PhD stories: Bella Ingram

Meet Bella Ingram, a PhD candidate in the School of Psychology.

The University of Wollongong (UOW) has so many high achieving PhD students, working towards solving real world problems. Meet Bella Ingram, a PhD candidate in the School of Psychology at UOW, whose research investigates the prevalence of loneliness within people who have experienced addiction.

When did you commence HDR study and what is the working title of your thesis?

I commenced my PhD at the beginning of 2016. However, I initially began my PhD journey focusing on a completely different topic. If you were to ask when I commenced this PhD project, it was the beginning of 2017. The title of my thesis is: ‘An examination of loneliness across people who experience addiction’.

Please give a broad description of the topic or question you investigated as part of your research

Loneliness is a really common and distressing experience that everyone will encounter at some time or another throughout his or her life. Loneliness has recently gained a lot of attention in the media and some suggest we are experiencing a global “loneliness epidemic”. Loneliness has also been linked to poor physical and mental health, so it is important that we can combat this experience. People who experience drug and/or alcohol addiction are seven times more likely to feel lonely than the general population. My research is aiming to investigate how and why this population feel so lonely and how we can help them to better cope with loneliness in order to enhance their chance of recovery from substance use.

Can you provide some background on how you came to HDR research (e.g. undergrad degree & university studied at – honours project – PhD + any breaks in between)?

I studied undergraduate psychology at the University of Wollongong, and then decided to go off and work as a psychologist for a few years. I was always really drawn to research, so I applied for fulltime research assistant position back at University of Wollongong. I was fortunate that this then led me to undertaking a PhD. I enrolled in a combined PhD /Masters of Clinical Psychology degree, which meant that progress towards my research was slow at times, particularly while I was completing coursework and practical work required for the Masters component of the degree. Despite this, I somehow managed to stay on track and am hoping to submit my thesis in February 2020.

In one sentence, describe the ‘journey’ of your PhD study at UOW?

Up and down, and up and down, and up and down.

How did you and/or your approach change over that time (how you imagined it would be when you began, how it actually was, and how you view it now you’ve finished)?

It probably sounds ridiculous, but the PhD process has been somewhat easier for me than I had imagined and I believe that’s because I have thoroughly appreciated this part of my career and enjoyed it. I went into the PhD knowing that with research comes hurdles, and I think this mindset has helped me to be resilient when I have hit these inevitable hurdles. While I certainly experienced some self-doubt towards the beginning of the PhD (in terms of my writing skills, designing studies etc.), I have always managed to overcome the little hurdles without too much stress and my confidence in my ability to conduct research and to problem solve the inevitable challenges that come with research, continues to grow.

What were some highlights of your HDR study?

The people – I’ve met some incredible people throughout this PhD journey. I have so much respect for my HDR peers and supervisors, and feel very fortunate to have landed myself in a position that I am surrounded by these people every day. I have also met some wonderful people who have been participants in my research and heard some incredible stories of resilience and growth. These personal and professional experiences have continued to fuel my fascination for the importance of connection and belonging for humans.

What were the lowlights?

Unfortunately, after my first year of PhD (almost to the day), an organisation that I had collaborated with was unable to continue with our planned project, meaning I no longer had a PhD topic. The idea of completely restarting my PhD was daunting, but I think my incredible supervisors were what helped me to get straight back on track after that hurdle.

Describe the most important things for PhD study.

Supervisors who know when to challenge you and when to support you. The balance of these things has been really helpful to keep me accountable and motivated. I think self-discipline is also important. In my first few months of undertaking the PhD I attended a workshop where someone said “You can always spot a PhD student because they walk around with a guilty look on their face”. This stuck with me and made me think, “Hmmm, I don’t want to carry around guilt for 3-4 years”, so I have tried to discipline myself to approach the PhD like a normal 9-5 job. That said, it isn’t always so easy.

What advice do you (or would you give) to those considering HDR study or currently studying?

Accept that you will encounter hurdles and try to enjoy the process.

What are you doing now and/or how do you plan to utilise your research degree in future? What has it given you that will help in your future career?

I am in the process of writing up my final papers for publication and my thesis. My HDR study has given me an appreciation for the nature of “real world” research and how important this is in terms of translating research findings into meaningful practice. My hope for the future is to secure a job that affords me the luxury of working both in a research position and clinically as a psychologist where I would get the opportunity to implement research findings into my clinical practice.

How do you think your research can change the world?

People who experience addiction are a highly socially disadvantaged population. Identifying factors that contribute to addiction and impede recovery, such as loneliness, helps to break this cycle. Belonging is a fundamental human need, yet increasingly so many of us feel that we don’t belong. While my research is targeted towards a specific population, I think that understanding a global experience such as loneliness and how to overcome it will have implications for the broader population.

Find out more about Bella