Doing a PhD in Psychology (when you don’t have a background in Psychology)
My job before starting my PhD was a Physiotherapist. I’ve spent a lot of my career working in the community and have mostly worked in community neurological rehabilitation. Neuro Rehab is vast and complex, it covers Stroke, Multiple Sclerosis (MS), Motor Neurone Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, Spinal Cord injuries, Traumatic Brain Injuries, Brain Tumours, Functional Neurological Disease and many other conditions. Some conditions are so rare you have to Google them; see ‘Person in a Barrel’ syndrome.
In most cases, rehab provided by physiotherapists and other allied health professionals asks patients, and the people close to them, to change their behaviours so they can maintain or improve beyond the care that you can provide. Physiotherapy training teaches about the Biopsychosocial Model of Care and has started to introduce more training in psychology. However, training in behaviour change remains sparce and after qualifying, unless you look for training or have psychologists in your team, it can be hard to find opportunities to learn how psychology might support physical rehab.
Through my experiences working with people juggling normal life challenges with long-term neurological conditions and being involved in the Taking Charge after Stroke (TaCAS) study, I became more curious about the relationship between physiotherapy and psychology in neuro rehab. It seems other rehab settings (musculoskeletal and chronic pain) have been aware of psychologically informed physiotherapy for over a decade. However, there is little to no research on this topic in neuro rehab. Having found a gap, my masters dissertation focused on how physiotherapists manage anxiety in people with MS and for my PhD, I’m looking at the relationship between therapeutic alliance and long-term stroke recovery in the community.
The most challenging part of doing a PhD in a different topic has been feeling like a fraud and struggling with imposter feelings, especially at the beginning. I learned that these feelings are shared and a normal part of PhD life through the ‘Why successful people often feel like frauds’ training provided by the University and delivered by Hugh Kearns. He shares great PhD life tips on twitter and writes more about imposter syndrome here. The university also has more resources here. Speaking to other PhD students, and your supervisors, is also really helpful. When I finally shared my experience, I found other PhD students had felt exactly the same way. My supervisors suggested becoming a PGR rep and also introduced me to other PhD students, which helped me to have a broader sense of community.
The most helpful thing I was told is that your PhD probably won’t change the world. Instead, it’s better to see it as an important first step towards making a difference. So, whether you’re researching a familiar topic or one that’s completely new, enjoying the process of learning, sharing new knowledge and creating interesting outputs is the best place to put your focus.
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