Tag Archives: Doctor of Philosophy

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

Research is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.

After a series of phone calls and emails the date is set. Armed with a name, some background information, a general sense of what is planned and a rendezvous point, you set out to meet them. It occurs to you as you near the popular landmark at which you’re meeting, that despite your phone and email exchanges, you don’t actually know what this person looks like. Potentially problematic. Will they be wearing a red rose? Carrying a silver brief case? No. You are not one half of a blind date or playing the starring role in a spy movie, you are a research participant waiting to meet a researcher.


Waiting (Photo credit: Iguanasan)

With experience as both a research participant and a researcher, I can attest that half the fun of participating in research is the ‘surprise’ factor. As a volunteer you’re given background information about the study and what will be required so you have an understanding of what you will be doing. But as best we try, an information letter can’t capture everything about the research experience. We can’t predict that you’ll get a kick out of one of the experiments or learn something about yourself. In some studies the surprises are of a different variety as what appears to be the main aim of the study might not actually be the main aim! I feel honour bound at this point to stress that researchers are not out to trick people and that if we do conceal something it will be because it is absolutely no other way of  studying it, and we’re expected to let you know afterwards and give you the chance to retract your data too if you’re uncomfortable. Let’s just say that Milgram’s experiment would never make it past ethics these days!! 

But what about the surprise factor for the researcher? Surely we couldn’t be surprised by our own research? Of course we can! The day you’re not surprised by your research is the day you stop being a researcher.  We run studies to test out hypotheses but never know for certain what the answer to our questions will be, and if we do, then we’re not doing it right!

At an individual level, research volunteers surprise and teach us too. They might mention something in passing about their experiences that helps us to make sense of that finding that defies explanation and perhaps may inspire future research.  Which is why, as involved and challenging as running a study can be at times, you really can’t beat that on-the-ground understanding of what is and isn’t working and why, and all the little qualitative observations about the participants that bring the numbers to life.

I’ve just passed a bit of a milestone for my research, having finished collecting the data for the first study of my PhD. I’ve spent at least 100 hours collecting data for this project, not to mention the hours entering these data and recruiting over 100 volunteers in between classes, assignments and lately, placement too. Honestly, I still can’t quite believe I’ve finished. Though I’m going to miss interacting with the volunteers, the end of phase one of data collection gives me the reprieve I need to interpret what I’ve found, get my second study up and running and of course to write!

What have I learned from running my first PhD study?

  1. I cannot run three 90-minute study participation time slots back to back and then go straight into a three-hour class expecting my brain to function… I did this once and decided never to do this again!  Well at least not voluntarily! 
  2. It is quite possible that all the things you thought had a very remote chance of occurring in the day to day running of your study will indeed happen and all in the first week. Well, results may vary, but that’s what happened for me! Luckily, I planned how I would handle this in the very unlikely event that it did occur.  
  3. As soon as you finish recruiting, people will ask to participate in your study. Murphy’s Law.
  4. And perhaps most importantly, I learned a new dance. Not the victory dance, the oh-my-goodness-someone-volunteered-for-my-study’ dance. I’m working in an area where a sample of 25 is considered big for one of the two populations I’m studying.  In the end, I managed to recruit almost double this amount of volunteers so it was often all I could do to restrain myself long enough to put the phone down before breaking out into this dance each time I found a volunteer! Picture lots of jumping around and fist pumping. . .

Dancing (Photo credit: merlinprincesse)

So the take home message from my first PhD study in the words of Forrest Gump is that research “is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you are gonna get.”

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

Placement through the eyes of a Clinical PhD student

What people think being on a psychology placement is like…

1 Oh doctor the dream is so horrible

1 Oh doctor the dream is so horrible (Photo credit: Edith Ogleby)

What I thought it would be like…

English: A man diving into Lake Michigan off o...

English: A man diving into Lake Michigan off of his boat, which is anchored off shore of South Haven, MI. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What it’s actually like…

Maybe you’re studying psychology, about to start your first placement or just plain curious. Regardless of how you found your way here, if you’re anything like me, you might be interested in what doing a psychology placement is like. Wonder no more because with all the authority of having five weeks of placement under my belt, I’m going to tell you a bit about the things I do…

Let’s dispel some myths. Apart from the couch in the waiting room, there isn’t another in sight. In fact you’re more likely to find a rocking chair than a therapist’s couch. And as for Rorschach blots and dream analysis, I’ve never studied or used either of them. To my knowledge, they’re not used very often if at all in my country, despite what you might see on TV.

Thankfully, placement  isn’t quite the ‘diving into the deep end’ experience that I thought it might be either. In fact I spent most of my first two weeks observing therapy and educational assessments. These were good opportunities to learn more about how therapy is structured, to familiarise and re-familiarise myself with assessment tools and to see a range of different therapeutic techniques. I’ve since spent the last few weeks administering and scoring an educational assessment and conducting therapy and initial consultations with children and parents under supervision. It’s challenging, but it’s also rewarding and a lot of fun. I’m also lucky to be in a training clinic and therefore surrounded by other people at varying stages of their placement and by supervisors from whom to learn.

