Graduating with a PhD last week from the ANU Medical School, Catherine Clutton tells us about her research journey encouraging others to pursue their interests no matter the obstacle.
Having retired from fulltime work, I knew I needed to “do something” to keep my brain active. The “something” turned out to be following an interest that had been growing in the latter part of my career – that of citizen engagement in the health policy sector. Undertaking Doctor of Philosophy research was a good way to explore the subject in depth, find out about what was happening internationally, and make my own contribution. Entering the program was not straightforward for somebody who left school a very long time ago, without the equivalent of a leaving certificate, and without an undergraduate degree. Persistence paid off and, with the support of the person who became my Supervisor, I was able to enrol in a Master of Philosophy program, commence my research and then upgrade to the PhD program. This turned out to be a good strategy because it gave me 12 months to come to grips with academic life and get some runs on the board to demonstrate the worth of my research program.
My PhD research could have been a lonely affair, embedded within the College of Health and Medicine but undertaking public policy focussed research. This was not the case, though, as I joined a network of Masters students within the Centre for Health Stewardship and met other PhD students who shared the work space. Chats about progress and administrative matters helped me to realise I was not alone, others experienced similar difficulties and on occasions there were research interests in common. It was an informal support group that made the daily routine more pleasant. I added to my network by subscribing to as many newsletters and information sources as possible and spending time talking to anybody on campus who didn’t run away when I mentioned my research interests. All of these sources provided valuable hints and tips, some even when they at first seemed a bit obscure. Here I must also mention the administrative support from College staff, their advice and guidance helped me find my way through the rules and regulations and they became a big part of my support team.
Literature interrogated and digested, interviews completed, data analysed, thesis written and examined, in July 2018 I graduated with great pride. As I look back I feel a sense of achievement but also some wonderment that I reached this milestone. Throughout my research project I experienced the ups and downs that all PhD students face but walking across the stage to receive my Testamur was a real and public acknowledgement of my achievement.
What next? To my great surprise I find that I have really enjoyed the research process. The opportunity to pursue an interest in this way turned out to be a real pleasure. At the time of writing I am looking for opportunities to continue in the research field so that I can learn more, support other research teams, contribute the skills I’ve learnt, and perhaps mentor other students.
A final few words of encouragement. My introduction to retirement from the fulltime workforce was both happy and gruelling. Whilst I marked the occasion with a wonderful trip around the Top End, the Kimberley and Western Australia I was brought down to earth with a cancer diagnosis. Cancer treatment affects everybody differently, but I remember the exhaustion and difficulty concentrating most of all. This treatment lasted well into my PhD studies so made research and steady progress something of a challenge at times. My message to would-be scholars who find themselves in this situation is to follow your interests and be up-front with your Supervisor and Advisors. Their understanding is crucial to the successful conduct of your research – as I can testify.
Dr Catherine Clutton, PhD
Supervisor: Associate Professor Paul Dugdale, Director of Chronic Disease Management, ACT Health and Head of the ANU Centre for Health Stewardship