Category Archives: PhD

I’m still here

It’s been a tumultuous year. I’ve discussed some of this before, but 10 months out I’ve some more perspective. Here goes nothing.

In January, I took an intermission from my PhD to travel overseas with a family member with a chronic health condition to assist them in helping another sick family member. I spent three months there. In those three months I did not work on or even think about my PhD. I didn’t have the time!

It took those three months just focusing on the day to day, removed from the world of academia to finally process what I had begun to realise in the the third year of my PhD; I wanted out of academia. It was a scary and a liberating realisation. It was liberating to decide that I wanted out because I could get off the merry-go-round of publish or perish and extra-curricula commitments designed to make me a competitive candidate for academia. Instead, I could focus on finishing my Clinical PhD and pursuing clinical work both therapy and assessments full-time rather than predominantly assessment work part-time as I had previously intended.

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I took some more time off when I returned home to recuperate from all the care-taking I had been doing. Then I began to consider how equipped I was for my new game plan. I had some concerns. Across the placements I’d completed and my research, I’d gained considerable experience with diagnostic and assessment work and good grounding in therapy for supporting children and their families. However, I had relatively less experience providing therapy to adults.  I felt that I had not yet had enough experience with adult therapy to rule this sort of work in or out, and that I could do with more exposure working with this population in an in-patient clinic setting to complement my previous experience in  community based psycho-social rehab work.

I voiced my concerns to someone in the department and was offered an extra placement that would give me the chance to support people with some of the most complex difficulties you can encounter as a psychologist and give me a greater breadth and depth of experience. The catch? The placement would clearly be very challenging, involved a very long commute and would finish just three months before my thesis was due. The placement was exactly what I needed, but the timing was awful. What did I do? I took the opportunity anyway.

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I’ve since started the placement and it was a good move. The challenges the clients who attend the clinic present with are complex but the supervision is excellent and I’m learning so much. Thankfully the commute is a little quicker than anticipated too. The work is also less difficult than I anticipated too.

As for the impact on my research, I can’t deny that there has been an effect. I’ve not written a thing towards my thesis, but data collection is getting there, slowly. So I just remind myself to do what I can and be kind to myself. It’s bittersweet watching my cohort enter the final weeks before they submit, knowing they will soon be gone and I will still be here. But next year, that will be me too: thesis submitted, job applications in, freedom awaiting.

This past year and my clinical work has reminded me of a favourite maxim of mine that I would like to share with you:

Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.

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Filed under academic culture, career, Clinical Phd, PhD, placement, psychology, Reflections

Intermission

By the end of my intermission I’ll have been absent from my PhD for 5 months. Five months are a long time to be MIA from your PhD. When I return, I’ll have to get acquainted with my research, get my head round all the changes in my department and at the same time start the last year of my PhD. It’s all a bit daunting.

I think what scares me the most though, is that I’ve decided that I don’t want to go into academia any more. Don’t get me wrong, I love research; the intellectual challenge and the reward of finding out something new, especially when it has practical applications for helping other people. I was always one of those people who was 100% confident from the beginning that I wanted to be an academic. At university I found “my people,” made lifelong friends and had some fantastic opportunities along the way.  However, I’ve come to the gradual realisation that my priorities: family, friends, being healthy, having job security and enjoying the small things in life, are just not compatible with the path to success in academia. For me, it would mean post-doc hopping around the world on minimal pay for years while clocking the inevitable 50-hour (or more) work week in a highly competitive industry with the odds firmly stacked against me ever gaining a permanent job. I have a lot of respect for the people working within academia or aspiring to work in academia, and acknowledge that it is possible to make it all work, but I now know that it’s just not the path for me any more. I don’t regret doing a PhD and fully intend to complete mine, but I don’t plan to apply the skills I have learned within this degree in a traditional academic environment any more.   It has taken a little while, but I’m genuinely okay with this realisation.

I’ve been working on the ‘what next’ for a little while now. It’s still terrifying but not as overwhelming. At the moment, I’m toying with the idea of working as a part-time psychologist and part-time consultant, perhaps to some disorder or disability orientated organisation. Ideally, the consultant role would involve some research, perhaps developing and evaluating therapy programs. Alternatively, I’ll work part-time as a psychologist and part-time in another field drawing upon my media, communication and generic research skills. Who knows? That’s what I’ve got to work out now and that too is daunting. Which doors do I close? How? When? Who I can talk to about this? Who can offer me guidance about my options and how to proceed? And the more immediate question, what does “being a PhD student” look like for me now when the path I’ve been prepared for, is not the path I’m taking? IMG_1907

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What the heck is a post-doc?

