The Professor John Coveney Session

In this Session, Professor John Coveney joins Steph and Tamara to talk about the variety of his day, his journey from a printing apprenticeship in London to Professor of Food, Culture and Health at Flinders University, in Adelaide, and he shares with listeners a brief but ancient history of guilt, pleasure and food in moderation, and turning his PhD into a book that is now in its second edition.

I was very good at chemistry, the chemistry of food and all that. But I went to University without doing any biology… I remember the first couple of lectures, and I thought the lecturers were saying “D and A” , not “DNA”. I really had no idea what they were talking about…

Listen to the Interview with Professor John Coveney

Because I undertook my thesis in the Humanities I was able to step outside the usual thesis structure. I did not know it at the time but stepping away from convention allowed me to easily publish much of my thesis as a book “Food, Morals and Meaning: The Pleasure and Anxiety of Eating” (Routledge), which is now in its second edition.

Q&A with Professor John Coveney…

What is the title of your PhD: The Government and Ethics of Nutrition

Where did you complete your PhD: Murdoch University, Western Australia

What year did you graduate: 1996

What undergraduate degree/s have you completed: BSc (Hons) Nutrition and Dietetics (Surrey University, UK)

What is your job title, today: Professor, Food, Culture and Health

Professional Page:


Interview with Professor John Coveney

Steph: Today we’ve got Professor John Coveney who graduated from Murdoch University in 1996 with his thesis, titled “The Government and Ethics of Nutrition”. John has navigated a career which has sent him travel around the world and he has contributed enormously to the health and wellbeing of individuals and populations. He has mentored HDR students, early career researchers and supported undergraduates with their first experiences of research. He’s written eight books and many more book chapters and has more than 200 published research articles. He’s very well regarded and distinguished researcher. These days heads up an international research collective for food, culture, and health among other things. He can usually be found in his office at Flinders University. Welcome John.

John: Thank you very much, Stephanie.

Tamara: Okay, John, first of all, just to set the scene of where we’re at, what is your job? What is your role and what is your day like.

John: I’m Professor of Food, Culture, and Health. And in that role, I produce research. I support students doing research and I apply for funding to do research. It’s a really groovy area because ‘Neon Light’ is about sharing meals. We believe that, we’re interested in the extent to which people share meals, the health benefits of sharing meals and any barriers and leavers that may operate in that particular area. So it’s been a really interesting journey. We’ve been doing this for about three years and I’ve been surprised at how many people have come to us from different parts of health and medicine, to allow us to explore the opportunity to share meals.

Tamara: It’s the culture of eating together

John: It is really. Yeah. And, we have been working recently for example, with people from audiology, because it turns out that one of the tell-tale signs for hard of hearing is that people disqualify themselves from sharing meals because it’s just too difficult for them to keep up the conversation. They just sit back and say, I can’t do this any longer. It’s a tell-tale sign for serious hearing loss. You wouldn’t have thought that.

Steph: My grandfather, whenever he sat down for a family meal, we had very large family, very noisy family. He had just turned his hearing AIDS off. He wasn’t even part of the conversation, you’d say a Pappa, what do you think? And nothing.

John: We’ve actually got some students who are doing a research project on that. Some audiology students who will be talking to people in couples with, one of them with hearing loss and the other one, having to talk about what that’s like in the era of conviviality and others who don’t have hearing loss, but may still experience the problem of noisy restaurants and things like that. So that’s my day job. I also do some teaching and at the moment I’m teaching on a topic called qualitative research methods, which is good, cause that’s really where I kind of sit with my methodologies for research. On a normal day, I’d be counselling PhD students. I’d be writing grants. I’d be, putting ideas to my colleagues about the direction of our research, as well as taking care of students who are enrolled in a topic around qualitative research methods. I’ve got a very rich, area of the Academy that I operate in I’m very lucky, yeah,

Tamara: You are. Variety is the spice of life. Yeah.

Steph: Bring it back to the beginning where your whole journey began. When you were a kid, like, did your parents go to University? Was academia something that was….

