Five years in the making: My experiences in the Occupational Science PhD program and my advice for new and prospective students
April 16, 2019
By Mark Hardison PhD ’19
Deciding to get a PhD is a big decision; at the USC Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, it is a life-changing opportunity. It has completely transformed my understanding of science and clinical practice. More importantly, the PhD has shown me the dire need for emerging leaders in our field. Occupational science is a new discipline with much to explore, and we need people willing to sit in the driver’s seat for research, practice, academia, policy and more!
If you are considering applying to the program here at USC, I say go for it! I hope this reflection provides useful perspectives on why you should pursue your PhD here, or if you already are, offers some lessons that I learned throughout. While there are probably endless lessons to be learned in five years of study, I have picked three key concepts that were the most salient for me.
1. Gratefully accepting — and giving — help
The Chan Division invests a lot of resources into its PhD students, and at first this can be intimidating because it is a large responsibility. All students are fully funded and get paired with a faculty mentor doing active research. USC Chan also has a mountain of expertise across education, practice, and research. Within occupational science or occupational therapy, you can always find someone here who is willing and able to give you guidance. Furthermore, the program has resources for writing and managing grants, publishing and traveling to present research. Take full advantage, and relish each while they last. As a PhD student, you are constantly in a position to receive help, be challenged, and learn new things. It has been a huge learning process to gracefully accept the help of others, and to learn that it is OK to begin this journey with lots of guidance.
Specifically, I have learned a ton outside of class from my direct mentor. The immersion model of research here at the Chan Division throws PhD students into current research projects immediately upon entering the program. This is great because you hit the ground running. It was also tough because I initially felt like I did not deserve credit for the work I was doing on projects that had begun before I arrived. I was developing parts of my mentor’s work, presenting it at conferences, and feeling a bit like an imposter. Who was I to stand up, give a presentation, and play at being an expert? Similarly, I published an article during my first year of the program with a lot of help from faculty mentors — big thanks to Dr. Shawn Roll and Dr. Gelya Frank! Suddenly, occupational therapists and researchers across the country could read my perspective in print. As a newly licensed therapist, it felt surreal, and my self-doubt was mounting. My adviser’s response was to kindly remind me that I was learning to become a scientist. Also, that I was selling myself short for what I had indeed added to his work. While you are a student it is more than just OK to need a lot of help, it is expected. In fact, that is the whole point of the PhD program.
All science, even at the highest levels, involves giving and receiving. It is most often accomplished by groups of scholars with differentiated expertise. What I’ve achieved so far and what you will achieve during a PhD program is absolutely impossible without the help of a lot of people. Individual mentoring sessions, instruction in class, navigating IRB reviews, feedback on manuscripts, support, guidance and all the rest. All of it born from the help of faculty, clinicians, research participants, USC staff, random people I’ve met at conferences, volunteers, peers and family. On the flip side, some of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had in the program have been mentoring newer students, helping peers brainstorm their passions, and deeply listening to the stories of the participants who gave their time to my research. Learning to receive and give help with gratitude has been invaluable. My advice: Accept the circumstances around you, make use of your resources and look for opportunities to bring everyone up together.
2. Developing your voice
One of the greatest challenges I had to overcome in the PhD program was shifting from simply summarizing other people’s scientific voices to beginning to form my own. In order to do that, I had to understand that no one source has all the answers. We’re all just trying to do our best to understand the complex, messy world. Often the questions occupational scientists try to answer do not have neat and tidy solutions. For example, take the upcoming SSO:USA Conference 2019 theme: The Darker Side of Occupations. How do every-day behaviors that have negative health outcomes, like smoking, interact with an individual’s total well-being? How does this fit with occupational science theory? To answer these questions you could summarize existing theory, but that alone does not add as much value to the discussion as finding a new way forward. There’s no place for science to grow if you only rely on what is already known and refuse to develop your own ideas. In a practical sense, this means you need to stand by what you think is worth studying, then go out and do it.
As you go through the PhD program, you will be learning many new things and having many discussions with classmates and faculty about the nature of occupational science. What is an occupation? What are the most salient theories in occupational science? What is the relationship between occupational therapy and occupational science? It is important that you continue developing your own unique and soon-to-be-expert voice. Also, it is OK to be wrong. In fact, it can be good to be wrong because it means (1) you are showing up to the discussion; and (2) you have learned something from it. The only thing at stake in being wrong during a discussion is your pride. And there is no better time to let go of this than when you are still a student. Developing your voice can be an uncomfortable process, but it pays in spades by the time you are defending your dissertation. My advice: Engage enthusiastically with the material at hand, get used to speaking your mind and accept dissent thoughtfully — this is a large part of what it means to be a scholar.
One of the best pieces of advice I was given about doing a PhD is that you need thick skin. As a novice in academia it is easy to take negative feedback to heart and feel hopeless. Instead, identify that negative feedback is a necessary part of growth. Did that journal you love just hand you a hasty rejection on an article you’ve spent six months writing? Good. Take their feedback, make your paper even more awesome, and submit somewhere else. Did you just give a presentation in front of 200-some people at a conference where you were so anxious that your throat dried out like Death Valley and you croaked through your slides (true story)? No big deal. No one will remember, and it’s a good reminder to revamp your presentation prep. What a fantastic time in your life to learn how to gracefully own up to your mistakes, decide to treat them as learning experiences, and move on. Don’t let the red pen corrections on your papers or the critical grant reviewers’ rants determine your opinion of yourself or your work. Develop a passion for what you are studying and learn how to effectively communicate that passion. My advice: Learn to let it all go. But most of all, value yourself and your contributions. You can do this! You just have to stick with it.