Dr Sarah Elison

As a recent Salford PhD graduate Dr. Sarah Elison has really hit the ground running. Taking the initiative, she started applying for jobs during the final stages of writing up, and her proactive approach has landed her a role in industry that she loves, but didn’t really expect…

Sarah started her PhD on 1st April 2009 - “April Fool’s Day!” - after applying for a paid studentship she had spotted on the jobs.ac.uk web site, “I’d heard that Salford was a good place to study, and as the study fitted in with my research interests it seemed like the perfect PhD for me”.  With her thesis entitled ‘Tooth-brushing as a dyadic process: Insights from novice caregivers and first-born infants’ Sarah’s research was focussed on early childhood dental decay in areas of high social and economic deprivation and possible interventions, as she explains “I was looking more specifically at the emergence of tooth brushing routines in infancy and the various barriers and facilitators of the routine. Up to the time I started my PhD I had spent a number of years engaged in developmental psychology research, specifically around child health and its associations with rearing environment. I had previously done some work with children living in inner city areas of London and Birmingham and had really enjoyed that work, so my PhD allowed me to continue working in that area of research, but with younger kids. Although the dental health angle was new to me from a research perspective, I had previously worked as a dental assistant in a local surgery as a teenager and had really enjoyed it. So it seemed quite fitting that my PhD was about early childhood dental health.” Despite work experience in healthcare at an early age, Sarah was actually the first in her family to go on to a university education “Having said that, my mum completed a Psychology degree in her 40s. We did our Psychology degrees at the same time at the same university, though she was in the year below me. I used to make her buy my textbooks off me!”.

Although Sarah was obviously determined to achieve her PhD she admits “It was a hard slog. They are definitely right when they say it’s a marathon not a sprint!”.  Having been through a gruelling 4 years and emerging successfully on the other side, does she have any advice for current students? “I’d say first and foremost that you have to be working on a project that you’re going to be able to find interesting for a number of years. Your PhD has to become something you can be a bit obsessed with, as you sleep, eat and breathe it for a lot of the time you’re doing it. Also, and I think this is vitally important: you have to work at nurturing good working relationships with your supervisors. The supervisor-student relationship is central to how successful a PhD is and also how much you enjoy doing the PhD. From day one I made a concerted effort to take on board the advice and feedback from my supervisors and find ways to connect with them on a personal level. Having clear channels of communication with your supervisors is also important.”

Having started the job hunt while still a student, Sarah was rewarded with her role as Research and Communications Manager at the Manchester based company Breaking Free Online who are “a team of psychologists and professionals from the substance misuse sector who work with an online psychosocial intervention that is designed to support people to overcome the various mental health and lifestyle factors that may be contributing to their substance misuse”. It may seem like a big leap to go from tooth brushing to addiction, but Sarah credits her Salford supervisory team with helping to equip her for her current position, “I think the fact that my PhD supervisors encouraged me to use a range of methodologies in my PhD studies has provided me with the expertise to be able to approach my current job in a more creative way. So for example, although at Breaking Free Online we are setting up clinical trials, which are how you would commonly test effectiveness of a complex intervention, I have also been using other methodologies such as qualitative interview approaches.”

So, what does being a Research and Communications Manager involve? “It has been my job to set up a mixed-methods programme of research projects looking at various aspects of the Breaking Free Online programme and how effective it is with different clinical populations in different settings. My role at Breaking Free Online is currently expanding, so I am now learning more about the ‘communications’ part of my job title. This includes things like press releases, marketing, and rebranding of our websites and I am also going to be getting involved with the development of new interventions that we have in the pipeline. At the moment we are a fairly small team as we are a pretty young company, but we have some pretty big stuff on the horizon over the next few months so we are set to grow substantially next year, which will mean me being responsible for a research team at some point.” With important collaborative research into substance misuse and digital health literature also on the agenda, these are exciting times for Sarah “I have been really fortunate over the past 10 years or so in that I have been able to progress into a career in psychology and have a great time doing it in the process. If you do a job you enjoy it doesn’t really feel like ‘work’. It’s nice to be able to wake up every day and feel genuinely excited about what you get to go and do for a living”.