Tag Archives: Clinical PhD

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.

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

The Making of a Therapist

The inaugural Psychology Book Club post is here!

This month’s offering is “The Making of a Therapist” by Louis Cozolino.

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The Whistle-Stop Tour

  • Intended audience: Trainee and early career psychologists
  • Content: A 213 page guide to common pitfalls and experiences of the new therapist
  • Readability: Easy to read and relate to with plenty of ‘take home points’
  • Practicality: Questions posed throughout help you work out how to apply the advice
  • Cost: Kindle $AUD 21.50; Hardback copy from the Book Depository $AUD 35.67
  • Publication details: W.W Norton and Company Ltd. 2004
  • Overall rating: ★★★★★

 

The Extended Review

I’ve read a few books aimed at early career psychologists but this is easily my favourite. Cozolino provides a witty, honest and practical account of the common concerns of new therapists and how to address them. The book is split into three sections: getting through your first sessions, getting to know your clients and getting to know yourself. He covers just about everything from Imposter Syndrome to counter-transference. Don’t be put off by the Freudian language though. I found that it all made sense and could easily be applied in my own clinical work even though I don’t come from a psychodynamic orientation.

The take home points for me were Cozolino’s observations about self-knowledge, the idea that we each need to be aware of, manage and even make use of, our own personal experiences and biases within the therapy room. Cozolino’s stance on this issue was that simply “being professional” by making sure we are aware of ethical codes, guidelines and our own limitations isn’t enough. Too often being professional means staying only “above the neck” and something I’m realising in my own training is that you can’t do therapy well if you’re completely in your head.

I feel I don’t have the words to explain this idea well enough. I guess it’s one of those things you have to experience yourself to truly appreciate the difference but perhaps the infinite wisdom of  Heart and Brain from The Awkward Yeti comic series will help. I think doing therapy above the head is like leaving Brain completely in charge, he gets the job done but sometimes he misses the point entirely and makes things unnecessarily difficult. The view Cozolino and I share is that ideally therapists harness Brain and Heart, allowing Brain to focus on the theory, the science, the ethics and the strategies and Heart to focus on being present, open to experiences and meeting needs to build therapeutic rapport and model healthy coping. This latest offering from Nick Seluk about Brain and Heart seems pretty apt: http://theawkwardyeti.com/chapter/heart-and-brain-2/.

Price wise, ‘The Making of a Therapist’ might be a little out of reach for the student budget. However, I consider this book recommended reading for all trainee and early career psychologists who do therapeutic work, so maybe try to find it in your local university library if you can.

I’d love to hear your feedback on ‘The Making of a Therapist’ if you’ve read it and other recommendations – reading and professional for early career psychologists.

~ 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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Filed under academic culture, Clinical Phd, placement, 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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Therapy as a learning experience for both client and therapist

Every psychology placement teaches you something. While you expect to build your therapy and assessment skills, you might not anticipate the things you’ll learn about yourself. My first placement taught me that I love working with kids, that a 50+ hour work week is just not my calling, and that I’m a practical therapist; no one leaves my sessions without something concrete to use or work on. My second placement hasn’t stinted on personal insights either. For the first time, I’ve had the chance to work with adults and in the public sector. Along the way I’ve met many brave, kind and wise people; clients and practitioners alike, I’ve also learned about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (love it!), and visited hospitals, hostels and everywhere in between. But what have I learned about myself?:

1) I like freedom and autonomy – the ability to tailor therapy and assessment techniques to the client.

The individualised approach can be tricky to provide whether you are a psychologist in the private sector and limited by time and resources, or a psychologist in the public sector and expected to follow a particular assessment protocol. Regardless, I now recognise that I like the idea of individualised therapy and assessment, within my means. Why? One size does not fit all. That, and I like efficiency 😀

2) Sometimes psychologists get concerned, and that’s okay. 

At this point I may have thrown you.. Why is that okay? Aren’t psychologists supposed to be non-judgemental and accepting? How can you expect someone to talk to them about the tough stuff if they are worried or uneasy?  Well, bear with me because I agree. Psychologists should be open and non-judgemental so they can objectively understand and support their clients’ journeys. They also need to make sure that the biases and feelings that come along with being human don’t interfere with their work. BUT, at the same time they need to respect that some feelings, such as a sense of unease, might be an important signal that something is not as it should be; that the client, someone they know or even the psychologist themselves, may be at risk. This information can then be used to prompt further assessment to understand what is going on and to develop a plan to keep everyone safe. So in a nutshell, I learned that objectivity as a psychologist isn’t so black and white, it’s a balancing act of being accepting and non-judgemental while not entirely dismissing your own reactions insofar as they are helpful to therapy.

3) I’m a specialist, not a generalist.

The fact that I’m doing a PhD and therefore learning a lot about a teeny tiny area should have made this revelation a no-brainer, but it was still a bit of a surprise. Having had the opportunity to try lots of different things has shown me that while I could work in other areas – I get the most enjoyment working in my specialty area. This certainly helps with narrowing down what I’d like to be doing next!

So it’s true what they say about therapy being collaborative because client and therapist are teachers and students alike. The therapist may bring a raft of tools to share, but the client also brings lived experience to the table which adds to and shapes this toolkit. And in the process of learning how best to use these techniques to address the issue at hand, the strengths, weaknesses and preferences of both client and therapist can be highlighted.

Who knows what lessons my next placement will lead me to!

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