Nicky Baker, PhD candidate, Flinders University & DELH

An opportunity too good to miss! This was my reaction to the offer of a PhD scholarship from the Australian Research Council Industrial Transformation Research Hub for Digital Enhanced Living. This opportunity offered me the chance to make a creative, positive contribution to people ageing well using digital technology. Also, being a mature aged student, the possibility of completing the degree in three years was too enticing to ignore. The topic? Keeping people on their feet, understanding trips and stumbles, preventing falls. In my many years as a physiotherapist, I had treated too many people with severe injuries as a result of a fall. What if we could bring the timeline back, look at the story earlier, before a fall? What if we could understand why some people stumble and recover, and others stumble and fall? There is so much promise with emerging digital technology, we may be able to use it to differentiate the stumblers from the fallers. That way we could possibly prevent falls…

And, so, my PhD application was accepted. I was brimming with excitement! A new path was ahead of me, full of potential and the chance to make a difference!

But following a new path meant I needed to let go of everything familiar. The clinical experience and management skills I had developed over the previous 20 years were not necessarily helpful in this new environment. Suddenly there was no established routine and I had to create my own work habits. I had to find my own system for investigating and searching. I had to learn where to look, how to catalogue, what to synthesise and when to ignore. I had to find my own voice, my own interpretation, to contribute something unique. Whilst I had a good understanding of human anatomy and the mechanisms and systems that control balance, I had little to no knowledge about digital systems or phone apps. There was so much to learn. I became the one asking all the questions, instead of answering them. I was the student instead of the instructor. The tables had turned.

The first six months of my PhD were a rollercoaster ride. On the one hand, excitement fed the curiosity, drove the enquiry, provided the momentum. On the other hand, it felt like I was learning everything for the first time – what to read, how to synthesise the information succinctly and how to write as an academic. I had to learn the University’s supportive software programs like EndNote, a program for storing and managing all the references; Covidence, a program for systematic organisation of literature reviews; and SPSS, the Statistical Program for Social Sciences, that I would use for the projects’ statistical analysis. All day, every day, I was learning new information, methods, and processes. It was like climbing a mountain. The path was vague, the gradient steady but unrelenting, and every time I thought I had reached a summit, it was merely a plateau on the way to the top.

Morning walk, Adelaide

To complicate the learning, there was no established routine, no timetable. I had to identify what to tackle, how long to spend on it and which whether it was urgent, important, or just fascinating. There was endless flexibility being a PhD student and I struggled with the absurdity of too many options. I knew I needed to be productive but maintaining productivity without a structure was challenging. Most of what I was reading was fascinating and it was too easy to immerse myself in lateral or less important information. I found it a juggle being a full-time student AND wife, mother, and friend. Sometimes it was a challenge to identify how this all-consuming selfishness could possibly build on and not destroy the experiences of the past 30 years. It became essential to discover the balance between the research goal and the research process. Supervisors and mentors were invaluable with their advice: ‘write for 30 minutes each day’; ‘keep connected to your thesis every single day’; ‘share your work for others to comment on’; ‘collaborate and build your network’… These gems helped create a structure from the disarray.

The milestone in the first year in any PhD is the Confirmation of Candidature. This is the assessment of the student’s research proposal which covers the aims and objectives of the research, a critical assessment of the established literature, the current gap in knowledge, the new proposition, the intended methodology, and a time plan to complete the research. The proposal is submitted as a formal document and the student is assessed through their written work and an oral presentation. The Confirmation of Candidature is conducted by two independent, academic examiners. The student is either assessed as progressing appropriately and passes, or, if progress is unsatisfactory, they are recommended to reconsider their candidature. This could mean resubmitting a revised proposal in a further six months, downgrading to a master’s degree, or discontinuing candidature.

For me, the latter alternatives were not an option! I had given up too much to stumble at this early stage. I was committed to writing a decent proposal and presenting the information confidently and knowledgeably. To get to that stage, I had read broadly and deeply, but tripped up on the language. Being a health clinician meant I was familiar with somatosensory-system-speak, but the technical terminology was foreign. Which directions were yaw, pitch and roll? What was a Fast Fourier Transform? What on earth was Spectral Energy Density? Was each new term relevant or inconsequential? I needed to go back to simple physics from my high school days in Scotland. Each article took two to three times longer to read and understand, let alone extract the relevant information. I knew I needed to create order out of the chaos in my head and put it into the proposal, but the faltering steps were slowing me down.

Finally, I realised that this was all a normal process in a PhD – questioning, translating into understandable language, seeking out relevant snippets of information, choosing what to tackle next, creating a whole story from the portions. The big goal was identified as the PhD. The first in a stepwise approach to achieving that goal was to pass the Confirmation of Candidature. Breaking down that sub-goal meant identifying the gap in knowledge, investigating potential methods to address the gap, and creating the connections with industry to provide the technical know-how. I was learning to write in a new, formal, academic style, discovering how to convey complex, disparate fragments of information into one integrated story.

I submitted my proposal and delivered my oral presentation. Examiners and others in the audience asked some great questions – had I thought about this or contemplated that? They provided different perspectives to those I had developed in the previous six months and these considerations would improve the project. I passed the Confirmation of Candidature and have integrated some of the suggestions to the ongoing work.

The first few months of a PhD are like climbing a steep hill. The sense of achievement at the top is wonderful! The opportunity to reflect on the difficulties of the climb is profound. The training this hill provides for scaling the mountain is invaluable. Most importantly, enjoy the view, seek the best path, and continue with the journey.

Top of Bealach na Bà, Highlands, Scotland


Written by:
Nicky Baker
PhD scholarship recipient, ARC Industrial Transformation Research Hub for Digital Enhanced Living
Flinders University
NB: The author reserves the right to showcase/publish this blog piece elsewhere and/or in a different medium.

Editorial review by:
Dr Ian Flaherty, Research Fellow
Kevin Hoon, Hub Manager