Giving career advice to your 16-year-old self (Megan Cook)

Bud Helisson |
Recently, I was invited to head back to my old high-school to talk to Year 10 students who are currently engaged in a week-long intensive focusing on careers and the future.

It was fascinating to be asked to reflect on my own career journey, a career journey which has led me to work as a researcher in a university research centre.

While I never entertained the possibility of becoming a researcher during school (I’m not even sure I knew that there was such a career), I have been given a range of wonderful opportunities during my post-school years which have culminated in my decision to start a PhD.

I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do when I finished school, absolutely no idea!

In Year 10, and I remember this vividly as my parents often remind me of this story, I did a careers test that I took very seriously. I thought this would sort everything out for me, solve all my problems and ease my stress and worry at not knowing where my future lay. This test would tell me exactly what I was going to do for the rest of my life seeing as I had no idea. I double, and triple checked every answer and the test calculated my results and came back and told me I should become...a priest. To say I was devastated is an understatement as this was not the future I saw for myself!

After numerous travels around the world, including volunteering in Africa, I came back to Australia and began an Arts degree. While I got every joke under the sun about an arts degree preparing me for a job at McDonalds, this degree allowed me the freedom to experiment with so many different courses including media and communications, environmental studies, and gender studies - all of which I found fascinating. But what I truly fell in love with was sociology and anthropology. While it helped that I soon learnt I was good at looking at the world through a social lens, I loved how thought-provoking both sociology and anthropology were.

It was through pursuing a sociology major that I was required to do an industry internship, and this turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to my career. Through this I ended up at the Centre for Alcohol Policy Research [CAPR], a research centre which is now based at La Trobe University*, with about 20 staff members from backgrounds in maths, dentistry, sociology, psychology and everything in between. The research the Centre does covers a broad range of work aimed at reducing alcohol-related harm.

During my internship, I was given unbelievable opportunities to collaborate on research projects, attend a conference where I met and heard about a huge array of research projects, all while working with an internationally renowned group of researchers. I was truly inspired.

After my undergraduate degree, CAPR allowed me to come back to the centre to write a paper looking at how considerations of live music venues have become central to debates on how to best regulate the night time economy in Victoria. My part-time work has led to full-time work as a research officer where I have worked on evaluating a sexual harassment pilot program implemented by the government in live music venues, and on a project defining exploring drinking and betting in sports bars.

Last year, I was also lucky enough to travel to Thailand to present a paper at a conference and will soon head off to my second conference in the US.

From volunteering my time as an intern five years ago, CAPR has supported me in beginning a PhD looking at what young children in Australia know about alcohol. A young adolescent’s initiation to alcohol is established long before consumption begins through the ideas and knowledge established at a young age, and my research explores what grade prep children think alcohol is, and who consumes alcohol and why. This work will inform prevention and intervention efforts to ensure children’s future wellbeing.

While I finished high school nearly 10 years ago, my career journey is only just beginning. So far, it can be summed up as a jumbled mess of being ready to grab any opportunity that came my way, work hard, and having wonderful support from those around you.

I know if I had of told all this to my 16-year old self and shown her even a glimpse of all the hard work in front of her she would have hopped into bed and stayed there.

Going back to my old high school was an enjoyable opportunity to reflect on what I have achieved and the journey I have been on so far. Considering I had no idea what to do with my life, it has ended up working out pretty well so far and that’s been a great reminder to keep some sort of perspective on the long PhD journey ahead!

*When I did my internship back in 2014, CAPR was based at Turning Point addiction treatment, education and research centre.


Megan Cook is a first year PhD candidate at the Centre for Alcohol Policy Research. 

Megan’s PhD is looking at what young children in Australia know about alcohol. The research will use the Refined Alcohol Expectancy Task and will sit down with young children to explore what children think alcohol is and their thoughts on the context around consumption for example who consumes and why.

She tweets from @MeganP_Cook.