John: No. No. In fact, I grew up in a part of London where I can’t remember anybody going to University. It was just wasn’t part of the expectation that you would do that. In fact, before I went to University, I did an apprenticeship as a printer. I did a trade and, through that trade, I got some trade qualifications, a bit like TAFE and that allowed me to take a journey into academia. And so I, I did that. It was terrifying. It really was terrifying because I had, it was, I had no expectations. I didn’t have any real support because nobody I knew had taken that journey. It was an area of my life that’s still kind of, I reflect on and think, well, that was quite brave to do that. The trade qualifications really had nothing to do with the area I was interested in, but they got me into University.

Steph: What made you make the decision to make that jump from trade to University? Yeah,

John: I think that I was a curious kid, and that curiosity was never fully satisfied when I was at school. I didn’t go to a Grammar School. I didn’t go to a school that specialized in academia. I went to what was called Secondary Modern school. You were destined to do trades there, but I knew I had more than I was giving and I really needed to leave school and go to work and experience work, on what work was like and realized that I really missed him opportunities by not paying attention at school. When I was a printer, you were allowed to go to day school, one day a week. And I was doing rather well. I did actually have some of the lecturers who said, if you wanted, you could actually go on and enter University if you took this particular pathway with your trade qualifications.

John: That was lovely that people actually took an interest in me and yeah, and really helped me achieve what it was I was able to achieve. Going to University was actually quite difficult because, I was surrounded with people who had kind of gone to school, gone to Grammar School, got their O Levels, got their A Levels and then down to University. And I kind of came in sideways. Because I didn’t follow the normal trajectory again, that was scary, but I did rather well in my course, which was a Bachelor of Nutrition and Dietetics, I was fascinated by food and I was a good scientist. I was a very good chemist. The kind of chemistry of food and nutrition was really appealing to me. Although I went to University without doing any biology or botany or anything like that, I just, again, I threw myself in the deep end and I remember a couple of the first lectures. I thought the lecturer was saying D and A, not DNA and I had no idea what I should have kept those notes to remind myself. I really was nowhere near where you should have been.

Tamara: Did you, so the step from printing to food, were you a, a foodie?

John: I was, and I did toy with the idea of going into hospitality, but to be honest, the hours of working were so antisocial. Even at that age, I thought I’m not going to stick this. If I go to work in a restaurant or a bar or something like that, I’d be working when all my friends are partying. I wasn’t very keen to do that. Although I did maintain, I still maintain a very strong interest in cuisine and food and the different cultural aspects of food. That’s something that I’m fascinated by and I’m supported in that by my partner, Melanie, my wife, in fact, I think that we probably got together because were so interested in food and cuisine. And, so that was something that fascinated us and still fascinates us. Yeah.

Tamara: That’s a good thing to be in. I think. How old were you then when you started at University, did you finish your trade qualification?

John: I did. I worked as a print for a couple of years as well. I entered University when I was 23.

Tamara: So you were a mature age student

John: Yeah. That in the UK, that brought it’s advantages to just because I was able to get a full grant to study. I didn’t have to pay any student fees or anything like that. Not only did I not have to pay that, but the state paid me to do my degree. I was very lucky there that I got a full grant from the state, which meant I didn’t have to worry about my parents’ contribution or anything like that, which would have been a hassle. Cause they were very supportive, my family, but were hard up for money, so it wouldn’t have been something they would readily have parted with.

Steph: From your undergraduate degree, did you go on and do honours or masters?

John: I did. Yeah I did. I did an honours degree in nutritional biochemistry at the end of my honours degree. I could have done a PhD. I decided not to, I was really interested in travel. With my partner, Melanie, went to Papua New Guinea and we did some voluntary services work there as part of an organization called Voluntary Services Overseas. We stayed there for two years and it’s probably the most formative time of my whole life. Those two years being in a culture that was so foreign from my own, everything was different. Everything was just totally different. It’s quite scary actually. It was good job that there were two of us cause we could support each other. I was a, a nutritionist for one of the provinces Madang Province in New Guinea. When we finished that, I thought I would do a PhD then, because I worked with some researchers who were interested in the growth of children and I thought I would do that, but no I parked the idea and then came to Australia and I worked as a dietician, both a clinical dietician.