Before I signed up for a PhD, I did my homework. I wrote three different PhD proposals for three different universities and chatted to PhD students and lecturers about the academic career path. Still, it wasn’t until half way through my first-year that post-docs crossed my radar. At first, post-docs were a mystical phenomenon. Something that people spoke of in awed and sometimes despairing tones. It wasn’t until I attended my first conference that it became clear I had it all wrong.  Post-docs were not the optional extra I’d thought they were, but for most aspiring academics of my generation, a necessary step in pursuing an academic career.

So what the heck is a post-doc?

Post-doc is shorthand for a post-doctoral position. Essentially, this is the first academic position you earn following the submission of your doctoral thesis/dissertation. Job descriptions vary, but generally, a post-doc is a short-term contract or scholarship completed by someone 0-5 years post their PhD. They tend to last two to three years and to be geared towards research though there are exceptions. A post-doc can sometimes be more teaching based, reflect a combination of teaching and research and in psychology at least, clinical work too.

So it’s like doing a second PhD?

Not really. As a post-doc you’ve made the jump to independent researcher. Sure, you’ll have a boss to report to, but the buck stops with you as you devise, manage, complete and publish research projects. Unlike a PhD when we tend to pitch a project and apply for a scholarship, most post-docs will do the reverse, accepting a position offered and funded by the university and often with a set project. In the US post-doc salaries range from approximately 39,000 – 51,000 USD, in the UK £25,000 to £40,000, and in Australia from $60,000 to $82,000. As always though, there are exceptions to the rule and some post-doc candidates will  create these jobs, winning grants and using this money to pitch a post-doc to a university that they would like to work from.

How do I get a post-doc?

Honestly, that’s something I’m still trying to work out. This post just reflects what I’ve worked out so far. From what I can tell, hunting for a post-doc is a highly competitive process with many people having to move state or even overseas to secure a position. What can give you the edge as an applicant also varies widely, though publications seem virtually essential. The other trick seems to be having an ear to the ground about what’s on offer. Post-docs typically aren’t advertised in the local paper but through specialist listings (which are often erratic) and word of mouth etc.

All I know is that I’ve decided that for me it’s challenge accepted. It may be near impossible, but I’m going to do my darndest to put myself in the best position I can to get a post-doc, because as much as I like clinical work, I really can’t picture myself not doing research too. Wish me luck.

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A leap of faith

Simulated gravitational lensing (black hole go...

Simulated gravitational lensing (black hole going past a background galaxy). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Generally, I’m upbeat about my thesis. Yes, things go wrong, I have the occasional moan or wonder whether (insert research problem here) will ever work out, but on the whole I love my project and being a PhD student. Right now though…my thesis is annoying me. There, I finally said it.

 

What’s brought this on? Well, I’ve reached the point in my PhD where I’ve laid the majority of the ground work for the study that is the bread and butter of my thesis.  The study is exciting because it’s novel, has practical use and could potentially help fill a gap (read: black hole) in the literature. Essentially I’m setting out to measure something really complex, so I need to design the measure and test it out.

 

The novelty and gaping black hole that is the literature gap in this area also makes designing this measure scary and difficult. I don’t have a comprehensive body of knowledge to lean on.  There’s hardly anything out there, and what is out there is often contradictory. I’ve run some of my own studies which have definitely helped, but it will take years of people doing the same kind of research I’ve been doing to really get a clear understanding of the field. As you can imagine then, trying to come up with my own ideas based on what little we do know is challenging; I’ve been thinking outside the box and entertaining even the wildest of ideas. The hard part is grounding these ideas in my rationale, rejecting the ones that don’t fit (no one likes to kill their darlings) and then explaining the why, what and how.

 

It’s not easy, but at the same time, if it was, someone would have done it already! Knowing that other people think that this is important work and that it will help people  also keeps me going  when it all seems too hard. The odds are that it might not pan out, but if I work out how to capture even some of the things I need to, it will be a big step forward. I just need to take a leap of faith. It’d be really nice if it did mostly pan out though…

 

I’ve never wanted to have a preview of my future, but part of me is curious about how this will all turn out. Wish me luck and watch this space!

 

 

 

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Filed under Clinical Phd, PhD, Reflections, Research, running a study

An adventure

Late last year I set a goal to attend a conference in 2013. I was aiming for a local conference but my supervisor suggested I try for an international one, the biggest in my field, with an abstract submission date a little over a week away!  That was one frantic week as I learned how to  squeeze my 11,967 word thesis (who’s counting?),  into a 500 word correctly formatted abstract.

The next hurdle was working out how I would get to the conference if I was accepted. No one else in my cohort had been to an international conference, so I took to asking a few kind students further on in their PhD about what they knew and who might be ‘in the know.’ Eventually, I was granted permission to be absent from placement and coursework, should my poster be accepted and sorted out my funding.

