Category Archives: A day in the life

Light at the end of the tunnel

IMG_0496Since my last post, things have come to a head. My stress levels had reached fever pitch and my workload was unmanageable despite various attempts to juggle it differently. So, armed with my to-do lists and a calendar I sat down to figure out how long it would take me to meet the various deadlines I have for research and practice. It soon became clear that working on my research part-time due to placement would prevent me from meeting the deadlines that I needed to this year to submit my thesis on time next year.

 

 

Having worked so hard all year only to find it was still not enough was stressful and incredibly frustrating.  I wasn’t happy about it, but the only solution was to ask permission to pause my placement for a couple of months so that I could focus on meeting my research deadlines. Thankfully this wasn’t a problem. Of course, as soon as I had my plan of attack lined out for the next eight weeks and was feeling a bit less stressed, I got the flu and then some sort of infection. It took me about three weeks to start feeling like me again.  However, I’m now making progress with my research and feeling slightly less burnt out though the future post-PhD is still a big scary question mark. Needless to say the last few months have been very hard and if it weren’t for the support of my friends, family (and lots of cups of tea), it would have been much harder still. Right now I’m just focusing on my research, trying to be kinder to myself and looking forward to two weeks off over Christmas.

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Filed under A day in the life, academic culture, Clinical Phd, Reflections, Research, running a study

The little black cloud of research ennui has returned

The third year of a Clinical PhD is synonymous with duck feet paddling furiously under the water, juggling balls rolling out of one’s reach and the relationship between student and thesis reflecting that of passing ships in the night. Third year is the year we spend ten months on placement while also trying to juggle research, and for many of us, paid work too.

Objectively, ten months on placement while keeping your thesis inching along might not sound that complicated. Especially when you consider that part of second year required juggling placement, research and a class. So, third year has to be easier because there aren’t any classes, right? Sadly, the third year of my Clinical PhD is living up to its reputation for being exceptionally difficult. I thought it was just me initially and that I was simply “doing third year wrong”, but other people feel the same.

The most sense I can make of why third year seems so much more difficult is that our research is now more demanding. In your third year the most complex studies of a PhD are typically devised, run and analysed and then finally, written up. The stop-start approach that must be taken towards your research due to juggling placement and work  at the same time is therefore a recipe for frustration. You hear that life as an academic is much the same: time pressure and a never-ending to-do list. I hope there is still some scope to engineer your schedule to allow for solid blocks of time to concentrate on your research though (a few hours even?!) even if it is just once a week? I also sincerely hope that the 50 hour work weeks with only a couple of days off each month that I’ve faced for the past six weeks aren’t constant in academia either…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo what is the point of this post? I’m a fan of “keeping it real” when blogging about my PhD journey. So while many parts of doing a PhD are amazing, I also think it’s important to acknowledge that sometimes doing a Clinical PhD is just as difficult as it is rewarding. For the first time I’m finding myself questioning why I am doing this, whether doing a Clinical PhD is really worth the burn out I’m currently experiencing, whether I will be able to submit on time and whether I will be able to find a job that combines research and practice. In the words of the Thesis Whisperer, I’m passing through the “Valley of Shit” and if this resonates with you, I salute you.

 

This post has sat in my drafts folder for over a month. I’d hoped I’d be able to post it with the amendment that I’d gotten out of “the Valley” and things had drastically improved. To be honest, the pace hasn’t improved much and doesn’t look like it drastically will until about Mid-November. There have been a few minor improvements: my placement workload is more manageable and a work commitment will end soon, so I’ll be able to eke back a few hours. I’m also feeling slightly less jaded this week because I was able to work on my thesis properly for the first time in months, but I am still very much burnt out.  In fact, though I’m actually on placement this weekend for a couple of hours, I think I’ll go on strike and actually take the rest of the weekend off!

