Survival story: Jodie was diagnosed with cancer four times while studying

For Jodie Cole, who graduated on Thursday 2 May with an MSc Organizational Behaviour, the path to graduation has been longer and harder than she could have envisaged when she applied to study at Birkbeck in 2012, 16 weeks before being diagnosed with stage four cancer. Given a 23% chance of survival, Jodie was determined that she would get the degree she’d always dreamed of having.

For most Birkbeck graduates, receiving their degree represents the culmination of many months or years of hard work.

For Jodie Cole, who graduated on Thursday 2 May with an MSc Organizational Behaviour, the path to graduation has been longer and harder than she could have envisaged when she applied to study at Birkbeck in 2012, 16 weeks before being diagnosed with stage four cancer.

Since then, Jodie has undergone four rounds of cancer and treatment, and will this month be celebrating not only her graduation, but 18 months cancer-free.

In 2012, Jodie had been working in HR for over two decades, and had a college diploma from her native Australia. However, she felt what she describes as a ‘burning passion to obtain this elusive piece of paper, in order to quiet that saboteur voice inside my head and prove to myself that I was as good as everyone else’.

Jodie, who lives in Geneva, Switzerland, explains: “I was the single mother of two teenagers. I never had the time or finances to further educate myself before that – it was poured into the children’s education. Once I was finally able to, in late 2012, as my teenage daughter applied to universities, so did I.”

A few months later, in early 2013, Jodie’s application was forgotten about, as she was diagnosed with stage four cancer; cancer in the breast, liver, ovaries, lymph nodes and bone. She says: “As I lay on the sofa feeling ill from the chemotherapy treatment, an email popped into my inbox stating the university had accepted my application for the Master’s programme.

“What was I to do?  This meant so much to me, and was something I had wanted so badly for so long. I was finally being offered a position at university and the possibility of achieving a major goal – a dream – of mine. How can I do this, yet how can I not?!”

So, despite having no hair, feeling sick, and having cancer, Jodie pressed the button that said ‘accept’.

In October that same year, after 18 weeks of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and still in the middle of her treatment, Jodie arrived in London as a university student for the first time, for the first weekend workshop.

“I turned up with a gleam in my eye and pride in my heart. I had made it this far, been accepted, got through cancer and was sitting there in a real university lecture hall. The feeling was exhilarating.”

During that first weekend, Jodie met fellow students whose friendship and support was invaluable during that year.

Unfortunately, Jodie’s breast cancer returned before the second year commenced and she had to defer her studies for another double mastectomy and more treatment. Most of her friends continued their studies and went on to graduate without her. Disheartened to be left behind but still keen to complete the programme, she was in the process of enrolling once again the following year when she was diagnosed for a third time with breast cancer. Her studies were deferred again. It took her many months to recover from this round as a more radical double mastectomy was required, followed by weeks of radiotherapy. When she thought there was a light at the end of the tunnel, her fourth diagnosis revealed she had liver cancer again.

She remembers: “I was becoming a broken record at the university admissions department. ‘Sorry, I have cancer, can I please defer?’ That piece of paper felt like it was getting further and further away from reality for me.”

It was in October 2017, while still on chemotherapy that Jodie says she: “threw caution to the wind and re-enrolled for my final year, determined to remain cancer free and complete my Master’s. That piece of paper was like a shiny beacon in my world. I wanted it, I had to have it, I was determined.”

The reality of studying while on chemotherapy was tough. Jodie describes it, saying: “the chemo was addling my mind, making me tired. Plus, I was now working on this alone at home, with no more comrades in arms like my first year. I was distance-learning, logging in remotely to listen to lectures and study at hours that suited me (and the doctors’ schedule). Sitting exams was the toughest part for me as my memory was not what it used to be at all, and then there was the research and writing of the dissertation. I am absolutely sure all of my girlfriends and family were just as pleased and relieved as I was the day I mailed in my dissertation paper.”

When Jodie received her ‘confirmation of award’ letter from Birkbeck it was a moment of intense emotion. She says:  “To me, the piece of paper represents survival. It represents crossing that finishing line and being given the gold medal – for everything I’ve been through in the past six years, and for being alive. That piece of paper means believing in myself, in achieving my goals and that I CAN do anything. That piece of paper is success.”