Months passed. I honestly thought I had Buckley’s chance of being accepted (over 200 people weren’t because so many had applied). To my surprise I turned out to be one of the lucky ones who was accepted to present a poster at the conference. I couldn’t believe it. I was going to a conference, an international conference, and I was even going to be able to squeeze in a short visit to relatives overseas. I barely had time to process any of this though because the lead up to the conference was horrendous! I was juggling placement, work as a research assistant, coursework, an assignment, conference prep and packing. This chaos as I tried to ‘land a few planes’ before I left as the Thesis Whisperer would say, was the inspiration for the fire-fighting duck post from a few months ago. The trip was well worth the chaotic lead up though and full of new experiences: my first time travelling by myself (though I was occasionally able to share the journey), in Europe and at a conference.

Being all alone in a non-English speaking country did not faze me. Aside from almost professing my love for a particular food instead of ordering it (do not trust Google Translate!!), I did quite well. My proudest achievement was ordering double-sided photocopying.  The only problem was that when I started picking a few useful phrases and colloquialisms and had learned how to say them without completely mangling them, people thought I was fluent! Whoops!! Far from it.

My limited knowledge of the language only got me so far though. For example, I had nothing to work with to tell a salesperson that I wasn’t interested in her hand creams, though my ignorance resulted in a free sample so all’s well that ended well. I also realised that while my travel prep had involved making sure I knew the name of common landmarks, numbers and how to ask for directions I had overlooked ‘excuse me’ and ‘sorry.’  I felt horribly rude not being able to apologise and so had to resort to facial expressions and mime. I’ve always admired people living in a country that does not speak their first language but I’ve even more respect for them now.

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The town I stayed in was beautiful. I loved the mix of the old and the new, wandering down cobbled streets with a cathedral on one corner and Zara on the other! Trying the local fare was also an adventure, you were just as likely to be handed four beers and not the four plates you asked for!! I’d love to go back one day, armed with a deeper understanding of the language.

The conference itself was awesome, in the literal sense; there were almost 2000 attendees from all over the world! It was fantastic to meet some really famous and  lovely researchers and PhD students who shared my research interests. People were genuinely interested in my research too taking hand-outs or requesting them when I soon ran out of them. It can be easy to forget that people other than yourself and your supervisor might be interested in your research too!

Meeting other PhD students was interesting too. They came from universities from the exotic to the well-known and from small research groups to large research groups with seemingly unlimited funding and samples. There were also cultural differences too, in the way people networked and  in their lives back home. It opened my eyes to the competition but also to the opportunities, shared interests and collegiality within the global research network. Maybe I will consider at least applying for an international post-doc, who knows? I do know that I very much like my university  though, and ideally,  it’s where I’d like to end up.

My conference adventure left me with several gifts. First, a greater sense of confidence; if I can fend for myself in a foreign country and muddle through in a foreign language, I can do anything! Second, hope; academia is incredibly competitive but there are some amazing opportunities out there, including international conferences, if you can combine hard work with enough serendipity to secure them. Third, my adventure left me with a stronger sense of belonging; at the local level, I got to know our little research team better and at a broader level,  I feel more part of the research community and that I do have a role to play in it, however tiny.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained!

 

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Filed under academic culture, Clinical Phd, communication, conferences, Goals, milestone, PhD, Reflections

Hiding behind cushions and writing letters

A haunted castle

A haunted castle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I detest scary movies. I just can’t cope with the suspense, in fact I hide behind the nearest cushion when I watch them. Still, scary movies are a perfect metaphor for what it is like to be on the cusp of something big. When the protagonist walks into the basement (why is it always the basement, don’t these people watch scary movies?!) you, the viewer, unlike the protagonist, know that something big (and in this case, bad) is about to happen. Sometimes in life we are the naive protagonist, unaware of imminent events and their likely impact. At other times we are the viewers who realise that something big is happening.

Currently, I’m identifying with the viewers from my scary movie scenario. I get the feeling that I’m on the cusp of something big. Maybe many big things. It probably has a lot to do with starting my Clinical PhD and being a 20-something.  In the past when I’ve felt I was on the cusp, I’ve written letters to my future self about my current experiences and hopes for the future. While I will be writing a letter to Dr Honourable Mentions in her final year, I was inspired by this post http://blogs.plos.org/thismayhurtabit/2010/08/28/letter-to-a-young-doctor/ by Shara Yurkiewicz to blog about my goals too.

