Impact Blog

The architecture of palliative care: Dr Rebecca McLaughlan on the transition from PhD to DECRA

June 2022

Dr Rebecca McLaughlan is passionate about how the built environment can support the psychological wellbeing of patients, families, visitors, and staff.

Following a decade of architectural practice in New Zealand, she completed a PhD at Victoria University of Wellington. A move to Australia followed, where she took up a post-doctoral appointment at the University of Melbourne. She has since joined the University of Sydney, where she is about to complete a three-year Australian Research Council DECRA Fellowship.

Fascinated by how architecture influences perceptions of health care, Dr McLaughlan’s work engages with the practical obstacles to achieving better health care environments. It’s research encompassing the examination of funding cycles, stakeholder expectations and relationships as well as procurement processes. Her work is being used to inform the development of various health care projects in Victoria and New South Wales.

These experiences have provided detailed insights into the differences between the Australian and New Zealand higher education sectors, the vagaries of academia and professional practice as well as the long-term benefits of completing a PhD.

We sat down with Dr McLaughlan to discuss all this and more.

You completed your PhD at Victoria University of Wellington. What lessons did the graduate research training experience provide for your subsequent career in academia? Is that the career path you had planned?

Great question! Before completing the PhD, I had envisaged going back to architectural practice afterward, and maintaining a mix of that with academic work… now I’m a full time academic. Two things influenced that; I didn’t miss practice as much as I thought I would, but I also didn’t appreciate the demands of modern-day academia, particularly the quite onerous expectations that academics should perform to a high level across teaching, research, and public engagement. In architectural practice, you’ll typically have someone who’s brilliant on the technology side of things, someone else who’s great with clients, another person who you rely on to be “the designer.” In academia there’s an expectation that everyone will be a “master of all trades” – it’s a tall order and I can’t imagine, now, how I’d ever balance that with a part-time practice.

How did your PhD research prepare you for an academic career?

In a slightly ironic way. Both of my supervisors were high up in the academic administration which meant they weren’t available to hold my hand on-demand to the same extent that many of my peers’ supervisors were. If I got stuck, because I didn’t understand a particular methodology for example, I could wait three weeks for a meeting or I could figure it out for myself – by going to the library, or hitting up other people who used those methods. At the time this struck me as slightly more painful than it needed to be but, in fact, my supervisors did me a massive favour. I learnt to be a lot more resourceful and independent as a researcher, and those skills have served me exceptionally well.

Did you teach while studying? If so, how did that experience help in subsequent roles?

Yes, I taught far more than I let the scholarships office know about… I thought it was important to get a good mix of teaching experience on my resume so I coordinated a large lecture subject (but just for one semester) and taught design studios throughout. Both were substantial commitments so, at times, much less of the PhD got done than probably should have. But I believe it’s important to balance the needs of your resume, with respect to both teaching and research outputs. Even within a post-doc position, not doing so can be limiting. Friends who took research-only roles and didn’t find opportunities within those to teach, or who took teaching-only roles and didn’t manage to produce research alongside that, inadvertently narrowed their competitiveness for ongoing positions.

Did you publish while studying? If so, why do you believe that is important?

Yes, and this was probably the single most useful thing I did. I got a post-doc position at the University of Melbourne twelve months after completing my PhD and I wouldn’t have got that without those publications. During the PhD I concentrated on attending good quality, international conferences. I presented at four conferences, and three of those had published proceedings. I also had one article published in a quality journal. Twelve months after handing-in my PhD, when I applied for the Melbourne job, I had an acceptance to a fifth conference, and a second article under review with another quality journal. This was important in confirming the standard of my PhD research and illustrating my capacity to continue to publish from that doctoral material in worthwhile places.

You moved from New Zealand to Australia to take up a role at the University of Melbourne. What differences or similarities stood out – particularly in relation to the PhD, teaching and research experience?

