Category Archives: Psychology

Reblog: PhD – A journey to where?

By Bernie Divall

Pigeon hole

Bernie had to get out the pigeon-hole she was put in as a child

If life really is about the journey, then I should be very happy. Last night I went to my eldest daughter’s parents’ evening, and was (yet again) overcome with joy at the realisation that she really is a proper all-rounder in her abilities. She excels at music, literacy, history, languages, science, art… Really, the only thing holding her back is a lack of confidence in maths, but I feel sure we can all live with that. And her grandfather is a mathematician, so help is at hand.

I’m immensely proud of the way we’ve brought our children up in terms of their education. We’ve always told them that working hard in the subjects they don’t find so easy is really important, and ultimately massively rewarding. For myself, this has been a direct reaction to my own upbringing, in which I ‘became’ a musician at around the age of 11, and was pigeon-holed accordingly throughout my secondary school education. I excelled at arts and languages, and giggled my way helplessly through the sciences. I remember my mum telling me that I wouldn’t be any good at sciences, because she wasn’t. So I stuck rigidly to being good at what I knew, and never explored other options. I do remember having a bit of a fascination with human biology, but never tried at the subject because it was challenging. My dad said that if I was going to fail anything, I should get a ‘U’ – this stands for ‘unclassified’, and meant the exam result would not appear on my ‘O’ level certificate (yes, I am that old. Older than GCSEs). So I got ‘A’s and ‘B’s in everything except Biology. In which I got a ‘U’. So indeed, it never appeared anywhere.

Off I went to music college on a scholarship, and I had fun in my pigeon-hole for a while, until I began to realise that it might not be enough for me to spend 8 hours of the day playing the bassoon. There was definitely more to life than what I felt was like stroking my own ego for the rest of my life. And at some point after that, several years later in fact, I found my way into midwifery. In which, as well as large amounts of psychology and sociology, I studied elements of human biology for three years. And far from being rubbish at it, I discovered that it was interesting – fascinating, even – and I could do it! I expect this was because I was now at a point in my life where I actually WANTED to learn such things as the circulatory system. After all, I’d be a pretty rubbish midwife if I didn’t know that.

Then, when I was doing my Research Masters, I had to deal with statistics. Maths had been my other big fear at school (despite, or perhaps because of, having a mathematician parent), and I was convinced that statistics (one of the Masters modules) would be utter hell. Again, I was wrong – it was actually quite fun, manipulating numbers until they did what I wanted them to.

And here I am now, doing a PhD. Who would have thought I could travel from the life of a classically trained bassoonist to the kind of thinking and writing I do now? My husband sometimes points out what a journey this has been, and I do feel a bit amazed at times. When I was 14, or 16, or even 18, I would never have considered ending up here. I probably wouldn’t have even known what a PhD was!

So I’m glad for the journey I’ve had the chance to make. Because my children can see that making a career choice at one point in your existence doesn’t restrict you to a lifetime of living that career. And I can see clearly why it’s such a good thing to encourage them to work at and get enjoyment from all the subjects available to them. I don’t regret my journey to this PhD life, and indeed I think that for me, it has been a necessary sequence of events to get me here. But I’m definitely a big believer in not being limited or restricted. Not in childhood, and not in adulthood either.

So I wonder where the journey will take me next? I’ve always had a hankering to be a hairdresser, but I think I’ll leave that one alone. What I’d really like to be is a writer. The thing is, I’m left wondering which path I need to take to get there? Decisions I’m making now will have a big impact on my ability to get to where I’d like to be. But then again, as I’ve learned along the way, there’s no such thing as a dead end.

This post first appeared under the title “Tell me again – how did I get here?” on PhD Life, a blog about the PhD student experience run by PhD students at Warwick University. Bernie Divall is currently in the second year of her doctoral studies, having left the crazy world of the NHS to become a midwife researching midwives. She’s funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and NHS East Midlands, so is on a tight schedule to finish in the three-year PhD sprint – the NHS may have absolutely no money left by her fourth year! Bernie is loving the PhD experience, although she has a tendency to get lost in a pit of ‘think’ at times.

