Clinical vs. Research: Why I’ll never make up my mind…

…by Sinéad / from Ireland  / PhD Psychiatry / 4th Year

Throughout the course of my very early career, I have found myself alternating between research and clinical work. Even during my undergraduate degree- an endeavour heavily skewed towards research, I found myself drawn to a clinical environment, volunteering with trauma and stroke patient at a wonderful rehabilitation hospital.

Once I graduated, with every intention of pursuing a clinical psychology path, a friend of mine convinced/coerced me to take a year off before jumping in. I can’t begin to tell you how valuable this advice was. My year was spent dividing my time working at an inpatient paediatric mental health unit and working as a research assistant in a developmental language lab at my alma mater. Both jobs were incredibly rewarding, educational and tricky in distinct ways.

When it came time to decide on the next step, research won out, so off I moved to Edinburgh to pursue a research masters. No courses, no classes, just me and a big old research project. I loved the challenge of research, the flexibility of being able to structure your time yourself, and the feeling of placing yourself at the mercy of the scientific method.

Fast forward a few months; data collection is finished, I’m 20 000 words into my thesis and I’m exhausted. Tired of always having my project at the back of my mind, tired of consistently feeling cognitively exhausted, and desperate to feel as though I was making a difference instead of festering in front of my computer.

Now I know what you’re thinking, this over-educated lass sure likes to complain. And it’s true. I’m never happy.

When working in a clinical environment I miss the cognitive challenge of research and the moments of chosen isolation where I can be alone with my books. My heart feels exhausted and a lot of days feel like I’m fighting a losing battle. When I’m working in research I feel removed from the front line, I can never stop thinking about my work, and I miss the human interactions and the rush of hope when it feels as though you’ve made someone’s day a bit brighter.

Clearly I don’t know what I want.

After my masters I switched again, working as an ABA therapist for low to non verbal children on the Autism spectrum. Once again, after two years the inevitable longing for research came back and here I am, hovering around the halfway point in my PhD.

My work is with preterm infants; I have a lovely mix of working with researchers and doctors, and I finally feel as though I’m starting to be on the right track.

Similarly to most PhD candidates, I have no idea what I actually want to do once, hopefully, successfully finished. My typical answer when asked is “quit the field entirely, get a dog, and write a book”. One can dream.

Until those puppy filled days arrive I will continue to work to figure out where my happy place is. Somewhere with a blend of research and clinical work. Dallying with my scientific mistress while still working on the front line. Fighting to make a meaningful contribution to the scientific community while still interacting with the people the research is for.

So. Any advice to offer? Not really.

I’m still working it out. Helpful hey?

Just remember that nothing is permanent, you’re allowed to change your mind…and the rules. Maybe, if you’re really lucky, you will know from a young age exactly what you want to do and someone will offer you the opportunity to do just that. Or, maybe you’ll try new things, make a few wrong turns, and end up somewhere that you never dreamed of. Maybe you’ll love it, maybe you won’t, and maybe you’ll manage to tweak it until it’s something that resembles a good fit.

At least that’s what I’m trying to do. Until I write that damn book of course.



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