The two of us: Frank Deane and Atanas Janackovski

Behind every great PhD candidate is a great supervisor (or two).

The University of Wollongong (UOW) is home to many high achieving PhD students who are working towards solving real world problems. Behind every great PhD candidate is a great supervisor (or two). We hear from both to understand their perspective of the postgraduate journey.

Atanas Janackovski is a PhD student working within the field of psychology. His research explores what psychological factors can influence suicide in young people and what psychological techniques or approaches can be helpful in treatment and recovery. His supervisor is Professor Frank Deane whose research is broadly aimed at identifying factors that improve help seeking for mental health problems particularly in young people and males. His second area of research involves research into psycho-social treatments for severe mental disorders and/or alcohol and other drug problems.

Meet the supervisor: Professor Frank Deane

Can you explain your area of expertise?

I have broad interests in applied clinical research related to treatment of mental health problems. More specific areas of interest are related to why people are reluctant to seek help for mental health problems, what barriers to care they experience and how we might facilitate help seeking. In addition, I conduct research into what components of psychosocial treatments are effective with particular interests in goal and action planning and the role of therapeutic alliance in treatment.

How did you find yourself where you are now professionally?

I trained as a clinical psychologist in New Zealand (Masters and PG Diploma in Clinical Psychology) and then moved to the USA where I worked as a clinical psychologist for 6 years before returning to Massey University in New Zealand to complete my PhD. I had always thought that I would return to full time clinical practice but found that I loved the research process and teaching.

I have been teaching in professional psychology programs and conducting clinically relevant research for the past 30 years. Given that a lot of my research is applied in nature and conducted in clinical services, I am in frequent contact with a diverse range of mental health and drug and alcohol treatment providers. This contact and clinical supervision of psychologists in training keeps me close to clinical practice but I also have the privilege of being able to conduct research.

What makes a great PhD candidate?

A balance of curiosity and discipline. Curiosity keeps a student asking questions and seeking answers such that the research process does not feel so much like hard work. Discipline requires persistence, resisting distraction, developing a systematic and consistent work routine. So, students need curiosity but also discipline because they can’t keep chasing every shiny object they see. It also helps to be patient and be able to tolerate and bounce back from setbacks.

The PhD (Clinical Psychology) program is 4 years in duration and candidates in these programs have to be able to balance the taught components, complete multiple practice placements and also complete their research. These multiple demands are challenging and on top of that there are all of the other things that come along with life (children, relationships, illness etc). So, having the ability to manage and ride out these ups and downs is also important.

How do you guide candidates on their journey?

Having an awareness of the ups and downs I mentioned earlier is important and providing not just technical expertise but emotional support when needed is helpful. That said, I’m fairly direct. The process of completing a PhD is not a mystery where the student has to work out how to complete the journey through trial and error. There is plenty of “mystery” and challenge in answering the substantive research questions without the process of completing the PhD journey being a puzzle as well.

Everyone knows the desired outcomes and supervisors know the various steps and stages along the way. So, part of my job is to communicate what those stages and steps are and to provide guidance about how to successfully progress.

What should candidates consider when finding a supervisor?

Candidates should consider a potential supervisor’s content expertise, interests and style of supervision. Clearly, there is a need to have some level of content expertise and shared interest in your research. But it is possible to have content expertise but not a strong interest in a particular research question. If a supervisor is interested in your research questions then they will on average find it easier to be actively engaged in your research. What does that mean practically? Well, if I am really interested in your research, I’ll find it hard to keep away from reading the next draft of a proposal or research article that is submitted even if I have competing work demands (which we all do). That is good for the candidate.

Further, my own curiosity might get me to look up new work in the area. That is good for the candidate. With regard to style of supervision, one element of style involves the varying levels of structure that supervisors use. Many supervisors encourage students to read widely early on as their project develops but they vary widely in the structure and guidance they provide for this process.

There are many other structural and procedural aspects of supervision that vary (e.g., emailed summary following every supervision session, frequency of contact etc). So, it would be wise for a candidate to ask a potential supervisor how structured their approach to supervision is and what the nature of those structures are to get a sense early on about whether this will match their needs.

Meet the candidate: Atanas Janackovski

Can you give a description of the topic or question you are investigating?

I am exploring what psychological factors can influence suicidality in young people and what psychological techniques or approaches can be helpful in treatment and recovery.

How did you select your research topic? Where does your interest in this field stem from?

The opportunity to work in the area came up during my honours research. I had not anticipated how interesting I would find the area and felt like my honours research only really began to scratch the surface of learning about the problem. I had previously worked with children and families for a local NGO so the research area and the potential impact it could have fit well with my values and worldview. I knew that this was an important area to work in and hoped that my small contribution could add to improving outcomes for suicidal young people, the communities in which they live, and ultimately save lives.

How did you find your supervisor?

Prior to commencing my honours research I was told numerous times: "Make sure you get a good supervisor". I wasn't sure what this meant so I started talking to various people that had already gone through honours or postgraduate studies and Frank's name continually came up. I then approached Frank and expressed my interest in working with him and after some discussion about how it could work and the challenges that are inherent with research we agreed to work together and he helped me work out a topic to research. The rest is history!

How do you think your research can change the world?

I hope that we can understand a bit more about what works in psychological treatments for suicidal young people. Ideally, this can lead to improved outcomes in therapies, and inform how other support systems or stakeholders can best wrap around the young people to support them. Ultimately, the aim is to help save lives – hopefully my research can do its bit to achieve this goal.

What advice would you give someone considering doing postgraduate studies?

I don't really like using the term because it is a bit overused, but taking on a PhD is a massive journey that permeates into every corner of your life. Build your relationship with your supervisor because they know the lay of the land and can help you get your bearings when you need them but make sure you have good support in both academic and non-academic spheres of your life as well.

Find others to talk to about your research and continue to be curious about things outside your direct research questions because they can inform your own research and help generate new ideas and insights. Postgraduate studies are a unique opportunity in your life to learn, explore and grow, so be curious, ask lots of questions and have fun!