Category Archives: 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 ūüôā

 

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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

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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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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.

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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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