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Graduation Spring 2016: Teacher becomes student (Part 2)

This post was contributed by Dr Frank Watt, who this week graduated from Birkbeck’s Department of Organizational Psychology. Sharing the platform with Dr Watt on the day was his PhD supervisor Professor Patrick Tissington, Head of the department. Not just that, he was also a previous employee of Dr Watt’s! Yesterday, Professor Tissington told his side of the story (read his blog entry here). Today, it’s Frank’s turn.

Dr Frank Watt

Dr Frank Watt

After gaining two masters degrees, I guess I could have been satisfied with academic achievement and left studying behind. For me however, the challenge of successfully completing a PhD was more than tempting, it would satisfy a personal desire or need. I could put it down to ambition, taking on something big or even sheer curiosity but, it was simply a love of research and learning and I really wanted to do it; no, I mean I really wanted to do it.

Having completed 33 years in the fire and rescue service I was able to retire and move on to do something else. So timing was perfect. The work associated with a PhD would perhaps fill the void created by not having to meet the demands of being an Assistant Chief Fire Office.

I enrolled at Aston University in early October 2008 with Patrick Tissington as my main supervisor. This was more complex than a than it would seem as Patrick, now Professor Tissington, was my student in all things fire service when undertaking his PhD during a secondment to the Fire Service College in Moreton in Marsh. The role reversal appeared to work as we had already established rules for working together only this time it would be me on the receiving end of feedback and timely reminders that a piece of work was overdue!

The following couple of years were mainly focussed on looking for a subject area that provided a gap in knowledge and sufficient contribution to research at PhD level. There were quite a few false trails but whilst attending a review meeting with Patrick, the conversation wandered into discussing efficacy at self and group level and there it was, the focus of my research. With my background in commanding natural hazard emergencies and developing pre and post disaster plans I was always curious as to how or if members of a community could contribute to deployed professional resources. By extending the concept of efficacy to community level would it be possible to measure the likelihood of a community getting involved in preparing for a natural hazard event.

Just as I was in the moment so to speak, I had a bit of a wobble. A very dear friend collapsed and died in front of me and despite my life saving efforts I was unable to help him. Thirty three years dealing with deaths and injuries had not it seemed prepared me for such an event. It would be six months before I could concentrate and return to my research. At this point, it may seem callous of me to suggest that ‘life happens, deal with it’, but that’s exactly how it is. People including you will be affected by deaths, births, marriages, divorces and all the other events that can and will occur during the time it takes to complete a PhD. I was fortunate as according to a 360 degree psychometric, I have a high degree of tenacity and personal resilience that kept me going.

Sometime later Dr P. Tissington became a professor here at Birkbeck and I was to follow. Now that I had moved and settled into the Birkbeck way my research started to gather momentum. I reached out to friends and family to test their responses to my research. Using social networks and a landing page for my questionnaire, I was able to tap into any number of sources including organisations that were involved in communities and risk planning.

(L-R) Dr Frank Watt and Professor Patrick Tissington

(L-R) Dr Frank Watt and Professor Patrick Tissington

One of the major successes was securing over 500 responses from residents living in high risk flood zones. This data provided me the quantitative results that both supported my qualitative results and the research rationale as a whole, leaving rather smug. However in my rush to submit my thesis in order to comply with a self-imposed deadline, I was careless in my writing and did not meet the high quality level demanded in order to gain a Birkbeck PhD and although passing the Viva, I was left with a substantial rework of the submission. This coincided with the selling of our family house and moving into a motorhome.

In all the upheaval I still managed to submit an amended thesis which was accepted allowing me to graduate in April 2016 some 7 years, 7 months after filling in a PhD application form in Patrick’s office. On reflection my research was at times a labour of love, a mill stone round my neck and all consuming. I believe I appeared selfish in my focuss to achieve and I apologise to my wife family and friends for any offence or discomfort caused.

The written element occurred anywhere I found time to sit down with my laptop, iPad, phone or just plain pencil and paper. I wrote substantial pieces on trains, planes and sat on the playas or waiting for the weather to clear whilst climbing in Scotland. The mantra must be ‘write, write and write some more’. During the seven years I have climbed 178 mountains, cycled 1000 kilometres across Spain and competed in many triathlons and endurance events, but my research which was never very far away was without doubt my most difficult undertaking.

