Category Archives: A day in the life

The experience of learning to work with people who are feeling suicidal

There’s not much out there about what it is like to be an early career psychologist. There are books aimed at this demographic well worth a read (e.g. The Making of a Therapist, Letters to a Young Therapist), but they’ve all been written by people towards the end of their careers. I haven’t really found any birds-eye view accounts of what it is like to begin witnessing, learning and knowing things about this profession for the first time, or about the process of navigating all the personal and professional changes that all these firsts bring. The “Life as an Early Career Psychologist” section of this blog was inspired by this gap. This week’s post explores a very important issue for any early career psychologist: the experience of learning to support people who are suicidal. Given the topic, this post does mention suicide so if you feel it may be distressing for you, I encourage you to skip this one.

~~~~~~~~~~~

“You should be a doctor” the other kids would say to me. Then I’d picture myself, scalpel poised, in the middle of surgery. Ugh!! It was never the blood and gore or years of study that put me off medicine. It was the fact that if I made one wrong move someone might die. Ultimately, I decided to become a psychologist… Because that required no degree of responsibility or that I work with people to help them stay alive, I say with tongue firmly in cheek!

My first experience with suicidality happened as an undergraduate psychology student on a work experience placement, well before any formal training to help with supporting people feeling suicidal. I would be lying through my teeth if I said that that experience had not at all anxiety provoking! Thankfully, my first instinct was to ask myself what do I need to do to keep this person safe? And so I made sure to seek support from the staff overseeing me who had the training that I had lacked.

Things were different when I began my formal postgraduate training to become a psychologist. By this time I had been taught about evidence based practices for supporting people who were feeling suicidal. And so, the next time I encountered someone contemplating suicide, my initial reactions were different, this time I thought about both the meaning of the disclosure and how best to respond. E.g. I am so glad this person has felt comfortable enough to tell me they are feeling suicidal. Am I doing everything I possibly can to get this person the support they need to help them stay safe?

While it is vital to understand the process of what to do when someone discloses suicidal thinking, it’s quite another thing fluently translating this knowledge into action to best support the individual in front of you. Hence, why psychologists are heavily supervised as they find their feet in this arena. Part of this process is about learning how you respond in these situations. I’d been worried I might become anxious and forget what to ask when faced with my first client who was feeling suicidal. I remember bringing these concerns to supervision and, as a result, I learned what I needed to do to remain calm and methodical.

Developing confidence in my approach to asking about suicidal thoughts and feelings didn’t happen overnight. There was just so much to consider. How should I go about assessing suicidality, especially for people who find suicidal thoughts, urges and behaviour difficult to talk about?  How do you go about weighing up what supports to offer and when?  This process got less clunky with time and practice and, as my knowledge of available support services and processes expanded.

My first experiences calling crisis lines and supporting people to present to hospital still stand out clearly though. In the moment I just did what I needed to do to help people keep themselves safe. At the end of the day though, I’d feel wiped out. So looking after myself in these high pressure situations was also a skill to be learned.  How could I balance my case-load and other responsibilities while responding to crises? What things did I need to do to prevent burnout? What did I need to do to look after myself when someone died by suicide? It was a lot of trial and error figuring out the best way to respond to these situations, and it looks different for everyone. You can’t truly know what you need and what works for you until you experience it firsthand but self-reflection and making educated guesses help.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Developing all of these skills is an ongoing process. I’ve never felt, and will never feel, like I’ve 100% found my feet in supporting people feeling suicidal, or with any other aspect of my work as a psychologist. I’d be deeply concerned if I did feel that way, because that kind of thinking breeds complacency which can be dangerous. In my eyes, when you stop questioning your practice, you stop being the most effective psychologist you can be.

This continual learning and growth as a psychologist is what makes this job so challenging and so rewarding. And I suspect, that this challenge and growth is all the more amplified for those of us in the early years of our career. Not only are we coming to grips with the nuts and bolts of what to do in the face of great complexity, but we are learning about how we cope in often extreme situations, and how these experiences shape us personally and professionally.  I have noticed phenomenal changes myself in my first six months as a qualified psychologist both in my therapeutic approach, clinical reasoning and, in my perspective on life. During this time I’ve faced some incredibly difficult situations that have challenged me on every level. At the same time they have helped me to solidify why I do what I do; why I go about it the way that I do and, to learn about myself and what I need, to be able to do this work.

The one constant in my path as an early career psychologist, especially working with people who are suicidal has been hope. No matter the difficulties I face in doing this work, or the challenges the people I support are facing, I hold the hope that it will get better for them, that change is possible and, that what each of us does, however small, matters. Ultimately, I think that’s what allows me to work in this field, knowing that the challenges are more than worth it.

Leave a comment

Filed under A day in the life, Early career

The Transition from PhD Student to Psychologist

Ever wondered what it’s like for to make the transition from PhD student to psychologist? Read on!

What’s it like adjusting to full-time work?

It’s a walk in the park. Across the years of completing my PhD I was regularly clocking in a lot more than a 40 hour work week. Now, I have weekends. My evenings are free from administrative tasks, assignments, emails and extra work. I physically can’t bring my work home with me. It’s amazing! I have so much more time and brain space now. I’m even learning to play the guitar, something I’ve wanted to do for almost a decade but just could never fit in with all the other things I was juggling.

What’s it like getting back into doing therapy?

The gap between the final placement and first job plays on the minds of many a psychologist in training. Why? Well in any post-grad psych degree you juggle coursework, placement and a thesis. Once they’re all passed, you can register as a psychologist and look for a job. However, for many Clinical PhD students there can be a gap of around a year between finishing placements and seeking registration because completing the thesis takes up a lot of time. Many students therefore worry that their therapy skills may become rusty from lack of use and/or that they will be less marketable to potential employers.

From my perspective, I had a gap of about a year between placement and my job search and it did not deter potential employers in the slightest. The transition into getting back into doing therapy again was also so anticlimactic that it was ridiculous. It was just like riding a bike again. Well, what I assume that would be like if I’d ever properly mastered bike riding to being with ;).

What’s it like no longer being a student?

I’m finding that this last aspect of transition takes the most getting used to, and perhaps not for the reasons that you would expect. On a trivial level, I can now officially identify as ‘psychologist’ rather than ‘trainee psychologist.’ It saves time when writing case notes and is a much more readily understandable job! If I had a dollar for every time I had to clarify what being a trainee psychologist meant…

On a less trivial note, the hierarchy I operate in now is different. I have more peers than superiors and my colleagues regularly look to me for insights due to my training or specialty. This stands at odds to the distinct hierarchy of academic research within which I’ve spent the bulk of the last decade! I’m also far less likely to be surrounded by other psychologists now than in the clinics I’ve worked in on placements.

Leave a comment

Filed under A day in the life, Clinical Phd, Early career, psychology, Reflections

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.

2 Comments

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

1 Comment

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

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.

1 Comment

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!

1 Comment

Filed under A day in the life, Clinical Phd

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.”

Leave a comment

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