Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Research in the regions (Ruth Hardman)





"Great, you’re doing a full-time PhD. But don’t you live in Mildura? Isn’t that really isolating?"

This is a response I have had from many people when they find out what I'm up to. 

My answer is "Well, actually, no..."

I’m doing a PhD in the School of Rural Health on an industry scholarship, and I have just completed confirmation. I’m writing this blog to challenge a few assumptions about what research on a regional campus looks like.


Prior to doing my PhD, I completed two Masters’ degrees part-time (one coursework, one research) - yes, I’m a sucker for punishment! – both online.

Although these were both positive experiences, the difference between online and on-campus study has been immense.

For a start, in addition to formal supervision, I benefit from regular corridor conversations with my chief supervisor (her office is four doors away). I’ve got my own workspace on campus, shared with a fellow PhD student and a research assistant, which has proven handy for discussions about the wording of ethics applications as well as parenting tips and mutual support (whether study or life-based). Being a small campus, we also have super-quick, personalised access to IT and Library support (thanks, Michael and Lyn!).

Admittedly, we are somewhat smaller than Bundoora and certainly have less access to many of the resources available on a larger campus. On the other hand, there are strengths to being based in a regional community and this was a theme echoed by other on-campus researchers I spoke to when writing this blog. It is true that you are less likely to meet up with someone who is researching in the same area as you (although Zoom helps with that!), but you are more likely to encounter people in different disciplinary areas. This can open up different perspectives on your own research. You are also less likely to feel like your research is separate from the local community since you are a member of that community and directly aware of the issues and challenges facing it. Given the current drive for ‘implementation’ research, this is a great advantage.

We are lucky at Mildura in having a very active regional research co-ordinator. Evelien Spelten really works on building the research culture on campus as well as within the community more generally. On campus, we have monthly research lunches, informal groups to watch Zoom sessions run from Bundoora, and SUAW ('Shut up and write') sessions.

Research involvement in the wider community is particularly important given Mildura’s relative isolation (we are closer to Adelaide than to Bendigo!), and both Evelien and Rebecca (our engagement co-ordinator) have established relationships with many local organisations, both to support current La Trobe research and negotiate new projects. To promote our research to the broader community, for the past three years, we have run a ‘Research by the River’ event every October with funding from the Intellectual Climate Fund (ICF). This is a fun night of 3MT presentations, a pub quiz (partly based on the presentations!), free munchies and prizes, all run in a local beer garden. It’s a great opportunity for graduate researchers to showcase their work not just to other academics but to their friends, family and the whole of the Mildura community.

As the most distant campus from Bundoora (by some way), we do have to work on remaining connected to the wider university. It is always good to see people who visit from other campuses as it really promotes a sense of being connected to the broader university networks.

Any La Trobe researcher who is coming up Mildura way for field work or meetings, please come to the campus! You will find people who want to talk to you, a space to work and probably some useful information on the local area.

In the opposite direction, it’s important that those of us from the regions grab opportunities to connect with the larger campuses and let them know we are thriving. Speaking personally, it was great to have recently visited Bundoora to spruik the industry PhD during Research Week, especially since industry PhDs are particularly well-suited to regional areas due to the commonly closer links between the university and local community.

So, come and see what we’re doing in Mildura. Just drive north, stop before the desert, and you’re there.

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Ruth Hardman is currently a full-time PhD researcher at the La Trobe Rural Health School, Mildura campus, on an industry scholarship with Sunraysia Community Health Services. 

She is a physiotherapist who has worked in multidisciplinary pain management for many years and has Masters’ qualifications in both pain and chronic disease management.

Her research explores the challenges faced by people with psychosocial complexity and multimorbidity in self-managing chronic illness and negotiating the healthcare system. By understanding the differing perspectives of health professionals and their clients, she hopes to introduce chronic disease management approaches that better support people with complex health and social challenges.

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