Program Manager, Vanderbilt University School of Nursing
PhD Social Work, 2018
Please tell us about yourself and your current role.
Hi, my name is Dr Feylyn Lewis and I graduated from the University of Birmingham in 2018 with a degree in Social Work. I currently work as a Program Manager at the Vanderbilt University, School of Nursing based in Nashville, Tennessee where I’m from.
My current work is really an extension of my role as a researcher. I’m currently working on a research project with refugee children in Nashville and we're looking at nutrition and overall mental and physical well-being.
In terms of my background while I was at the University of Birmingham, I did research with youth caregivers and young adult caregivers and their identity development in the US and in the UK. Then I went on to do a post-doc fellowship at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England. Then after that I went on and was the Hunt Research Director for the National Alliance for Caregiving based in Washington DC back in the US.
What motivated you to do your postgraduate research course?
I would say what motivated me to do a PhD was actually knowing that I wanted to go on and do further research in a very under-researched subject in my field. Much of the research with caregivers has focused on older adults and very little historically particularly in the US has focused on children and young adults. I knew I wanted to go on and investigate and discover and learn more.
I had a fantastic adviser in my master's program who advised me and said, well where are you thinking about going to do a graduate program, what's your path, what are you thinking? And all of the schools that I named were in beautiful, sunny locations and he said to me: you're going about this all wrong. He's like, where is the research coming from in your field? And I said, well that's England, and he said that's exactly where you need to go.
So about eight years ago I sent in a research proposal to who became my PhD supervisor. I actually started off at the University of Nottingham and then he moved to Birmingham and I was able to go with him so I started my second year at Birmingham there with him. We continued on until I finished my program.
In terms of the advice that I would give if you're interested in a PhD program, I would suggest that you take the advice of my adviser that I had my master's program and make sure that you are seeking out mentors and advisers and supervisors who are relevant and applicable to your field. Don't do what I was trying to do and go on vacation, make sure that you are finding someone who is really the expert in your field and someone that you can learn from and that also has an interest in nurturing you as a researcher for the next three, four, maybe five years depending on how long your program may be.
What do you enjoy most about your role?
I enjoyed most about being a doctoral student I think was the freedom. I was someone who knew I wanted to really just diversify my portfolio while I was there in the UK. I didn't just simply want to teach but I also really wanted to learn skills in terms of consultancy work, in terms of speaking, giving keynote speeches and presentation skills, all of that writing and looking for grants. All of those were all the things that I went into my program knowing that I wanted to do. So I really enjoyed the freedom that a PhD program in the UK offered me as I could really kind of carve out my own path in relation to my own interests and what I saw myself doing for the next five to ten years.
I also would say that I really enjoy seeing a tangible evident difference in the work that I do. I am generally a mixed methods researcher. That means that when I do qualitative research I have the opportunity to actually sit and talk to children and young adults face to face and I get to see the benefits of the research that we're conducting. I get to see their face light up when what we're talking about resonates with them and vice versa so it's been a really phenomenal journey for me. I would say I take none of it for granted, it's been fantastic.
What do you find most challenging about your role?
I suppose in terms of the flip side of maybe the more negative side of what I’ve not enjoyed most when I was a doctoral student or as a researcher, I might also say probably the burnout. Because my particular field was actually something that I have lived experience in - I grew up as a youth caregiver for my disabled mother. Then what got me interested in the research topic, it's a subject that for me is very close to home and I know it intimately well. So, for me there was really never an escape because I’m living life as a caregiver but I’m also researching other caregivers and that also just means that my whole life if I’m not careful can be consumed by my research topic.
So it's really important for me I think early on to start practicing boundaries learning to say no, even to good opportunities because so many wonderful opportunities will be presented to you as a researcher but learning to be particular, learning when to protect your gas, protect your energy. That's something that I think even now I’m still learning to do because I have so much passion and I’m so keen to get to work. But for me to give my best excellent work I know I need to be protective of my time and energy, so that's something that I’m certainly learning to protect myself from burnout.
Have you faced any barriers during your career journey, if so,
how did you overcome them?
In terms of the barriers I faced along my career journey, I would definitely say it's been a both a blessing but then sometimes not always great to be so far away from home. So I left my home in the US to move to the UK. Again, I needed to do that because that's where the research was coming from in terms of my particular field, but that also meant that I was away from all of my family, all of my friends. My support network and was in an entirely different continent so I had to learn to build that on my own. I have to say that was a really that's one actually something that I really treasured most about my program, is being able to meet and have really close friends with not just other British students but also those from other parts of the world that I wouldn't have perhaps otherwise had the opportunity to meet and come in contact with if I had stayed in the US.
How did your time at Birmingham help you prepare for this role?
I would say that my time at Birmingham prepared me for the work that I’m doing one because I actually worked in the Careers Network as a student ambassador when I was in my doctoral program. That also enabled me to be able to actually have mock interviews and get hands-on CV advice.
What I remember most is that the advice from the Careers Network was very much tailored to the country that you were looking to work so I was really impressed that the staff in the Careers Network, that they understood well if you want to work in the US this is how you need to tailor your CV, this is what people are expecting to see. They were able to do that for other students as well for the different markets around the world that they were interested in going off to next. So I would say that was something that I was very impressed by as a doctoral student.
I also encourage you that even once you're completed, even once you've finished your degree, definitely be sure to utilise and call upon the career service because I certainly have as an alumni. I would actually say that the role that I currently have at Vanderbilt is in a large part due to the mock interview practice and the CV advice that I received even as an alumni that prepared me for that role. So I’m quite thankful to the University of Birmingham and their career service for what they've offered of their time and expertise.
What advice would you give to postgraduate researchers who
are interested in their next role?
My advice for any international postgraduate researcher who's job hunting, I would say firstly lean upon LinkedIn heavily. I’ve certainly found it to be a boon in my job search in terms of being able to really tailor your search criteria to what you're looking for and what fits for you. I'd also say in terms of that though, don't lock yourself in to a geographic location.
I think because of COVID19 more employers are more open to remote work and being a digital nomad. I think as a researcher we have that, I think, benefit of being able to do research in any part of the world and are more easily able to collaborate internationally and, you know, sit on advisory boards and do consultancy work. Really just broaden I think the opportunities are available to you because you're researchers because we don't always necessarily have to be there on the ground doing our work, or in an office during our work. So I would encourage you to just think broadly about your search and use LinkedIn as a way to do that.