The Doctor Gareth Furber Session
In this our maiden podcast Session, Dr Gareth Furber joins us to talk about student well-being during Covid-19, being the child of an academic family, and working well with PhD supervisors.
There was no driving force getting me into psychology, other than… curiosity.
Listen to the Interview with Dr Gareth Furber
Q&A with Dr Furber…
What is the title of your PhD: Short term psychosocial change in post-acute coronary syndrome
Where did you complete your PhD: Flinders University
What year did you graduate: 2006
What undergraduate degree/s have you completed: BPsych
What is your job title, today: eMental Health Project Officer, Flinders University
Interview with Dr Gareth Ferber
Steph: We’re speaking today with Dr. Gareth Ferber, who is a Flinders University Graduate who completed his PhD in clinical psychology in 2006, his thesis titled “A short-term psychosocial change in post-acute coronary syndrome” investigated the area of psychological recovery following heart attack. In the 10 years following his PhD, Gareth: has researched extensively in the field of child and adolescent mental health generating an impressive track record of publications on a range of topics, including, technology-based interventions, health related quality of life measurement and child and adolescent mental health service reform. These days, Gareth has returned to his old stomping grounds to work with the health counselling and disability services team at the Flinders university as an e-mental health project officer at the student centre. There his role focuses on supporting the wellbeing and productivity of staff and students in the Flinders community. If that wasn’t enough to fill his days, Gareth: also co-managers an online community called the Psychology in Health forum is the editor of 7 Days of Psychology, a resource to teach the general public more about the role of psychologists and a co-founder of the CPD workbooks.
Steph: Great to be talking to you today, Gareth.
Gareth: Thanks, Steph
Tamara: Let’s just start out by hearing about your day. What do you do? How has your day filled with work?
Gareth: Okay, so I work in the Health Counselling Disability Service at Flinders. That’s providing surprise, surprise, health counselling and disability support services to students. It’s, it’s very much a clinical service, so that’s a lot of one-on-one work. But my role is a little different. I write about wellbeing, write about productivity. I teach about those topics. I get called into different student groups across different years to talk about those topics, how to build wellbeing, how to be more productive, how to balance those two. More recently we’ve been developing specific programs. We’ve just launched one in relation to addressing procrastination. We’re working on one at the moment around mental fitness. We’re collaborating with, the Wellbeing and Resilience Centre at SAHMRI to deliver their, Wellbeing Program. Yeah, it’s really writing, teaching program development and program delivery, with very much a focus on the online space.
Tamara: So I imagine you’ve had a lot to do with students over this whole Covid experience.
Gareth: Yeah. Although surprisingly, in the initial response to Covid the numbers coming to the service dropped, which is not altogether strange, people are just, yeah, they’re go into survival mode. They’re taking care of the, just the everyday stuff that they’ve got to. What we’re seeing now is of a spike, in students presenting, yeah, I got called in to do a lot more online lectures. Previously I was, I would get called in to do just the traditional face to face lecture. Now pretty much all the lecturing and teaching that I do is online. And we’ll probably keep it that way. Yeah. To be honest, I really like it’s the space I’m most comfortable in both in terms of the delivery of services in terms of writing in terms of teaching. I really like the online space.
Gareth: I don’t know exactly why that is. I do like a crowd, because you see how people are reacting to the content, but in the online space, there’s some other dynamics that are opened up chat dynamics, polling dynamics, screen sharing, a whole bunch of little things that are open up to you that can change the nature of the way you teach. For me, and I feel a little guilty of it is the corona virus spirit is, has, I’ve actually not enjoyed seeing people go through the stuff they’ve gone through, but from a work perspective, it’s been a very productive period.
Steph: I’m impressed because I’ve got nothing done in three months and I found online teaching to be, challenging. Yeah. I can definitely see it’s got some great potential for students who perhaps are a bit shy or, there’s an Avenue for them with discussion boards and chat.
Gareth: Well, the other thing is were limited to a certain extent that, many of the programs were delivering were site-based. We’re delivering on the Bedford Park campus, for example. Anyone that’s on Sturt or Tonsley or here in the city or in the Northern Territory or in a satellite site, didn’t have access to our programs. Whereas now we’re just really focused on getting them all online, and often getting some of them out of hours as well. Students that are on placements or stuff can still connect into our programs, from six to eight. Tomorrow I run a program from six to seven in the evening, so grab a glass of wine and I teach people about procrastination, how not to procrastinate.
Tamara: Back to when you were seven. Did your parents go to uni or are you a first-generation uni?
