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Veronique Chachay and Naomi Fitzpatrick

What's it like doing a PhD in nutrition at UQ?

Get a personal perspective from Naomi, a current PhD candidate, and Dr Veronique Chachay, a UQ academic.
UQ people
Published 28 Aug, 2020  ·  7-minute read

Ever wondered what it's like to do a PhD in nutrition at UQ? Choosing the right pathway can be hard, especially when there are so many unknowns out there.

How do I pitch my PhD topic? Can I work and do a PhD? Are there any PhD scholarships available?

PhD candidate Naomi and her supervisor Dr Veronique Chachay have teamed up to answer some of your questions to help you decide what’s right for you.

Watch Can you solve the current health crisis with a PhD from UQ? on YouTube.

What's your favourite thing about being a PhD supervisor?

Veronique: My favourite thing… I think, because my other relationship with students is through teaching, whereas being a supervisor for a PhD student is more of a work relationship, an equal relationship. So, even though I need to give guidance, it doesn't come with that whole 'must teach and must assess' component. I really like that.

Why did you choose to do a PhD?

Naomi: I didn’t necessarily have a direct pathway to my PhD. I really enjoyed learning. That aspect of it really appealed to me and I also really enjoyed the concept of being able to help a lot of people through work with a small team versus a one-on-one situation. For example, if I spend 8 hours on something that might impact hundreds of people versus seeing 8 individuals in a day.

How is your PhD different from your undergraduate studies?

Naomi: I think it’s enormously different. Undergraduate is very much guided learning or very content based. You're provided information and asked to learn about it or synthesise it versus the PhD experience. For me it feels a lot more like a job.

There's an aspect of creative freedom and there’s more independence in your learning. You’re able to prioritise how your learning best fits you and your advisers are there to help facilitate that for you. That personal relationship enhances the experience even more versus being in a cohort with 50 people. You have an adviser that's directly there to help you.

Veronique: We often say to future PhD students that the transition from undergrad to this kind of higher degree research is about learning to be a lot more independent and to drive the project, and that sometimes is very daunting.

UQ PhD Candidate Naomi Fitzpatrick and Lecturer Veronique Chachay

What's the best advice you'd give to somebody who's considering doing a PhD at UQ?

Veronique: The best advice is to definitely find a project that interests you. The project is really important, because this is something you're going to live with for 3 to 4 years. It really needs to motivate you and keep your curiosity alive. That is going to drive your discipline, because it will be a rocky road.

"When the road is rocky, it's part of the learning experience. The drive to go through that is to have a project that is of great interest to you and makes you want to go into the depths of detail and turn every stone along the road."

Why did you choose to do your PhD in nutrition at UQ?

Naomi: For me, it was a really natural progression. I did my undergraduate at UQ and my masters in dietetics at UQ, and the opportunity presented itself while I was still studying – that was probably why UQ. I was already studying here and the opportunity was good, so there was no need to look elsewhere.

How did you come up with your PhD topic?

Naomi: I suppose our particular situation is somewhat unique in that the topic had already been decided on and there was a scholarship that was available for application too.

The topic seemed really interesting to me, so I decided to apply for it and was fortunate enough to get it. So I didn't necessarily decide on a PhD topic, but I haven't felt that I necessarily needed to, because a large part of a PhD is learning the skills to do research and it's a process of learning independent of the topic itself.

The topic is obviously important for finding your ‘why’ to continue doing the work every day, but I have been able to find that by learning more about the field. I think the further you get into it, the more interesting it becomes. The more you know, the more you don't know and the more you want to find out.

UQ PhD Candidate Naomi Fitzpatrick

What made you decide to be Naomi's supervisor?

Veronique: When you undertake a PhD, you're going to be advised by a team of experts in that field and an important quality that is required is to be teachable. In other words, to be able to take feedback well and move forward from that, because advisers will help you and guide you when you don't know where to go or will suggest things that perhaps don't appear clear to you at the time. But to be able to take the advice and move forward is a very important quality, and you had that.

What scholarship have you been awarded and how did you find out about it?

Naomi: I am on the QUEX Scholarship. The scholarship is a partnership between The University of Queensland and University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. I loved the idea of the scholarship, particularly because it involved time here in Australia at UQ and then also time over in the UK at The University of Exeter, and there was travel money associated with that. So the opportunity to travel between countries and potentially go to international conferences to present work was very appealing.

What was your own PhD topic?

Veronique: I researched in the context of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and the nutritional component here was to test a nutraceutical, so a nutrient compound and looking at a group of 20 patients with this disease to see what it was doing to the fat in accumulation in the liver to the gene expression to all sorts of cardio metabolic factors, so it was a clinical trial.

We often say that the PhD program is actually a program to learn how to conduct research. When I think back on my PhD, I had the whole process from applying for funding, to receiving funding, to applying for human ethics clearance, which was a very lengthy and difficult process. But I learned how to do that, to get clearance to recruit participants to then conduct the clinical trials and then analyse data and write it all up.

"I feel really privileged that I had the full picture in one project, and that then allowed me to take on other projects and take on students to pass on this kind of knowledge."

How do you think your PhD will benefit you, professionally and personally?

Naomi: Within my PhD, I've had an opportunity to do teaching or tutoring in an undergraduate level, so I've furthered myself professionally, and just the skills you develop in terms of synthesis of information or appraising research. I can take those skills into the private practice setting and I'll be able to address various claims or information people put towards me. I'll be able to go out and research that topic and come back with an informed piece of advice for that person.

Professional development from a PhD is somewhat limitless – you can take it as far as you want. From a personal perspective, I didn't realise how much I enjoyed learning, my level of curiosity for finding out new things. I didn't really know how important that was for me until I started my PhD. I've always enjoyed the school setting and I enjoyed my undergraduate and master's, but I think it was important for me to go out and do a little bit of work and realise why I really enjoyed all of those experiences.

Veronique: If you are curious, then a PhD is definitely for you.

Naomi: I didn’t think that I would ever be doing research. But now that I’m here, I’m definitely really happy that I am.

How do you manage working in private practice while doing a PhD and do you think it’s beneficial to do both?

Naomi: I found a good balance for managing, but it was definitely a process of finding out how much is too much.

I'm at a point now where I feel really comfortable with the amount that I’m doing. There are definitely aspects of it that I think will be extremely beneficial for me in the long term. The more people you see, the more learning and experience you have to take into other aspects of your practice, which includes my PhD. I wouldn't give it up; I do think it’s really beneficial for me at this stage, but it was definitely important to find an amount of private practice that I can do while being able to commit to my PhD.

Your research career begins here at UQ. Explore our scholarships or apply now.

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