Meet paediatric and sport physiotherapy PhD student John Carey

John shares how a career in Paediatrics and Disability Physiotherapy can take you across the globe and speaks about his experience in undertaking a PhD.

John Carey began his studies with a four-year Bachelor of Science (Honours) degree at Trinity College Dublin where his passion for travelling and interest in health, wellbeing and movement inspired his decision to pursue a career in Physiotherapy. He has worked clinically while travelling the world from his native Ireland to the UK, Australia and New Zealand. In 2020, Carey decided it was time to pursue further studies to enrich his role as a clinician and for the opportunity to open up new avenues within teaching and leadership with a PhD at the University of Melbourne.Photograph of John Carey

What was behind the decision to specialise in paediatric physiotherapy?

I knew very early on that I’d like to specialise in paediatrics. I had two memorable paediatric placements and volunteered in summer camps with Enable Ireland during my undergraduate degree. Through these experiences, I discovered my passion for paediatrics; which requires fun, creativity and at times a bit of patience!

In my view, paediatrics brings together key areas of physiotherapy (cardio-respiratory, neurology and musculoskeletal), while layering other contextual factors such as development, growth and partnering with the child’s family and wider support network.

Could you share your travelling experience of working across the globe in Physiotherapy?

I graduated at the height of Ireland’s economic recession and physiotherapy roles were effectively non-existent for new graduates. I was lucky to initially start in a graduate role with Enable Ireland and then moved to the UK for some acute hospital rotations in Brighton. I returned to my hometown in Ireland for a role in community health and outpatients. I spent almost a year working in Auckland’s Starship Children’s Hospital (acute orthopaedics & outpatients) before coming to Melbourne for a grade II position with Yooralla.

My time in Melbourne has provided me with really cherished experiences in specialist schools, NDIS-funded children’s physiotherapy, and early intervention “key worker” services. I continue to practice one day a week at Waratah Special Developmental School. With the support of my managers and senior physiotherapy colleagues, I’ve had some really unique experiences, ranging from supporting physical activity measurement in the gait-lab in New Zealand, to leading therapy supports for the Special Equipment Library (SEL) in Victoria.

Photograph of Carey in Wales

What were your motivations behind pursuing a PhD?

It’s always been an ambition of mine. The disability sector has evolved a lot over the past 20 years and is beginning to shift to a more empowering human rights and social model of disability. It’s very exciting to be involved in this space.

Funnily enough, my own experiences of learning a new sport as an adult was another driver. I did a ‘learn to row’ course in Auckland and this was a powerful reminder of how tricky it can be to learn a new movement or skill. Despite a handful of capsizes and calloused hands, I’ve loved the sense of identity and connection that rowing has brought me. I think the shared experience of learning a new sport is something that can translate nicely to my PhD topic of cycling and disability where many riders learn to ride a little later in life and often as part of a group.

Photograph of Carey rowing on the Yarra

Could you provide some further information on your PhD topic of interest and describe your experience in finding supervisors?

My PhD focuses on participation, cycling and disability. My belief is that cycling can be made accessible to all as it is a universal recreation, which fits into family life, recreation, play, active transport and sport.

When I began my PhD, I came together with Dr Rachel Toovey, who was known to me through my clinical work, and several community and cycling organisations to form the Victorian ‘Cycling Alliance’. Ultimately our goal is to have more children and young people with disability participating in cycling in Victoria by building a more supportive cycling environment.

This led to my PhD studies which will include testing the Cycling through Health coaching, Inclusion, Adaptation and Networks (CHAIN) online training program and working together with people with disability, practitioners and the ‘Cycling Alliance’ to develop a new community intervention.

Regarding finding my supervisors, I initially enquired about post-graduate opportunities with Prof Alicia Spittle and Dr Rachel Toovey.  Initially I came on board for a part-time MPhil in March 2020, as my ambitions in the topic grew, so did the project and themes. This led me to convert to a full-time PhD later in the year and I was really lucky to have Prof Christine Imms and Prof Nora Shields (La Trobe Uni) come on board my supervision team. The Melbourne Disability Institute has also been instrumental in subsequently funding my studies and being a source of seed funding.

Why did you decide to study at the University of Melbourne? Can you share some highlights of your university experience?

I was sold by the close links to Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) and the opportunity to be part of a group of PhD students working in paediatrics. Being connected to the physiotherapy paediatric group and MCRI’s CP-ACHIEVE provides essential peer-to-peer support whilst embarking on my PhD ‘journey’.

The UoM Physiotherapy Department has also been very supportive. They’ve provided opportunities to develop my interests in teaching and leadership through tutoring work in the Doctor of Physiotherapy program. Another highlight has been an Allied Health qualitative research interest group which has been meeting monthly via Zoom under the guidance of A/ Prof Louisa Remedios and others. This group has opened my eyes to the ‘philosophy’ side of the PhD and provided a safe space to explore new ideas.

Do you have any advice for current Physiotherapy students who are considering pursuing a PhD?

I think everyone’s journey and decision to pursue a PhD is different. For me, having practical experience in paediatrics was important as it brought values and passion-pieces from my clinical work into my studies.

Regardless of your route, you need to have a passion for the topic and a pretty strong will for some hard work!

Photograph of Carey rowing in New Zealand