The big difference is the sophistication of the grant funding system. In New Zealand, grant funding is so sparse it seems almost mythical, occasionally you’ll meet someone who got one and be bemused as to how. In Australia it’s more like a business. There are clear strategies to increase your chances of success, and a lot of energy is invested by universities to know what those strategies are and to support their staff to put that knowledge into action. During my time at the University of Melbourne I had access to so many resources, and support from so many people. That ultimately led to my successful DECRA. That support was extended to me even before I really thought about wanting to write one which I still feel humbled by, and am incredibly grateful for. I guess the take-home from my experience is just to be enthusiastic about any opportunity for professional development that is on offer. That way, when those opportunities come up, people are more likely think of you and to put you forward for them.

How did your personal experiences throughout your PhD journey influence your approach to supervision?

Supervision is the one thing I’ve not had much opportunity to do yet. Although, I have run introductory courses on research methods and organised events for mid-candidature students to share their research with industry (including providing mentorship in how to repackage academic findings so practitioners can more easily identify the relevance). Something that has really struck me, from my own PhD journey and since, is the number of students who tell me they want to do a PhD but in response to being asked what their interest is, say “I’m happy to study whatever you tell me.” The same students often stare blankly in response to the question of what they envision doing with their PhD afterward. A PhD is such a huge commitment, it will shape research skills you have to take forward and the subsequent career opportunities you’ll be positioned to obtain. Hence, I think the question “Where do I want my PhD to take me after this?” is a critical one that every candidate should ask themselves – and continue to ask themselves as the PhD progresses. Otherwise, how do you know that you’re going in the direction that’s right for the life that you want when its finally finished?

Of the 1,400 DECRA grants awarded between 2013 and 2019, yours was the first to be awarded within the field of architecture. What did that application process entail?

The DECRA is almost a 50-page application. It took me three full months of living and breathing that application, writing and rewriting most of my waking hours (sadly not an exaggeration). But before that, two-years of attending grant-writing workshops whenever they were on offer; applying for five internal University of Melbourne grants and successfully obtaining three of those; and building key relationships in the palliative care field by inviting people with that expertise to be part of the teaching and studio-based research that I did with students (about palliative care spaces) in the two years leading up to the DECRA application. In addition, many generous friends and colleagues gave up their time to provide feedback and support. At least fifteen people cast eyes over various sections of that application, including many from disciplines beyond architecture. This was instrumental in helping me hone how I was pitching the relevance and urgency of that research project so it could be at its most compelling.

How did your PhD research influence and assist in obtaining the DECRA?

The research skills obtained during my PhD were obviously critical but I would say that winning grants required a whole new skillset, and I diligently applied myself to learning that when I got to the University of Melbourne. I was in a fixed-term post-doc position, and it quickly became apparent that grant success was the thing most likely to ensure my career stability, but also provide the relative freedom of directing my own time for three years. It’s been pretty incredible.

Your research investigates how the built environment supports psychological wellbeing for patients, families, visitors, and staff, including how architecture influences perceptions of – and thus engagement with – health care services. How does your current research process and interests compare with what you undertook during your PhD?

In many ways it’s similar. My PhD was archival, on the history of mental hospital architecture, but it was concerned with the same questions. How does architecture make you feel when you’re in a vulnerable position, stuck in an environment that’s not of your choosing? And how could we better design health care spaces to ensure that people feel supported by those environments, instead of dispirited?

You’re also a registered architect how does your research inform your practice?

This is another great question, but the influence occurs in the opposite direction. My background as a practising architect informed my PhD in ways I didn’t initially appreciate. I remember my supervisor being really excited after she’d read my final thesis draft because, alongside looking at the therapeutic intent of these institutions, I’d also looked at the politics of procurement – the relationships between psychologists, architects, and government departments – that all acted to undermine the therapeutic intent of New Zealand’s mental hospitals. That was quite unique relative to the other histories of this building type that were published at that time. This sensitivity to professional practice has continued to be a strong theme throughout my work; I’m increasingly arguing for greater recognition of the procurement obstacles that compromise the implementation of cutting-edge knowledge into the design of health care environments.


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