Then of course there’s the glamorous side of placement: admin and prep! I’ve been taking referrals, ringing families and schools for updates,  reading about disorders and therapy techniques and putting together a therapy resources folder. For anyone starting their own resource folder, here’s a tip for you; Some people have pinned some handy therapy resources on Pinterest.

So, in sum, I’m really enjoying being on placement and can already see myself growing in confidence and competence as a psychologist in training. For those of you about to embark on your first placement, good luck and if your experiences are anything like mine, you’re going to love it!

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Filed under A day in the life, Clinical Phd, placement, Practice

You know you’re studying to become a psychologist when…

  • You catch yourself identifying the automatic thoughts and core beliefs of soap opera characters
  • You use WISC/WAIS/WIAT/WMS/WPSI (intelligence, memory and achievement tests) as verbs, i.e. I’m WISCing today
  • Your clinical psychology “handbook” text would give the Gutenberg bible a run for its money, it’s huge!
  • You know what Dx, Ax and Rx mean
  • You’ve actually used the phrase “so what brings you here today?”
  • You know your psychological ABCs
  • You’re in touch with ‘what’s in’ with primary and high school kids again
  • People start asking you to weigh in about all sorts of things i.e. schooling, parenting, relationships, work etc., with “great power” comes great responsibility
  • Your class-size has shrunk from 150 to 15.
  • You understand percentile ranks
  • You know that we don’t actually “psycho-analyse” everyone we meet!
  • You realise that designing a therapy program is equal parts theory and creativity
  • You know who Padesky, Carr and Sattler are
  • You paraphrase, reflect and validate during  everyday conversations
  • The number of acronyms you know has increased exponentially: GAD, SAD, BD, PD, CD, ACT, ECT, CBT, FAB, DSIQ, PRI, VCI, DMI, RCT, I/C…
  • Everyone who knows you offers to be one of your clients, a great boost for the morale, until you have to explain to them why they can never be your clients!
  • You’ve endured watching tapes of yourself conducting assessments and therapy
  • You know what the NICE and the Cochrane Collaboration are
  • You’ve practised what you’re (learning to) preach i.e. meditation, behavioural experiments etc. because you can’t really ask a client to do anything you wouldn’t!
  • You won’t be selling your textbooks at the end of the year because you’ll be using them for years to come
  • You have an opinion about the DSM-5
  • You start collecting therapy resources
  • If you’re doing a Clinical PhD, you always have to explain what that actually is
  • You’ve discovered that as with any health profession, there’s a lot of paperwork involved
  • People don’t ask you what the difference between psychology and psychiatry is any more 
  • You have muscles from carrying psych tests around – you really could make a mint designing “Lite” versions!
  • You’ve sat behind a one-way mirror
  • And if my experiences are anything to go by, you get to hang out with a really perceptive and caring bunch of people from all walks of life

Anything to add?

A photo of a group conducting psychotherapy.

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Filed under A bit of fun, A day in the life, classes, Clinical Phd, Practice

2013 Hopes and dreams

Though the second year of my Clinical PhD is seven weeks away, my second year placement is just around the corner. So, I thought I’d post about the coming year now while I’m not juggling research, coursework and a placement.To put it mildly, 2013 is going to be a big year.

In semester one, I’ll attend classes, complete over 300 hours of placement and continue to conduct my research. By semester two I’ll have completed my first placement, begun a new class and be continuing on with my research. Barring extenuating circumstances, these are the things that will definitely happen, but what might happen? And what would I like to happen?

Sun Drenched

Sun Drenched (Photo credit: Digimist)

My ‘clinical’ hopes and dreams for 2013:

  • I hope that my first placement will be a great opportunity: a chance to put theory into practice; to learn from my supervisor, clients and fellow trainees; to improve and grow in confidence in my clinical skills; to help my clients bring about improvements in their lives; to learn more about where I’d like clinical psychology to take me, essentially to become a better trainee psychologist.
  • In 2013, I hope that my coursework will provide me with a chance to engage: to apply what I’ve learned on placement and first year and vice versa, to learn more about CBT, other therapeutic approaches and presenting problems and the different avenues that psychology may take me, in other words, I want to consume and contribute knowledge.
  • I hope that this year I will continue to foster the friendships I have made with my fellow trainee psychologists.

My ‘research’ hopes and dreams for 2013

  • I’d like to develop my critique and analysis skills: to improve my reading muscle, learn new statistical techniques and become more confident in interpreting and appraising various statistical techniques and study designs.
  • I’d like to write: regularly, the chapter for my first study, my case studies, 30, 000 words of my thesis.
  • I’d like to finish (and in some cases start!): collecting data for my first three studies
  • I’d like to design: a better way to let potential participants know about upcoming research and the overarching study for my PhD.
  • And I hope that I will continue to foster the friendships I have made among my fellow PhD students and the faculty.
Balancing Act

Balancing Act (Photo credit: Digitalnative)

Clearly, I have a big year ahead. So my most important hope for 2013 is balance: to pull it all off and not lose myself or my social life in my to-do list!