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Learning from Experience

By Dr Piers Steel

Mountain climber climbing

Every step takes Piers closer to something

Being the youngest child from a very smart family, I never originally saw myself as having a lot of potential. It always seemed my older siblings were made for greatness, not me. This lack of confidence contributed to being a mediocre undergraduate student. I had a minor in political science and a double major in philosophy and psychology. In the summer and on weekends I was in the Canadian military reserves as an artillery gunner, which didn’t exactly mesh well with my academic pursuits. My grades were uneven and reflected my interest in the topics. – I never really dug in because I never expected much from myself. Then, one day, this self-concept started to change. Albert Bandura, the king of self-efficacy research, found that direct experience is often the best way to improve self-confidence. It certainly was for me.

I took a mandatory statistics course and found I received the highest mark in the class. With such direct validation, perhaps I could indeed do better and aspire for more. Eventually, I settled on going for a graduate degree in Industrial/Organizational (I/O) Psychology and started to focus on something I truly desired. Some universities consider your entire undergraduate performance, which were now out of reach given a few truly dismal grades I received for a few courses. Others, however, consider only your last two years GPA. When I finally developed some focus, I had a good final fourth year as an undergraduate, but my previous third year wasn’t that impressive (I was still learning how to be a student). I ended up taking a few night school classes while working at a non-profit organization, Cheshire Homes (providing housing for the disabled), so I could have a good “fifth” year, making my last two years competitive. And they were. It was with joy and relief that I got accepted to the University of Guelph for their I/O psychology program.

My first semester was intimidating. I was still developing student skills that should have been honed long ago. In particular, my writing was still pretty awful; I find most people’s writing tend to be. Being able to write well is rare because good writing comes from two sources. First, you have to read other good writers. This develops your “ear,” so you can “hear” whether what you write flows. Second, mostly your ear tells you what you have written is clunky, requiring you to re-write again and again, which we don’t often leave time to do (and if this writing could be better, it is because I didn’t re-write sufficiently). Eventually, I did develop a decent set of academic skills, finishing my Masters with a competitive set of A+, A’s, and A-‘s. And then two disasters struck.

I had originally aspired to do my Masters on stereotype reduction, how to get people to see each other as individuals rather than rely on perceived group norms. After being told it was too ambitious for me and if I pursued it, I would be expelled from the program, I ended up settling on a much more modest piece: “The effects of inconsistencies among sex, gender, and job on promotion and pay raises.” It explored the effects of stereotypes rather than how to remove them. Unfortunately, a new professor at the University, Serge Desmarais, sat on my defense panel and was eager to show off to the rest of the faculty his knowledge. He challenged me on gender differences in causal attribution style, a fact I actually knew quite well. Completely oblivious to the social dynamics of the situation, I told him he was wrong. And I stuck with that position. He wanted to fail me right there and then.

After the defense, when I was still sticking with my opinion, a Dr. Kevin Kelloway (one of my favorite professors who raised my statistical knowledge to the next level) explained it to me this way: “Do you want to graduate or not?” I ended up including a section in my masters thesis that starts with my position “Predominantly, the results of these studies suggest that raters’ sex has no significant effect…” and then another shorter section to mollify Serge, “Despite the aforementioned results…” They accepted it, I passed, and I was all set to pursue my PhD. Or not.

I actually got “kicked” out the University of Guelph program at that point. I was not invited to continue on to my PhD. In truth, though, we all received the same treatment, that is my entire cohort. Incredibly, even my good friend Abe Schoenewolf, winner of the Kendall Award for best I/O paper, got the boot. Though our form letter didn’t say as much, thoughts were that they had already accepted almost the entire previous Masters cohort and they didn’t feel they had the resources to supervise anymore; whether this might have been a matter of funding or just convenience I don’t know. Still, it doesn’t stop the University of Guelph’s alumni association from asking donations from me. Abe and I were a little bitter at the time, but in the end it was for the best.

At this point, I took a two-year break from academia to try my hand at consulting. The economy was not great and, despite the Masters, I ended up doing a lot of administration. I appreciate Steve Stein from MHS giving me my first break though, where I did get to do some good research validating the Emotional Quotient Inventory. After that, I went to Occupational Studies Inc., where I got to hone skills at programming Excel macros (which actually have proved rather handy in academia). I thought I could continue this for another ten years and finally get to the level where I can do interesting work or go back and try for the at PhD. I was considering a lot of universities, but my soon-to-be wife suggested if I go back, I should do it right. University of Minnesota was top ranked in the world for I/O psychology, so that is where I would apply. In fact, it was the only place I applied. The application date came and past without an acceptance letter. A month goes by and then two. What would you do?

