The University of Wollongong (UOW) has so many high achieving PhD students, working towards solving real world problems. Each month we will meet one and hear their story

Vivien Forner is a PhD student and researcher in the Faculty of Business, University of Wollongong where she also teaches organisation behaviour. Her research interests focus on employee motivation, leadership and work environments that are optimal for employee wellbeing and productivity. She is also the 2019 winner of the UOW 3MT competition.

When did you commence HDR study and what is the working title of your thesis?

I commenced my HDR enrolment in October 2012 (I started on a different project/industry sponsored scholarship). My (current) PhD project started out as a Global Challenges Seed Funding Grant in 2014. I am about to submit my thesis. Title: Reducing Turnover in Volunteer Organisations: A leadership intervention based on Self-Determination theory

Please give a broad description of the topic you investigated as part of your research.

I study the psychology of leadership. Effective leadership is essential for retaining workers in all organisations, but even more so when your workers are volunteers and contributing their time without obligation or financial incentive to do so. My PhD research focused on identifying a leadership approach that is suitable and effective with volunteer workers and develop, in leaders, the interpersonal skills required to retain volunteers.

Can you provide some background on how and why you were drawn to HDR research?

I am an organisational psychologist and prior to the PhD I was working in Leadership Development and Organisational Development. I saw the important role that leadership plays in organisations- and how hard it is to get it right! Every organisation has challenges identifying and developing the right people for leadership roles. Similarly, every employee has had experience with a ‘bad manager’ and understands how detrimental poor leadership can be on employees. I have a deep thirst for learning and knowledge and wanted to make a difference and help create better places for people to work – this is how I came to my PhD.

How did you / your approach to research change over that time /what your view is now?

I’m not too sure how to answer this question… I think that at the beginning you hold tightly to perfectionism. You want to do such a good job and change the world with your research. Striving to be perfect and make a huge contribution can hold you back. Over time you learn to let go of the perfectionism and come to realise that you have your whole career to change the world, the PhD is just the first brick. Finished is better than perfect

What were some highlights of your HDR study?

Winning the three-minute thesis (3MT) competition!! The 3MT competition is a public speaking competition that challenges PhD students to present their thesis in under 3 minutes. After winning the People’s choice award in the Faculty of Business 3MT heat, I was honoured to then win the University of Wollongong Finals. I will be representing UOW in the 3MT Asia Pacific grand final in October.

Another highlight was travelling around Australia conducting leadership development training in volunteer organisations. It was an absolute honour to meet these incredible volunteers who sacrifice their family time, weekends and even put their own safety on the line to help others.

What were the lowlights?

I think all PhD students come across big hurdles and barriers along their PhD journey and I have certainly had my fair share. The PhD process is incredibly tough on students psychologically – there is a lot of isolation and uncertainty, especially in the early stages. To add to this, I had a baby in the middle of my PhD. As a new mother I was deeply worried that additional stress I felt from my PhD might mean that I would not be the best version of myself and the best mother…. Luckily my supervisor talked some sense into me and, after taking some initial time off, I came back to successfully complete the PhD!

Describe the most important things for PhD study.

To complete a PhD you need resilience and grit – Most people thing you need to be smart to do a PhD when in fact you need mental fitness, resilience, grit and strength/perseverance to succeed. You also need support from those around you. Many people work behind the scenes for a PhD student- family members, partners, friends and supervisors provide essential intellectual, emotional and financial support that you need to complete your PhD study.

What advice do you (or would you give) to those considering HDR study or currently studying?

It is an absolute honour and privilege to be granted the time and opportunity to completely dedicate and immerse yourself in an area you love. For those considering HDR study- draw on your passion to choose a topic. For those currently studying- connect with your passion and gratitude for this incredible opportunity.

How do you think your research can change the world?

Humans spend a huge part of their lives at work. Yet, despite its importance, our work lives often have detrimental effects on our wellbeing and quality of life. I have dedicated my research to helping make better places for people to work. I have a vision of organisations of the future – where you will come home from work feeling happier than when you left that morning.

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