Gareth: No, I’m a child of an academic family. Teaching qualifications in both parents and then a geologist with my dad and then my sister went to university. Well so it was really just, that was just the expectation. We didn’t come from a family where we ran businesses or a particularly kind of hands on practical trade based family. We’re a family of book readers and writers. That was pretty much the pathway that was laid out for me. And I’m quite happy with it.
Steph: You knew you were going to go to uni. Did you go straight after school?
Gareth: Yeah, I think I, my year 12 got shifted, got split into two years. Despite my incredible popularity now, I wasn’t quite so popular in year 11, so things went a little haywire for a while there. I did year 12 or a couple of years. I think I might’ve taken a gap year. I can’t be a 100% sure. And I was working a fair bit. It feels like a fairly, linear pathway through a study into university.
Steph: And where did you go to university?
Gareth: Flinders all the way through. Yep.
Steph: Yep. And what was your undergraduate degree?
Gareth: Psychology. So Bachelor of Psychology, Honours. There’s a few pathways into psychology. That one is the bluntest and most straightforward. It assumes you’re going to do three undergraduate years and then an Honours year as well.
Steph: You knew you wanted to do psychology when you came or no?
Gareth: I had no idea what I wanted to do post year 12. I just, I just put all the, I did want a lot of students do, which is pick a set of topics that, give you choice. So, yeah, economics, the sciences, maths one, maths two math and did well in most of them. That gave me a choice and then I just sat there with the manuals, the University manuals in which all the courses were described, and narrowed it down to Computer Science and Psychology cause they both sound interesting. I tell this time, and I don’t think it’s a lie. I’m pretty confident in it, but it might be, just for show now, but there was a flip of a coin moment, cause like, I don’t know which of these two to do so flip a coin and I think it came up psychology and that classic test, if it comes up that option and you’re not disappointed.
Gareth: Then you think, okay, that’s cool. But there was no driving force getting me into Psychology other than curiosity.
Steph: No, that’s not a bad way to start. Yeah. Psychology is not an easy road. So curiosity was able to keep you going. Yes.
Gareth: The only potential deviation is a first-year psych. You do a whole lot of electives. I did economics. I was quite good at economics and the economics people wanted me to shift degrees and come into economics instead. I was enjoying psychology too much at that time. I was pretty um, unquestioningly kind of psychology from the moment I started all the way through. So the curiosity didn’t wane.
Tamara: Did you, so your Honours Degree was part of your bachelor’s degree. It was all an all in one or you,
Gareth: You, you do the bachelor’s degree and it’s assumed that if you keep a certain GPA, you’ll go straight into the honours stream,
Tamara: You started your PhD straight after, or how did you get to that?
Gareth: Yeah, I was, I consider my life to be a series of fortunate events after one after another. At the point at which I finished honours, I went, okay. What next? I just started working, just separately where I was at the time. The psychology department developed a new degree, a clinical PhD. You get your clinical training, the equivalent of a master’s in psychology. You can get registered as a psychologist, but you do a PhD at the same time. One deal. That’s pretty good. Yeah. So, a four year program. They’re developing that my supervisor said interview for it. And she was on the interview panel. And she said, we’re probably going to be interested in hearing about the following things. And then a scholarship opportunity because my honours grade was good enough. I fell into a scholarship category. To be honest, it was a no brainer. It was like, we’ll pay you for another four years to keep studying something that you found interesting before.
Tamara: It’s just a series of a path that you just kept walking on. Really. It’s not, it wasn’t really a decision to do a PhD.
Gareth: No, no, I don’t think I was even registering at the time. Like I would have known that was an option. I would, I knew that psychology was a degree that can’t really finish it undergrad. You can, you can head off and you can use that information elsewhere, but psychology as a discipline, if you want to get into it, you’re going to have to do some other high-level studies. I knew that was the case, but I, I wasn’t clamouring at the bit to do a Master’s. I wasn’t clamouring at the bit to do a PhD.
Steph: I was going to do psychology as an undergrad. I looked at how many years it was going to be and went, no, and now I’m at 14 years and counting. So yeah.
Tamara: The study, your research, the psychosocial change in post-acute coronary syndrome, was that your project? Was it your decision or was it part of a larger grant?
