Dr Alec Hamilton has been on staff at Flinders as a valued counsellor for the past six years.
Here, Alec shares his experience of completing his PhD and offers some sage advice to others embarking upon a thesis or project that may at first appear bigger than Ben-Hur.
Question: Alec, please tell us about your PhD thesis and why you wanted to explore your topic.
Alec: My thesis explores how counsellors approach the concept of ‘presence’ within the context of teaching.
Presence has been described as "being fully in the moment with someone on a multitude of levels; physically, emotionally, cognitively, and spiritually. A teacher's presence provides an invitation to the student to feel met, understood, and safe, which facilitates and assists their growth and development".
My experience working in schools suggested that teachers who were able to develop a strong presence were also those teachers who were able to assist students in getting the best out of themselves.
Q: In summary, what did you discover through your thesis and how do you see your work helping others?
Alec: I found that ‘presence’ develops within a hierarchical context, and that the context then determines the level of presence the teacher is able or willing to create with their student. There are five levels of presence identified: from 'absence' all the way up to 'transformative presence'. The teachers moved across the levels depending on their experience, skill and the role they were undertaking.
Q: Please tell us what your PhD involved in terms of the time commitment and also the extensive study and research that went on behind the scenes. We can imagine you had quite a full schedule for these years!
Alec: This iteration of my PhD journey took about four years and involved researching, writing and editing most weekends. I have always worked full time, so it was a matter of fitting things in when I could. I’m not the sort of writer who can work with a spare 15 minutes here and there. I need a block of time to get my head into the material. Therefore, I was generally tied to my computer for long sessions each Saturday and Sunday as well as plenty of intense holiday work – particularly when the data analysis was occurring and during those final months of pulling the document together.
Q: How did you avoid burnout and overwhelm during the process?
Alec: There were definitely times when I had had enough and just couldn’t focus anymore. There were also times when I thought, ‘Is this worth the effort and drama?’, however, persistence paid off in the end. I am so grateful to my family for their support. Watching TV, swimming and just doing simple, everyday activities were my respite. I would also leave blocks of time to reflect and think, rather than writing constantly. I think creating space and time to let things percolate is very important.
Q: What support did you have in terms of family and your work team as well as the support from the Flinders community?
Alec: Having support is vital. I would not have been able to complete a PhD without the assistance of my family and friends. Finding the right balance of ‘being asked how things were going’ and ‘not asking’ was very helpful. Working at Flinders allowed me to have a regular working life with the benefit of school holidays to recharge and focus on my PhD. Without that time, things would have been so much more challenging. It was also useful to work on a day-to-day basis with a great group of teachers who demonstrate their presence and with whom I could live the work I was studying. This made my analysis more practical and reflective.
Q: How will this PhD benefit your important work with the students at Flinders?
Alec: Teaching is all about the relationship. Now that I understand and appreciate that ‘presence’ is not a static thing, I am more aware that different contexts and scenarios require different levels of presence. This helps us to understand when and why problems might arise and how we can strengthen and build more successful learning relationships.
Q: What do you love about your job at Flinders, and what do you believe your strengths are in this role?
Alec: It is truly a privilege to be able to be involved in young people’s lives – to see them grow and develop, and, in some way, be a part of that process. I love the joy that young children show in their learning and I am amazed at the resilience they demonstrate when meeting the challenges of life. I am also in awe of how adolescents have a genuine passion for change and want to make the world a better place. I recently went along on a Flinders Year 9 camp with a group of incredible musicians. I was so impressed by their respect for each other and the delight they were able to provide to the communities we visited.
It is perhaps for others to comment on my strengths, however, I hope that I bring a sense of calm to challenging times and have the ability to be present with the people I work with. I think I bring a positive view to my engagement with people and can see, and voice, the potential in things.
Q: What is your advice for others considering a PhD? What should they know/do/be/have before committing?
Alec: Three keys things I wish I knew before I started the PhD process are:
(a) You have to have fantastic, passionate supervisors; without them, it's impossible. You also need a great editor(s) - someone to help critically read things with you, challenge your ideas and push you when it gets tough.
(b) It takes time, therefore, you have to LOVE your topic. You spend a significant amount of time reading and ruminating on the topic, so you had better love the prospect of living, breathing and thinking about it around the clock.
(c) Family support and presence is vital – tackling a PhD is costly in terms of time away from family. Therefore, your family needs to understand the commitment you are all making and they need to be there with you when the inevitable challenges arise. Being present with you can be as simple as a cup of tea at the right time or a walk with the dog.
Q: What positive things have you learnt about yourself and your potential through this process?
Alec: I was not all that successful at school and struggled with reading when I was young. This PhD has been an amazing journey. I love learning and understanding how people work. Helping others is a passion, and doing the PhD simply reinforced that through study and exploration I can see things a little more clearly than I did before. I learnt about persistence, resilience and the need to not only work hard but to also take time to reflect and let things sit in the back of one's mind before we act.
Q: What's next for you, Alec?
Alec: I can’t imagine not learning and studying, but I think doing this in a less formal way might be nice. I would also like to take what I have learnt into my practice with teachers. I think presence is truly an untapped area of teaching practice that can be helpful to teachers and, therefore, students.
Congratulations Alec! We appreciate your hard work, passion and caring nature, and the support you provide for students, staff and parents in our Flinders community.
Photo caption (below): Dr Alec Hamilton with wife Anita; son, Will; and daughter, Sam.