Perhaps because I really didn’t want to do another year of low-level consulting, I took an insane risk. On a quite limited budget, I flew myself down to St. Louis, where the annual Society of Industrial Organizational Psychology (SIOP) conference was. The entire University of Minnesota psychology department would be there. I figured out at which sessions Dr. John Campbell, the head of the department, would be presenting. I attended and ambushed him afterwards. I told him I wanted to attend his University, that my grades were good and so was my Graduate Record Examination scores. He told me that they were losing two professors this year and simply didn’t have resources to take on anyone new, at all.

Now, this is probably my life’s single most defining moment. Instead of giving up, I told him “So the problem is that you don’t have enough resources to supervise me.” He agreed. I asked him “Are there any other reasons besides resources or is this it?” He agreed there were no other issues. “So if I can get you more resources to help you supervise, you would accept me?” Smiling, he agreed to that too. And I was smiling too, as I knew how to get that resource for him.

To help fill out my application, I had volunteered for our own Canadian SIOP, arranging speakers to come in. One of these speakers was to be Richard Arvey, who was also an I/O psychologist except at the University of Minnesota business school (about 60% of us end up being at a business school, with me presently being one of them). He couldn’t come to Canada to speak, but I did have conversations with him, knew his research background and told him I had hoped to do research with him. After meeting with Dr. Campbell, I went to Dr. Arvey and simply told him that I was accepted to the University and we would be working together next year on his emotionality research program. “Great news!” said Rich. Then I communicated, there is just one thing necessary for you to do. Dr. Campbell is expecting you to contact him at his next session to confirm this arrangement. Instead of being at the business school, I would be at the psychology department, though helping you with your research. Dr. Campbell got his resources, Dr. Arvey got help with his research, and two weeks later I got the letter of acceptance.

Of note, the single biggest predictor of a successful PhD experience is your relationship with your supervisor. It is amazing how many potential graduate students are almost completely unfamiliar with the research program of who they plan to work with. Here are some suggestions. Make sure your supervisor is still publishing. Make sure your supervisor is publishing in an area somewhat similar to your own interests. Make sure your supervisor has publications with students. Rich is a good guy, who I indeed published with, as so is Dr. Campbell (who ironically was Rich Arvey’s supervisor himself back in the day).

My acceptance at the University of Minnesota was without funding, though. Consequently, I was TAing or teaching twice a semester to pay for my degree. Each time you teach a course or TA, the University of Minnesota forgives half of your tuition, so if I taught four undergraduate courses a year, I could afford the exorbitant and inflated “foreigner” tuition fee (I’m Canadian). I did this on top of all my course work, which at this point in my life I was now pretty good at. I took as many statistics course as I could handle, which is a good idea for anyone. It is much harder to pick up these concepts outside of a classroom than in. One of these statistical classes was Dr. Deniz Ones’ course on meta-analysis, a technique that shaped my research work immensely.

Unfortunately, my research and dissertation side of things were not as developed yet. I was noodling around several topics, including causal attribution and the happiness of nations, but was unfocussed. Also, if research is me-search, you are quite correct in that I procrastinated quite a bit at this time. Sometimes it would be a race to see who could finish the morning crossword, me or another grad student Meredith Vey. The loser had to have “The Picture of Shame” posted on their door for day, basically a poster we had creatively defaced. On my own, I played a lot of strategy games, like Civilization and Age of Mythology.

Teaching all those classes and TAing, however, paid off. I end up being a TA for Dr. Thomas Brothen. Dr. Brothen taught an introductory psychology course at the University of Minnesota’s General College, an institution designed specifically to increase the diversity of the university. Significantly, the class was administered through a Computerized Personalized System of Instruction, a nifty arrangement that allows students to progress through the course at their own pace but is well known for creating high levels of procrastination. In fact, procrastination is so much of a problem that students are repeatedly warned throughout the course about the dangers of delay. And here is the beautiful part. It being computerized meant that every stitch of work that the students completed had a time-date stamp exact to the second. He had a dataset that needed to be published and procrastination was a topic I was intimately familiar with.

