Category Archives: Reflections

You’re not in Kansas anymore…

As a psychologist in training you learn from other psychologists who deliver your coursework, assess you and/or supervise your placements. Most of the psychologists who trained me worked in the private sector or in clinical research settings. And most of my placement experiences were alongside other psychologists in the private sector. This meant I learned a lot of valuable things about how to be a psychologist, what we do, and why we do it. What I didn’t learn so much about was how we do all of this within the broader system…

There’s nothing quite like stepping out from the environment of a psychologist in training and into the broader mental health system for the first time.  It’s a Dorothy and Toto moment – you are definitely not in Kansas anymore! There are a dizzying array of professions, services, settings and interventions to work with. You begin to truly appreciate what is unique about the way psychology teaches you to think about and approach things. And, you have to figure out how to navigate all the policies, procedures and systems both as representative of your profession and of your clients. It’s hard work!

Reflecting back now on my training – all those times the various ethical guidelines were hammered home, how every situation became an exercise in critical thinking and how I began to suspect I’d be talking about collaborative evidence-based practice in my sleep, I finally get it. It may have seemed dry, repetitive and even unnecessary at times, but all that groundwork was crucial. Why? Well psychology training can be a bit of an echo chamber. It has to be, without that immersion in your profession you can’t get a strong sense of what it is we do and why. But, once you get Out There and realise how different things are it can be a bit of a shock. You may well find yourself in situations where the way you have always operated and your perspectives doesn’t fit with the broader system or other disciplines.  And that’s okay. You just have to try to figure out where to adapt and when to hold your ground and be able to argue your case either way. And it’s because of all that ground work you did as a student, that you can do this.

Keeping it real…learning to make those calls in the bigger system can be terrifying. You will make mistakes, step on toes, and sometimes it just won’t work. At the same time though, that messiness is how you learn and bring about change if you’re willing.  You might even surprise yourself in the process, I certainly have. Only this week I put forward an alternate formulation to a senior clinician, backing my own clinical reasoning and evidence.  Later, another clinician took me to the side to tell me I’d made a good call and that this ability to assert my case and trust my judgement, even when it differed from my seniors, was a real strength of mine. It was bemusing to realise this skill that I was being recognised for was not one I’d possessed at the start of this year and was probably something I would not have predicted I’d have developed by now. So believe me when I say, anything is possible!

Leave a comment

Filed under Early career, Practice, Reflections

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

The Five Year Plan

McLeod’s Daughters, an Aussie TV show, follows a group of women as they negotiate the challenges of life and running a cattle station in the outback. It’s been a long-time since the show first aired, but it’s definitely worth a watch if you haven’t seen it yet.

Over the past few months as I’ve tried to map out where my career might be headed next, I’ve been reminded of Kate, one of the drovers on McLeod’s Daughters. Kate always had big ideas, tenacity and, a need to organise; she had a massive five year plan taped to her wall complete with short, medium and long-term goals!

Like Kate, I’ve always been a planner, at least when it comes to work or study. So I had a plan for how I would become a psychologist:

1) Get good enough grades in Year 12 to get into an Honours program,

2) Gain experience in the field to test out whether psychology was definitely the right fit and to give me a good chance of getting into a postgraduate program in psychology,

3) Seize every opportunity to develop my research, teaching and psychological practice skills and to develop an area of specialty

4) Walk out of uni being able to research, lecture and/or practice as a psychologist.

I first laid out these plans when I was 17, well at least points 1 and 4. Point 2 was added by the end of my first year of uni. And truth be told my pursuit of point 3 was a mixture of deliberate planning and happy accident. I soon noticed that the happy accidents led me to some really interesting places. And it’d be fair to say that my mantra became “this scares me and will be a logistical nightmare, but it’s really going to teach me a lot of things… Sign me up!”

It is very surreal to look back on all those plans and realise that I’ve more or less achieved them. Sure, some things changed as I went along, as they should with any good plan and the influence of serendipity, but now here I am – a psychologist and soon to be qualified academic. It honestly still doesn’t feel real typing that out.

Having reached the end-game of my decade long plan of becoming a psychologist I’ve had some time to think about where my journey might be headed next. At this stage, I have a broad strokes plan:

My main goal is to move towards working as a psychologist in private practice. There are pro’s and con’s to work in the public and private sector, but longer term I feel that private practice is the best fit for me. Chiefly because it will give me greater flexibility in how I operate as a psychologist and how I structure my work-life balance.

I also have a side project that’s important to me too. I’d like to get my research published and some of its more practical elements being used by other psychologists. Long-term that might even involve some consultancy work, outreach and policy development. Who knows? This particular scheme might well take a good ten years to come to fruition, but that’s okay.

I wonder in another five or ten years, which parts of this broad strokes plan will come to fruition, which will change, and how I’ll get there? In my next post I’ll flesh out the private practice plan and how that links in with my job search. Stay tuned 🙂

 

1 Comment

Filed under career, Early career, Goals, Reflections

Contemplating a PhD? Please read this.

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:

  1. A lot of first-author publications, usually in high impact journals (essential).
  2. 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)
  3. Teaching experience (advantageous)
  4. Conference presentations, media coverage of one’s research, involvement with research organisations in the field (advantageous)
  5. 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 the more applied type 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, the supply of PhD graduates 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  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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.  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 PhD students.