I was seeing patients, I worked for five years at the Sydney Children’s Hospital. I was working with families and I really loved that. I was working in the community, writing policy for, child nutrition. One of the things that had continued to interest me while I was a practicing dietician was the way that people expressed guilt when it came to food and eating, I was fascinated by this idea of bad food, so if I was counselling somebody about weight loss and I was counselling them in a followup interview, it was very common that you’re going to be very cross with me. You can be very angry because I just feel so guilty. I wasn’t able to follow the instructions that you gave, I was fascinated by that. What is going on here? we’ve got a 45-year-old man asking me, a youngster, for forgiveness, what is going on here?

That kind of, that stayed with me, that interest, when was it that we started to feel guilty about eating the wrong food, the bad food. That was really at the centre of my PhD. Although initially my PhD was about family food practices and I collected a lot of information from families about how food is distributed in terms of responsibilities, who cooks, who shops, who looks after the kids. I was very interested in that and I collected a lot of data, but then I veered sideways into a much more theoretical, area. My, my empirical results that I came up with, I didn’t really use me in my PhD. In fact, I’ve got a PhD student at the moment who is now in command of my, has custody of all my data. This is a study where I interviewed families in a less well-off area of Adelaide, 20 of them and in a more bourgeois area, 20 of them, I went back to each family on three occasions to collect information about family food practice. I hardly did any of the research extra to that. My student Georgia is now taking that data and she’s analysing it. Her next step is to talk to people today. Her thesis is really about, 30 years on what’s changed, has it shifted.

Steph: Because the roles of parents in the house, in the home of change.

John: Completely. In those, when I was collecting my data, the only real area of technology that we had to talk about was the TV or the radio. Whereas now of course it’s all over the place. She’s interested in the construction of the family mill back then 30 years ago, and today. That’s great, but my own work veered off into the kind of morality of eating. What did the morality of eating look like before the science of nutrition came? Because we know that people did have moral views about what you should eat with the good food and the bad food. This was often based in quantity. Gluttony was a proper, gluttony was a huge problem, especially for Christians. The Christian religion started to develop in a full doctrine and food, and the pleasure from food was highly problematic as were many other areas of pleasure.

John: Before that the Greeks, the ancient Greeks also had a lot to say about how to be moral around food and their big deal was you had to be moderate. You weren’t supposed to be completely abstemious. That was far too. That was far too strict. You weren’t of course, supposed to binge, you had to have some part of moderation because if you could exercise control over that moderation, it said something about your ability to lead a life qualified by the polis. This is releasing really instructions for men. Women, and children and slaves didn’t matter. It was about your place in the polis. You had to be moderate with what was called the natural appetite. That was an appetite for food, but it was also an appetite for sex. One had to be very moderate in meeting one’s needs, in that area. That was quite interesting for me to see these, ancients playing out roles around food and, criticizing each other.

Tamara: Nothing’s really changed too much, always just add social media. We add all these issues with, where your food comes from, how it was produced, sustainability.

John: Yeah. While they didn’t call it sustainability in ancient Greece, they were concerned with where the food came from. They were concerned about eating food within the seasons. All those things were important to them, captured in a practice called the dietetics. Now we use the word dietetics to describe a field of study, a field of treatment. I mean, I’m a dietician, but in those days, dietetics dietee means every day. The dietetics was a code for leading a moderate life every day. And there was heaps written about it. Hadn’t so there’ve been some books that I was able to access. In my study, I then came through to the Christian era and map that out and the Renaissance and map that out. I came rather swiftly to nutrition, which then gives us another code of trying to understand what’s good to eat and what’s bad to eat.

John: That’s why my patients were able to articulate that very easily for me, because we’ve had already 200 years of nutrition, which says, if you eat this it’s bad food, therefore you should feel bad. Yeah.