With Dr. Brothen, I got my first publication and it was indeed on procrastination, “Procrastination and personality, performance, and mood.” I then followed up on the topic for my dissertation, doing a meta-analysis on the topic along with some new empirical work. Eventually, after a few rejections, I published the meta-analytic portion of my dissertation in Psychological Bulletin (the top social science journal) and the media went wild for it. Two little facts probably contributed to its rise. First, I mentioned it took about ten years thought I was planning it to be three. Second, was that I showed procrastination rates were rising. Based on the media attention, literary agents asked me if I wanted to write a book about it. I did and it became “The Procrastination Equation,” aimed at an audience who likes their self-help scientifically validated. It is a good book, it really is, and I wish I knew at the beginning of my academic career what I put inside it. Still, once your write a book, you are obliged to promote it, which I find an endless but necessary task. If you want your audience to find your book, you need to help your book find your audience.

And here I am. There is still a lot of research I want to do and few more books I want to write. Ironically, there are actually still two datasets from this time that Dr. Brothen and I developed that need publication. Better get back to it. And hope you like the book.

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Pulling a thesis out of a hat

By Katy Inglis

Magician

Watching magic tricks as a child made Katy want to find out how they did it.

I was 10 years old the first time I watched a show by Derren Brown, a hugely popular British magician/showman.  At that age, I didn’t quite believe in magic any more – I knew there was some kind of trick to it somewhere, if I could only see it – but I couldn’t get over how even through the television I was duped repeatedly.

I became fascinated with the elements of showmanship he employed, particularly the use of non-verbal cues to misdirect an audience’s attention.  As a child, that meant I started devouring books on body language.  (I should add that I have always been hugely driven academically, and I love to learn for the sake of learning.  Even when I was 10).  It became something of a hobby for me to learn about these non-verbal messages we use, but when it was time for me to apply to university, the possibility of studying Psychology hadn’t crossed my mind.

Originally, I applied to do Law.  I was young and influenced by the earning potential – what can I say, my academic morals weren’t quite established then.  However, meeting my boyfriend in the same year I was meant to do my Highers (Scottish A-Levels to everyone else) meant that not quite as much studying got done as was necessary and I didn’t make the cut.  Desperate to go to university, I applied to do Psychology and, happily, was accepted.

Doing Psychology as an undergraduate added a new depth to my hobby.  I started learning about the motivations for human behaviour and began to focus my reading about non-verbal cues on deception.  I was fascinated with how people could lie without saying a word.  I continued to watch Derren Brown on TV and added more shows to my repertoire, like Lie to Me, which hit screens in 2009 and introduced me to the legend that is Paul Ekman.  I have told this story to several people who have exclaimed I just like to watch TV, which – although somewhat true – is a little unfair.  I’m aware of the limits of these programmes and the artistic license they employ to create a good story, but their influence on my life is pronounced; I wouldn’t be doing this PhD without them.  For that reason, I can’t tell my story fully without telling you about them.  (And as an aside, if you’ve never seen either – get watching!)

More slowly than I like to admit – given the seemingly obvious connection in hindsight – I began to put the two together.  Magicians deceive professionally, though I’m quick to add this is not in a malicious way.  Instead, they foster a sense of enjoyment, wonder and awe in their audiences who go to these shows deliberately for the experience of being misled.  Misdirection is to magicians what the Bible is to a preacher.  Once I had that particular eureka moment, my path was clear.

I was incredibly fortunate to do my undergraduate degree in a university where one of the few psychologists who research magic works.  It was a rocky road to getting funding, but I was able to create a proposal that would allow me to live the dream and begin my PhD in the Psychology of Magic.  Essentially, my thesis investigates how magicians learn to manipulate social attention to be successful at misdirection.  I began to discover that magic wasn’t just cool; it gives psychologists an amazing tool to tap into all sorts of aspects of cognition.  The body of research is growing and soon I will be contributing to it.

Katy Inglis is a first year PhD student at the University of Dundee.  She holds a First Class Honours degree in Psychology and has worked as research assistant and an assistant psychologist between graduating in 2010 and starting her PhD in 2011.  Her academic blog is Not Just Another PhD, and she tweets far too much at @katy_inglis. You can also find out more at The Secret Diary of a Twentysomething.  When she occasionally has a life outside her PhD, Katy trains in Taekwondo, learns German, makes things (including really good cakes) and watches *all the things* at the cinema.  You can view her professional blurb at the University of Dundee’s Psychology People page.