Honourable Mentions

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The little black cloud of research ennui

Mondays are my favourite day of the week. Each Monday, I get up at six (read: my alarm goes off at six and I roll out of bed any time between six and twenty past) and make the commute to uni. Once there, I spend a few hours holed up in the office, working in silence until one of my office mates arrives. We enjoy shooting the breeze for a bit and then it’s back to work for another “few hours of power.”

My Mondays might sound like your idea of hell. Perhaps you’re a night owl or work best surrounded by people? I confess I’m more of a morning person, but even I find the 6am(ish) starts a challenge. I also really enjoy being in our shared office and am definitely guilty of gas-bagging or asking questions a bit too much on occasion :). Despite this, my Mondays really work for me. There is something almost magical about them; my to-do lists get completed, my thesis word count starts to look a bit healthier  and the thinking about knotty questions finally happens.  For me, I think my Monday productivity is result of a fresh start to the week, scheduling time to write and tweak my studies and having to make sure I put in quality work so I don’t feel guilty leaving early to attend a dance class! Whatever the reason, these Mondays (and sometimes Wednesdays and Fridays) of power have recently led to some positive outcomes: I designed half my measure, finished the bulk of an assignment, recruited participants and wrote a grant application, three-quarters of two manuscripts and a modification request. All in a month. I was sickeningly productive. Everything was peachy….

Cue the plot twist…

I’ve now hit a period of research ennui.  Every PhD student I know has hit a period of research ennui; the state of being simultaneously excited about where you’ve come but daunted by where you have to go.  It’s as if a little black cloud of research angst rolled in without anyone noticing and regardless of age, stage and research topic we were all caught without an umbrella as the heavens opened. I’ve gotten caught in a light shower of it myself, but it’s still annoying.

English: rain

English: rain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What came down in the shower for me was the need to face some knotty research questions  and fill a black hole sized gap in the literature in order to create a measure. On the one hand things are going well with my research because my studies have clarified what is going on and have this has practical applications. On the other hand however, I now need to run at least two more studies, figure out how to make them methodologically sound despite the meagre supporting literature available and then make an educated guess and leap of faith in designing my measure. It’s all a little scary. To be honest, it’s not the challenges these pose, the uncertainty or the need to really stretch myself that bothers me though. More than anything it’s catching myself second guessing my ability to make it all happen that annoys me.  So you know what little black cloud? Begone, because I’ve decided to make it all happen. Blue skies ahead.

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Filed under A day in the life, Clinical Phd, Reflections, Research, thesis

The fire-fighting duck

This is me . . .

Ducks

Ducks (Photo credit: Dustin and Jenae)

the proverbial duck paddling frantically under the water but looking serene on the surface. Well, I’m not so sure about the serene part, but there’s definitely a lot of frantic paddling going on.

For the last few weeks I’ve been juggling a placement, coursework, my research and a job as a research assistant (RA). Life hasn’t been this intense since the height of my honours year –  I’m inching towards a 50 hour work week, not to mention the commute! Don’t get me wrong, I’m loving all of it: placement is, quite frankly, amazing; I’m enjoying the context being on placement brings to coursework; I’ve had a streak of achieving milestones and general good news with my research; and, the RA work I’m doing is a lot of fun and good experience. There is truth in what they say though, you can’t do everything at once.

I know I can’t sustain my current frenetic pace over the long haul. The trick will be deciding what things I can scale back on without detriment and following through on this plan. I’ve noticed that I’m edging towards beginning a fire-fighting strategy which isn’t good and what really inspired this post. So to make sure I don’t become the fire-fighting duck, mired in an excess of work,  I think I’ll spend tomorrow morning getting my next study ready to get “out the door.”  Then, I’ll chase up one of my side projects that’s been languishing and also needs to get “out the door” smartly, and finally, batch together and power through all the little short-term tasks I need to do. Tomorrow is going to be a busy and productive day!

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Research is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.