Steph: Even though the rules are somewhat unwritten, we pick them up.

John: Oh, I, I, there was a lovely poster on the side of an articulated bus. It was, on the front of the bus. It said another serve of French fries, please, in quotes and on the back of packs on the side of the bus, on the second part of the articulation, it said atone for your sins. The word tone was cleverly laid over a low-fat milk called Tone. What struck me about that was that needed no decoding whatsoever. Nobody was going to say just a minute, another serve of French fries, please. And atone. Why is it something simple about French? No one needed to say that because we know that, and the ad didn’t have to say anything to kind of cash in the meaning. Again, I thought, well, that’s, I’ve got a photograph of it somewhere, that’s fascinating that we don’t even have to decode that it’s so bleeding. Obvious. Why is it obvious? What is it about eating food that hasn’t got the nutrition stamp of approval makes us feel guilty? Of course, that flows all the way through to some of the problems we have to do. So, having pleasure around food. Well yes, let’s do that, but an overindulgence well, that’s hubris. Yeah.

Tamara: It seems to me that the PhD was always on your radar. It was, it was not, it wasn’t a lot of people that seems to be something that they just stumbled into, or it’s almost a, they get to a point where they go, Oh, I might do this, but it sounds like your story is, it was always there.

John: It was there. I’ve got a good degree. I’ve got a good honours degree. That qualified me to do a PhD. At University it was something that you were counselled about if you had a reasonably good degree. I’ve got a two, one, and that allowed me to do a PhD. It was something that was part of a pathway, but I eschewed it on a number of occasions when I was working in New Guinea, I was working researchers and, I wasn’t a fully paid-up researcher. It was something that kind of attracted me. It was only when I started to toy with this idea of what is it about food and nutrition that makes people feel guilty. I realized that, there’s an opportunity here because I couldn’t really find any literature on this. I wasn’t a researcher at the time. I was a practitioner.

Tamara: Coming into a PhD research as a practitioner has a lot of benefits as well, because you’re not stepping straight from the books to the books. You kind of, you’ve had a very good opportunity to be with people and understand people’s real problems.

John: Although I was able to do my PhD, not in biochemistry or nutritional sciences, I had to go into the humanities and had to learn how to think in the humanities, which is very different from scientific thinking and scientific discourse and learn how to write in the humanities. And that was terrifying. It was, I can remember I asked my PhD supervisor, if I could do a third-year course on cultural theory. He said, yeah, I can get you to do that. So, I did that. The other students were just speaking to the language. I had no idea about. I was terrified. That was scary to do my PhD in a very different part of the University. I was quite a good bar by a chemist. I could write down the Krebs cycle and things like that. To actually then do justice to philosophy and cultural theory, that was very scary.

Tamara: You found your niche by the sounds of it though.

John: It took a while. I did a couple of things, which you probably shouldn’t do when you’re following into PhD. First of all, I became a dad.

Steph: Just though an extra commitment on top of the PhD,

John: Then I changed supervisors. That’s another Cardinal sin. And then I changed, towns. I left Perth where I was living, and I moved to Adelaide and these are really the days.

Steph: So you completed you PhD remotely. Wow.

John: Okay. You’re not supposed to do any of those things, but the fact that I did this is living proof that it’s possible people..

Tamara: I had a baby during my PhD, too. So there’s just two of us here. So yes, you can do that. How would your project then your own choice and your own methodology and you had control over it or was it part of a larger project.

