When I started my PhD in 2012 at the QUT School of Law and Australian Centre for Health Law Research, I had no idea that by 2020 I would be leading a four-year program to teach medical students about law and ethics. Seemingly long before that, in 2008 I had graduated with a double degree in law and business, and to start my adult life I moved to Canberra for a graduate job with the Federal Government. Further study or work in academia were not on my mind, but by mid-2010 I was chronically ill and not coping with the 9-to-5 grind. I came home, dispirited, and like a stereotypical millennial moved back in with mum and dad. At that point I was 25, I felt like a failure, and had no idea what it was I was going to do with my life.
Finding role models and inspiration
To get back on my feet, the following year I completed a semester in creative industries at QUT Kelvin Grove. I had always been interested in the degree, but it had been brand new when I finished high school, and I had taken the ‘safe’ route. Some years on, I thought it would be something fun to do to get me used to being out and about, and to help get my brain working again after six months of rest at home. During that semester I connected well with one of my tutors who was finishing her PhD in creative industries, and I found myself talking to her about becoming an academic and what her job was like, and what the PhD was like. No one had ever explained to me what HDR study actually involved. She told me about the PhD and she was a good teacher. I started to imagine myself doing a job like that.
I remembered that I had attained first-class honours in my undergraduate legal studies and so was eligible to go straight into a PhD program in the law school. I seriously considered it. I had been a Dean’s Research Scholar and had already done some paid research assistant work with the admirable Professors Ben Mathews (law) and Kerryann Walsh (education). I sent Ben one of those awkward, ‘you probably don’t remember me but…’ emails, asking whether a PhD was something I could realistically do with only first-class honours in undergraduate law, and whether he would be interested in talking to me about it. He and Kerryann were terrific. They told me honestly what it was like to be an academic, and Ben soon informed me I had two weeks before the scholarship application round closed. I very quickly found myself scrambling to search literature and to articulate a research question.
On my first day of the PhD when I met with my principal supervisor (Associate Professor Fiona McDonald) and toured the HDR space for law students at Gardens Point, as it was then on Level 3 C block, I remember feeling a great sense of freedom. I told my parents and friends that I felt like I had finally ‘found my people’. If you are considering HDR study, one of the best pieces of advice I can give is to find your people, people who inspire you or who you think might be suited as mentors. Send the awkward email to the inspiring academic you met years earlier. Talk to them about what it’s like to do the job and keep in touch. While everyone mentioned above would probably be humble about the role they played in my HDR journey, the early advice and support of these four academics working across three different QUT faculties changed my life, and gave me the confidence I needed to begin my PhD.
The PhD process
My PhD was in public health law and ethics. I used a qualitative methodology to interview people about their attitudes towards the government’s role in preventing obesity. For example, my 26 interview participants rated 10 government interventions like a junk food tax, advertising bans, and subsidised nutrition education, from ‘most supportive’ to ‘least supportive’. I then interviewed them about why they thought the government should be involved in some ways but not others. From those interviews, I was able to identify key themes like the threshold of government responsibility versus individual responsibility, and the role of community. I situated those findings within the existing literature around public health law and ethics, and I considered what strategies and public messages might therefore be most useful for governments in attempting to tackle this particular public health issue.
I had obtained an Australian Postgraduate Award for the duration of my study, in addition to a QUT Faculty of Law ‘top up’ scholarship. I also started tutoring in health law and ethics, and constitutional law. Of course, I was still living with my parents. Given I was recovering from an illness I would not have been able to do the PhD without that roof over my head, and I’m mindful that many others face significant social and financial hurdles that I did not. One of the benefits of the PhD for me was that I could design my own project and could work at my own pace from home, and I credit this process with helping my recovery, and reigniting my drive and passion for learning. I completed my PhD full-time in three years.
It’s not always linear
By the time I submitted my PhD at the end of 2014 (the degree was conferred in 2015), I was actually pretty over it. I had worked on this project on obesity prevention for three years and I was proud of my thesis, I knew the work was important, but I did not have the passion to continue. After all, I had picked this topic out of thin air on a bit of a whim, and it probably wasn’t the right thing for me long-term. I never published articles out of my thesis, a decision that was and will forever be looked down on by some academics, but it was the right thing for me to step back when I did. I also tanked my interview with QUT for a full-time early career academic position. That interview had been scheduled a day before my beloved 17-year-old dog Tessa was to be put down, and my mind had been – quite rightly – on her.
So suddenly I was a doctor, on yet another quest to find something to do with this PhD and the research and writing skills I had honed. I ended up back in Canberra. They say if you can’t climb a ladder, try jumping sideways. I got a job with the federal Department of Health in aged care policy that I enjoyed, and the move helped me to learn more about myself. I had more time to write, but I missed teaching, and my friends and family in Queensland. Six months after I moved to Canberra, I came home (yes, again!) and went back to sessional teaching at QUT. It was not secure work, but I hoped it might lead to something more permanent and I was doing my best to keep my eyes and ears open for opportunities.
Academia can sometimes feel like it’s all about being in the right place at the right time. I never thought I would be lucky enough to be in that place, particularly as I had disengaged for two years. By 2017 I knew I wanted to be an academic, but I was realistic about the chances of it happening. It was stressful. Yet one day a colleague recommended me for some sessional marking work at Griffith Medical School, as they had a similar law and ethics course to the course I was still teaching into. Within months, I found myself acting as the lead of that program while my boss was on secondment. Then the school expanded, and I had the chance to apply for a permanent academic job and move to the Sunshine Coast.
It has taken a few years for me to feel worthy of this job I do and the security it affords me. It is hard not to compare yourself to other academics who are better published, more beloved by students, or more experienced. I am once more acting as the lead for the law, ethics, and professional practice program that runs throughout the four-year Griffith University medical degree, on both the Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast sites. I only hope that I am making a difference for those students now and in their future careers (and for their patients also).
If you had asked me in 2012 when I began my PhD, where I would be in 2020, I would never have guessed that I would be working in a medical school, with such a dedicated and talented group of academics and students. Throughout my HDR study I never had a clear picture of where I might end up, I didn’t go into it with a solid plan, but I followed my instincts and I was still right all those years ago to feel like a university was the place for me. Every decision I made had a purpose, no matter how bizarre it seemed to other people at the time. You will never know where your PhD or HDR study will lead you until you do it. Being an academic is hard work but it’s a privilege, it’s rewarding, and it is now a big part of my life.
The other big part of my life is my new dog. My path to this job has led me to her as well.
Higher Degree Research scholarships
QUT Law has opened their annual scholarship round for HDR scholarships for higher degree research starting in 2021. Expressions of interest need to be completed by 20 September 2020. Find out more.