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Working in academic psychology

By Tracey Wade

I had a few different ideas about what I wanted to do when I was at school, but in the end it all came down to the idea of ‘wanting to help people'. Psychology seemed a way of doing that, so I did a science degree and majored in psychology and physiology. In my third year I briefly considered doing my Honours in endocrinology but stuck with psychology, even though there hadn't been much clinical content up till then.

The variety of work that I do as an academic psychologist is part of the reason I enjoy it so much. There is no such thing as a typical day. During semester I can be presenting interactive seminars to our clinical postgraduate students, or giving lectures as part of the second or third year curricula. Once a week I see eating disorder clients for half a day, to keep my clinical skills fresh. After Honours I worked as a trainee psychologist for a couple of years before completing my Clinical Masters. I moved to Canberra to work in community psychiatry, followed by eating disorder work in the UK, and then moved to a general hospital in Adelaide. I was interested in researching eating disorders further, and found I enjoyed research, so I did a part-time PhD while working at the hospital. Postdoctoral research took me to the USA before I moved to my current lecturer position at Flinders University.

Supervising my PhD, Masters and Honours students' research is an important aspect of my job and I also coordinate the psychology clinic on campus, which involves discussions and case presentations with the clinic's staff and students. I also work on my own research, analysing data and writing papers, or discussing research directions with others.

For me, the most interesting projects are the ones that I feel most passionate about. Helping to coordinate a community work facility for people with a psychiatric disorder was great as you could see the difference it was making. I also enjoy the challenge of working with people who have eating disorders - eating disorders really devastate people's lives and helping them re-engage with life can be very rewarding. I am interested in how genes and specific environments interact to cause eating disorders, and this is an ongoing aspect of my long-term research.

I also really enjoy the responsibility of setting up and running a psychology clinic that offers best-evidence treatment as well as providing a great learning experience for students. The ability to think critically and analytically is the key skill I took from undergraduate studies in psychology. This stands me in good stead whether I am assessing best practice approaches to clinical disorders, considering research questions to be asked, or making decisions about teaching approaches.

Whatever the context I have worked in, from large state mental health organisations to very small research teams, it has always been important to have a few colleagues and peers whom I can trust and with whom I can debrief. I have always been fortunate enough to work with more senior women who have been generous with their time, support, and advice. I have taken something away from each of these relationships in terms of how I approach my profession.

As a therapist I don't give advice. But if I had to - well, the best piece of advice I can give students is to seek out the issues that you feel passionate about and engage in them, whatever your chosen profession.

I see three major challenges for psychology. First, while many other countries require practising psychologists to have a postgraduate degree, we do not have this requirement in Australia. I think that this is unfortunate for the credibility and quality of psychology services in Australia. Second, we need to direct more resources into psychological contributions that address and challenge community concerns about issues relating to refugees, Indigenous Australians, and child abuse. And finally, I think we need to further improve the way we publicly define what psychology can offer, so that people start to understand the unique and valuable contribution that it can make to the Australian community.