During my time in academia, I struggled to describe what my core interest area was. This made it hard to hone in on well defined research questions, to identify key collaborators, to pursue funding opportunities.
My (in)ability to provide a coherent answer to ‘what is your research area?’ contributed to my exit from academia.
It must have left an emotional mark because for the last 3+ years I’ve been trying to put to paper a coherent narrative of what exactly it is that Gareth – the psychologist does. Implicitly I have been trying to make it a single narrative – one story. I even call it ‘the overarching narrative’.
This is strange though, because anyone that knows me, including myself, knows that my work (and personal) narrative is one of multiple strands. Other than my PhD, where you are forced to essentially study the one thing for multiple years, my career has always consisted of me pursuing multiple strands at the same time.
Sometimes those strands are related. For example, when I worked in Child and Adolescent Mental Health I evaluated very different interventions, but the connecting thread was always ‘does this program work to improve mental health?’. In my current role, you’ll find me talking ‘mental fitness’ one day and ‘self-care’ the next. Whilst they seem like different presentations, they both have at their core the deliberate decisions we make to improve our wellbeing.
But other times, the narratives don’t converge easily. During my time at UniSA, where I was working on mental health workforce modelling, was also the time when I started the Visualising Mental Health project. Projects that had very few crossover points.
Yesterday I sat down with my “Overarching narrative” document, and instead of trying to find the underlying thread that connected all my work projects, I just wrote a new paragraph at the beginning. In it I simply acknowledged the presence of multiple strands and that I would try to find connections between them if possible, but accept when there weren’t. I let go of the need to make it all line up nicely. And then guess what happened? The story got easier to write! The insistence that the story be one thing, stopped the actual story from being told.
I won’t pretend there aren’t downsides. Those researchers/clinicians/teachers who can find that one core passion and laser focus their attention on it, progress much faster in that topic. Trying to run multiple strands at the same time means not progressing as fast in any given one. But there is also freedom in not fighting internally with oneself over the nature of one’s interests and passions.
It may mean pursuing different job options, working arrangements and collaborations, but my experience has been that is the best part of it. I left uni thinking that I needed to be a clinician or a researcher. I am neither, but a little bit of both but a few other things as well. My experience is that my diverse interests were what (partly) created the job situation I find myself in now – a job I love.
It would be silly of me to suggest it works out positively in all situations. A whole range of other factors play a role here. How hard one works (conscientiousness), how capable you are in the different areas, how well you engage with other people, how reliable you are. But I guess my takeaway message is that I don’t think it is the presence of diverse interests that is the problem. Instead, it is denying that aspect of yourself and trying futilely to thrive in settings that don’t welcome it.