John: No, I had complete control over that. When I changed supervisors, I inherited a supervisor who was unbelievably bright, Alec McHoul. He he’s used, this guy grew up in the humanities, and he used a language which was very unfamiliar to me at the beginning, but gradually I got used to understanding what he was saying. It was highly theoretical, the work that I was doing, always coming back to social and cultural theory. I pretty much had a free reign with that. I had a free reign with the structure of thesis as well. It wasn’t the usual kind of literature review methodology that I did it because I really have very little empirical data. The empirical data that collected was like a quarter of a chapter that I wrote. It was much more of a story, which made it easy for me when I submitted the PhD and later was to actually turn it into a book, which I did. I turned it into a book. I got publisher Routledge who was interested and a second edition is out there. Now it’s called “The Pleasure and Anxiety of Eating Food, Morals and Meaning”. You know, I’m quite proud of that. On the cover is a Peter Paul Rubins of the Bacchanal, which is this very, Ruby’s where there’s all this indulgence in this flesh, that’s exactly the, publishers wanted to give me bunches of grapes. And I said, no, we not having bowls of fruit, we want something that’s much more physical, much more visceral when they came up with this. I said, yes, that’s what we all have. I was pretty much in command of that, which in many ways was an advantage, but in many ways was not an advantage because, Alec was great, but he wasn’t laying out for me, the steppingstones.

Steph: The traditional PhD for whatever that means, the structure’s quite straightforward. And you did collect data. But you ended up with something that was quite different to imagine. Did you have like PhDs that you could look at as example,

John: There was one book written by a guy called Michael Simon’s. Who’s probably very famous for a book called one continuous picnic. Michael looked at the sociology of the meal, which again was highly theoretical. It’s a very good thesis, actually. He was a journalist by background, so he writes like angel. I was able to look at that and a couple of others, but no, it was really me making up as I go along, it really was. I just felt, comfortable with what it looked like. I felt very comfortable with what it looked like. I won’t bore you with the methodology and theoretical orientation. So, so it had a very strong theoretical basis. I was able to use that to take it forward into a kind of a narrative. It was really a history of the morality of food from the ancients to today.

Steph: Would you say that lack of structure was the most challenging?

John: Yes, it was because there was no hand holding here. It’s not as though I could catch up with my supervisor every fortnight. This was really the days before the internet. There was something called Arnet.

Tamara: You made this hard for yourself.

John: There wasn’t a record on it, which was the very beginnings of email. This was something that was stretched across academics. When, email was fully fledged, that was really the last few months of my PhD. I was fortunate in that Flinders did give scholarships for finishing a PhD. I was bought out of my teaching for the last six months where I could immerse myself from, the kind of the neck up in what it was I was trying to do. I just had part, I remember the, I was using somebodies office and I just remember these piles of paper, which was chapter one, chapter two, chapter three, for me to continue to search through. Yeah. So it was quite challenging.

Tamara: So, and so how did you keep going in amongst all those challenges that were significant hurdles?

John: It’s a terrific partner. I think that my kids, by that time I had two children. So… I remember reading a book that was somebody’s PhD and in it, the author had said a guy had said in the acknowledgement, thank you to my supervisors. Thank you to the participants. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you to my wife and to my children. All I can say is, I’m sorry, I wasn’t there. I thought, I’m sorry, but I’m just, that is, to me is appalling, you can do a PhD at any time, but you can only be a dad over a certain period. I was then committed to being a dad while doing a PhD. And I kind of did do that. It was full time in the last six months, so I would take the kids to childcare and school and then I’ll come home and, crank up the computer and in the evening when they went to bed, I would go back and unpack it again.

John: That was really what kept me going. I knew that I had and felt that I had a good story to tell here. One that was reasonably easy to cash in as I think we may have done here. It was reasonably easy to cash it in. It wasn’t something that needed a lot of explanation. That kind of taught me that there was something interesting or what I had said. I’m not patting myself on the back, but I just felt there was an opportunity to make a contribution here. That’s kind of what kept me going. Alec was a good supervisor. He was very inspirational. I remember he looked at a first draft of the whole thing and he said, I think we’ve got a PhD here.

Steph: Thank God.

John: That was to hear him say that I had him on a pedestal by that time, I worshiped him, but so to hear him say nice things about my work was really lovely. It was, we used to, I used to post it, drafts to post for us to him and then ring him up a few days later. See if he had received it yet, but that’s what you did, in the, in those days. I was kept going partly because I wanted to continue to be a, a successful academic, partly because I had a story to tell. Partly because I knew that this was the beginning of something that I wanted to continue to explore,

Steph: You’ve already alluded to it, but why was your rate, your PhD project important? What was the value for everyday person at the end of this?