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Listening to Music as Pain-relief

By Diana Hereld

Funeral

The death of loved ones pushed Diana into studying how music can ease pain

If one were to ask for my academic or intellectual rationale for choosing music psychology, I would most likely rattle off something matter-of-factly about how I’ve grown up around music and psychology. My parents were psychologists; my mother has two doctorates so academic achievement was always very important. Yet they always stressed the cultural and intellectual importance of music. Music is what I do, and I have a lazy passion for the more philosophical side of things, so it simply ‘made sense,’ as it were.

As to my intellectual rationale for music psychology, it started exactly a year ago. From the time I discovered Dr. Victoria Williamson’s research in the applied neuroscience of music, I’ve been completely enamored with the field. Since I was a young child, I’ve been devoted to the pursuit of music in any way possible. I’ve been involved in music theatre, music video production and engineering, music composition, and music marketing in radio and television. As my emotional intelligence developed, however, I found I also had an intense desire to understand people and their motives. In high school and college, I took classes in philosophy, psychology and ethics. My first emphasis in college was music and psychology. But as I was strongly discouraged from pursuing majors with such ‘different focuses,’ I chose music alone. In line with this, I never resolved to solely do one or the other, and eventually it was cause for a year break before enrolling in a graduate programme. I found I simply could not be happy studying only music or only psychology. Enter my absolute elation upon discovering the Music, Mind and Brain programme at Goldsmiths College, University of London. I believe that their programme’s careful integration of music perception, neuroscience and statistical methods combined with a faculty of such encouragement and expertise will be just the training I seek in preparation of a PhD and a career in the field.

If someone were to ask to explain or justify my ‘non-academic’ journey into exactly what I have chosen to pursue, I still find myself needing to pause and really think it through. One catalyst for this is that my rationale is not static but dynamic, changing and evolving daily into something slightly new and adjusted. I suppose that that should say something in and of itself – the pursuit of music psychology has become my life blood – it’s what I think about most moments of every day. The more I’ve reflected on my own listening habits over the years, the more I realize there are few times I am without music. I use it advantageously in every possible situation. As an ENFJ (extroverted, intuitive, feeling, judging) Jungian personality type, being able to calm and put people at ease is one of my greatest joys, and strengths. Music can turn a moment of happiness into a moment of memorable bliss that stays with you always. It can also turn a slightly vague and uncomfortable memory into a transparent lake of psychoanalytical outpouring. Music is in everything, and it has the power to heal people.

If one were to ask the truly cementing factor in my life that secured music psychology, however, it is most of all the following. Last summer, I lost my step-sister, my father, and my best friend within two weeks of each other. Though I’d dealt with a fair share of hardship in adolescence, I’d never gone through anything of this magnitude. Through the process of witnessing my family’s grief (and my own) in spending time in hospitals and hospice, I felt more than ever an acute desire to help people through their pain. I never cease to be amazed at music’s capacity to bring about a mental resilience. I know music to be a healing tool, because I am a living attestation. There are many who would disagree with my personal ethic, but I continued to teach my private music lessons to children in the morning after I lost my father, and missed not a single lesson until several months later. I’m finding my time now to be alone and to grieve, but I honestly believe that the joy of working with kids in music sustained me through the more terrible moments, and as I said, I’ve kept in reserve the strength to maintain my lessons and lead a research project at the university. I wish to practice music psychology because I know it works. I now desire to delve further into the why, and the how.

My long-term goal is to complete a PhD in using music as a therapeutic tool in those who struggle with self-harm. From there exist many options I’d like to pursue, such as research and music therapy in a clinical setting. Though I have many different interests in listening behavior, emotional intelligence and applied neuroscience, the concept of psychological resilience remains of the most consequence to me, and I’ve many ideas how to pair this with music.

Diana Hereld holds a Bachelor’s degree in Music and Communication. She works currently as a psychology researcher at California State University, music tutor in piano and voice, and teacher for an early childhood music company. When she is not working, she spends her time independently researching all things music psychology and neuroscience, and theology/philosophy when it pertains to the former. Her interest is particularly in the way varied personality types respond emotionally to music, whether that can change over time in consequence of plasticity, and the implications for psychological resilience. She has just been accepted into the Music, Mind and Brain MSc programme at Goldsmiths College University of London for Fall 2012. You can follow her on Twitter @christypaffgen and subscribe to her blog, As the Spirit Wanes: The Form Appears.