My last observation would be, procrastination was my enemy, tenacity and resilience were my friends. I’d be glad to introduce you to my friends.

(Read part 1 of this story)

Watch below to see Prof Tissington and Dr Watt speaking after the spring graduation ceremony

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Graduation Spring 2016: Teacher becomes student (Part 1)

This post was contributed by Professor Patrick Tissington, Head of the Department of Organizational Psychology. This week, Professor Tissington attended the School of Business, Economics and Informatics’ graduation ceremony – a special occasion of course, but extra special given he was able to witness his former boss (and latterly his student) Frank Watt claim his PhD. Here, Professor Tissington gives some background to his professional relationship with Frank, and what it means to have seen him cross the graduation stage.

Professor Patrick Tissington

There is no such thing as an ordinary PhD because they make extraordinary, superhuman demands on the student and a really complicated relationship with the supervisor. I think some things about my latest PhD student illustrates quite how complicated that relationship can be. Let me explain because I think it is a story worth telling.

And as such, needs to start at the beginning:

Frank Watt was brought up in a remote part of Scotland with absolutely no ambition to go to university. He did have a sense of adventure and public service and so a career in the fire brigade was a great fit. And he did well. As he studied for his professional qualifications first as a Fire Fighter and then to lead other Fire Fighters, he discovered an aptitude for study that surprised him. Never shy of a challenge, he discovered that more qualifications would be available if he studied hard and wanted it enough.

So, with no first degree, he managed to get himself onto the MBA Programme at the University of Strathclyde and sponsorship from the fire service. This was a major challenge but he worked hard and graduated. This helped bring him into an informal fast track for promotion and he soon found himself seconded to the UK Fire Service’s central leadership training facility – the Fire Service College and Moreton in Marsh – to lead programmes on leadership for Fire Officers. Out of the blue, one day in 1996 he was introduced to a civilian who had been hired to research the psychology of incident command. He was told abruptly (in the way of uniformed services) that he was now the lead for the project.

That civilian person was me.

And so for three years, Frank was my boss. We worked on several projects together – all of them intricate, challenging and problematic. This meant we became close and so it was natural for me to invite him and his partner Lorraine to my wedding. And later I attended his. As my funding ran out, my PhD wasn’t quite finished (OK – it was quite some way off!) so I left to earn a crust as a consultant. Somehow I managed to complete my doctorate and land a job as an academic at Aston University. Frank also moved on and was promoted to become Assistant Chief Officer at Derbyshire Fire and Rescue Service. To be honest, our contact was sporadic at best from this point as we threw ourselves into our careers and he with had considerable operational responsibilities in Derbyshire.

I was still lecturing and researching with the fire service so plugged in to the grapevine. This is how I heard that Frank was due to retire so I got back in touch. It turned out he was looking for new challenges. We met at my office in Aston to enlist his services to lecture on health and safety. During our conversation I reminded him that he had always said that he really wanted to do some research. I was looking to expand the research centre in crisis management I had co-founded so it seemed obvious that he should start a PhD. And so it was. Frank discovered that a well understood individual level personality concept – self-efficacy – could be applied to groups.

(L-R) Dr Frank Watt and Professor Patrick Tissington

(L-R) Dr Frank Watt and Professor Patrick Tissington

Little was known about the way in which this might happen save for considerable evidence that it varied by context. Frank had led the emergency service response to major flooding for years and had noticed that some communities bounced back more easily than others. He wanted to know if there was a way of measuring this and whether there might be a variant of the construct of self-efficacy that held at the community level. And so after many challenges including the birth of a child, promotions and change of job (for me) and for him numerous challenges at home and a break in studies so he could taken on an interim executive post, he has finally made it and graduates today.

To be honest, at the time it didn’t really occur to me how odd this all was. The person who had been my boss and as important in my life as my PhD supervisor, now became my student. I still asked his advice from time to time which of course required a complete turnaround from the normal PhD supervisor/student relationship. As a supervisor, it is always hard to have to say to your student that their work isn’t at the level required. With Frank, I found it even more difficult and the gear shifting in our relationship has been sometimes uncomfortable when giving honest, necessary feedback on drafts.

All of this means that, although he started out at a different university, the nature of the twists and turns in his studies, the adult-adult relationship between supervisor and student and of course the many and various personal challenges that Frank has overcome: pure Birkbeck.