Gareth: My decision, but part of, so I kept the same supervisor from honours to PhD. We’d work out in honours that we worked well together. She offered a range of areas in which she’d be comfortable supervising. Within that, I was able to select, so for example, she’s had health psychology as a space that she was happy to supervise in. Health psychology is very, roughly speaking the application of psychology to the areas, more traditionally considered health, like cardiovascular and cancer and things like that. I’d been working in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease for my honours. We knew the numbers for that were not so great in terms of maybe getting bigger trials up. We knew the numbers in terms of post-acute coronary syndrome were high. I just shifted to the left. I shifted illness essentially, but kept that same basic area.
Tamara: What was the question that you wanted to answer with your project? Do you remember?
Gareth: Yeah, I do. It’s been a long time. Also you spend so much time in your PhD constructing a narrative at the end to tell a story that you want to tell, which is not necessarily the narrative you set out to tell, but the basic narrative was we knew that rates of things like anxiety or depression or PTSD, were high in people who’d suffered a coronary syndrome, a heart attack, essentially. I’d been training in different types of therapeutic modalities to treat those kinds of conditions, CBT and motivational interviewing and, ACT and interpersonal, psychotherapy. My goal was could I create an intervention in this case, a written intervention that could modify the recovery trajectory, the psychological recovery trajectory for someone after a coronary event. That’s what I wanted to know whether I could, and I was interested in bibliotherapy at that stage, which is workbooks and books and read stuff, and self-help kind of space.
Gareth: That was really what I wanted to know is could I make life better for people who had this event in their life?
Steph: You definitely had your eyes on the prize at the end, you wanted to have a product that you could improve people’s lives with it.
Gareth: Yeah. I’d like to create tangible things, whether it’s programs or books or blog posts or something, I like to see it there. I like to give it to people. I like to just go, is that helpful in any way? And then they go, yes, it is. And I’ll go, that’s awesome. Or and they go, no, that’s a hot garbage. I go, okay, I’ll have another crack at it and see if I can come up with something. Yeah, that was, and it took me years to come back to that actual realization that’s what I essentially want to do.
Steph: You were doing it, but didn’t really know that’s what you were doing.
Gareth: No, I didn’t. It wasn’t until years later when I came back to Flinders and I started doing similar work, not in the same space, obviously not in a cardiac area, but still that same developing programs, developing written materials, developing stuff, and giving it to people and seeing whether it was helpful that I realized, Oh, that was the thing that was sustaining me during my PhD. Wasn’t actually the topic area or the illness per se. It was, can I create something, put it out in the world and see whether it helps people. If it does, like I said, that’s awesome. If it doesn’t go back to the drawing board and have another crack at it.
Steph: Can you expand on what you actually did in your PhD? So how did you go through the process of developing an intervention?
Gareth: Yeah, so, there was a good model already, a guy in the UK. I think his name is Bob Lewin. I apologize if I’ve got that name incorrect. He’d developed, a program for in the UK for people who’d had a heart attack, it was workbook based. I got a copy of that and, I remember at the time thinking, okay, this is quite a good starting point. It’s got information about the illness it’s got, the different things that people should do in terms of diet and physical activity. I thought I can enhance this with some of the stuff I’ve learned from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Motivational Interviewing and interpersonal. I can get people to do some more deeper reflection work that I think will shift their psychological state. So, then we recruited, I apologize. I can’t remember the numbers now. I reckon it’s about 60 in total people who’d had a coronary event.
Gareth: We tracked them over time in terms of their psychological recovery. We randomized the one group to receive my workbook. One group to receive just an information pamphlet, cut and paste from the National Heart Foundation, (shout out to the National Heart Foundation). Just look to see whether their recovery was, whether we saw any kind of signs of improved psychological, outcomes for those who got my workbook, which spoiler there wasn’t.
Steph: You know that now, cause you look.
Gareth: Correct. Correct. That’s a valuable lesson that, if you’re, if part of your thing is creating programs or creating materials that are going to help people and that you want to help people, you have to learn to reject your own material at a point, and I spent a year solid writing that workbook. There was a lot of heart and soul that went into that workbook and then to see it wasn’t poorly received. People who are just like very thankful to have got it, but it didn’t shift the kind of things that we wanted to see it shift. In that sense, it’s like, okay, that’s cool. So that was a good lesson. You can love the thing that you create, but you have to let it go as well.
Tamara: What was the most challenging part of your PhD? Do you think?
Gareth: The only bit, I really remember as genuinely challenging is just the last writing.
Steph: Oh, the last slog we’ll have to get it all onto paper. Now.
