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After high school I decided I wanted to be a psychologist, so I enrolled in Bachelor of Applied Science in Psychology at Deakin University. In third year I discovered that to obtain psychologist qualifications I had to undertake a fourth year (Honours) as well as postgraduate study. However, after Honours I needed a break from study and decided to gain some work experience in the field as I was unsure as to what type of psychologist I wanted to be – there are many types out there!
I applied for a job as a Research Assistant (RA) at Orygen Youth Health Research Centre, knowing that the Centre conducted clinical research and that RA work would involve interviewing and assessing patients. I thought the experience would develop my clinical and research skills, and help me decide if working in psychology was what I really wanted.
After three years of working on various projects researching the characteristics and treatment of mental illness in adolescents and young adults, I made the decision to train as a Clinical Neuropsychologist, knowing that its focus on brain and behaviour would suit my interests in both biology and psychology.
While completing my PhD I continued to work part-time as a RA at Orygen and The University of Melbourne. During this time I was assisted in the editing and publishing of a book on the treatment of early psychosis. My role involved coordinating over 60 national and international authors in completing their respective chapters and editing the content. It was through my RA work and completing my own research project during my Doctorate (which examined harm reduction practices and the effects of ecstasy use on brain functioning in young people) that I came to really love doing research.
After obtaining my postgraduate qualifications I was promoted to the position of Research Fellow and Clinical Neuropsychologist in the Clinical Neuropsychology Unit at Orygen and The University of Melbourne. My role involved both clinical and research work, which is unique within psychology, as people tend to do one or the other. I was able to develop my clinical skills as a neuropsychologist through assessing the cognitive functioning of young people presenting with various psychiatric and other neurological conditions.
At the same time I worked on clinical research that focused on examining the cognitive functioning of people with first-episode psychosis and how that relates to their community functioning, such as employment and social life. I am currently a co-investigator of a large, randomised controlled trial of vocational intervention for early psychosis. I recently obtained a postdoctoral research Fellowship through the National Health and Medical Research Council, which means that I am financially supported by the Government for four years to help me develop an independent research career. I hope to develop a cognitive rehabilitation program for early psychosis during my Fellowship.
The biggest lesson I have learnt is that a career in research takes time and patience; human clinical research projects take 3-5 years to complete! A typical day might involve meeting with colleagues to work on research design or supervise RAs, data analysis, reading research articles, writing research articles, or putting together a research presentation. A typical year involves developing your research protocol, obtaining ethics approval to conduct your research, recruiting participants, conducting the research, analysing data and then presenting the results in the form of conference presentations (locally, nationally and internationally) and in journal articles.
Looking back, I did not realise that there would be such a big focus on research methods and statistics during my undergraduate (and postgraduate) studies, and at times I thought it was boring and irrelevant. But now I am amazed at how often I look back at my old text books for guidance and put into practice the skills I learnt on a daily basis. It is a good feeling to conduct research that you know is making a difference to people’s lives.