I hope he doesn’t mind that I say that his studies over ran. The plan was to graduate and then head off on a Grand Tour of Europe with Lorraine. But as always, life doesn’t turn out so easily and a combination of finalising his thesis fell at a time when the house sale went through unexpectedly quickly. This means that his PhD was completed in a motor home on a camp site in Derbyshire. I dare say this is a first in the 200 year history of Birkbeck!

All of this can be summarised by saying that it is completely fitting that today he graduates amongst a peer group consisting overwhelmingly of mature students. All of whom have had massive challenges to overcome. And I can say, hand on heart, I empathise. For I too was a mature student. I studied for my PhD part time. I worked all the way through my first degree and my A levels…. well I’d prefer to forget what they were.

So the reason for this blog is to show what an amazing journey this has been for Frank but also for me. Frank is writing about the challenges from his own point of view to give a realistic preview of what it is like to set yourself such a high bar of academic achievement later in life. As for me: I am something of a British mongrel. The English in me would prefer not to talk about this too much but the Welsh in me will be in tears on the platform as he graduates. And as for the Scots part of me? Suffice it to say I may sample a wee dram after the ceremony. The English will then kick in again and I won’t mention this again.

As for Frank? He will be flying in from a climbing holiday in Tenerife for the degree ceremony. And shortly after it, heading off in the motorhome for warm places, stiff breezes to sail and mountains to climb. But this time, the mountains will be literal and he will be climbing them with Lorraine. And Lorraine for once will have no complaints about being unable to sit anywhere for research papers being strewn on all of the seats.

(Read part two of this story)

Watch below to see Prof Tissington and Dr Watt speaking after the spring graduation ceremony


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The challenges of peace-building, leadership and completing a PhD

This post was contributed by Kevin Teoh, a PhD student and staff member in Birkbeck’s Department of Organizational Psychology.


When a notice in February asked for volunteers to organise the second joint PhD Conference between the Departments of Organizational Psychology and Management, I thought: ‘heck, why not – how hard can it be?’ The work began almost immediately: sorting out venues and keynote speakers, collating abstracts and printing booklets; it may seem like a lot of work, but with some organisation and a good team, we made light work of it. Besides, picking out drinks for the wine reception doesn’t really constitute work!

The day in late September was soon upon us, and over forty of my peers from across the globe converged on central London to talk about where we were at with our PhDs. A range of topics was covered, with varied subjects including theories, methodologies, findings and even reflections on personal growth (video of the day available). People shared ideas, advice was given, and encouragement provided. My own presentation was about junior doctors and their working conditions, and how I intended to explore the link to patient safety. This subject itself is very topical, especially as Birkbeck researchers recently highlighted how patient mortality rises in August when new junior doctors start working in hospitals. Presenting my work gave me a chance to verbalise and focus on the core emphasis of what I am researching , and I was told about some resources to help with a prospective study as well.

In addition to the student presentations, we organisers pulled off quite a coup by securing the attendance of two high-profile keynote speakers. In the morning keynote (video available here), former Birkbeck student Dr Peter Davis talked about his work in the area of post-conflict peace building in countries such as Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Nigeria. What struck me most was how Dr Davis used his PhD to have a real-world impact. I certainly had not realised the important role the private sector has in developing a functioning economy, vital in sustaining peace.

Professor Adrian Furnham, from University College London, spoke on leadership derailment in the afternoon keynote (video available here). A very lively speaker, Professor Furnham distinguished between incompetent and derailed leaders; the former represents the lack of ability, and the latter represents too much of a particular characteristic. It made me wonder, we often consider the narrative of incompetent managers in the NHS, but what about those who are derailed? Perhaps I should integrate this somehow into my research with junior doctors.

PhD work can at times be a lonely affair. However, I think the numerous brilliant presentations, and the informal discussions and socialisation between sessions reinforced that we are in fact part of a wider, supportive community. It allowed many of us to put a face to a name, and better understand what others were doing. One of our peers had just finished her own PhD, and it was the first time she could use the ‘Dr’ prefix. She was deservedly excited about her accomplishment, and it was wonderful encouragement for us to persevere with our own work. By the end of the day, the overall feedback was positive with everyone benefitting from participating. Although the conference is now over, we are already looking at how we can improve further for next year’s event.

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