Gareth: You’ve spent, you spend a couple of years just thinking about the trial side of things, coordinating the trial has such and such, got this. Have they been sent their questionnaires? Have they, and you’ve, busied yourself with that kind of work. Now you have to sit down and tell the story. Then, because the story I’d wanted to tell, which was I have a triumphant workbook that fixes everything. It was no longer the story. Then, then it was like, okay, we have to try and tell a different narrative here. That involved, a shift in our statistical analysis. No-one around me at the time knew the analysis that was required. I spent a long time, fart-assing around trying to work that out. In the end, someone, I think in the UK and I apologize, I can’t remember their name, gave me a lot of the code that I needed cause they’d done the work.
Gareth: I was hugely thankful, but yeah, it was just that final writings slogan and telling the story and feeling as though it was, even though it wasn’t the story, I originally wanted to tell that it was still a good enough story.
Steph: Did you write a thesis or did you do.
Gareth: By publication? Wrote a thesis? Yeah. Yeah. So I should have brought it in. It’s a, it’s a tone. In fact, the guy, one of the guys who marked it said, this is a, an absolute tome because it’s cause it’s got the workbook built into the back. It’s this big, massive,
Steph: It is impressive.
Gareth: Oh yeah. Yeah. You want it when you drop it on the table. Yeah. If I ever get a home intruder, then I have exactly what I need. Just a good old-fashioned thesis, with the regular layout. So, I like the shift that I’ve seen since, moving to a kind of publication based.
Steph: You never get to write like that in real life. Yeah yeah
Tamara: Did it take you long to have to switch kind of pivot, you had to pivot with your findings and what you found, did it take you long? Like did you hang around the house for a couple of days and go, Oh, that was disappointing. Get up and get on with it or did it just go right time to get on?
Gareth: I think there was probably an adjustment. I don’t really remember it, but I do remember my supervisor at the time. Cause I, I was writing stuff and giving it to her and she was like, yeah, this is quite negative. Like you said, you there’s a hint of, everything that we did was shit and crap and I’m out. At the time it must, there must have been a, in my head, a difficulty and I probably, I overcompensated. Rather than going, okay, it didn’t work. Let’s try and look at why that is. I just went well, this was a waste of time and tried to tell the waste of time story, which isn’t that easy story to tell. It’s not a convincing story. Yeah. Thanks everyone for your support. Thanks mum and dad. So there would have been an adjustment. I don’t really remember that, but I remember, obviously I took the lesson from it, which was you can work your ass off.
Gareth: Yeah. It doesn’t turn out as you want, but you can, that’s still important. Like it’s still important to publish that information.
Tamara: From your perspective of having been a student to having supervised students, what is the, how would you describe the life of a PhD student?
Steph: It’s not all drinking at the pub.
Gareth: No, it’s a weird one. Cause you’re not, it’s unpredictable, it’s it? You know they’re going to hit a challenge, something at some point in time is going to go wrong. Something with the design, something with the measure, something with the stats, something with their life, something is going to happen at some point and you don’t necessarily know when that’s the case, but you have to try and, work around it. That’s the challenge. That’s the bit that’s sitting in your back of your head that you’re maybe concerned about, but it’s an incredibly powerful experience as well. You, you get really distressed and really down on yourself and then you come back from it and that’s a huge journey when you see someone actually take that journey. It’s really cool because, you can’t teach that lesson in any other way. I can, I can try and teach students about resilience and talk through it and give some strategies. But very little teaches you’d like the actual events themselves.
Steph: It was like, I spent three years doing this and I hit a wall or I have to find a way around this. It’s not turning out the way I plan.
Gareth: It’s an intellectual marathon. I’m sure there’s people that cruise through their PhDs, relatively unscathed, but you don’t hear about them because they’re, they made it through in one piece, they made it through them. They’re your boss, the next second, they jumped over you and say, there’s people that must cruise through relatively unscathed. I would say for most people that it is an intellectual marathon, with many points along the way where they’re just like, I’m out, this is no amount of water or that weird gel that they eat when in marathons is going to get me through this and then they do, and then they get through and they’ve reached the end.
Steph: You discussed some of the challenging stuff. What is the most exciting thing that you experienced as part of your PhD journey?
Gareth: That’s a good question. I think for me, all the value came afterwards, in terms of realizing that I was a better person, that I was smarter, that I was more capable, that I was more confident, at the time my PhD, because it was a clinical PhD. Most of the stuff I remember most as being exciting was actually more attached to the clinical side of it than it was the PhD. It was the training to learn, to deliver therapy. We had a small group, so there was five of us just going through this PhD. Were very close-knit group, that were with each other for four years. That’s the most exciting part of my PhD, which might not be other people’s PhD. They don’t necessarily have the clinical component to it. The PhD itself just felt like a job that you enjoyed, but still a job. Oh, I’ve got to send those questionnaires out. I’ve got to go to the hospital and recruit some people while they’re sitting in bed recovering after their heart attack and you gotta join my study…
Steph: Please join my study.
