From the laboratory bench to the patient’s bedside

It took a winding career path and 20 years for Dr Scott McDonald to settle on his current focus in neuropsychology, and he is relishing the opportunity to work with clients face-to-face.

“I’m not sure I have a typical career path” Scott offers.

“I started my education in the UK, studying Medical Biochemistry at the University of Birmingham, and then completed my PhD in visual psychophysics at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. I was awarded a Fellowship at Newcastle and subsequently accepted a role using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Germany.”

After three years Scott relocated to the University of Sydney, where he worked mainly on fMRI, psychophysics and some neurophysiology. Four years later, Scott transferred to the University of New South Wales for a role focussing on rat sensory processing and behaviour in the Psychology department.

“Nearly all these research positions were in Psychology departments.  Through attending colloquia and seminars, and talking with colleagues, I began to understand the purpose and role of clinical psychology and neuropsychology.   At the same time, I realised that I wanted to do something applied with everything I had learnt.”

So when Scott moved to Melbourne with his partner, who was studying educational psychology at the University of Melbourne, he choose to apply for a Graduate Diploma of Psychological Science at ACAP, the Australian College of Applied Psychology.

He enjoyed the course but before moving into his Honours year, Scott decided to complete a module in counselling with ACAP.   “Although I knew I wanted to move into the clinical side of psychology, I was concerned that I might struggle to talk with someone one-on-one in a therapy setting about their personal issues, especially after so much time working in laboratories. This module helped build my confidence and taught me the power of active listening.”

Scott then decided to complete his Honours year, but making this a reality did not come easily.   “Getting into Honours was a significant obstacle on the road to clinical practice. Honours is the gateway to becoming a general psychological practice and to the endorsed disciplines like neuropsychology, sports psychology, counselling psychology and so on, so a lot of people apply.  It is very competitive to get into.”  After a few unsuccessful applications, Scott was accepted into Victoria University for his Honours year.

After completing Honours, Scott was accepted into the Masters of Clinical Neuropsychology here at the University of Melbourne. The interview process was challenging.  In hindsight Scott suspects Professor Michael Saling was testing his readiness to acknowledge when he didn’t know an answer to one of the interview questions.

“This is the complexity of being interviewed by psychologists,” says Scott, laughing.

“The first year was very intense – probably the most challenging thing I have ever done. You are studying hard, learning all the various assessment tools, and observing the second-year students in the clinic.

The second year taught component was less intense and the overall emphasis was much more applied, which is exhausting in itself.

“You’re initially nervous all the time. You are trying to apply these learned concepts to a real situation, and you experience a crushing sense of responsibility because you have someone’s wellbeing in your hands for the first time.”

In his second year, Scott took part in four placements starting with Neuropsychology at the Austin Hospital under the supervision of Professor Michael Saling. Scott worked with various outpatient cases at, including stroke, post-operative brain cancer, head injury, dementia and epilepsy.

Scott‘s next placement was with Barwon Health in Geelong, working within the Aged Psychiatry Services which is for older people with long-term complex mental health issues, or have developed them later in life.

“That was quite a challenging service to work in because people experience memory difficulties for many reasons – such as a change in medication or even moving to a new home – which can make diagnosis difficult”.

Scott’s third placement was at the Royal Children’s Hospital, which consisted of evaluating children post-surgery using a broad range of assessment tools.

“This placement was challenging for a number of reasons. Patients come from a wide range of cultures, socio-economic backgrounds and many used English as a second language; this could make interpreting assessment results complex. It was also sometimes difficult to schedule appointments as some families found it difficult to travel to Melbourne.”

Following from the Royal Children’s Hospital, Scott’s final placement was in the Tasmanian Health Service in Hobart, working in the Royal Hobart Hospital, the Roy Fagan Centre, and the Acute Rehabilitation Unit.   Working across these three facilities, Scott saw a broad range of cases from across Tasmania.

“I had the opportunity to work with a large and varied team of specialists.  We assessed individuals who had had an accident or an episode (for example, a fall, a seizure, or illness etc.), and would evaluate their cognitive abilities and their potential for recovery and independence. We would then meet with the patient and their family and discuss their possible pathways.”

This placement had led to Scott being offered and accepting a role at the Royal Hobart Hospital as a General Psychologist, working in neuropsychological capacity.

Scott’s incredible time here at the University of Melbourne was honoured at the 2018 Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences Awards night. Scott was the successful recipient in what was only the second awarding of the Molloy Medal in the presence of many members of the Molloy family.

Scott emphasised the importance of such awards to students.

“This award has opened doors for me to do a mixture of work in places that might not always be accessible, given my non-conventional pathway. I’m indebted to the Molloy family for understanding the magnitude of awards like this for students like me”.