John: Oh, well, I suppose it was important to me because it was part of a career trajectory. I mean, if you’re going to be serious about your role in academia, you really do need to have a qualification that allows you to speak about something in a more authoritative way. And that’s really what a PhD does. I tell this to my students in many ways, that’s all a PhD does it doesn’t have to be ground-breaking in the sense that, it’s just earth shattering and it probably won’t be the most important thing that you’ll ever do in your life or that it might feel like that at the moment. In the end, this is a pathway somewhere, try not to put too much into it. Of course you want it to be brilliant. You want to get wonderful reviews from your examiners, but remember that this is not going to be the most important thing that you ever do.

John: You’ll do much more important things when you are an academic and you’ll be able to re be part of a team that’s really going places. That kind of leveling and that gravity, I think is important to remember and to communicate. I try to communicate that to my PhD students. Although as I say at the time, it feels like it is all consuming.

Tamara: Yeah, it is your whole world for a while. Actually trying to share that with fatherhood or motherhood is also challenging. How would you, from your experience as a student and now as a supervisor of many PhDs, how would you describe the life of a PhD student?

John: It’s usually quite solitary, hard only because you, the likelihood of you finding somebody who’s doing something similar is probably quite small. So, it’s usually quite solitary. It can be very threatening. Some days are diamonds, and some days are not, you feel that you’re really onto it some days, and other days, you’re just, you don’t know where the ideas are gonna come from. I think it can be overwhelming if you allow it to be, but it’s a very rewarding experience as well. You’re in a very privileged position doing a PhD. This might sound a bit mealy mouth, but you are in a very privileged position in being able to pursue something to such depth in a very focused way. Be, be mindful that this is actually a gift. There are rewards at the end of it, the rewards at the end of it

Tamara: That’s not the most important thing you probably ever do in your life or the most important piece of work that you will ever produce. It’s still one of the most, the best, but your best opportunity to delve that deeply into something.

John: Yes. Because when you go on and pursue a career in research or in academia, the chances are that you will have others who will do the spade work with you and for you. You’ll hire research assistants who will do the data collection. So you’ll have a slightly different role. To actually be fully immersed in the research yourself, you can’t outsource that, of course, if it’s your PhD to be fully immersed is a real privilege one that you probably won’t do, if you are pursuing a career in research, you’ll probably recruit others to help you with that, which is great. That’s terrific because you can spread yourself further.

Steph: Then after you finished your PhD, you already working as a lecturer at that stage. Did you continue with that role after you finished?

John: Yes, I did. I moved sideways from the field of nutrition and dietetics into public health and nutrition.

That was, a move I made, probably about five years into the Academy, which allowed me to fully appreciate a different set of propositions because public health is a very different area of academia than, clinical nutrition. Although I’ve still got my feet in both areas, although I wouldn’t ever rely on me to give you clinical advice. I moved, I’ve kind of moved sideways and that was exciting in itself to be able to move into a new area.

 Steph: So, despite being a new in a new area, your using the research skills that you gained?

John: Yes. I suppose my methodology is probably the most sound part of the work that I, I contribute now. I think I’ve got a reasonably good command on theoretical propositions that sit in a methodology. I’m starting to sound a bit academic now, but, one’s approach to, research, we call methodology and I’m quite good at that. And quite flexible with that. Partly because I had to do a lot of the work on theoretical aspects of methodology when I was doing my PhD.

Tamara: Is this where you are today, where you always thought you’d land? Is that where you wanted to end up in this role as a professor?

John: I never thought, I mean, let’s rewind to me 15 years old left school because I was so disenchanted with school, not a very good or obedient student pupil. I think we call it,

Steph: Is this sounding familiar Tamara?