Gareth: And, they’re always, I’m always super surprised by how generous people are with their time, even in the worst moments of their life. The people who participate in research and stuff I did in child and adolescent mental health was also the same. I’m just like, wow, you said yes to doing this research and you’re in the shittiest time of your life at the moment, but you’re willing to try and share that up. That’s, that again is something that doesn’t kind of maybe dawn on you until later in your own life when something goes wrong. You imagine, am I generous enough now to try?
Steph: Somebody approached my bedside, I would say yes to describing this experience to them.
Tamara: Would you do a PhD again?
Gareth: Yeah, I’d do it. I’d do a second PhD. If I, if I, if my life was set up in a way that made that possible. You know, essentially income, wasn’t an issue. If all my shares in lithium mining just went through the roof or something, then I was independently wealthy then yeah. I would definitely consider going back. The benefit of going back at an older age is you’re more aware of your passion at that point. You’ll pick a passion project, whereas when you do it, when you’re younger, you pick it’s partly passion, but it’s also just that’s right. It’s just, it’s a training.
Tamara: Why was your project important? What does, what do we get out of your project?
Gareth: Well, Tamara, I would say, Oh, you told me not to swear? What do we get out of my project? The thing I got out of it was we provide a lot of information to people who are going through in that case health complaints or mental health and that information doesn’t necessarily have that much of an impact.
Gareth: We need to think more strategically about the nature of the information that we provide people and how we provide it to them and what invitation there is in there for self-reflection and the work we do. You see that, you see that in the self-help section of a bookstore, there’s a million books, right? And on every self-help topic that there is, you can pick up a book on anything that you want to try and develop. Yet. We know that literature doesn’t move people forward a lot, if much at all. That’s kind of where, that’s the thing that I got out of it. That, at that time in cardiac disease, there was a lot of information being provided to people. This is what you should eat. This is how much exercise you should get and eggs are bad and eggs are good and eggs are bad… So this is, there’s a lot of information flying about, but you, it’s not necessarily making that big a difference.
Steph: Especially at that point of their lives when they’re focused on, thank God I didn’t die. Telling them don’t eat eggs, or maybe eat eggs, or maybe only this part of the egg is not necessarily going to land.
Gareth: Yeah, that’s right. The level of processing that person’s probably going to need to do in order to move psychologically is more than what we might think. Certainly, more than what I thought at the time, but I, I had that glow of psychology at that stage, which was like, I’m almost a psychologist. Everything I say is therapeutic. I’m sure that was therapeutic that I just said then. So, and so it was a good lesson to learn. No, it’s a lot harder to shift people along and make their lives better psychologically than the new initially thing. I also learned that just in cardiac at the time, and I don’t know where it is now, but the post event care was really good. One of the reasons why we didn’t detect a difference, in our treatment group control group is that our control group did really well. That was because of cardiac rehab. That was because cardiologists are pretty on the ball in terms of, getting medications in place and things like that. So the care was already pretty decent. I was going up against, a situation that was perhaps already it’s already pretty well, not an under-serviced population.
Steph: Not that we would have wanted that, of course, but it’s always good to start with a population that really needs some support. Yeah. If you want to see a difference
Tamara: So do you use your research skills in your role today?
Gareth: Indirectly? Sure. I don’t. I don’t, I don’t do anything that looks quite like research at the moment. It is all really I’m writing kind of blogs and courses, course development, maybe. With some of the courses we’ve developed, we will start looking at wrapping some evaluation around it. Some of our collaborations involve of the evaluation side. I’m really only using my research skills that are at a very superficial level, and understanding of what other people are doing in terms of evaluation and understanding that the programs we create will eventually need evaluation and what that evaluation might look like. No, at the moment, I’m in a very kind of creative phase I’m building stuff. Once stuff is built, then I’ll probably hand it off to someone else though, to be honest. Like I think there’s always something a bit, awkward about people testing their own therapies. Not their own therapy per se if they’re delivering it. If you’ve created an intervention, and you think it’s active, and you think it’s worthwhile, I think you actually do have to hand that over to someone else, train them to deliver it as well as you can and what you feel, but then say get me evidence that either does or doesn’t work. Yeah. Ideally, you’d say, prove to me that doesn’t work. So yeah.