It will be interesting to see if my hopes and dreams for 2013 come to fruition. Wish me luck!


Filed under Clinical Phd, Goals

Through the eyes of a Clinical PhD student: Embracing difference

Be Different

Be Different (Photo credit: Vermin Inc)

Whether you are a uni student or not, you must read “Our own kind”  by Flynn over at Gradness Madness. It won’t take long and it’s worth it.

As Flynn writes, whatever your niche is, be it academia or rugby, it is amazing to find “your own kind”. Your kind are the people who ‘get it,’ whatever that ‘it’ is for you. I’ve been lucky enough to have stumbled upon “my kind” of people throughout my life, the people I can be  ‘me’ around, for whom I don’t feel the need to hide that I am a little ‘different’ or quirky because I was the kid who actually enjoyed school.

In high school this need to hide my differences was less of an issue and as a teen I can recall one of my teachers telling me that I would love university. They never said why in so many words, but it was the way they said it that stayed with me. I knew from my first year of undergrad what they meant – if you wanted to know more, to satiate your curiosity and to gain different perspectives, this was the place to be. As a postgrad, my teacher’s words have taken on new meaning, because, like Flynn, I have noticed that “my kind” are now everywhere. It’s brilliant! I can share something  and not have to explain why it’s exciting, I can talk enthusiastically about “nerdy” things, whether it’s research, classes or the latest assignment without feeling so self-conscious.

To echo Flynn, the people who don’t share all our interests (and frankly, who does?) are equally great. However, having sometimes perceived my  “nerdiness” as something I should avoid drawing attention to, this opportunity as a postgrad student to better embrace my differences has been a valuable learning curve. My nerdiness may not define me, but it is a part of me, and I’m finally allowing myself to “own it”.


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

Writer’s block: Is it because of procrastination, not feeling ready or something else?


Writing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hands poised at the keyboard or perhaps with pen in hand, you survey the blank screen or paper and IT hits you. The realisation that you need to fill that page or screen with a carefully crafted argument, the knowledge that your thesis will not write itself. But the prospect of writing is daunting. You don’t know where to start, nor do you feel ready. Perhaps you should do something else first? Yes, that seems like a good idea. And is it really procrastinating if it’s productive? You could fill out those research funding forms, print articles or even tidy your desk. These are essential tasks after all…

While I have yet to experience honest-to-goodness-I-could-not-write-if-my-life-depended-upon-it writer’s block (touch wood), like any PhD student there are times when writing my thesis is daunting. While procrastination and waiting to feel ready are often the culprits of writer’s block, procrastination will not get words on the page and as the  ThinkWell team note we have to write before we feel ready, because who ever feels completely ready?! However, sometimes this inability to write cannot be explained by procrastination or ‘lack of readiness’. To paraphrase the late author Ray Bradbury and to apply his observations within a scholarly context, if you find that part of your argument will not eventuate despite honest and active effort on your part, the problem might lie with your subject matter.

I can recall occasions where I have tried to bully my argument onto paper, trying everything from talking it over, to jotting down the main threads, to revisiting the literature from which the argument originated. Having deployed my arsenal of writing tactics with little success, I have wondered whether it might be that this aspect of my argument is tenuous or even unnecessary. These thoughts were not an irrational whim to simply delete everything and start from scratch, we’ve all been there, but the gradual realisation that my argument was not developing because I had taken the wrong path.

As Bradbury implies, at such writing impasses we need to make a U-turn. Yes, the prospect of abandoning part of your argument is daunting and it’s best not to think about all those notes that you will no longer be using,  but writing is the process of clarifying your thinking, so when faced with a genuine problem with our writing, we need to address it. But what should we do? I can only offer you the solutions I have used in the past: stepping away from my thesis to gain some perspective, returning to it with fresh eyes and considering how my argument might progress differently, discussing these ideas with my supervisor and beginning to write again. Will that work for you? I don’t know, but it will work better than ignoring the situation and the realisation that I needed to pursue a different topic did help me write this blog post. In fact, the only reason you have a blog post to read is because after many fits and starts Ray Bradbury and the Think Well team helped me realise that my original post was going nowhere fast and needed to be abandoned!

Hopefully this post will give any struggling writers struggling a sense from this post that they are not alone, and maybe even some ideas to consider. I would also like to acknowledge that some of the ideas in this post were inspired by the ThinkWell workshops I attended and what they taught me about procrastination, ‘readiness to write’ and using writing to clarify your thinking. Last but not least, no ulterior motives here, I am not affiliated with ThinkWell, I just found what they had to say helpful : )

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Filed under Clinical Phd, Research, thesis, writing