Anything else to add? Any stories about breaking into industry, in particular?

Honourable Mentions

Leave a comment

Filed under academic culture, career, Clinical Phd, postgraduate applications, Reflections, Research

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.

IMG_0400

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.

IMG_2716

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.

IMG_2978

3 Comments

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

1 Comment

Filed under academic culture, Clinical Phd, PhD, Reflections, Research

Surviving the PhD

I’ve thought about posting again several times over the last few months, but haven’t really known where to begin. This year has been hard, really hard. I’ve had a rough year in my personal life and with my PhD, not a great combination! I’ve finally settled on posting about how to survive the PhD, with the full disclaimer that this sort of thing is often a case of “different strokes for different folks,” and at times this year, surviving the process has been pretty touch and go!

 

 

 Participate in something outside of academia that you enjoy learning to master (bonus points if it has a social component)

  • It doesn’t matter how much you love research or what your skill level is because in academia you will constantly hear what you are doing wrong and rarely about what you are doing right. It’s also true that some aspects of your progress will be outside of your control e.g. your supervisor might be ill while your other supervisor is overseas, perhaps a computer glitch will corrupt your data; including the back-up copies (this happened to me), or recruitment might be painfully slow despite your best efforts.

 

  • Over time, skewed feedback and having continual hurdles to jump, tends to result in second guessing your abilities and even your personal worth, since we invest so much of ourselves into the PhD. This is why I believe it is really important to have something outside of academia that you enjoy learning, and which is less vulnerable to circumstances beyond your control. Personally, I dance and play musical instruments. I can honestly say that without these things, I probably would have given up my PhD a long time ago. When the going gets tough with my PhD these other activities help to remind me that there is life outside my PhD, more to myself than my PhD, and that I am capable of learning and improvement. You might be thinking, I don’t have the time though. This is what I thought for the first 18 months of my PhD, but when I made the time, I also found that I felt so much better and was actually more productive. Trust me, it’s worth it!

Create a support network

  • They say it takes a village to raise a child, I think it’s the same for completing a PhD. Have you ever met someone who is a brilliant agony aunt, full-time thesis draft reviewer, scientist, statistician, career and crisis counsellor, red-tape navigator, fount of institutional knowledge, advocate AND friend that you can let your hair down with, all at the same time? As PhD students, and human beings, we all need a support network and I feel that a big part of doing a PhD is about working out who is in your network and remembering that is okay to seek them out when you need them.  My “village” is another reason I credit to having made it this far! You know you’re very lucky when you have friends that spot you’re going through a rough patch and respond by sending you a care-package, complete with a mix-CD of your favourite songs and inspirational books.

Normalise

  • The only people who truly get what you are going through are other post-grad students. I find it really helpful chatting to masters, PhD and Clinical PhD students as each group gets different aspects that we’re going through. It’s oddly heartening to find that other people have also reached that point in the year where you just want to run away and join the circus! At the same time though, I find it helps to keep in mind that what is working for someone else may not work for you, and it is never a good idea to compare your progress to other students given everyone’s studies, placements, skill sets and other commitments are so diverse.

Subscribe to the bush telegraph

  • I’m not sure how well “bush telegraph” translates across cultures, but what I mean is sharing information so you have a sense of where the land lies and what might be happening next. It’s been great getting to know the other students who I share my supervisor with, both earlier and further on in their PhD than I am, and in the process, to form our own bush telegraph. The little scraps of information we share amongst ourselves about everything from whether our supervisor is in their office, is particularly snowed under that week or, mentioned an upcoming conference in passing, are invaluable.

Expect the worst

  • If you expect the worst, you’ll be as prepared as you can be. This goes for every aspect of your PhD – thesis drafts, ethics approval, recruitment, analyses, writing up and paperwork; it will all take longer than you expect. There’s nothing like discovering a couple of days before your grant is due that in order for it to be sent off, it needs to go through a week-long bureaucratic process as it bounces between various departments. Or, that the department that usually processes your clearances for working with various vulnerable populations have all gone on holiday, so it will now take months instead of a week for those forms to clear. True story.  Generally, I and my fellow PhDs try to get our paperwork sorted out ridiculously early and resort to asking everyone with a pair of ears whether there is some hidden process we might not know about that needs to be followed and then pass this information along.

Embrace the idea that balance is the ideal, but rarely when completing a double degree

  • Particularly for those of us managing clinical work and research, balance is difficult. In the early years everyone spoke about juggling commitments, but that lends itself to the idea of equity. Sometimes doing a Clinical PhD is not about equity but a good old-fashioned tug of war. You might not see your research or clinical work for weeks at a time because one or the other aspect of your degree is demanding your full attention. This tug of war happens no matter how organised, efficient and hard-working you are, and from personal experience, tugging back by putting in extra hours to compensate for the imbalance can be really counterproductive. While there are times when you may need to work more than a 40 hour week, I don’t feel that this is a long-term solution or a healthy “normal”. In sum, the experience of my fellow Clinical PhD students has been that it is okay to switch your focus to one or the other part of your degree and that the balance between them is best left to sort itself out in the end for the most part.

This list is by no means exhaustive, please feel free to chip in your own survival tips.  All the best for surviving YOUR PhD.

Leave a comment

Filed under academic culture, Clinical Phd, placement, Reflections, Research, running a study