Taking the next step can help further careers


There may be more to completing a postgraduate research degree than contributing to the literature. Jamie Owen speaks with two physiotherapists about how finishing a postgraduate research degree had unexpected benefits.

As the interest in translating research into the clinical environment continues to rise, so does the need to critically evaluate the effectiveness of physiotherapy interventions with skills developed during postgraduate research, or so say two physiotherapists from New South Wales. However, as many prospective scholars do not finish their masters or PhDs, it is important to consider the human aspect of completing a postgraduate research degree.

The days of postgraduate scholars confined to the university grounds, lecturing and doing research in isolation seem to be disappearing, says Dr Ryan Gallagher, an APA Neurology Physiotherapist and senior physiotherapist in neurosciences at John Hunter Hospital. Ryan’s passion for using his research skills to answer questions from his own clinical practice is echoed by fellow physiotherapist Dr Kate Scrivener, APAM, of Macquarie University, Concentric Rehab Centre and the StrokeEd Collaboration.

Ryan, who earnt his PhD earlier this year, hopes that physiotherapists might be better supported to emulate that of their senior medical colleagues: balancing teaching and research alongside a clinical caseload. The Victorian Allied Health Physiotherapy Workforce Report of July 2016 indicated that many clinicians feel unable to conduct clinical research due to high caseload demands. The report also showed that clinicians had limited professional development available to develop the essential skills.

Kate is passionate about merging her clinical and research worlds. Describing herself as a ‘comprehensive researcher’, Kate allows clinical questions to guide her research. But it is the unexpected skills that Ryan and Kate earned during their postgraduate studies that may have helped progress them to their current positions.

Questions derived from clinical practice are a common driver for physiotherapists to complete postgraduate research degrees. Ryan says his journey towards completing a PhD is one that happened organically. Completing his PhD thesis studying assessments to better prepare patients with idiopathic normal pressure hydrocephalus for neurosurgery, Ryan describes his topic as a ‘clinical conundrum I didn’t have the answer to’.

‘I had a question that I needed the answer to, so I got in touch with some lecturers from the university that I still had contact with about my ideas, and they got the ball rolling from the university end. It kind of just happened from there,’ Ryan says.

Drawing on his clinical environment as well as support from his department and researchers at the University of Newcastle, Ryan continued his full-time clinical position while completing his PhD part- time. He went on to not only improve the assessment of patients within his local environment but also disseminate his results further in publications such as the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Neurosurgery and Clinical Neurology and Neurosurgery.

However, while commencing his PhD, Ryan found it difficult to attract funding to support his studies. Ryan described his area as a specialised one where ‘funding was rare, well, pretty much non-existent’. While he remains supportive of individual clinicians commencing PhDs, he acknowledges there are some benefits to being part of a wider research team.

‘You don’t have to be part of a wider research team as long as you have a genuine burning interest in the topic, but they [teams] are usually a little more successful with scholarships,’ he says.

Reflecting on her PhD Kate says, ‘I think it’s only after [finishing a PhD] that you realise it’s really a training degree where you learn about research and how to do research well’. Kate credits her PhD with providing her the evaluation and analytic skills to effectively assess projects and programs implemented by herself and her team, suggesting it has changed her approach to starting new projects.

‘I start to think how I can best evaluate this, rather than going into full delivery mode,’ she says.

Ryan says his work started to change even before submitting his thesis. Describing an incident where he walked into find his manager frustrated and punching numbers into his iPhone to calculate outcomes for a long-term project, Ryan used the skills developed during his PhD as a ‘number cruncher’ to help out. After fixing a problem in 20 minutes that would usually take six hours, Ryan was approached to become the data analyst and project manager of his department. Ryan now enjoys working collaboratively with clinicians in his department to ‘look at the wider picture and see the effects on a whole cohort of patients, not just the individuals’.

Kate now describes herself as someone with three jobs: a part-time academic at Macquarie University, a passionate clinician and educator at the Concentric Rehab Centre, and a presenter with the StrokeEd collaboration. Alongside occupational therapists and physiotherapists with postgraduate research degrees, Kate helps to deliver professional development workshops to allied health clinicians and nurses across Australia and overseas. The group’s aim is to ensure all stroke survivors have access to prompt evidence-based rehabilitation. Kate believes her PhD has ‘100 per cent led to all three of these opportunities’. The research skills developed as part of her postgraduate training has gained Kate the ‘recognition that you are a specialist in your area’. She believes it is this acknowledgement that has resulted in many new opportunities since completing her PhD. As a passionate clinician–researcher, Kate doesn’t want physiotherapists to think research postgraduate degrees are just a gateway into pure research careers.

‘Some people want to be researchers and that’s great, we need them, but the skills learned during postgraduate research can be applied to so many different areas,’ Kate says. ‘Although a clinical masters gives you advanced clinical skills, postgraduate research degrees give you the skills to evaluate whether interventions are being effective.’

It was carefully considering their own lifestyles that led both Kate and Ryan to complete their PhDs part-time while continuing to work clinically. Kate’s key advice to those considering postgraduate research study is that ‘it has to be the right project, the right supervisor and the right time in your life’. She also emphasises that you must be passionate enough about the topic ‘to not mind spending years of your life thinking, reading and writing about it’. She says, however, that if the passion is there, prospective students might just find themselves developing skills that not only progress their clinical practice but their careers in the process.


What question I am trying to answer?

Spending some time forming and refining your question will make it easier to plan the research to answer it

Would I mind reading about this on my weekend?

Take some time to read research articles in a similar area and see if you enjoy it

Do I have a good relationship with someone who can support me in this topic?

Make a list of potential research supervisors. Read their research, speak with them about your ideas and speak to their other students

Does part-time or full-time study suit my lifestyle?

Review your own finances, lifestyle and goals for the next few years to help support your decision. Be aware that a PhD can take up to four years full time

Is there funding or scholarships available that I could access?

Spend some time researching scholarships in your area of interest. Be careful that many scholarship deadlines are the year before they commence

Is this the right project, right supervisor and right time in my life?

When the answer is yes, go for it.



© Copyright 2018 by Australian Physiotherapy Association. All rights reserved.