Chloe Spence, Business and Management, University of Liverpool, 2018 Cohort
Telling people that you’re doing a PhD can provoke a wide variety of reactions, ranging from the flattering to the mildly offensive. While people are often impressed by the idea of (eventually, hopefully!) ‘becoming a doctor’, others are sceptical about just how much ‘real-world’ experience you can really get within the cushy, ivory-tower world of academia. Many of my friends – themselves having graduated years ago, or skipped university altogether and gone straight into the ‘real world’ – are certainly, understandably bemused by my still clinging onto the identity of studenthood, semi-jokingly questioning if I am ever actually going to leave university and get a (so called) real job.
While the view of PhD students as eternal responsibility shirkers may be somewhat unfair (we do all have a lot to do, even if we do some of it from within the walls of the ivory tower!), gaining life experience and insights outside of academia is a serious concern, especially for those of us who want or may want to pursue a separate career path in the future. Even if you are set on a career in academia (I’m undecided), there are still huge benefits to be gained from getting as much relevant experience as possible outside of the PhD research itself.
There is a multiplicity of ways to gain experience during your PhD, no matter your programme. That being said, as a CASE student in the field of service research, I do feel very lucky to have a pre-established link with a service organisation, particularly with one so closely aligned with my interests and with so many valuable connections. My research focus has always been on the effective delivery of mental health services and has evolved to specifically address the delivery of mental health services to homeless populations. I am aiming to investigate this topic through eliciting in-depth narrative accounts from service users, exploring processes of value creation across an entire service experience or ‘journey’.
The CASE partner in this research is the Psychological Therapies Unit (PTU), a Liverpool-based community interest company offering therapy and training to the community, and specifically PTU Director, Steve Flatt. Steve is also at the helm of ‘Working Conversations’, a broader collaborative project encompassing (among other things) the work of the PTU, collaborations with the university, and the work of Traumaticus, a nationwide network of trauma practitioners. Steve and the PTU have been heavily involved in every stage of the studentship to date, both directly influencing the development of my MRes and PhD research and providing external opportunities.
My MRes dissertation consisted of the evaluation of a tenancy support service, referred to as Company X, providing a combination of mental health and practical support, who were already engaged in work with the PTU and thus favourably inclined towards work with the university. This connection was highly beneficial, not only for the purpose of the MRes dissertation but also in shaping the direction and goals of the PhD itself. This evaluation sough both to investigate processes of value creation throughout the customer journey and to analyse the effect (or lack thereof) of the introduction of solution-focused practice (SFP), a psychotherapeutic approach embraced by both Company X and the PTU.
My findings therefore provided me with an opportunity to speak at the annual conference of the United Kingdom Association for Solution-Focused Practitioners (UKASFP) conference in July 2019, in collaboration with both Steve and the director of Company X. The opportunity to experience and present at a practitioners’ (as opposed to an academic) conference helped to shine a new light on my research, providing me with experience early on of communicating key concepts and findings to a non-academic audience (/academics from a different field). Steve and I are planning to present together again at this year’s UKASFP conference, this time in a longer timeslot. Steve is also one of this year’s leading conference organisers and I am assisting him with this as one component of my work with the PTU – the first time that I have been heavily involved in ‘behind the scenes’ conference operations, but hopefully far from the last and definitely an important skill to develop as a PhD student. I visited the conference location (Staffordshire University) for the first time last week with Steve, where I got the chance to properly meet the other main organiser and our main contact at the university and talk logistics.
In addition to providing a good opportunity to talk through all the practical details of the conference, it was also great to talk with the other organiser (confusingly also named Steve, and based in the Staffordshire area) about his work, my work, and the overlap between the two. He talked about two local organisations he’d been working with, Expert Citizens and Voices, whose efforts to put genuine participation over tokenism and place service user voices front and centre resonated deeply with my own fledgling attempts to provide a valuable platform for those experiencing homelessness and mental health issues. Not only will key figures in these organisations be presenting and available to talk to at the conference, he also suggested that I come down separately to spend some time with Expert Citizens and observe the service in action, an offer I definitely intend to take up!
In addition to this, I have been doing some work to attempt to bolster the public image and social media outreach of Working Conversations, specifically through the development and maintenance of a website and a LinkedIn page. The website (www.workingconversationsgroup.org) includes pages on each of the main services and projects in action, and regularly updated details of upcoming training and other events. A Working Conversations blog is also in development, which is intended to be updated semi-regularly by a variety of contributors across the network. The LinkedIn page will be utilised primarily to publicise the events, blog posts, etc. already shared on the website, establishing a larger and broader professional following than would otherwise be possible. My connection with the PTU and Working Conversations has therefore provided me with another, very different but equally valuable opportunity for learning and development, honing my skills in marketing and outreach and networking/collaborating with a variety of actors in the process.
Moving forward, not only has the PTU itself been identified as a candidate organisation for data collection beginning next year, Steve’s knowledge and connections have further proved invaluable in identifying (and ruling out) other organisations of interest and getting a far clearer picture of the state of local mental healthcare provision. A CASE partner obviously isn’t a requirement for a satisfying or successful PhD, but I do personally feel very lucky to have accessed the opportunities I have through my work with the PTU, gaining experience in a variety of relevant areas and establishing connections I hope to maintain throughout and beyond my PhD.