Dear Honourable Mentions,

In 2012, one month into your Clinical PhD studies you had some hopes and dreams for your future self, the student about to graduate with a PhD in Clinical Psychology in 2015/2016.  You hoped that:

  • You would be as excited now as you were back then about it all: life, uni, your career, the future…
  • You would have been successful in managing the balance between research and practice, recognising the importance and enjoyment you get from each and having become what you always wanted to be: an academic and a psychologist.
  • You have been sharing this journey with great people and that you have regularly taken time out to have fun and seize the day

Moving on from these ‘big three’ over-arching goals to some that are more specific, you also hoped that:

  • You would have had the chance to publish some of your research
  • You seized the opportunity to travel overseas, meeting some of the people whose work you have read and cited
  • You have had the chance to present at a conference and hold your own
  • You have given a lecture and/or run a tutorial
  • You were able to master counselling, therapy and assessment skills – by master, you mean being able to conduct a session with a client without feeling like you are learning to drive a manual for the first time. You haven’t actually seen any clients yet, but from all reports and from practising with your peers it’s obvious it’s going to take a little while before you can monitor all the things you need to be doing and actively listen and respond to clients without feeling like this.
  • You have helped clients realise their own abilities and resources, in other words embraced non-directive/client-centred therapy
  • You feel that you are competent with a range of clients, e.g. people of varying ages with differing concerns
  • You have developed your own style as a clinician, based on all that you have learnt and with the flexibility to adapt to each client
And finally, my miscellaneous goals:
  • To finally have learned to play ALL of “The Heart Asks Pleasure First”
  • To have figured out how your acoustic guitar works – It’s one thing being able to read music, and quite another understanding the system underpinning which string corresponds to which note
  • To have had a snowball fight
  • To have been involved with some sort of social group e.g. sports, dance, performance etc.
  • To have participated in a flash mob –  I did say these were miscellany

Best of luck with it all Honourable Mentions circa 2015/16. I know you can do it. And remember, I’ll be back here to remind you that you can if you forget.

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Filed under Clinical Phd, Goals, milestone, PhD, Reflections

Two weeks into a Clinical P(retty) H(uge) D(eal)

It feels weird to write that it has only been two weeks since I started my Clinical PhD in psychology. Weird, not because this past fortnight has dragged by, it hasn’t, but because it feels like I’ve been a Clinical PhD candidate for longer than just two weeks. I think it’s because the usual ‘start of the year rites of passage’ happened in fast-forward. Thanks to the many perks of having only two seminar rooms and fourteen people in the clinical program, I already know where all my seminars are held and my classmates’ names.

Another unusual experience is being the youngest, at least in the clinical program. There aren’t many school leavers and I’m the only one of us who didn’t take a year off between undergraduate and postgraduate study. I must admit I was surprised when I realised I was ‘the baby’ of the group. I’m almost always the oldest, though I’m really not much more than a year younger than the other school leavers. It’s a great group, everyone has such diverse backgrounds so we all bring something new to the table.

At this point I should probably explain my degree so you’ll know what I mean when I make distinctions between the clinical (‘practical’) program and my research/PhD. I’m undertaking a Clinical PhD in psychology. Simply put it’s a double degree; a Masters in Psychology (the clinical program) and a research PhD. Traditionally, a Masters degree is two years and a ‘straight’ research PhD is three years. My degree is four years altogether. I’ll submit a PhD thesis rather than a Masters thesis (so mine will be quite a bit longer) but unlike a straight PhD I’ll also complete coursework and 1000 hours of placements. I could have tried to do the two degrees separately, one after the other, but I figured it would be good to get it all done at once in a shorter time frame. It’s also nice doing both programs simultaneously. I have variety and, motivation to make the most of the time I spend working on my research. I’m also finding that each part of my degree; the clinical program and the research, is useful for the other.

Books about survey research and survey design.You’ve heard a lot about the clinical program, but what about the PhD side of things? There are roughly ten people in that program and most of us are in the shared office where the first years are traditionally placed. This office has several great nicknames, but so as not to make it blatantly obvious where I hail from, I’m going to come up with one of my own: the Nerve Centre. There are eight of us in the Nerve Centre, though I’ve never seen more than four people in there at once. Most of us work from home from time to time or, at other organisations if we have an external supervisor. We each have our own computer, a desk and some storage space. If you’ve ever been an undergraduate student you’ll appreciate what a luxury this is!

There are several other benefits to being in the Nerve Centre. First, I feel more inclined to persevere when things get difficult because there are other people working away beside me. Second, when I’ve reached saturation point, there’s someone to chat to. This really helps normalise those feelings of uncertainty. Lastly, let’s face it, where else are you going to readily find people who get excited by research and the prospect of unlimited printing?!

At the end of the first fortnight of my clinical PhD I can confidently say I’m loving it! And, I have to agree with a very good friend of mine, doing a Clinical PhD is a Pretty Huge Deal.

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