Steph: You’re part of a team now, so you can do that.
Gareth: Well, I’m not part of a research team though. I sit in a clinical team, so it would mean, getting master’s students or getting another PhD, someone who was in that would form a realistic part of their PhD. It’s probably going to be, have to be in collaborations that I do that research. I’m more interested in creating the program and then handing it over and saying, tell me whether or not that does something, because you’ve got no vested interest in it, but I do, I care about that program. I I’ll somehow introduce some bias into how that’s evaluated, which I can’t, I don’t want to do.
Steph: When you finished your PhD, is this where you imagined you’d end up,
Gareth: This is kind of where it probably close to where I hoped I would end up. Yeah, creating programs, creating materials, putting them out, trying to help people. That was the essence of the PhD. I’m a little bit narked with myself that it took me 10 years to work that out. I went, I went clinical and research. I went completely out of my discipline. I went into child and adolescent mental health. Even though I worked with some awesome people and did some really good projects, I can’t pretend like that was actually ever really a passion. I was more interested in the people I was working with because I just met some really amazing people who are doing really interesting stuff. I just gave them of my research knowledge and my research discipline to it. When that finished and I got out of it, because a project ended, then it actually dawned on me.
Gareth: I was there way too long. I did that. I learned heaps, so I wouldn’t rewind the time and do it differently, but I stayed in the wrong area for a bit too long. So I’ve hit this one. I feel as though right now I’m like two- or three-years post PhD. That’s actually how I feel like where this is, who I would have become post PhD. If I had stayed in that program development, helping people build psychological health, helping people build wellbeing, resilience, that kind of thing.
Tamara: So here’s bracket those 10 years; a little learning phase.
Gareth: You take those 10 years. I worked, I built good relationships. I wasn’t an asshole. A lot of, and the reason I have the job I do now is because of just an inadvertent meeting that I had with that team at the time in relation to a project I was doing in child and adolescent health, because I rocked up and I was just friendly, and I shared my work, and I wasn’t precious about it. Years later, when they’re thinking about this role that I’m in now, they go home. Remember that guy that came in and talked to us, maybe he would want it. They contact me and I’m like, that sounds like a brilliant role. There’s a lot of things I did during that 10 years that were good. That were good for future me. Good for current me now. But I was in the wrong area.
Steph: How did you get into that area in the first place? Like you finished your PhD and then what happened?
Gareth: I go to Centrelink. I’m really broke at the point at which I finished the PhD. I’ve burned through scholarship. I’ve burned through my shares, I’ve burned through, I think mom and dad were overseas, like we’re just going to leave the area, and take our bank account with us. So, so I’m broke. I had really good relationships with the child and adolescent service that I’d done my clinical placement on, the psychiatrist there said, Gareth: , I reckon I can get you a job. And I said that would be amazing. Cause I really liked that team. I really enjoyed my time there and yeah, she got me a job there and it was a research job with of the clinical built in and yeah, the people kept me there, and they gave me projects and I’m a project-based person. If you give me a project, whatever it is, her personal hobby or professional, and like, Ooh.
Gareth: And then I dig into that. Curiosity got me and sustained me for the first four or five years of that. The last four or five years of that was when I was like, hang on. I might not be in the right area,
Steph: Not entirely sure where you wanted to go next.
Gareth: Yeah. Yeah that’s it. I didn’t, I, I was by that stage, I was well out of my, of the cardiac space and I was like, I don’t really want to go back there. I’m happy to leave that chapter behind. I couldn’t go back to that and didn’t really want to stay in child and adolescent mental health. Wasn’t really keen at the time and trying to come up with a third area, cause really academic, a lot of academic momentum is built by studying in an area, then studying a bit more in an area and doing a PhD in that area then publishing in that area then attracting funding in that area. So yeah, you better really like that. I was like, Oh, if I’m, if I start a new space in my forties, I’m never going to be an academic in that sense. I’m never going to fit back into that space properly again.
Gareth: I think I agonized for a long time over that thinking, my only pathway was as a traditional academic,
Steph: You do get a bit tunnel vision being in a university. You start thinking, this is the only way it can be.
Gareth: You look at academia. There’s a lot of pluses about it, but there’s, it’s, I guess it’s like any area it’s got its downsides and not a lot of people. I think those funnel charts that you see of the PhDs and the number of people that pop out at the end with this significant academic careers. You’re virtually doomed from the beginning, right?
Steph: Maybe they should share that chart earlier.
