By Melissa Wheeler, part of The Summer Series of guest posts
I, of course, said yes to writing a blog about my academic adventures, because I have this pesky habit of saying yes to everything. Spoiler alert: this may be the theme of my story.
Let’s start from the tertiary beginning. I attended the University of Alabama – a whole two States away from my hometown of New Orleans. I wanted nothing more than to major in Music Therapy and to play my guitar for those in need. But it turns out, Music Therapy is not such a lucrative career, guitar is hard and, practicing wasn’t my thing. So I decided to switch to Psychology, which I perceived to have endless opportunities and less blister-inducing practicing. During my undergrad, I met my Australian now-husband while we were working at a summer camp in the US, decided that a summer fling could become something more solid, finished my degree, and moved to Melbourne, Australia…with no work experience, no job prospects, but ready for an adventure.
I applied for many psych-related jobs, but was either underqualified, inexperienced, or unlucky; so I ended up working in real estate and retail for five years. I intended to return to studying, but it always seemed that I could leave it for next year or the next. Eventually, I applied for Honours at all the universities in Melbourne and jumped at the opportunity for a Commonwealth Supported Place at the University of Melbourne. I would love to say that the year was wonderful and fun, but it turns out that it’s quite difficult to return to studying after a five year hiatus in a different system and at a much more prestigious university than I had come from. I choked back tears in my first Stats class, because my undergrad courses didn’t even introduce me to SPSS – I’m pretty sure we just calculated formulas and I probably wasn’t paying much attention. But with the help of some great friends and a paid tutor, I was able to pull through.
After working with two excellent supervisors in my Honours year, I decided to continue in the research stream. This decision may have also been motivated by the fact that I did not get into the Clinical Masters program, which I always assumed was my next logical step toward becoming a Psychologist. My plan was to start the PhD and come back to Masters later, you know…if the wonderful world of research didn’t suit me. But, come on, who does a PhD because they’re not sure what else to do? Guilty!
My 3.5 years of PhD candidacy zigzagged from day to day – at times I felt really overwhelmed, with a healthy (actually an unhealthy) dose of imposter syndrome; and at other times, I felt that all I really needed to do was to not quit, and somehow, I would make it to the end. I eventually figured out how to navigate these two extremes – mainly by franticly writing my whole thesis in the last five months, which I would both strongly and strongly not recommend – yes, both, I’m often ambivalent.
In this frantic writing time, I also ventured out and started doing RA work in different departments and in different areas- hoping that one of the connections would turn into a post doc opportunity. And that’s what happened. About four months before I submitted my PhD, I was in the right place at close to the right time (would have been ideal if I had already submitted). I was doing RA work about gender equality at the Centre for Ethical Leadership (CEL), when my supervisor introduced me to the Director of the Melbourne Poche Centre for Indigenous Health who was looking for a social psych post doc to expand their research program on unconscious bias in clinical decision making. While it wasn’t directly relevant to my very specific area of moral psychology (i.e., how people persuasively communicate their moral beliefs), it was something I found interesting and engaging. When this joint post doc at both research centres came to the end of its funding cycle, I was offered a position as Research Manager at the CEL, where I’m doing meaningful work in the areas of applied ethics, gender equality, and diversity management.
I suppose if I was going to throw out any advice, I would say: do everything in your power to insert yourself in the right place and time; be the person that people (who have the power to allocate cool jobs/opportunities) think of when they need an extra hand. Be willing to be flexible. As a moral psychologist, for example, you would be perfectly placed to argue that every research area has a moral angle, so be ready to demonstrate the connection between morality and anything else. In fact, psychology is about humans, and nearly every research area has a human angle, so…be ready to argue the relevance of your work for a range of settings.