‘The T-Shaped Individual’ – Opportunity, Challenge & Enjoyment
Intersectoral & Interdisciplinary Education Opens Doors
Dr. Rob Argent
Lecturer in Digital & Connected Health
Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland
As a healthcare professional, having practiced clinically for a number of years, I was becoming somewhat disillusioned with my career direction, not feeling fully fulfilled, and seeking new opportunities whilst wanting to make the most of the skills I had developed thus far. In 2016 I was fortunate enough to be offered the opportunity to study for a PhD on a project using wearable sensors to facilitate patient rehabilitation as part of an EU funded programme called Connected Health Early-Stage Researcher Support System (CHESS) at University College Dublin (UCD).
I recall reading the information regarding the structure of CHESS, and the desire for early-stage researchers to become ‘T-shaped individuals’ - and can certainly say it has been singularly the most challenging, stimulating and rewarding process of learning and development that I have been a part of.
It is very easy in life to surround yourself with likeminded people from similar disciplines, in fact it is human nature to do this. However, through the learning opportunities and the collaborative nature of working in truly interdisciplinary environments, it is so clear that there are so many cogs in the wheel, and it takes a multitude of disciplines and skills to produce meaningful outputs that have the potential to create impact. Some of the best ideas in research projects I have been part of have come from Data Scientists and Engineers – professionals I had previously had no exposure to, or experience of.
As part of CHESS, not only did I realise the value of interdisciplinary collaboration, but I have also then developed skills and understanding in some of these other disciplines. I never anticipated being able to hold a discussion or present on aspects of machine learning, signal processing, software development or data protection policy?! In my case, the arms of the ‘T’ are in continuous development, I have found myself leading commercialisation activities, pitching to investors, teaching undergraduates and performing user-centred design processes – as a ‘Physiotherapist’. My best advice to anyone is to try and see opportunity in everything that presents itself to you.
Don’t get me wrong, it hasn’t always been an easy path. Mental health issues in PhD students are well documented, and I can understand how living and breathing a project for a number of years can lead to stress, anxiety and depression. I feel incredibly fortunate that the structure of a research network such as CHESS, in conjunction with university specific policy in UCD, minimised this as much as possible. The provision of a stimulating and comfortable working environment, the close links between healthcare, academia and industry, and a strong supervisory process minimised the harder times. This illustrated the importance of the support structure for staff in whatever working environment, has personally shown me that I can deal with challenges, and with perseverance and enthusiasm these barriers can be overcome.
The majority of these challenges haven’t come from having to learn new technical skills, but rather transferable skills that are so valuable in any person’s career. In 2016, I would have told you how I am anxious of standing up in front of an audience and presenting, I would have been a sweaty, shaky, nauseous bag of nerves. Yet now whilst I may still be sometimes nervous before presenting, I feel more comfortable and have strategies to deal with that anxiety, which has allowed me the confidence to move further into my academic career. I would also not have described myself as a creative person, but when I took a moment to analyse where these opinions came from, it is clear that previous opportunities had never forced me to develop some of these skills. Through the interdisciplinary nature of programmes such as CHESS, I have been able to spend time developing transferable skills in creative thinking which have benefitted both my projects and my professional career.
Stepping outside your comfort zone and identifying, developing perfecting many of these skills will maximise your development – There is more to a PhD than a thesis.
By seeking to become a more rounded interdisciplinary individual, rather than looking at a total change in career, I left my PhD programme with a multitude of new skills and knowledge that put me in a position to explore multiple different career paths. This process never stops, and I hope the coming years provides me with more opportunities to extend my arms, and perhaps even put a bit more meat on my bones.