John: Or, the idea that I would ever become a professor was just unbelievable. I mean, literally unbelievable. It just doesn’t, it just, it doesn’t register it doesn’t and my family is still kind of gobsmacked at the fact that I’m, a Professor at a really good University. Like not really, no, and yeah, we’ve all got a copy of my book – not that they have ever read it. No, I’m in a very happy space at the moment. Life is good. I’m probably, I was looking at, a white board on which I’d put all my research. I was looking at yesterday and I’m probably a bit, overwhelmed by I’ve got about five PhD students, the equivalent of six honours students. I’ve got half a dozen research proposals pending.

Steph: This is a bit of a pattern for you. You don’t choose the easy path.

John: I don’t think too many too people do, but yeah, like how can I make this harder for myself?

John: Yeah. It is like that because, you’ve got to be in it to win it. Okay. There’s no point in just backing one horse here because, it’s a very competitive world out there when it comes to research funding. You’ve got to be in a number of different propositions. It just turns out that I have the skill set for each of these, which kind of works well. If they all come off, I don’t quite know what will happen, but anyway,

Tamara: For you, what is a PhD?

John: It is a structured piece of research that addresses a research question. Normally what we do, is if we want to know what the research or what the knowledge gaps are, is the first thing we do is a literature review. We say, what does the literature have to say about this particular issue? And from that we can normally find because it’s a problem for us, a couple of questions, which the literature really hasn’t been able to cover. That becomes the basis of your research because you then turn your research questions into, a voyage of exploration. So that becomes your aim. From that, you will know what the steppingstones are. So they’re your objectives. What I’m saying is that I think a PhD is a formulated progression through a set of ideas exploration, ideas gathering, and creating in your own work solutions to try to bridge the knowledge gap. I think that’s for me, what a PhD is.

Steph: There’s a process a clearly defined for most PhDs process that you’re undertaking. For you, was it the steppingstone that you thought it would be into the career that you’re in now?

John: Yes, it would have been essential. If I was going to take seriously the Academy, then I needed to have a PhD. I was talking to somebody recently about their desire to do a PhD. This is somebody who’s working in research, but actually in policy. I said, don’t forget that there are other ways of having higher level explorations through Doctor of Public Health, Doctor of Education. Those degrees come usually with a year’s full-time coursework, where you develop your ideas and your methodologies, and then you do two years of research. I said, don’t forget them because a PhD usually requires you to research in a fairly narrow field of whatever it is you’re interested in. Whereas someone like a Doctor of Public Health actually expands that it actually broadens your capabilities of, what it is you’re interested in. I said to them, make sure that what you want to do is met by a PhD because that will send you into an area of research.  Whereas if you did a Doctor of Public Health, you could easily work in policy. In fact it will train you to do that.

Steph: There are many ways forward. Yeah. PhD is not the only one. One of our questions is what advice would you have for someone who’s contemplating undertaking a PhD?

John: Want to talk to them about their career aspirations. If they wanted to work in academia, then a PhD is probably something they should take seriously. If they wanted to develop high level analytical skills and continue to work in policy or something like that, then I would certainly take seriously a Doctor of Public Health or a Doctor of Education, because they’re usually quite focused on, I’ll say practical problems. I mean, PhDs are practical problems, but the DrPH and the Doctor of Education are usually something, things that focus much more on policy and practice.

Steph: So. it’s a process that leads you to an outcome, like a product, which then can be translation into practice.

John: Yes. Usually it’s a, an area that yourself are interested in because you happen to be working in that area and you want to bring some ideas and some solutions to the problems that you face. We use the word research translation, in academia. Unfortunately, not a lot of our research is translated into policy or practice not.

Tamara: If it is, it’s usually it takes a very long time to get there. By which time it’s superseded by something else.

John: It’s true. Somebody like 16 years, if it’s from bench to backyard, if it’s a drug or something like that. Whereas if you are following, let’s say a Doctor of Public Health and you’re working on something that’s a real problem in your organization, there’s a good chance that what you develop as part of your DrPH will be completely applicable and transferable to your work site,

Steph: Developed onsite insight with the people for whom is going to make the biggest impact.