Gareth: Unless you’ve got the intellectual chops, some people who are just, they’re just flat out smart, right. They can pump out and produce content in a, at a crazy rate. I’m not one of them. I’m, I’m in the middle of the curve. Competent could put my pants on in the right direction. I can tie my shoelaces and can do basic research or good. I’m part of that big group that aren’t necessarily, leading the intellectual pool. Sometimes psychological characteristics can support you there. People are very driven. Very authoritarian, are willing to play a pretty hard game. That wasn’t me either. So I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t see a space in academia that I was going to carve out and got increasingly distressed about that. Like Oh, well that’s my only future. Thankfully, the universe just went, Oh, well that project is finished. Gareth: . You you’re going to have to be creative and come up with something new and something new came up.
Tamara: Do you think you could be where you are in your something new without your PhD?
Gareth: No, I couldn’t. I couldn’t be doing what I’m doing now without PhD.
Tamara: I suppose that’s just the path of the psychology degree though. Isn’t it? Like you said earlier, if you can jump out at the end of your art at the end of your Bachelors. You won’t have enough for the skills that you need or the knowledge that you need in order to be pumping out documents and information for people.
Gareth: Yeah. I need the discipline of psychology from which I can get the content that I teach, but then I need the discipline of having done a PhD to be even able to do that in the first place what’s really noticeable is when I interact with other PhD, people, we’re all in the same boat. We all think the skill set that we have is kind of just like, Oh yeah, it’s a PhD. The things that we can do as a result of PhD, when you move into a population of people that don’t have a PhD and they start pointing out, how do you do that? Or how do you organize time? How do you get that done? How do you do this? And you’re like, Oh, that was all the mental discipline and fitness that I built during the PhD that I didn’t realize but is there now that allows me to do that stuff. The PhD is important, not just from the topic, but the process and more so that yeah, you just, you grow your capacity. You’re a better thinker. You’re a better synthesizer, you’re a better writer.
Steph: Based on that, what is a PhD to you?
Gareth: To me, it was a training ground, intellectually and emotionally, right? So it’s where you develop the, if I use the language I use now, the mental fitness to be able to work at a high level, to be able to think at a high level, to be able to write it’s that. Second, it’s the development of your expertise in a specific area. Now for other people that’s flipped for other people that the PhD was the thing that got them into their area, that they now love and they work in and, so I’ve got friends who do PhDs in autism, for example, now their careers are based around, treating and understanding autism. So that’s flipped for them. It’s the topic first and the expertise. And then the thinking capacity second. For me, it’s the other way around that the topic is less important. It just made me a better thinker and improved my mental fitness.
Tamara: If you were talking to somebody who was contemplating doing a PhD or at the end of their, degrees, their undergraduate degrees, what advice do you give somebody? I know it’s obviously going to be based a lot on who the person is speaking to, but just generally, if somebody is listening, who’s wanting to get a bit of advice.
Gareth: The first one is just assessing your life as it is now, and try as best you can to fast forward three years time. Do you have three years that you can realistically put towards it? And I mean, just pragmatically, is there going to be a source of income that you can live on? Is there going to be, is there some level of stability that you can have whilst that happens? So that’s the first one. Are you gonna, is your life going to be set up in a way? Yeah. Start from the assumption that you’ll be a full time for the full length of the PhD, or if you go part time, you’ll be part time for six years or whatever, you have to extend out the timeframe. That’s the first bit of advice and that’s hard because you can’t really foretell the future, but you can certainly determine whether you’re in a spot now to do that.
Gareth: People grossly overestimate how much they can get done. I’ve got seven kids and I run a business and also a professional triathlete. I’m like, okay, at some point in time, this is going to, yeah, I can’t sustain that.
Steph: I’ve got people who go, I’m doing a PhD, clearly this isn’t the time to have a baby. Oh yeah. Well I’m looking at you. Yeah. That was not the best idea, but yeah. Beautiful.
Gareth: The second is there a supervisor relationship? Is there someone that you get along with, well, who can be a supervisor who has a shared interest area or has a project that you can join in on? I’m not averse to people doing their PhD by simply just joining in on an existing project and doing that. Yes. The topic might not end up being the thing you totally love, but you build all the skills that you need. There was a third one that, which left my head, but those are the 2. Am I in a situation where I can do it? Do I know someone who can be a good, supervisor? cause I think that’s critical in terms of your…
Steph: Hopefully be working effective weekly with them for at least three years. Yeah.