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PhD on Procrastination

By Pravin Jeya

Teenage girl texting

Mobile phones are a constant source of procrastination

I struggle with procrastination. No doubt lots of PhD students and researchers will be able to relate to this. In fact, this post itself is being written because I’ve hit a wall, indicating that I needed to take a break. But recently procrastination went from being a barrier to my research to the very heart of my research. (That doesn’t give me an excuse to procrastinate, off course.)

It started with a particularly bad bout of procrastination. I just kept coming into uni every day with the intention of making a bit more progress. I had a number of things that I needed to do. And yet, I’d come in, check my email, check Twitter and then get sucked into the black hole of everything but my PhD. I needed help to climb out.

Well, shopping was the answer. No, I did not find inspiration in a wild shopping spree down Oxford Street (the university is close by). On the way home, I always pass by WH Smiths (a newsagent cum stationers) and every now and again I pop in to see if there are any interesting books for sale. I don’t usually buy because of limited financial means, I just like to be around books and make a mental checklist of stuff I want to buy when I get through the books I  have at home. Of course, I always forget the checklist.

So, one evening, I saw ‘The Procrastination Equation‘ by Dr Piers Steel. I thought to myself, that’s what I need but I didn’t pick it up because I didn’t think I could afford it. But I came into WH Smith’s about three or four times in a week and every time, I saw this book. Depressed about my current struggle with Procrastination, I picked the book up eventually. I looked at the front cover and the back cover. I noticed that the author was a ‘Dr’ and that he had reviewed all the research into procrastination because he struggled with procrastination. Finally, being a maths graduate, the idea of an equation appealed to me. I felt that this was the book I needed to help me get to grips with my procrastination, because it was debilitating. I am still reading this book at the moment and it is very enlightening.

One thing that caught my eye in the book was when Dr Steel described what procrastination was like. He described it as knowing what we need to do  but waiting until we are sufficiently close to our deadline to have the energy to take action. And as I read the words, a light came on. What he was describing was my theoretical framework, the dialectic between resistance and change that explains the slow progress of environmental behaviour despite ‘end of the world’ style predictions. And I knew that that’s what I was trying to do…look at law as a way for dealing with individual and social procrastination. From that moment, Dr Steel’s book became both my personal reading for dealing with a personal problem and a part of my research reading.

This is not my first post on how my environment influences my PhD.

 

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Researching for Knowledge

By Bhavnaa S.

Eureka?

It did not strike me like lightening. It was a culmination of several personal events which then led me to choosing to work on this topic for my narrative review during my Masters. I completed my M.Sc in Health Psychology this August (2011) and some of my varied topics of interest were hormonal imbalances, psychoneuroimmunology and post-operative cardiac healthcare. Among the several coursework we were to complete, one of them was to write a narrative review where we could review our own topic of interest instead of being provided with set options. Without much thought I decided to write about thyroid health, i.e. factors affecting quality of life among patients with thyroid disorders. I soon realized that I was quite passionate about the topic and wanted to know more. Simultaneously, I also knew that I wanted to do my PhD, but was not sure what to specialize in. My mind kept going back to this topic and soon enough was fixated on doing my PhD on thyroid health.

Tree of Knowledge, painting by Lucas Cranach

Hunger for knowledge about thyroid disorders is leading Bhavnaa to do a PhD

Thyroid health: why?

A few years back, I was commonly noticing a trend wherein a few of my close ones diagnosed with hypothyroidism (lack of thyroid hormone in the body) were either being over or under-medicated by their doctors, had persisting symptoms in spite of normalized values displayed in the report, or were sensitive to the smallest changes of thyroid hormone. I decided to delve deeper and bought a few books on the topic for my own understanding. I soon realized that most doctors only relied on the values of the T4 levels (free thyroxine – unconverted thyroid hormone) or TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) levels. The basic premise here is that the unconverted thyroid hormone needs to convert into triodothyronine or T3 to be utilized by the body. If this conversion does not happen very effectively, the body gets starved of usable thyroid hormone. Yet very few endocrinologists ask for the values of converted thyroid levels or T3 levels, depending wholly on the values of the T4 and the TSH levels.