John: Yeah. It probably won’t be bound and then put on the shelf. It would probably be explored. In fact, I remember cause I used to teach on the DrPH. One of the components of thesis was to say, okay, let’s have a look at the impact a whole year, how you’re going to create an impact through your work. That was actually half a chapter that the students had to undertake, which was very good because it really did have to exercise their minds about what’s the useful, what’s the utility of what I’m producing.

Tamara: What about, kids who are thinking about entering University, like finishing year 12 or kids who are making subject choices for their senior schooling years and that pressure to have made a decision about the rest of your life? What do you, what advice do you give to these kids?

John: I would say don’t accept the possibility that this is going to affect the rest of your life. Do go to University, you’ll find it beautifully interesting and wonderfully engaging, but don’t believe that you have to follow a path that you started when you went to University and that you’re going to have to continue that path you can move around and the University helps you do that. For example, at Flinders, semester one starts usually at the end of February and the beginning of March, but around about the end of April, there is a whole program which says, do you think you’ve made the wrong choice? I can’t remember the actual language, but it’s, we can help you choose something that’s different from what you started doing. You may feel that you would rather be over here than over, and there’s a whole process to allow students to do that. So, going to University is the thing. Once you’re there, you can move around, you can change degrees. There’s no embarrassment about that. In fact, I changed degrees. The bit of, I didn’t tell you as I went off and did a degree in chemistry and I stuck it for a year, I stuck it for a year. Didn’t like it. And then moved into nutrition. I saved you from that. So, you can move around. The most important thing is to go to University and enjoy what it means to be a student, enjoy what it means to go through a process of structured learning.

Tamara: It is, it’s a, it is all about the whole experience. It’s not just what you learn. Yeah.

John: The whole experience. And you can chop and change. You can chop and change. Don’t feel that you are hemmed in just because you started a chemistry degree. So that’s the advice I would give them, go to University and make sure that, you choose something that can be flexible. If you change, don’t worry about it.

Tamara: Yeah. We’re coming to the end now, and there’s a lot of myths that you hear about life as an academic or, doing what have you heard that you think is just utter rubbish and you’d like to set straight,

John: I think that utter rubbish is that because you come from one particular aspect of the Academy, you don’t have the knowledge, the skills, the interest that you can express in other parts of the Academy. Yes. It will be a journey. Yes. You’ll probably have to learn the lingo and yes, you’ll probably have to immerse yourself, but don’t feel hemmed in. Don’t feel that because you started a science degree, you can’t do something in the social sciences or the humanities. Those doors are always waiting to be opened for you. Don’t think that. I think there’s a mystery that if you go into one aspect of the Academy, then you have to stay there.

Tamara: Yet you bring, cause you bring with you a whole different perspective in if you’re moving into a different area, which is so helpful,

John: Wonderfully helpful, wonderfully helpful. You often feel like a bit of a fraud. When you go into another area, you think that people are going to pick on you because “Hey, you didn’t, you don’t belong here. What was your first degree? Biochemistry? I’m sorry. You’re knocking on the door of sociology”. You feel that and it hardly ever happens. I remember the first couple of papers I had to give about my PhD work were in conferences. We were kind of saturated with people from the humanities. What I demonstrated was a lot of theoretical constructs I had, I could use and cash-in for some really interesting empirical work. They were fascinated by that because usually they kind of stay in the area of theory, but to actually have a toolbox that allows you to unpack some things that are actually examinable, in real life, I thought they were going to cane me, but they never did. They really never, it, they were very welcoming. Never feel that there are parts of the University that you can’t be interested in, whether it’s going from sociology to science and engineering, or if it’s going from biochemistry to philosophy, it’s all there for you.

Tamara: Okay, John. Well thank you very much for your insight. Absolutely fascinating history. We’ll get you back for the discussion about nutrition.

John: Anytime. Thank you, Stephanie. Thank you, Tamara.

Tamara: Thank you. It’s been great.

Share this post!