After a series of phone calls and emails the date is set. Armed with a name, some background information, a general sense of what is planned and a rendezvous point, you set out to meet them. It occurs to you as you near the popular landmark at which you’re meeting, that despite your phone and email exchanges, you don’t actually know what this person looks like. Potentially problematic. Will they be wearing a red rose? Carrying a silver brief case? No. You are not one half of a blind date or playing the starring role in a spy movie, you are a research participant waiting to meet a researcher.

Waiting

Waiting (Photo credit: Iguanasan)

With experience as both a research participant and a researcher, I can attest that half the fun of participating in research is the ‘surprise’ factor. As a volunteer you’re given background information about the study and what will be required so you have an understanding of what you will be doing. But as best we try, an information letter can’t capture everything about the research experience. We can’t predict that you’ll get a kick out of one of the experiments or learn something about yourself. In some studies the surprises are of a different variety as what appears to be the main aim of the study might not actually be the main aim! I feel honour bound at this point to stress that researchers are not out to trick people and that if we do conceal something it will be because it is absolutely no other way of  studying it, and we’re expected to let you know afterwards and give you the chance to retract your data too if you’re uncomfortable. Let’s just say that Milgram’s experiment would never make it past ethics these days!! 

But what about the surprise factor for the researcher? Surely we couldn’t be surprised by our own research? Of course we can! The day you’re not surprised by your research is the day you stop being a researcher.  We run studies to test out hypotheses but never know for certain what the answer to our questions will be, and if we do, then we’re not doing it right!

At an individual level, research volunteers surprise and teach us too. They might mention something in passing about their experiences that helps us to make sense of that finding that defies explanation and perhaps may inspire future research.  Which is why, as involved and challenging as running a study can be at times, you really can’t beat that on-the-ground understanding of what is and isn’t working and why, and all the little qualitative observations about the participants that bring the numbers to life.

I’ve just passed a bit of a milestone for my research, having finished collecting the data for the first study of my PhD. I’ve spent at least 100 hours collecting data for this project, not to mention the hours entering these data and recruiting over 100 volunteers in between classes, assignments and lately, placement too. Honestly, I still can’t quite believe I’ve finished. Though I’m going to miss interacting with the volunteers, the end of phase one of data collection gives me the reprieve I need to interpret what I’ve found, get my second study up and running and of course to write!

What have I learned from running my first PhD study?

  1. I cannot run three 90-minute study participation time slots back to back and then go straight into a three-hour class expecting my brain to function… I did this once and decided never to do this again!  Well at least not voluntarily! 
  2. It is quite possible that all the things you thought had a very remote chance of occurring in the day to day running of your study will indeed happen and all in the first week. Well, results may vary, but that’s what happened for me! Luckily, I planned how I would handle this in the very unlikely event that it did occur.  
  3. As soon as you finish recruiting, people will ask to participate in your study. Murphy’s Law.
  4. And perhaps most importantly, I learned a new dance. Not the victory dance, the oh-my-goodness-someone-volunteered-for-my-study’ dance. I’m working in an area where a sample of 25 is considered big for one of the two populations I’m studying.  In the end, I managed to recruit almost double this amount of volunteers so it was often all I could do to restrain myself long enough to put the phone down before breaking out into this dance each time I found a volunteer! Picture lots of jumping around and fist pumping. . .
Dancing

Dancing (Photo credit: merlinprincesse)

So the take home message from my first PhD study in the words of Forrest Gump is that research “is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you are gonna get.”

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Filed under A day in the life, Clinical Phd, participants, recruitment, Research, running a study

Placement through the eyes of a Clinical PhD student

What people think being on a psychology placement is like…

1 Oh doctor the dream is so horrible

1 Oh doctor the dream is so horrible (Photo credit: Edith Ogleby)

What I thought it would be like…

English: A man diving into Lake Michigan off o...

