I’d love to hear your feedback on ‘The Making of a Therapist’ if you’ve read it and other recommendations – reading and professional for early career psychologists.
~ Honourable Mentions ~
I have a growing stack of therapy related books. Some I’ve finished, some I’ve started and some I’ve yet to look at. To motivate me to actually read these books and to help me remember their ‘take home’ points, I’m starting a ‘Psychology Book Club.’ Essentially, I’ll be posting some information about the books here e.g. about how user-friendly they are, what you can expect to get out of them and what I’ve learned from reading them.
Most of the books in my collection are on the cheaper side and you can probably borrow them from your university library. The rest can be found in second-hand book stores, Amazon Kindle or the Book Depository. Of course, for those of you who actually know me, you’re more than welcome to borrow my copy🙂.
As you can see, I have a collection of therapy text books, treatment manuals, parent/client resource books, therapist guides and lived-experience type books to add to the reading list. I’m not sure how quickly I’ll get through each of these books, so I’m aiming for one book club post per month. The more dense text-book / treatment manuals could require a bit more of my time though!
February’s book will be “The Making of a Therapist: A Practical Guide for the Inner Journey” by Louis Cozolino.
~ Honourable mentions ~
This week has been heaven. I’ve been living much closer to placement and uni than usual which means I have so much more time in my day to do non-uni related things which I think has actually been helping my writing.
I’ve also had a bit of a brain wave. I’ve a tonne of clinically relevant books I’ve read, bought or partially finished. I’ll blog about one each month to help me move more of these books to the ‘have read’ pile and make use of them in my practise as a provisional psychologist. Anyone keen to join in ‘Psychology Book Club’?
Honourable Mentions @HonourableMentions 08/02/2016
It’s done. I sent off the first draft of Chapter 1, the Introduction. It clocks in at about 4K. I’m feeling on top of the world! I can see progress. #ClinicalPhD #Writing
Honourable Mentions @HonourableMentions 09/02/2016
Ten minute drive to the office today. Oh what I have been missing out on.. Churned out a decent portion of Chapter 2. Submission is beginning to feel possible again #ClinicalPhD #Writing
Honourable Mentions @HonourableMentions 10/02/2016
Juggling act today. More placement work than writing. But I guess every little bit counts? #ClinicalPhD #Writing
Honourable Mentions @HonourableMentions 13/02/2016
Placement done for the week. Lots of literature searching today #ClinicalPhD
Honourable Mentions @HonourableMentions 13/02/2016
More literature searching. I’ve been tagging clinically relevant papers for future reference. #ClinicalPhd