Sadly the symptoms associated with lack of thyroid hormone are quite nasty with one feeling excessively fatigued, having slurred speech, slower body responses, weight gain, fogginess of the mind, low concentration levels, and anxiety. The symptoms for excess thyroid hormone in the body or hyperthyroidism are restlessness, tachycardia, weight loss, etc. More than the physical strain, one feels psychologically weighed down with the appearance and sustenance of such symptoms. Some patients are also very sensitive to the slightest change in their thyroid hormone levels, even if it is subclinical.

After much of my own reading and research, I started asking more people (whom I knew were diagnosed with a thyroid disorder) about their symptoms, quality of life, dosage of medication prescribed and even analysed their reports. I started predicting the lab test results before the results of the blood tests were released, and even predicted the outcome of the doctor’s decision based on the person’s symptoms. Obviously I had neither authority nor qualification to suggest anything, so kept these predictions to myself or proudly said “I told you so!”

Similar experiences

My placement involved working at two prestigious hospitals in London in the cardiac department early this year (2011). During the process of working with and interviewing patients, there were some whom I thought would benefit from doing a thyroid test. I was easily able to identify patients with undiagnosed thyroid disorders which neither the doctors nor the nurses were able to gauge. Similarly, my grandmother who was recently hospitalized with cardiac heart failure had all the lab tests done. She had lost a lot of weight and her heart rate was generally on the higher side. After she was discharged and was allowed back home, I casually had a look at all her reports and noticed that she was sub-clinically hyperthyroid. I do know that elderly people are very sensitive to even the smallest amounts of hormonal changes and since it was a case of slightly excessive thyroid hormone in the body, symptoms like tachycardia and weight loss had manifested. Why hadn’t the doctor asked her to reduce her thyroid dosage that she was already taking? (She was hypothyroid and was on medication for several years). I suggested to others that this was worth a mention to the doctor during her routine appointment. It was done and the doctor realized he had overlooked it and reduced the dosage. Obviously this was not the core and sole reason of her being hospitalized or having heart failure but it could have been a contributing factor.

Many such similar experiences have led me to improve and perfect my knowledge on thyroid disorders. Also observing the poor quality of life a thyroid patient can have in spite of being put on medications has provided me the impetus to come up with ways to help improve it.

My passion for psychology

I’ve always been an instinctive person. I’d like to give it a non-scientific term such as ‘intuitive’. During my very early years (approx. age of 12), I became quite interested in palmistry, numerology and astrology. It was so automatic that I cannot remember what led me to becoming passionate about these subjects. Probably a drive to understand that there is something more powerful beyond us, guiding us or maybe I just wanted to challenge the inner sceptic in me.  Over time and after years of experience, I started to practice professionally. Although it’s more of a hobby, it’s something that’s become a part of me and has helped me understand human nature and motivations with clarity. Being an astrologer as well as having a psychology degree has proved to be a double-edged sword for me. I currently provide astrological consultations and write monthly predictions and compatibility for a magazine in Dubai.

On the academic front, I completed my B.Sc in Psychology after which I decided to switch tracks and hence applied for an M.Sc in Genetics (very random, I know). Out of the two year degree program, I completed one year during which I gained immensely but also realized that Psychology was what I still wanted to do. My interest in the mind-body connection was further strengthened by the knowledge gained during my initial and partially completed Master’s degree. I then applied and got accepted to the M.Sc in Health Psychology program which I completed in September 2011.

Most of my short-term placements and work experience have been in hospitals. Having had experience working in the speech therapy, physiotherapy, and cardiac care departments, I felt health psychology would be something I’d excel at.

Doing my PhD

I’m still formulating my topic. I also do know that many a times what is decided on earlier could evolve into something totally different.

To be able to contribute productively in an area that I’m passionate about is what doing a PhD means to me. Besides the fact that I’ve always enjoyed challenges, completing my doctorate degree would simply tell me that ‘It’s all been worth it’.

I’m still in the proposal phase and am hoping to send in my completed application by early 2012.

Bhavnaa S. completed an MSc in Health Psychology at a UK university and she is in the process of applying to do a PhD.

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