English: A man diving into Lake Michigan off of his boat, which is anchored off shore of South Haven, MI. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What it’s actually like…

Maybe you’re studying psychology, about to start your first placement or just plain curious. Regardless of how you found your way here, if you’re anything like me, you might be interested in what doing a psychology placement is like. Wonder no more because with all the authority of having five weeks of placement under my belt, I’m going to tell you a bit about the things I do…

Let’s dispel some myths. Apart from the couch in the waiting room, there isn’t another in sight. In fact you’re more likely to find a rocking chair than a therapist’s couch. And as for Rorschach blots and dream analysis, I’ve never studied or used either of them. To my knowledge, they’re not used very often if at all in my country, despite what you might see on TV.

Thankfully, placement  isn’t quite the ‘diving into the deep end’ experience that I thought it might be either. In fact I spent most of my first two weeks observing therapy and educational assessments. These were good opportunities to learn more about how therapy is structured, to familiarise and re-familiarise myself with assessment tools and to see a range of different therapeutic techniques. I’ve since spent the last few weeks administering and scoring an educational assessment and conducting therapy and initial consultations with children and parents under supervision. It’s challenging, but it’s also rewarding and a lot of fun. I’m also lucky to be in a training clinic and therefore surrounded by other people at varying stages of their placement and by supervisors from whom to learn.

Then of course there’s the glamorous side of placement: admin and prep! I’ve been taking referrals, ringing families and schools for updates,  reading about disorders and therapy techniques and putting together a therapy resources folder. For anyone starting their own resource folder, here’s a tip for you; Some people have pinned some handy therapy resources on Pinterest.

So, in sum, I’m really enjoying being on placement and can already see myself growing in confidence and competence as a psychologist in training. For those of you about to embark on your first placement, good luck and if your experiences are anything like mine, you’re going to love it!

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Filed under A day in the life, Clinical Phd, placement, Practice

You know you’re studying to become a psychologist when…

  • You catch yourself identifying the automatic thoughts and core beliefs of soap opera characters
  • You use WISC/WAIS/WIAT/WMS/WPSI (intelligence, memory and achievement tests) as verbs, i.e. I’m WISCing today
  • Your clinical psychology “handbook” text would give the Gutenberg bible a run for its money, it’s huge!
  • You know what Dx, Ax and Rx mean
  • You’ve actually used the phrase “so what brings you here today?”
  • You know your psychological ABCs
  • You’re in touch with ‘what’s in’ with primary and high school kids again
  • People start asking you to weigh in about all sorts of things i.e. schooling, parenting, relationships, work etc., with “great power” comes great responsibility
  • Your class-size has shrunk from 150 to 15.
  • You understand percentile ranks
  • You know that we don’t actually “psycho-analyse” everyone we meet!
  • You realise that designing a therapy program is equal parts theory and creativity
  • You know who Padesky, Carr and Sattler are
  • You paraphrase, reflect and validate during  everyday conversations
  • The number of acronyms you know has increased exponentially: GAD, SAD, BD, PD, CD, ACT, ECT, CBT, FAB, DSIQ, PRI, VCI, DMI, RCT, I/C…
  • Everyone who knows you offers to be one of your clients, a great boost for the morale, until you have to explain to them why they can never be your clients!
  • You’ve endured watching tapes of yourself conducting assessments and therapy
  • You know what the NICE and the Cochrane Collaboration are
  • You’ve practised what you’re (learning to) preach i.e. meditation, behavioural experiments etc. because you can’t really ask a client to do anything you wouldn’t!
  • You won’t be selling your textbooks at the end of the year because you’ll be using them for years to come
  • You have an opinion about the DSM-5
  • You start collecting therapy resources
  • If you’re doing a Clinical PhD, you always have to explain what that actually is
  • You’ve discovered that as with any health profession, there’s a lot of paperwork involved
  • People don’t ask you what the difference between psychology and psychiatry is any more 
  • You have muscles from carrying psych tests around – you really could make a mint designing “Lite” versions!
  • You’ve sat behind a one-way mirror
  • And if my experiences are anything to go by, you get to hang out with a really perceptive and caring bunch of people from all walks of life

Anything to add?

A photo of a group conducting psychotherapy.

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Filed under A bit of fun, A day in the life, classes, Clinical Phd, Practice