Gareth: Yeah. Yeah. Under high pressure situation, both you and them, because if they’re in a position to be able to supervise, then they’re living the academic life and their life is hard. Their life is really hard. To have that kind of relationship, and then third, is there an area you’re interested in,
Tamara: That’s really interesting dedicate your life to for three years. Yeah.
Gareth: Yeah. You’re like, actually, that’s a really interesting question. I’m genuinely curious about that or there’s an opportunity in my case to build something.
Tamara: With kids, finishing up school, or even kids who are thinking about school subjects for year 11 and 12, there’s a whole lot of pressure on these kids to make a decision about the rest of their life. What do you say for those kids who are worried about their future?
Gareth: Well, I can talk about the path I’ve taken. I can talk about the academic path and I can talk about whether or not there’s kind of signs for them based on their, how they’re doing in year 10 and year 11 and year 12, whether that’s a sensible path for them, but then it’s also reminding them that I’m just one of a number of different pathways post-school. Like I said, I was raised in an academic family. It was always expected that I’d go to university. I didn’t find that, objectionable expectation, but I had friends who took completely different pathways, into trades or who started working really early and they’re 15, 16, and then they work up the line in the business that they’re in and, in the, earning more money and enjoying life far earlier than I was in the context of doing an academic. If you’re doing well academically, then yeah, university is a good pathway and it’s a really valid choice. It’s not, you’re not, you’re only one. You’ve gotta be really careful not to put, if I’m giving advice, put myself up as some kind of, this is all knowing or that I’m, that this is the pathway that should be taken. It was the pathway I should take, sensible one for me to take. Cause I, I sucked, it woodwork like the woodworking teacher,
Steph: There is a reason why we are sitting in front of computers all day. Yeah.
Gareth: We had two projects to do during woodworking year. He, let me get away with just doing one, you’ll get hurt. Other people will get hurt. It’s just not worth it. Let’s just go back to the books, buddy. Just go back to the books.
Tamara: I suppose in wrapping up, there are a lot of myths that I have heard about being a PhD student or being a doctor or so what have you heard and what do you want to put an end to, or, dispel a myth.
Gareth: Right. The main one is that you will have to find that there’s not going to be, at least in my experience, there’s not going to be this, extrinsic reward that to you from getting a PhD. It’s not going to be, you’ll get a moment of, yeah, that’s right at graduation. Your mum or dad would pat you on the back. Yeah. Good work. That’s not the thing to rely on. The thing, the thing you’re going to have to generate is the intrinsic what did I get out of that? How did that make me a better person? what did I learn in the process? So if you’re doing the PhD, hoping that it just opens up every door for you, I’m not sure that’s the greatest way of looking at it. I think more it’s that it gives you a much better toolkit to pick which doors might be appropriate.
Gareth: would be the main one is, and just to protect against that idea that you’ll hurt to get it, like it’ll be painful to get in some way, shape or form. If you really hoping that at the end of it, there’s like a massive payday. Be cautious about that. Now it might be there will be people for whom that is the case. Cause they might do whatever.
Steph: It’s fabulous book or job opportunity or?
Gareth: Yeah. Or those who are in maybe laboratory sciences who create something that then becomes, they can market, that they can, the, Oh, you changed the world with your PhD. Yeah. You develop a better solar cell or, something that actually, some people will achieve the kind of strategic goal.
Tamara: Most or not, most of us are here back in knocking down the doors, still going, come on. Yeah yeah. I did the hard yards.
Gareth: It is cool to hear someone who’s doctor in front of your name for the first time after it – that’s cool. It was a, it was a airline. I was getting onto an airplane and, I gave them my boarding pass and then they said, Oh, welcome Dr. Furber and I just went (giggle) just a really stupid laugh because I never heard it. Which ruined the moment for them. Are you really a doctor or a mental patient? Both…. One doesn’t rule out the other, so that was cool, but that was the biggest payday.
Tamara: Excellent. Well thank you very much for your time and your generosity for supporting our little podcast.
Gareth: All, good. Yeah. Thanks for having me.
Tamara: It the first time you’ve ever had an opportunity to reflect on that whole journey?
Gareth: Yeah, I think so. Aside from my own reflection, you know, I haven’t, I haven’t ever really sat down with PhD students.
Steph: I think it needs to be more of that. There needs to be more of people with PhD sitting down and going, this is what you’re actually signing up.
Gareth: Yeah. Well that’s what we’re doing now. That’s why it’s such a good initiative. So yeah. I thank you for inviting me to be a part of it are welcome. Thank you.